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Island groups reap the benefits of a new Pacific agricultural centre

©IFAD

A new agricultural research centre is helping Pacific islanders fight the effects of climate change and feed their people. Its work in crop production and improving soil fertility under island conditions offers benefits not just for the Pacific region, but for island groups throughout the world.

Producing food crops on an atoll island requires patience, hard work and some good fortune. Infertile coralline soils and long spells without rain make any form of agriculture a challenge and leave atoll communities with poor diets and weak economies.

The 22 Pacific Island countries and territories are made up of clusters of atolls, spread across an ocean area of approximately 30 million square kilometres. For years, governments of these countries and territories asked regional and international organizations to support their research and development needs. In 2007, Pacific Island leaders called on the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), an intergovernmental body, to develop a new agriculture and forestry initiative with a focus on atoll agriculture.

In response to these requests, the Centre of Excellence for Atoll Agricultural Research and Development in the Pacific was created in 2008, with the help of a US$200,000 grant from IFAD, to develop ways to increase crop production, improve marketing opportunities and raise local incomes.

On the front line of climate change

The Pacific Islands are on the front line of climate change. The Republic of Kiribati, a collection of 32 atolls and one raised island scattered across 3.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean, has already seen whole villages submerged by rising sea levels. When fishermen go to sea, they can no longer see land once they have travelled 10-15 kilometres, so they have learned to navigate using reflections from the clouds.

Remote atoll communities are on the front line of climate change

Rising ocean levels mean that the country's 108,000 residents, who live just two metres above sea level on narrow strips of land, may someday have to flee the homeland their people have inhabited for more than 4,000 years.

Climate change is already having an impact on the island's agriculture. Ribita Iobete, a farmer in Kiribati, says, "Before, our coconuts were big, but now they are as small as our fists. Seawater has begun seeping into the water table, giving the well water my mother draws a salty taste."

Kiribati's President, Anote Tong, is a supporter of the Centre of Excellence. "Climate change may make the future uncertain," he says, "but for now the islanders need to be able to get the most from their land. For the next 30, 40 years we still have to deal with our daily problems."

Ron Hartman, IFAD's country programme manager for the Pacific Islands, hopes that agricultural research from the Centre of Excellence will help farmers like Iobete by contributing to "improving food security through enhanced soil fertility and the development of crop varieties that can grow in these areas".

Islanders hope that the research generated by the new centre will benefit not just their own countries, but islands around the world.

Research into methods old and new

The centre's initial research has included documentation of some established local cultivation technologies: banana circles in Kiribati – planting bananas in a circle and creating mulch and compost between the plants; coconut hydroponics in French Polynesia – growing coconuts without soil; and indigenous agroforestry systems such as pulaka pits, which are dug into the limestone and fertilized with leaves from other plants. Researchers will evaluate these methods to assess their effectiveness and the possibility of transferring them from one island to another. The centre will also look at agricultural techniques from other island regions to see if they could be used in the Pacific.

Because of the fragility of atoll ecosystems, the grant project is advocating sustainable agricultural practices and avoiding the use of agro-based chemicals. It will also introduce and breed crops and livestock that can tolerate the harsh atoll conditions.

The centre is young, but it has already had some success. It has generated soil and water management technologies, improved local livestock breeds, evaluated varieties of crops that adapt well to climate change, and begun commercializing local crops such as breadfruit and sweet potato to help overcome the current regional food crisis.

Technologies developed or refined at the centre are being tested by farmers in Tarawa and on the outer islands of Kiribati and other Pacific atolls. Staple crops such as sweet potato, taro and banana are being assessed for their tolerance to salinity and heat, in order to breed varieties suited to the harsh atoll environment.

In farmer field schools, small-scale farmers learn new methods of farming and receive small strips of land on which to practise them. Information materials will help farmers throughout the region learn about successful technologies developed through the centre's research.

In addition, the project is promoting the use of local produce and the revival of local foods to help improve health and nutrition, and will look at helping farmers identify and grow marketable crops.

Hartman notes that the centre's first phase of work has already attracted much interest from parts of the world facing similar issues. "We've had a lot of interest in the work of the centre from small island states in other regions of the world," he says.

The Centre of Excellence is making a critical contribution on issues of food security and environmental sustainability in fragile atoll environments. At a conference in Kiribati in April 2010, the Pacific Island countries agreed that its work should continue and expand.