Vanuatu Daily News Digest | Food security in urban Vanuatu

Food security responses in Vanuatu should include urban gardens

by Dr Tess Newton Cain, Founder of the Devpacific Thinknet

The response to Cyclone Pam led by the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) includes a commitment to preserving the resilience of the people of Vanuatu. In the immediate aftermath, the prime minister encouraged the population to eat root crops (that can last up to 3 weeks) and fruit that had fallen from trees until such time as food aid could be distributed. The assessments done by government with the support of UN agencies and others have informed a response plan of provision of food aid for 3 months with each batch of food being accompanied by seeds, seedlings and hand tools to allow for gardens to be re-established. The fastest growing crops will be available to harvest from then and the provision of food aid by the government will (it is planned) be discontinued.

The NDMO has advised that at this stage there is no provision of seeds, seedlings or gardening tools to residents of Port Vila and the surrounding peri-urban areas. The rationale behind this is that these items are available from commercial suppliers and that prices are reduced following an exemption from duty and Value Added Tax (VAT) on products of this type imported after March 14th (for a period of one month).

This makes perfect sense as part of an initial response with the need to address food security in areas of the country where garden produce is essentially the only form of nutrition and there are no shops at which to buy seeds or tools.

However, as we look to responses that are medium and longer term in nature, we need to ensure that food security and longer term nutrition of our urban and peri-urban populations is appropriately supported.

Prior to Cyclone Pam’s arrival many people living in and around Port Vila had established gardens to provide food for themselves and their families. Some of these were on blocks of land that they bought specifically for this purpose and others were more informal in nature, including using other people’s land without permission. These gardens have been severely damaged or destroyed. Other people who did not have this option and who are in formal employment received food crops from family members in rural areas in exchange for shop-bought goods (e.g. kerosene, cooking oil, sugar, salt) or assistance with school fees or health costs. This system is a product of the extended family network with the mutually supportive relationships of exchange and obligation that it entails. However, this system is now severely compromised because so much of the country has been affected. For example, urban families that were depending on food supplies to come from family members on Tanna are now without that supply and may not have the family connections in relatively unaffected areas (e.g. Santo and Malekula) to enable them to establish a new one.

The development of urban gardens can provide a safety net for vulnerable urban and peri-urban populations that will have numerous benefits in the medium to longer term. Here, I will focus on the economic benefits and the contribution that this will make to longer-term health benefits of urban and peri-urban populations.

Economic benefits

The direct economic benefits arise in protecting urban populations from the adverse impacts of added financial burdens that come at a time where many may be at risk of losing their jobs or becoming under-employed. It is true that those living in and around Port Vila may have more employment opportunities than those living in rural areas, including opportunities to pick up casual employment as part of clean-up efforts in the short term and rebuilding activities in the longer term. However, they are also taking on additional financial burdens, including rebuilding or repairing their homes, sending supplies to family members elsewhere and providing for friends and family members they have taken in further to destruction of houses. These additional calls on resources come on top of those that were already present. The success of sale of ‘garden only’ blocks prior to Cyclone Pam (located at Teouma, to the east of Port Vila) was largely driven by those with relatively well-paying jobs seeking to minimise the costs associated with providing for large households, largely comprising people who do not earn an income.

The indirect benefits of establishing urban gardens include (in the longer term) an ability to sell surplus produce. Not only will this bring the overall costs of food down in and around Port Vila but it will also allow for increased consumption that will support other aspects of the economy.

Health and nutrition benefits

There are already concerns about the relatively poor nutrition of urban populations arising out of a greater reliance on imported, processed foods such as white rice and tinned fish, which often has a high oil content. Prior to Cyclone Pam, people participating in the formal economy often did not have time to cook traditional dishes such as laplap and simboro but were able to purchase this type of food from the central markets (currently closed) or at food stalls located at kava bars. These food stalls are now largely empty. The implementation of an Urban Gardens project will help mitigate the risk of the quality of our urban population’s diet being further undermined.

How might an Urban Gardens project work?

The following points can form the basis of a project of this type:

  • Allocate parcels of public land within the urban and peri-urban areas (e.g. parts of sports fields) for use as community gardens under the management of local authority mechanisms.
  • Encourage private sector organisations to identify areas on their premises that can be used as gardens by their employees with the management of the garden to be handled by the staff in conjunction with the business to address issues such as out of hours access, security, etc.
  • Establish a mechanism whereby urban garden groups (whether community based or centred around private sector employment) can access support especially by providing seeds and seedlings.