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Aleki Sisifa

Aleki Sisifa highlights the unique challenges for the Pacific in developing its agriculture (SPC)
Aleki Sisifa highlights the unique challenges for the Pacific in developing its agriculture
SPC

Challenging times for agricultural development in the Pacific

Aleki Sisifa, director of the Land Resources Division at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) shares his thoughts on the challenges that land rights and climate change are posing for the Pacific Islands. Adaptation, he argues, is the main issue and that genetic resources are going to be crucial to help farmers stay ahead of climate change.

Here in the Pacific Islands, we have some huge, over-arching challenges such as climate change; then we have more regional challenges shared by the different countries; and, of course, there are problems that are specific to individual countries or islands. For an organisation like SPC, if we are to provide effective support, it is important to recognise and address each of these different levels.

One problem that many Pacific islands share is issues connected to land rights. More than 90 per cent of land in the Pacific is under customary ownership, which is usually informal and based on supplying the needs of the community. Now, with changing circumstances, we are seeing a lot of conflict over land, as well as mismanagement.

Land is such a sensitive issue in the region that nearly all of the social disturbances we have had in the Pacific can be traced back to land issues. But the solution, we believe, is not to override customary ownership; instead we work with traditional structures, with landowners and with tenants, and develop inclusive and participatory methods of land-use planning. Customary ownership and development can be compatible - the key is to work with communities to strengthen land management systems and reduce conflict.

The challenge of climate change

Everything we do depends on the land - and so does the future. If we don't manage our land sustainably we will be at the mercy of climate change. That is very clear. Adaptation is the main issue for us, and sustainable and diverse production systems must provide the basis for coping and adapting. The Pacific island countries are probably more vulnerable to climate change impacts than most countries, and those impacts are already being seen - sea level rise, seawater intrusion into agricultural areas, and more flooding and waterlogged soils, for example.

We need to help farmers stay ahead of climate change, and genetic resources are going to be crucial for that. At SPC we hold the genetic resources for the Pacific region, and as part of our climate change work we are collecting varieties that can withstand conditions such as drought, salinity and water-logging.

We are working to ensure fair use and ready access of these resources and, in June 2009, our collection was placed in the Multilateral System of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Around the same time, agreement was made with the Global Crop Diversity Trust to safeguard our collection of taro and yam, two of our most important food crops in this region.

Reaching out

Many islands in the Pacific are small and remote, but that doesn't mean they should be ignored - on the contrary, these are our most vulnerable members and the ones that really need support for their agriculture. We have to be realistic - these islands can never hope to employ a plant pathologist, a virologist, or even a vet, so regional services are very important. For instance, we're trialling a para-vet training course and service across the region and, if successful, we're hoping to use this as a model for other technical support services.

Most farmers in the Pacific still rely on government media for extension information. But the challenge is great as there is an increasing gap in the extension worker to farmer ratio. There are many innovative ways of using the media to carry extension messages, some of which are now becoming common in parts of the Pacific. We need now to look at these innovative ways as best practices and see how they can be repeated in other Pacific countries.

In the past year or so, there has been increased media reporting on climate change here in the Pacific, focusing on awareness as well as national action plans. Some media personnel from the Pacific have had very focused training on climate change reporting, and this exercise continues. Some video documentaries, for example, have been produced with outside funding. More opportunities to show the effect of climate change on food security for the Pacific islands is anticipated.

Looking to the future

We need to make the most of these opportunities, as food and nutritional security for the Pacific islands is an important component of SPC's core business. In the past we've focused on sustainable management of the islands' resources in achieving this, but of course trade is also a part of the picture. This is a new area for us, and one that we are throwing ourselves into. Countries have emphasised their need to boost social and economic development through increased trade and exports; we're starting to work with the private sector to help members progress in this area and we're also beginning to work with organic products and fair trade.

The Pacific islands have unique challenges when it comes to entering global markets but, if we target the right products, I believe we will find a comparative advantage in some of these niche markets. This is just one of the many challenges we face in the Pacific. But we are tackling them and moving forward and I am optimistic about our future.

Date published: September 2009

 

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