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Country profile - Tonga


Like most of the Pacific island nations, the Kingdom of Tonga has traditionally thrived on agriculture and fishing. Subsistence farming has been the mainstay of people's lives, and the country has also had significant success with commercial farming and agricultural exports. Today, however, both subsistence and commercial agriculture are facing serious challenges, due to population pressure and migration trends, as well as a too-narrow export base. At the same time, the country's imports vastly exceed its exports, indicating a looming economic crisis. Recognising that the agricultural export market holds the greatest promise for recovering Tonga's economy, the government is making efforts to revitalise the sector.


Some 36 of Tonga's 170 islands are inhabited, with about 40 per cent of the nearly 106,000 population living in or close to the capital Nuku'alofa on the island of Tongatapu. Meanwhile, about an equal number of Tongans live overseas, and the remittances they send home form the biggest source of income for the country. Agriculture and fishing are together the second largest income generator, contributing an estimated 30 per cent of the GDP. Tourism is the third significant contributor to the economy.

The country's population has increased rapidly from around 20,000 at the start of the 20th century. A result has been the conversion of the vast majority of the country's rainforest landscape to agriculture - Tonga is one of the most deforested of the Pacific island countries. A more recent trend, picking up pace in the second half of the 20th century, is migration from the remote outer islands to Tongatapu. Many former rural producers are now urban consumers, and this is reflected in soaring food and other imports. A regretable accompanying trend is the very high levels of non-communicable diseases - up to 90 per cent of the population are overweight, with more than 60 per cent obese.

Yams are a staple of the Tongan diet and an export crop (© Richard Markham)
Yams are a staple of the Tongan diet and an export crop
© Richard Markham

Today, the majority of Tonga's agriculture is still based on traditional farming systems. All land in the Kingdom belongs to the crown, with each man entitled to lease an allotment - an api, measuring 3.34 hectares - when he reaches the age of 16. However, population pressure means that the api is no longer guaranteed.

On their allotments, farmers often grow cash crops alongside subsistence crops, to supply both domestic and export markets. Root crops are both a staple of the Tongan diet and an export crop, and yams, taro, cassava and sweet potatoes dominate cropping systems. Other traditional crops include kava (which is made into a mildly narcotic drink very popular across the Pacific region), breadfruit, papaya, pineapple, banana and watermelon. Farmers also grow vegetables such as tomatoes, cabbages, capsicum, cauliflower, cucumbers and beans, while recent-immigrant Chinese farmers have introduced new crops such as asparagus, gourds and soya beans.

Farmers join together in cooperatives to supply bulk produce for the export market. Agricultural exports account for around two-thirds of the country's total exports. The main commodities are squash, fish, vanilla, root crops and kava. The latter two mainly supply Tongan communities overseas, while squash and vanilla supply high-value niche markets. However, these have gone into decline in recent years, precipitating a crisis for Tongan farmers.

The rise and fall of squash

Squash is not a traditional crop in Tonga; its production began in the mid-1980s, as a private sector initiative, to supply the Japanese and Korean markets. Since then the industry has gone through something of a 'boom and bust'. During the late 1990s an estimated 3,000 farmers were growing squash. Production peaked at around 23,000 tonnes and sales accounted for 50 per cent of Tonga's total export earnings. However, as more competitive countries joined the squash market, the Tongan industry went into decline. By 2010 just 1,500 tonnes of squash were produced, two-thirds by one commercial farmer and the remainder by three smaller farmers.

Squash is not a traditional crop in Tonga (© Luseane Taufa)
Squash is not a traditional crop in Tonga
© Luseane Taufa

But the decline of squash is not all bad news for Tonga. Grown as a monocrop over large areas, the squash industry contributed significantly to the clearing of forests and coconut plantations. Squash growing also requires high levels of agrochemical inputs - the quantity of agrochemicals used in Tonga is estimated to have more than tripled as a result of the squash industry. The decline of squash therefore opens the way for more diverse cropping systems with lower environmental impacts.

The decline of squash, and also a decrease in demand for vanilla due to global overproduction, has demonstrated Tonga's economic vulnerability from its reliance on just a small number of export commodities. The latest figures available, from 2006, show Tonga's imports at more than six times the value of its exports. This is clearly not sustainable.

What next?

Restoring a healthy agricultural export industry is a key target of the Tongan government in the next few years. Tongan farmers have shown that they are ready and willing to respond to market opportunities, and the squash industry gave them valuable experience in producing export-quality produce. Now, they need support to diversify their crop portfolios and to meet export standards for a range of produce.

Squash will likely continue as a modest export crop, while others with potential to expand are tomatoes, watermelons, eggplants, breadfruit and root crops. A comparative advantage lies in supplying off-season markets in New Zealand and Australia. Agro-processing also offers good opportunities, and a way to profit from high-season gluts and sub-export quality produce. A new processing facility has recently been built, with help from the European Union, and this should soon be producing fruit juices, jams, sauces and jellies, and root crop products like frozen chips and soup bases.

Multiple cropping systems are the norm in Tonga (© Richard Markham)
Multiple cropping systems are the norm in Tonga
© Richard Markham

Recent government initiatives to help rebuild the agricultural export industry include a new fumigation plant at the main wharf, a high-temperature forced air treatment plant at the airport, and blast freezers and cold storage equipment.

But the government must also urgently address the imbalance between the low-population outer islands and the overpopulated main islands. Support to farmers on the outer islands will contribute to food security for the whole kingdom, as well as its economic security. These islands today suffer from basic problems like a lack of farming machinery, low levels of support for new technology adoption, and poor transport links to the main market in Tongatapu. With help, the outer islands could contribute significantly to a reinvigorated agriculture sector, a secure economy, and a healthier Tongan population.

Statistical information
  • Country: Tonga
  • Capital: Nuku'alofa
  • Area: 747 sq km
  • Population: 105,916 (July 2011 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 0.2% (2011 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 75 (2011 est.)
  • Ethnic groups: Polynesians, Europeans
  • Languages: Tongan (official), English (official)
  • Inflation: 5.9% (2007 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$767 million (2010 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$6,300 (2010 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 25%; industry: 17%; services: 57% (2006 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 20%; permanent crops: 15%; other: 65% (2005)
  • Major industries: tourism, construction, fishing
  • Agricultural products: squash, coconuts, copra, bananas, vanilla beans, cocoa, coffee, ginger, black pepper; fish
  • Natural resources: fish
  • Export commodities: squash, fish, vanilla beans, root crop
  • Export partners: Hong Kong 25.42%, US 22.65%, Japan 12.21%, NZ 7.31%, Fiji 7.2%, Samoa 6.06%, South Korea 4.48% (2009)

Written by: Anne Moorhead

Date published: April 2011


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