Published on 29th June 2015
Category 5 Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu in March. The country’s losses and recovery show how important food is to a country’s wellbeing – not only as sustenance, but also as an income, a central focus for community and an opportunity for a better life.
Just days before Tropical Cyclone Pam struck Vanuatu on 13 March 2015, Karen Roberts spoke about the work she’d been doing as Programme Manager and Disability Adviser with CARE International on the remote island of Futuna. Her work with people with disabilities fits within CARE’s programme of addressing climate change on Futuna, in the form of a kitchen garden programme. The garden had several aims, said Karen. It addressed the poor, limited diet of starchy root crops and fish by adding leafy green vegetables. People with disabilities also became involved in their community’s garden, and they diversified the food source to make it more secure and sustainable. Relying on just one or two crops is dangerous, Karen said: “If the taro or manioc crop [also known as cassava] gets wiped out, islanders face starvation.”
Days later, this seemed prophetic, when the worst cyclone since Uma in 1987 swept through. According to the Vanuatu Government’s Humanitarian Action Plan, “The damage to agriculture has been extensive. As much as 75 per cent of coconut, 80 per cent of coffee and leaf vegetables, and 70 per cent of taro crops have been wiped out in the most affected areas, leaving families with no alternative food source.” In some areas, those numbers were even higher.
Like most of the countries in which VSA works, Vanuatu is reliant on subsistence farming for food and livelihoods. The loss of food crops, including coconut and banana plantations, has destroyed the main source of income for the population. As of the beginning of May, the Action Plan noted 62,250 people were in need of food to eat, and help reestablishing crops – around one in every four Ni-Vanuatu.
The recovery highlights the role food plays in developing countries: not just as an essential need and right, but also its role on the front line adapting to climate change and the extreme weather that it brings, and as an opportunity for people to have better lives. The income from fresh food, food products and hospitality can lift families out of poverty. In countries where food more often than not provides the only source of income, it represents school fees for children, further education for adults who may have missed out, and a chance for women suffering violence to live independent lives.
Ellie van Baaren, volunteering with UN Women in Suva on regional media and communications, travelled to Port Vila three weeks after Cyclone Pam, to see the markets reopen. The UN Women’s Markets for Change (M4C) programme, which operates in Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, was launched in 2014. Women make up 75%-90% of all vendors at the markets, yet the majority are excluded from market governance and decision making. M4C works to provide training and advocate for women vendors. Ellie says M4C is “an entry point for gender equality”.
While the big Port Vila markets are famous, each village has its own roadside market, and Ellie travelled around all of these on her visit, and found the situation was dire. “Santo has local food, but on Efate and the outer islands, 96% of the crops are gone.
“One of the first villages I went to, about 20 minutes out of Vila, has a village plot serving around 120 people, plus they sold their surplus at Marobe market [in Port Vila]. It was massive. It was all gone. The fruit trees had been knocked over and were on the ground, rotting, the taro and manioc were still in the ground, but the wind had lifted them up and filled the holes with water, so they were rotting through and weren’t edible.”
Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) is responsible for rolling out the country’s food relief programme. The first job for everyone after the cyclone passed was to replant gardens. “Cultivation began immediately after the cyclone and that harvest will be ready in three months,” says NDMO Director Shadrack Weligtabit. “We will continue to distribute food aid until people are able to harvest their first crops.”
VSA’s Vanuatu Programme Officer, David Nalo, says the message went out from the Ministry of Agriculture straight away: start replanting immediately. According to the UN’s World Risk Index, Vanuatu is the most vulnerable country in the world to natural disasters, but food does grow fast there. Those vital leafy green vegies are the first to recover, taking just three months from seed to harvest: root crops take up to six. Fruit trees will take years.
Still, says Ellie, “It’s going to take months before anything even approaching normality from a food perspective is reached.”
In the meantime, the Government relief packages include rice and canned meat and fish but not sugar. “We decided on starches and protein as the best option,” says Mr Weligtabit. Thousands of seeds have also been distributed across the country’s affected regions. Transport around the archipelago of more than 80 islands adds to the logistical headache: “Everything is shipped out to affected areas,” says Mr Weligtabit. “The huge volume of food involved and the difficulty of access means delivery by aircraft can only be very limited.”
While David understands that these non-perishable food supplies are vital, he worries about the health effects this diet might have. “Diabetes and other non-communicable diseases are already rampant.” Indeed, a Vanuatu Ministry of Health survey in 2013 found that the burden of non-communicable diseases was increasing rapidly – they cause 70-75% of all adult deaths.
Ellie says regrowing fresh food is a priority in the villages, but she found many of them facing practical issues, such as fallen trees blocking their garden plots. “At the same time, most of them have lost their homes. So they need to rebuild their homes, but they’re also aware that the sooner they replant the sooner they’ll have food to eat and sell.
“When I was there, the schools had just reopened, but some of the women I talked to couldn’t afford to send their children as they couldn’t afford the school fees and transportation as well as the basic needs for their families.”
The Marobe market has reopened, which was “a big milestone, because it allowed whoever did have produce to sell to get an income again,” Ellie says.
The Port Vila Market Vendor Association (MVA) is now trying to negotiate with the MVA on Santo island to organise a trade.
As for Karen’s project, Futuna escaped the worst of Cyclone Pam, but Karen has had reports that the raised garden beds are badly damaged and crops have been lost. “The project will start up again though,” she says. “It won’t end here.”
Read more about VSA's recent work in Vanuatu: