Just outside the front door of Faustina Rehuher-Marugg’s forest home sits a patch of juvenile giant taro, sown at the foot of trees that will eventually fruit coconuts, mangoes and bananas.

Rehuher-Marugg grew up farming with her family in Ngarchelong, Palau’s northernmost state, tending livestock and learning traditional agricultural methods. Having recently finished her tenure as minister of state, she is now back working the land with her family, to feed themselves and sell produce to the public.

“Growing up, we had to do it to survive,” Rehuher-Marugg said. They collected eggs from chickens, fed the cows and pigs and tended the other crops. “So we are used to the land and getting our hands dirty.”

Her agrarian upbringing may not have been exceptional at the time. But now it is. The country’s president told the United Nations General Assembly this year that 80% of his country’s food is imported. Rehuher-Marugg’s knowledge of traditional food systems is something Palau is trying to spread throughout the country, as its food security teeters due to a dependence on imported food.

At the same time, the country is dealing with the effects of commercial agricultural practices, which often strip soils of their already lacking nutrients and degrade the surrounding environment.

A Palauan woman with her crops, grown with regenerative methods. Courtesy: Carolyn Ngiraidis

Palau’s agrarian concerns are shared by many Pacific island nations and territories. Much of its food is imported from the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand. For a country that might face food shortages in the best of times, the pandemic underscored the importance of self-reliance. Now, after years of trying, an official policy on organic farming will soon face the scrutiny of Palau’s legislature.

Several countries around the Pacific have been adopting organic policies, led by Fiji and Vanuatu. And, since the accreditation of the Pacific Organic Standard in 2014 by international organic organizations, embracing organic policies has been seen as a means for economic growth, but also as a way of addressing public health and environmental issues.

Organic farming practices are seen as a holistic means to alleviate food insecurity, through more regenerative practices that increase crop diversity, relieve pressures on the environment and, in turn, make the nations’ food systems more resilient.

Growing Incentives For Local Farmers

Carolyn Ngiraidis, president of the Palau Organic Growers Society, said that addressing food security with organic farming involves getting the lay of the land before moving forward. That means surveying Palau’s islands and its farmers for what they are growing, answering some basic questions to help the country sustainably intensify its production.

Crops are currently restricted by what grows well and what locals want to eat, but that leads to relatively limited variety. While many could grow taro, which is good for the soil and the environment, there’s demand for crops like tomatoes.

“It’s about time that we start diversifying,” Ngiraidis said. But to compete with importers and ensure a steady supply of diverse foods for the tourism industry and Palau’s people, education is crucial.

Eggplant is a relatively common plant grown in home gardens in Palau. Courtesy: Carolyn Ngiraidis

As it stands, farmers lacking commercial savvy have been unable to deliver vegetables consistently enough for the tourism industry.

One development that could give Palau farmers a leg up is that it has recently undergone comprehensive tax reform, having previously been blacklisted as a tax haven. A flat $100 tax rate for businesses earning less than $50,000 per year has incentivized locals — particularly farmers — to get into business to counter the disparity between locally-grown and imported foods.

Ken Uyehara, a cofounder of the society, said the tax reform will encourage farmers to get the education they need to create more sustainable and bigger yields. Uyehara, who’s a property appraiser by day, also has concluded that it might get people to start using or leasing their customary land or government land that has become fallow.

“Before, local farmers had to compete with imported goods,” said Uyehara. “Now it’s an even playing field, or even an advantage. Not only that, farmers will be driven to look at organic produce.”

That was in part due to the tax reforms imposing tariffs on agricultural imports, such as synthetic fertilizers. That could push farmers to seek out cheaper — and more sustainable — fertilizers, perhaps by composting their own food waste.

The Past Informing The Future

So far, the impediments to using organic methods have been a lack of knowledge or unwillingness to invest the time. “Anyone can walk up to the store and buy them (fertilizer and pesticides) but you just have to have the commitment,” Ngiraidis said.

Mark Vereen, a Louisiana native living in Palau since 1987, has a few plant beds of okra, tomatoes and carrots at his home in Airai, on Palau’s largest island, Babeldaob. Each four by eight bed requires several cubic feet of soil, and the crops and fruit from his trees are mostly enough to cater to his family.

At about $15 to $20 per cubic foot of soil, “It’s pretty much out of reach for most Palauans,” Vereen said. “And some of that’s not suitable, or organic, and the lack of nutrients in that soil is still a problem.”

When Palau was under Japanese rule from 1914 until 1944, the country was a net exporter of agricultural products. Before that, the population — albeit smaller — was able to sustain itself off the land and water.

“We could do the same thing. We just have to regain the knowledge and the producers,” Uyehara said. “It was so successful that they exported.”

The Palau Organic Growers Society regularly holds organic composting workshops to address the most pressing agricultural issue in Palau: deficient soils. Courtesy: Carolyn Ngiraidis

Though the bulk of exports was sugarcane and copra, Uyehara believes it is proof of future possibilities. Likewise, the traditional knowledge that would inform such methods is inherently sustainable and regenerative. A greater knowledge of the soils, and how to feed them with things like manure or compost, is what Palauans need, he said.

Taro, perhaps the most culturally significant crop in the country, is grown by Rehuher-Marugg’s family in both dry and wet lands and helps clean local waterways. Likewise, they make their own compost or buy locally-produced compost. It all came down to the traditional values, according to Rehuher-Marugg.

“If we take care of the environment, the environment will take care of us,” she said.

Feeding The Land

Vereen lives on a little less than an acre and grows mainly fruit trees due to the inadequacy of his soils.

Most soil on Palau is dense red earth with a thin, fertile sheet of soil on top, or shallow immature and rock-studded soils. Both are extremely prone to erosion and, given the steep topography of Palau, soil nutrients are likely to be swept away during heavy rains.

The variation and general paucity of good soils underscores the need for sustainable cooperation and diversification, Vereen said. As part of a group trying to increase food security in Palau for several years, he believes they are finally starting to make headway.

Rehuher-Marugg’s family farm earns enough to pay its farmers — foreign workers from Bangladesh and the Philippines — as well as cover its overhead, pay for the farm and feed the family. But the country needs more farms like hers.

The tourism and hospitality industry has created a demand for organic products. But the supply chains need to be strengthened before the country will be able to create a robust network of farmers and consumers.

Pacific Organic Standards

The Pacific Organic & Ethical Trade Community, POETcom,  administers the regional organic standard. It also helps boost the capacity of local farmers and grassroots organizations to improve their outputs, ensure they follow standards and are able to make the most of their potential.

The initial interest in organics may have been as a potential economic boon. But now the Pacific nations are realizing that organics could help address food security and public health issues, according to Karen Mapusua, who heads the Pacific Community’s Land Resources Division.

Mapusua likes to think that Pacific Island nations and territories will eventually be able to feed themselves with traditional foods if needed. That would mean moving from an 80% reliance on imported food such as Palau’s, to something closer to a 60-40% split between traditional and non-traditional diets.

“I think it would be unrealistic to say it would be 100%,” Mapusua said. “There will continue to be a need for importers.”

It would essentially require decolonizing Pacific diets, she added, and a push to “revisit and revitalize those crops that we consumed a generation ago.”

But food security is a complex field that organic ag cannot fix in isolation. Among the other factors that must be considered are pest control, biosecurity, disaster response, veterinarian services, capacity for organic animal feed, seed banks, community outreach, regional cooperation and supply chains.

Then there is the issue of turning foods grown in the Pacific into other products to feed the population, such as making taro bread in Palau.

Shifting Gears

Mark Vereen, in Airai, fears sounding like a merchant of doom, but he believes the food security situation is so acute that it’s hard for him not to sound like one. He runs through scenarios such as the pandemic or worse — shipping routes cut and flights grounded.

“The stores will be raided and the supermarkets will be empty within two or three days, once the public realizes there’s going to be a problem,” he said. “There’s not enough people growing their own food for their own household and we are trying to encourage them to do so.”

But that means getting more people back into farming, which would take a big push. Still, Vereen is glad the policy is finally coming into shape and the current state of agriculture is being analyzed. If ratified by the government and signed by the prime minister, the Department of Agriculture’s enforcement and monitoring procedures for organic farmers will be in place by the middle of next year.

“We are close to a new stage of putting it in gear,” Vereen said. “At the moment we’re still in neutral but we’re very close to moving forward.”

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