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Fai fatongia: One island’s path to food security, COVID mitigation and climate resilience

In the Kingdom of Tonga, fai fatongia rules the day. Under this principle, which translates to “fulfilling one’s responsibility,” Tongans traditionally put the collective good first and their individual needs second. In recent decades, it has guided them through increasingly frequent and intense climate disasters – and now, in the midst of the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is perhaps more relevant than ever.

Tonga, a relatively isolated archipelago in the South Pacific, is one of the few places left that has never recorded a COVID-19 case – but that doesn’t mean they’ve gone unaffected. Over the past few decades, with many Tongans leaving rural areas and migrating to the capital city or abroad, fewer people are left in rural areas to farm the fields and grow food, making the nation increasingly dependent on food imports. (Nearly half of all Tongans now live outside the country.) But recently, with COVID-19–related restrictions disrupting international trade and increasing prices, Tongans’ access to imported foods has become complicated. Their purchasing power has also diminished as the amount of remittances received from family abroad has decreased.

Well before the pandemic started, the MORDI Tonga Trust was working with the support of IFAD and the New Zealand Aid Programme to boost Tonga’s production capacity of nutritious, locally grown foods. Now in its second phase, the Tonga Rural Innovation Programme (TRIP II), implemented by MORDI, is building on its earlier responses to climate change and natural disasters to address food security and nutrition in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

With IFAD’s support, MORDI implements community-driven projects and hosts skill trainings throughout the archipelago’s 36 inhabited islands, empowering local residents to define and achieve their goals. One of those islands is ‘Eua, home to about 5,000 people spread across 15 communities. Most of ‘Eua’s families are dependent on subsistence agriculture, as well as some cash crops, which they export to the other islands and to overseas markets.

The people of ‘Eua introduced in the following photographs live from the land. They work in unison to build resilience to climate change and other shocks. Together, they are strengthening food security and livelihoods for the good health and well-being of their island community.

Ilisapesi (left) and Meleane (right) at the community nursery. ©IFAD/ Todd M. Henry

“We learned valuable lessons from the Gita experience,” says Meleane Mahe, representative for the Tonga Red Cross.

In early 2018, Cyclone Gita hit ‘Eua hard, leaving many of the food crops destroyed or badly damaged. But soon afterwards, MORDI arrived with assistance. As part of their response, they distributed vegetable seedlings to all families on the island. Most families were not used to backyard vegetable gardening, so the project provided trainings as well.“We learned valuable lessons from the Gita experience,” says Meleane Mahe, representative for the Tonga Red Cross.

“We worked together to help our communities recover,” recalls Ilisapesi Pani, a community facilitator.

Just two years later, in April 2020, tropical cyclone Harold swept across ‘Eua in the midst of COVID-19 mitigation preparations. MORDI was quick to distribute seedlings again. With a supply of food safely stored away and the new seedlings maturing, ‘Eua’s families have maintained a sufficient supply of freshly grown produce throughout the pandemic.

“The families saw the importance of having ready access to fresh vegetables – especially after a big storm like Gita when there was not much to buy in the shops,” says Meleane. “I think the initiative continues to help us stand on our own feet, to be more resilient.”

Family gardening has many positives – from the cost savings of a backyard plot to the health benefits of eating more locally grown fresh vegetables. Meleane and Ilisapesi, along with many others, hope these initiatives create a permanent change in people’s eating habits, even after the emergency is over.

Tupu at work in the Petani Community nursery. ©IFAD/ Todd M. Henry

As part of the post-Gita recovery, TRIP II built a plant nursery on ‘Eua to contribute to Tonga’s efforts to enhance food security. Tupu Molia, a community facilitator and the nursery manager, uses the techniques he learned through the project’s agricultural extension service in his everyday work. The plants grown in the nursery are distributed to the islanders.

The extension agents also run a farmer field school to teach local families and farmers about vegetable gardening, new plant varieties, and improved cultivation practices.  

“I have learned to grow and care for vegetable seedlings and plants like taro, yams and breadfruit, as well as cash crops like kava and vanilla,” says Tupu. “Someday, I hope to have a nursery of my own.”

Ana pauses for a photo in the Houma Community orchard. ©IFAD/ Todd M. Henry

Decades ago, sweet oranges and mandarins grew abundantly throughout the islands and filled the market shelves with fresh fruit. But the changing climate brought in new plant diseases, killing off most of the trees. As a result, Tonga has become almost completely dependent on imported citrus fruits.

Through TRIP II, MORDI is leading an effort to revive the citrus industry with climate- and disease-resilient trees. The Houma Community, located at ‘Eua’s northern tip, now manages one of the project’s citrus orchards, where locals tend mandarin and lemon trees.

“’Eua is the only place in Tonga that grows citrus fruits today,” says Ana T. Tukia, a community facilitator. “It makes us happy to know that we are growing these fruits for people to enjoy again.”

Uili at work on the cluster farm. ©IFAD/ Todd M. Henry

Uili Kautai is one of 27 farmers who share twelve acres of land at the Petani Community cluster farm. TRIP II helped the group access the land, and MORDI built a fence around it to keep free-roaming pigs from destroying the crops. MORDI’s agricultural extension agents teach the farmers about crop rotation, cultivation techniques and new technologies through hands-on ‘farmer field school’ training.

“Each of us has our own plot, but we help each other,” says Uili. They grow traditional root crops, like taro, yam and sweet potatoes, which they use for family consumption and sell locally.

Recently, Uili and the other farmers independently secured access to the adjoining plot of land, allowing them to expand the cluster farm and grow even more food. This revived abundance of nutrient-rich traditional foods is replacing highly processed imported foods, which are less available and more costly in times of COVID-19.

Manase Suia, owner of Golden Taste Kava Company, Kolomaile Community. ©IFAD/ Todd M. Henry

Manase Suia is ‘Eua’s local expert on kava, a drink that holds a deep-rooted importance in the Tongan culture. Traditionally used to celebrate coronations, weddings and important guests, kava is still important in the everyday life of the islands’ small villages. It’s also becoming an important cash crop thanks to its popularity with the expanding Tongan diaspora abroad.

Manase owns the Golden Taste Kava Company, through which he grows, processes and exports high-quality kava. “We are a small island and we have the best kava in the Pacific,” he says. “We can’t grow enough to meet the high demand.”

As part of TRIP II, MORDI has helped Manase modernize and expand his business to meet rigorous quality, food-safety and packaging requirements. Manase, in turn, is helping local small-scale farmers. He put together a manual for kava growers that’s now used by the extension agents in the farmer field school. He regularly gives saplings to local farmers and mentors them on good cultivation and harvesting practices. The farmers sell their high-quality kava to Manase, who then processes and sells it at a high price – a win-win for everyone.

Tupu at the kumete.©IFAD/ Todd M. Henry

Community halls are the central pillar of the TRIP II development project. The halls serve multiple functions, ranging from meeting spaces where communities gather to discuss their development plans, to comfortable workspaces for women to create traditional crafts to sell, to safe spaces for children to come to after school. In the evening, the halls often become faikava – a place where men gather to drink kava at the end of a long day working in the fields. “We gather around the kumete (traditional kava bowl) to discuss our work, markets for our crops, community affairs, and, of course, to drink kava together,” says Tupu.

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There is an old proverb in Tonga: “oua lau e kafo kae lau e lava” (stay positive and count your blessings). In Tongan culture, food and tradition bring communities together – having enough food to share with others is one of life’s greatest blessings. IFAD’s support for community-driven development in ‘Eua has empowered these islanders to produce and share more locally grown, nutritious foods again – a practice that will surely reap dividends for a long time to come.