The mother of our breath

In the westernmost region of the Caroline Islands of Micronesia lies the Republic of Palau. Palauan traditional farming shows how agriculture, family values and culture are interconnected. Despite these connections, family farms are facing challenges. By joining forces, the small scale family farms of these islands stand up for their rights and call for support for maintaining important (agri)cultural customs.

Pride, power and income

Palauan traditional farms represent a form of agriculture that is strongly family-oriented. In the matrilineal society of Palau, agriculture defines the female sphere of influence and is a source of pride, power, and income for women. The importance of agriculture and women in Palau is illustrated by the Palauan proverb: “The taro patch is the mother of our breath.”

In general, women have been the nurturers of the family and providers of food on land, while men have been providers from the sea. Children are expected to help their parents and other elders in their different tasks. Palauan women are referred to as “walking libraries of family food production” – especially in the cultivation of taro, which women have developed and fine-tuned. Female-produced agricultural products together with additional marine and forest products have provided a self-sufficient food system with a built-in safety net against natural and economic disasters, pest intrusion, and old age.

In addition to providing food and income, the taro patch serves a number of other purposes in Palauan communities. Exchanging taro and other food has played a role in cultural customs ranging from birth ceremonies to funerals. Family farms as multi-purpose enterprises have been buffers in times of disasters and the glue for bonding and wealth creation. This “sharing and caring” has had a multiplier effect and actually created economic and social wealth, even though this wealth creation is not reflected in official statistics.

The relationship between farming families and their beneficiaries has functioned as a “value web”, not the often highly touted “value chain”. Every connection in the web is a bond, ensuring better quality service to all beneficiaries. The goal of each exchange was not profit, but to provide a valued product or service. Family farms in Palau are more than farms owned and operated by families: they are farms with family – rather than corporate – values.

Family farms have been cultural and social learning centers. Children learned about health-promoting plants, about how, when and where to plant and about the sacredness of food; but also about taboos, the core values that empower and enable Palauan culture, birth control, reciprocity, and what the role is of the family and each family member – among many other things. As such, the family farm has not only been a way to keep youth engaged in and knowledgeable on agriculture, it was in many ways the forum for intergenerational communication.

Traditional taro systems

Production for family sustenance is the predominant agricultural activity in Palau, with the main crops being taro, cassava, sweet potato, banana and coconut. Typical of Oceania, Palauan traditional agriculture features a multi-storey agroforestry system in which trees provide a protective canopy for the intensive production of 40 to 50 plant varieties. An invaluable aspect of this system – culturally, socially an economically – is the taro patch. Patches of taro, the major food staple in Palau, slightly resemble rice paddies, where dykes and pathways encase a wetland. The soil is turned over and enriched with large quantities of green manure. An analysis done in Palau shows that, when comparing the value of production to labour, cash and non-cash inputs of different crops, the taro patch is the most productive system.

A changing landscape

Traditionally, Palau was self-sufficient in food at the household, community, and national levels. In contrast, today imported foods constitute at least 90% of the average household diet. To break the dependency, Palau needs to (re)develop locally produced goods and services. Yet a political neglect of agriculture and people’s reluctance to buy from multiple small farms, as well as the devaluation of traditional food such as taro, have caused diverse traditional family farming to lose ground.

Although colonial governments have attempted to turn agriculture into a commercial and male-dominated enterprise, agriculture generally remains a “female” vocation in contemporary Palau. At the moment, large commercially oriented farms, traditional farms and “hybrid” farms exist, side by side. Most of the large commercial farms are managed by foreigners, using foreign labour, with the profit leaving Palau. In hybrid farms, women commonly grow traditional crops for their own needs as well as for the market, but increasingly employing male Asian farm workers. Agriculture in Palau appears to be entering a phase where crops are produced for subsistence and for sale in a typical dual-economy mode, but maintaining production of traditional crops of importance to both social activities and subsistence.

The taro patch ladies and other traditional agriculturists, “organic” and “natural” farmers, supporters of traditional foods, the “health conscious” and others respond with concerns about the effects of commercial agriculture on people’s health and the environment. This is not a total rejection of all non-traditional approaches, but rather a very selective adoption and adaptation of the elements which are compatible to family values.

The changes in Palauan agriculture reflect not a dichotomy between “traditional” versus “modern”, but rather show a difference in orientation: is a farm “profit-oriented” or “family-oriented”? Is it focused on sales, or on services? Elements of commercialism can exist in harmony with traditional values; yet unbridled commercialisation will render the “family” in farming meaningless.

Family, culture and agriculture are intrinsically linked. Since the taro patch is “the mother of our breath,” on the day when the last Palauan women has gone to the last taro patch for the last time, Palau’s culture will have surely breathed it’s last breath.

Increased interaction

Farmers have joined hands to rescue the valuable contributions of family farming. Some state governments implement programmes incorporating family farming and agro-ecology through favourable leases, training events and infrastructure development, for instance. In addition, the joint Ministry of Health and private sector initiative “Healthy Foods” is resulting in greater demand for organic, traditional, “natural”, nutritious and safe food. Nonetheless, farmers lament that government programmes, including environmental programmes marginalise family farming and assign agriculture a low priority.

Calls for “intensification” of family farms reveal an ignorance of the reality that most of the farms are already intensified, that all areas of the farm already have a purpose. In most cases there is no way to squeeze in more without resulting in a loss of the many functionalities of the farm.

In contrast to such dominant calls for commercialisation and intensification, farmer organisations have started to implement initiatives to support family farmers. Palau has three main farmer organisations, which fight for the survival of their traditions. At the Palau Taiwan Farmers’ Association (PTFA) and the Organisation for Industrial, Spiritual and Cultural Advancement (OISCA), we believe that preservation of traditional forms of agriculture is crucial for the preservation of Palau’s culture. The Palau Organic Growers Association (POGA) is looking to “preserve the best and adopt the new”. In all three organisations, women hold or have held officer positions. PTFA is composed of mostly women, while OISCA and POGA have around 40% and 30% women respectively.

The organisations supply services and improve access to existing services, including markets and value-adding processes. Educational events and demonstration gardens serve the farmers, but also help link producers to the rest of the community. We advocate for support structures that enable interaction between different actors. The organisations help showcase effective farming practices and try to build a strong positive image of family farmers and their products. By promoting traditional dishes through calendars or building farmer-chef alliances, traditional products and family values are popularised within the wider society.

Revitalising family farming

PTFA is now advocating for a multi-purpose and multi-functional site called “The Meeting Place”. Providing more than the existing local markets, this type of regional food hub would enable family farmers to deal directly with consumers and attract wholesale agents, attract foreign visitors and local consumers, provide a venue for training and building relationships between farmers, chefs and consumers, function as an order-processing and assembling center, and serve as a cultural reinforcement.

The Meeting Place can also strengthen capacities to develop strategic action plans for import substitution and linkages to the tourism market. Tourism is the fastest growing economic sector in Palau. But, for tourism to be sustainable and sustaining, it needs to be supported by local food production so that we can re-circulate tourist dollars in Palau. A support mechanism like this can strengthen the value web and enhance recoveries from disasters such as destructive typhoons, as it links producers with markets.

Our experiences in Palau also taught us how traditional practices in family farms can strengthen cultural identity, build solidarity among farms, and assign greater value to traditional ethics. Revitalising and enhancing traditional practices would be a learning opportunity with applications to climate change mitigation and resilience to disasters and crises. Finally, family farming needs to be made more attractive for future generations, using social marketing and media to counter the devaluation of family farmers. Rather than considering farming as a last resort for the uneducated, we need to strongly promote family farming as a noble vocation.

Robert V Bishop

Robert V Bishop works with the ‘Strengthening Capacity for Sustainable Organic Crop Production in Palau’ Project, and is Chair of Resource Sourcing and Activities Committee of the Palau Taiwan Farmers Association.

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