Pacific Islander Food Sharing Customs Ensure Resilience in the Face of Disasters

Image source: eGuide Travel – CC BY 2.0

Pacific Islanders are no strangers to disasters. For millennia, island peoples have coped with and adapted to disasters such as tropical cyclones and tsunamis, as well as unpredictable changes in rainfall patterns, resulting in droughts and floods.

Since most coastal communities in the Pacific region are found on low-lying atolls and narrow coastal margins, they are particularly vulnerable and adept at coping with environmental extremes due to their adaptive local cultural practices and knowledge, that have made them more resilient to disasters.

These livelihood practices particularly helped rural Pacific Island communities cope with the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. While many Pacific Island governments thwarted community transmission of the virus by closing borders international markets and imposing restrictions on movement, these same measures have created hardship through job losses and supply chain disruptions.

In our recent study published in the journal Marine Policy and conducted by partners in Teri Tuxson’s organization, the Locally Managed Marine Area Network, we found that despite early concerns, Pacific island communities in seven countries ( Papua New Guinea, Palau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia and Solomon Islands remained relatively resilient until 2020, when some of the worst effects of the pandemic were felt around the world. This is because they were able to rely on existing food sharing customs and their knowledge of food production techniques to ensure food availability during this time.

Strong social networks among Pacific islanders have long fostered resilience to food system shocks, both within and between island communities. Historically, the relationships established during ceremonial exchanges between islanders served the additional purpose of assisting these communities in obtaining or exchanging needed goods in the event of crop failures or disasters.

A prime example is the Kula Ring, first described in 1922 by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in his book, Western Pacific Argonauts. The Kula ring refers to a traditional trade alliance joining communities in eastern New Guinea. The main purpose of the Kula ring was to reciprocally exchange two goods with local symbolic value – long necklaces of red shells called soulava were exchanged for white shell bracelets called mwali.

Through this trade, other ordinary goods such as foodstuffs were also traded alongside, which solidified long-lasting relationships between groups that could help each other recover from disasters.

This type of food sharing ensured the survival of these communities. In addition to business alliances, other strategies have fostered resilience through betting hedging. Examples of this include crop diversification; production, preservation and storage of food surpluses; maintaining land boundaries (areas of land or sea over which kinship groups control access and use of natural resources); and cooperation between kin groups and clans within traditional governance hierarchies. Many of these practices are still in place today and are visible in communities that have best withstood the impacts of natural disasters and sudden shocks.

For example, Tropical Cyclone Ofa hit Samoa in 1990. Although important cash crops such as coconuts were badly affected during the cyclone, local communities maintained their resilience through cooperation and cohesion. communities, in particular through the exchange of food. In some cases, village leaders have asked farmers to plant fast-growing crops on available communal land. Meanwhile, several villages revived the endangered practice of breadfruit fermentation immediately after the cyclones to maintain a stable food supply.

While conducting surveys for the Maritime Policy Report, we also found that rural communities in Papua New Guinea that were simultaneously affected in 2020 by the hardships of the pandemic and severe drought turned to bartering goods between communities and relying on the production of sago palms to complement agricultural activities.

A man from Palau who responded to our survey noted, “It’s part of our culture to share food with others”, adding that he and other fishermen “have started to share more than we normally do. because we couldn’t sell our catch, especially when COVID-19 started and there were no tourists coming.

In Fiji, where many villages were hit by Tropical Cyclone Harold in early April 2020, just before the government imposed pandemic-related travel restrictions, one woman interviewed said that “some farms were affected during the cyclone and, in addition, we could not go into town for groceries due to travel restrictions. So we depended on seafood.

These sentiments were heard consistently across the Pacific, where rural dwellers fell back on their skills in salting fish, caring for taro plots and using techniques and methods traditions passed down from previous generations.

Disasters in the Pacific region are inevitable. The January 15 eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, more powerful than an atomic bomb, created a tsunami felt as far away as Japan and California. Additionally, it had a devastating impact on the infrastructure of the low islands of Tonga and destroyed crops through ash fall.

But the signs of resilience are already showing. Tongan communities around Oceania have mobilized to organize shipments of food and aid, demonstrating the power of social networks that can be activated almost instantly. In the weeks and months to come, the customs of food sharing and knowledge of food preservation will most certainly be put to good use to help communities through this difficult time.

A version of this article first appeared on Truth and was produced in partnership with Earth | Food | Lifea project of the Independent Media Institute.