Pacific Island peoples are starting to reach high-level niche markets across the oceans with certified organic products. In Auckland, this might look like a packet of imported dried organic bananas in a child's lunchbox; but on the islander end, the results have been life-changing for many families.
For many Pacific Islanders, organic farming feels like an obvious choice. "Organics really touches people in the Pacific. Everyone really relates to it as the way our grandfathers used to farm," says Karen Mapusua. Mapusua is one half of the staff of the Fiji-based POETCom, the Pacific Organic and Ethical Trade Community, which works to unify the efforts of Pacific island organic growers.
Getting everyone's organic products to market, however, comes less naturally than the growing. "It's very, very difficult for a smallholder to go directly to the market," Mapusua says. The peoples of small, isolated islands haven't got a chance in international commodity markets, where it's all about economies of scale. "For example, we cannot compete with the Philippines on conventional bananas," says Mapusua.
However, through organic production, islanders are now finding their own specialty niches. It's not just about getting a few cents more for an organic product, Mapusua says; organic status literally "creates a livelihood opportunity that wasn't there."
To open up those opportunities, small growers have to come together.
Women in Business Development Inc (WIBDI), a woman-led village development organisation in Samoa, is one of the trailblazers, now 20 years into its work. These days, people around the globe are soothing their skin with organic Samoan coconut oil. This is thanks to WIBDI's shining success: a contract to supply the Body Shop in the UK.
The Body Shop now uses WIBDI's organic oil in all of its coconut oil-containing products, including its trademark Body Butters, creams and lotions. A strong proponent of fair trade, the cosmetic company sends its own auditors to Samoa to check that farm families are treated ethically and paid fairly.
Around 600 Samoan coconut farmers now grow for the Body Shop. WIBDI collects the oil from farmer-processors, handles the money and trains the farmers. "Many farmers practice traditional farming, which is basically organic farming, but they still need training in how to prepare for an organic audit," says Adimaimalaga Tafunai, WIBDI's executive director and co-founder.
The significance of such a contract cannot be overstated. In Samoa, economic prospects are scant. The notion of living off the land under the palm trees might sound dreamy from a distance. But in reality, subsistence farmers increasingly feel the need for cash, and have few options to earn it.
"As the cash economy keeps on moving into rural communities, responsibilities are expressed through cash - education, even church obligations," explains Kamilo 'Ali, Pacific livelihoods programme officer at Oxfam.
Some rural Samoans flee to cities to compete for scarce jobs. Others survive on remittances sent back by relatives who are working overseas.
Organic markets are changing that equation.
"Many organic farmers had no opportunities to earn an income where they lived," reflects WIBDI's Tafunai. With organic production contracts, many rural people now find themselves earning a regular income for the first time in their lives.
Suddenly these growers "are able to stand on their own two feet," Ali says. "It replenishes hope."
Growing the network
Caring relationships, founded on the principle that true development must embrace local culture, sit at the heart of these organic successes.
Oxfam New Zealand has steadily nurtured the growth of organic trade in the Pacific islands. Oxfam has stood alongside WIBDI in Samoa for over ten years, helping local leaders build their organisational capacity, and training them in business and organic certification.
Now WIBDI are turning around to share the benefits with their Pacific neighbours. They have shared their experiences with sister organisations in 11 different Pacific countries, and recently helped 54 Tongan growers get certified for organic coconut production.
There's no one-size-fits-all development model, however. Each Pacific nation has its own culture. "We've learned that what works in one country may not work in another," Tafunai says. "Cultures and communities are quite different."
In Vanuatu, for example, setting up organic trade means getting to grips with village politics. Oxfam and local partner organisations are now collaborating to train young people for organic farming careers, focusing on spices such as ginger and vanilla.
Learning to raise crops is only part of it. Program staff also meet with village chiefs to secure land for the students to grow on, and help students to open bank accounts and think about how their earnings can benefit their communities.
In villages where agriculture used to be a male domain, young women trainees are now shining as new organic farmers, and their communities are taking notice.
Organic production is also becoming a pathway for Islanders to renew lost trade relationships with Aotearoa. Once upon a time, New Zealanders ate bananas from Pacific Islands. But in the 1950s, Central American banana plantations began flooding the market with cheap corporate fruit. Almost overnight, Islanders lost their trade and their incomes.
Now one kiwi company is slowly trying to repair that. All Good Bananas is importing sweet dried banana chunks from around 50 Samoan families. The organic banana chunks are sold in health food shops around New Zealand. "It's fantastic to be supporting our neighbours in the Pacific," says All Good co-founder Chris Morrison. Instead of traditional advertising, the company uses social media to help kiwis understand the growers' lives. All Good Bananas has won multiple international awards for its Fairtrade business practices.
And yet, organic success is not without its bitter ironies. Organic farming, though the most natural way to grow food, can also be incredibly bureaucratic. Pacific Islanders are certified organic mostly by Australian and New Zealand authorities who fly in for annual audits.
POETCom is now looking toward the day when Pacific communities can undertake organic certification on their own terms. "We need to have models that suit us," says Karen Mapusua. To that end, POETCom is promoting Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), in which local islander farmers peer review each others' organic practices.
Through PGS, whole islands are now going organic. In 2013, Fiji's tiny Cicia became the Pacific's first certified organic island. The island of Abaiang in Kiribati, home to 5500 people, has pledged to do the same. Community members have signed pledges to protect their islands' organic status, and no one is allowed to bring any synthetic agrichemical inputs onto the islands. Thus, Pacific peoples are starting to affirm organic farming on their own terms.
A pile of poo? Ethical holiday giving
Stuck for holiday gift ideas? You can now buy your loved ones such enticing gifts as an honorary "pair of coconuts" or "pile of poo," and in the process support Oxfam's work with organic farming communities in the Pacific. For gift options visit oxfamunwrapped