The Island of Pohnpei Rediscovers its Agroforestry Roots
Since the 1970s, the people of Pohnpei, an island in the Federated States of Micronesia, have seen their diets shift from traditional local foods such as taro and bananas to imported foods, including refined grains, sugar, and fatty meats.
The dietary shift and other lifestyle changes in the population have led to serious health problems, including a rise in diabetes and vitamin deficiencies. But, ironically, on Pohnpei and many Pacific Islands, traditional agroforestry systems - based on thousands of years of indigenous knowledge - are part of the solution because they provide traditional local food that is healthier and was once a staple of their diets.
The community organization Island Food Community of Pohnpei saw a need to reverse this trend - and local foods as a way to do it. The group launched the campaign Go Local Pohnpei with the goal of increasing awareness of the nutritional values of traditional local food.
Working closely with island residents, the project promotes the production and consumption of locally grown island foods through community workshops, school visits, marketing materials, media work, community food production and coordination with USDA's Forest Service. Island Food Community employees like to say that integrating traditional foods back into local diets has CHEEF benefits, or benefits to culture, health, economy, environment and food security.
The Forest Service became involved because several of the island's traditional foods - including the pandanus, breadfruit, coconut and banana - are forest products. A grant from the agency's Forest Stewardship Program helped the Island Food Community to implement traditional agroforestry - multi-species agricultural systems that include forest products like fruits, nuts, foliage, fiber and medicinal plants.
The grant has also helped the Island Food Community to catalogue traditional tree crops, conserve rare varieties of trees and to develop and maintain a gene bank nursery. The group's poster fruit has been the little-known red-fleshed karat banana cultivar which has been shown to have especially high Vitamin A content. Employees also developed small-scale processing capacity using appropriate technology such as energy-efficient ovens and solar dryers.
The results of the project have been impressive. During a two-year period, the project's founder, originally a volunteer, was able to transition the organization to a trained paid local staff. The organization also worked with 500 landowners, who were given direct technical assistance, and more than 15,000 landowners were reached through the awareness campaigns.
The work also resulted in nine community agroforestry advisory committees around the island and roughly 6,500 volunteer hours were donated to projects by local residents. The outreach has touched more than 50 percent of the island's.
"This project is exciting because it's about helping the people of Pohnpei rediscover and use knowledge they already have rather than bringing a new mainland technology to the Pacific Islands, which sometimes doesn't work," said Katie Friday, Cooperative Forester for the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Region office in Hawaii.
Local food is now increasingly available both commercially and through garden-based projects on the island. The President of Pohnpei issued a proclamation announcing that local food would be utilized during all government-sponsored functions, which immediately replaced soda with iced whole coconuts. And Island Food Community's work has expanded to the four states in the Federated States of Micronesia as well as to other U.S.-affiliated islands, including the Marshall Islands, Palau and Guam.
In the spring of 2012, Island Food Community launched The School of Healthy Lifestyles as pilot programs to encourage students to stay healthy and teach them to cultivate traditional foods.
Increased cultivation of traditional tree crops increases nutrition while reducing direct expenditures on imported food. It also enhances the perception of the value of agroforests as a land use, and reinvigorates island residents' cultural awareness of their own indigenous knowledge. All in all, the benefits of Go Local Pohnpei have been myriad - or CHEEF, as IFCP staff would say.