Restoring the Pacific Islands' Rich Agricultural Traditions: An Urgent Priority

By Thaman, Randy | Pacific Ecologist, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Restoring the Pacific Islands' Rich Agricultural Traditions: An Urgent Priority


Thaman, Randy, Pacific Ecologist


To conserve the Pacific Islands most vital biodiversity resources, the priority should be to protect and restore the rich agrobiodiversity and ethno-biodiversity systems that have served the peoples of the Pacific for thousands of years, reports Professor RANDY THAMAN. (Part one of a two-part article, part two in next issue of Pacific Ecologist.)

There is an incredibly rich biodiversity in the Pacific Islands. Each island has its own unique biodiversity, agrobiodiversity and ethno-bio diversity inheritances, tailored to local environmental and cultural conditions. In the terrestrial Pacific Island environment, the most culturally important plant and animal species are normally found in active garden areas and agroforests, surrounding fallow and secondary forests in coastal forests, near settlements. (1) They are not normally found in virgin inland or Montane forests, where most local people rarely venture. These important species are also the best known and most highly threatened species and varieties.

Consequently, if we are really concerned about conservation, sustainable use, and equitable access to biodiversity benefits as a basis for poverty alleviation, (main objectives of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity), a higher priority must be placed on protecting, restoring and enriching traditional agroforestry systems. These agricultural systems and associated ethno-biodiversity have existed and been enriched over centuries.

Ethno-bio diversity is central for defining bio diversity, and for its conservation, because in the Pacific Islands, people and their knowledge, traditions and spirituality are integral to all terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems, especially their agricultural ecosystems. In Western Melanesia, for example, the concept of land (the Earth or "island") and people being one is embodied in the Melanesia pidgin concepts of kastom/custom or ples/place. In Fiji, the concepts of vanua/land and igoligoli/fisheries, include both marine and freshwater fishing areas. In Polynesia it's in the all-encompassing pan-Polynesian concept of land/fonua, fanua, fenua, whenua, henua or enua, depending on where you are; and, in Micronesia, it's the concepts of to aba; in Kiribati, tabinaw in Yapese and beluu in Palauan. All these concepts encompass land, plants, animals, people and their ancestral traditions. (2-4)

The combination of both species and genetic diversity make traditional polycultural agricultural systems much more biodiverse and resilient than monocultural agricultural systems which increasingly depend on only one species and cultivar. For example, a single relatively small taro or yam garden will characteristically have between five to io or more different named varieties of taro or yam. A given village fruit tree grove may have many different named varieties of coconut, breadfruit, oanana, panaanus, sugarcane, curus or mango that are used for different purposes, taste different, yield at different times of the year and have different susceptibilities to disease, pests and destruction by drought, tropical cyclones or salinity. (1)

Sadly, in the eco-culturally suicidal drive for "modern" development, many remaining Pacific Islands trees and agroforests are being lost due to neglect and failure to plant trees. Biodiversity is also under threat in the Pacific, because many of the older generation, the repositories of ethno-biodiversity are dying out, as the younger generation flees to Pacific Island urban areas to pursue modern education, sports careers, watch tv and films, learn foreign languages, and become involved in other biodiversity-blind pursuits.

Pacific Islands agroforestry and agrobiodiversity

   Agroforestry is a sustainable land-management
   system which increases the overall yield of the
   land, combines the production of crops (including
   tree crops) and forest plants and/or animals,
   simultaneously or sequentially, on the same unit
   of land, and applies management practices that
   are compatible with the cultural practices of the
   local population. 

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Restoring the Pacific Islands' Rich Agricultural Traditions: An Urgent Priority
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