Green Thumbs Up in Tuvalu

20151124_074556People who hate eating their vegetables would love traveling in equatorial Micronesia. Dry, sandy atolls where nothing edible thrives but coconut palms and pandanus are but idyllic paradises on which one can easily waste away of nutritional deficiency. The perennial heat and drought-like lack of rain mean you’ll be guaranteed plenty of sunny beach time, without having to put up with any of those obnoxious fruity umbrella drinks, due to the general lack of fruit.

Tuvalu wasn’t quite that bad (Kiribati is.) Most shops had mushy imported oranges and apples. Breadfruit was happening. There was a guy with a papaya grove who was willing to sell 2 for $5, pick your own or select from the ripe and ready ones stored inside an unused washing machine on his patio.

But the unexpected surprise was the raised bed gardens and flats full of seedlings, operated by Taiwan Technical Mission in a tin-roofed structure on the northeast side of the airport runway.

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Locals waiting to be called to buy vegetables.

Tuesdays and Fridays, starting at around 6 am, locals line up for first-come, first-serve fresh lettuce, cucumbers, bak choy, green beans, green peppers and whatever else is ready to harvest. When you arrive, you put your name on a list, then wait until you’re called and invited to select from the morning’s harvest. Everything is $3 per pound, with all proceeds going to pay the locals who run the operation, overseen by Jerry. Originally from Taiwan he’s been on the ground in Tuvalu managing the nonprofit project for over 10 years.

The morning I went, I was #25 on the list, so I was in for a long wait, sitting on a bench alongside Tuvaluans, mostly women, most with babies. Immediately, I was approached by a young Taiwanese man named Lawrence. “Who do you work for?” he asked.

That’s an interesting question. Myself? The boat? I settled on, “Nobody.”

“Oh?” He assumed I was there working with a church or a nonprofit. “How did you hear about this place?”

I explained that I’d sailed there on a boat and that one of the other yachts in the anchorage had tipped me off. He told me he was from TTM’s home office and his job was to travel to their operations all over the third world, checking up on how things are running and how they could be improved. They have similar set-ups throughout South America and Africa, as well as closer afield in Palau, Nauru, Fiji, Papau New Guinea, Kiribati and Majuro. This week, he was surveying Tuvalu.

TTM works with local governments to import the necessary materials and infrastructure (for Tuvalu, there was an entire shipping container at my back, full of potting soil) and establishing agriculture operations that teach locals how to grow their own produce. In addition to selling the food they grow, they also give away seedlings to people who want to garden at home. He let me tour the grounds, a bounty of aboveground greenery on seedling tables and overfilling their raised bed gardens. He said the salinity of the land and the dry climate, as well as the local appetites, limit what they grow. In addition to what they’d harvested, I saw scallions and a kind of wild spinach ripe and abundant, but not for sale at the market. I asked one of the workers about purchasing some, but he told me they grew that for the Chinese restaurants and seemed to suggest that it wasn’t for sale because nobody wanted it.

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It’s hard not to wonder what’s in it for Taiwan besides the warm, fuzzy feeling. The goodwill may not be entirely without the expectation of something reciprocal (ahem, tuna…lots of tuna, all of your tuna. And shark fins and sea cucumbers, too, thanks, bye.) All of the island nations where TTM operates are also Pacific Island Parties named in the Nauru Agreement, an international treaty regulating and licensing the right to fish in the islands’ territorial fishing grounds to big international outfits based in the United States, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, Korea, and…you got it, Taiwan.

Whatever the extracurricular machinations, the guys on the ground in Funafuti are clearly talented green thumbs, creating an income stream for entrepreneurial Tuvaluans, and helping to improve their food security in the face of increasing insecurity from climate change.

As I continued waiting for my number to be called, I listened to Lawrence interviewing other patrons, asking how often they came to the morning market, if they were able to get the fresh vegetables they wanted, if everyone in Funafuti knew about it.

“Oh, yes,” said one young woman, who’d recently moved to Funafuti from another atoll. “I heard about it right away, that this is what you do on Friday.” She wanted “lettuce, anything fresh.” He suggested she take some seedlings home and grow her own, but she wasn’t sure if she could – she’s renting.

“You can try container gardening,” he suggested, using empty buckets or jugs. When she hesitated, he pressed further, encouraging her to give it a shot. “You can even grow in secondhand luggage!” He quickly scrolled into his phone to show her a photo.

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