LALANO HIGH ALTITUDE FARMING PROJECT
Assessment of crops suitable for growing at elevations between 400 and 600 metres in the mountainous interior of North Malaita island, Solomon Islands.
Project duration and funding
Duration: Less than one year – 1994.
Funding: (Australian dollars)
- AusAID – $12 439
- APACE – $6550 (including in-kind)
- Other sources – $18 409
- Total project funding – $37 393.
A tumbled topography
Malaita is a mountainous island with rainforest-clad ridges drained by short streams that plunge to the coastline. Most of its villages are located on the coast.
North Malaita has the highest population density in the Solomon Islands. To feed this population, bush gardens have been cleared on exceptionally steep land, almost to the ridgetops in some locations. This makes them vulnerable to soil erosion during heavy tropical downpours.
One of the villages of North Malaita is named Anokwasi. It is here that Kastom Garden Project manager, Tony Jansen, gained his first experience in the Solomons.
Something new – an experimental community farm
The Lalano project became reality after a meeting between APACE’s program development officer and an elderly farmer from the North Malaita village of Anokwasi, Mr Clement.
The Anokwasi project – to become known as the Lalano High Altitude Farming Project- was to be APACE’s first foray into agricultural development.
Mr Clement’s idea was to establish a small, experimental community farm on a high altitude terrace known as a ‘lalano’. Here, above the humid coast, European varieties of vegetables could be grown which could be sold in the Malaitan provincial capital of Auki or taken over to Honiara Central Markets.
APACE’s role would be to fund the inputs needed to bring the farm to operational condition – materials, equipment, seed. The local community would provide labour and develop the farm as an ongoing enterprise.
Mr Clement had already established a bush garden typical of those in the area. Vegetables had been planted with some success, including Chinese cabbage and ball cabbage. He sold the vegetables at Auki markets and, sometimes, at Honiara markets.
Inspired by his early success, Mr Clement wanted to expand and to try new methods. He wanted to work with the people of Anokwasi and to share his experience. Mr Clement was probably also aware that working with the local community was a prerequisite to qualify for assistance from APACE.
Funding was obtained from AusAID and work started.
Tony sought out open pollinated varieties so that the seed could be collected, dried and used for successive plantings. The idea was that a degree of self-reliance in planting material could be developed through seed saving.
Vegetable varieties trialed included broccoli, ball cabbage, tomatoes, pepper, basil, chives, carrots, beans and gourds.
First hint of trouble
The first sign that things were going wrong became apparent when tensions arose over the use of the chainsaw. The saw had been purchased with APACE funds to clear land to expand the garden.
Mr Clement, however, had started to contract out the use of the chainsaw and its operator to people not directly connected with the gardening project. The chainsaw became a business in itself. Ongoing problems with chainsaw maintenance complicated the problem.
Originally envisioned as a technology for local development, the chainsaw presented a dilemma. Certainly, as a small business enterprise, the chainsaw was a success. The problem, though, was that the chainsaw-as-business was not in the project design and it was creating difficulties.
Exacerbating the tension was the fact that Mr Clement was not a local landowner. He had moved into Anokwasi as a minister of the Jehovas Witness Church, a controversial sect among established religions in the area. This was a source of community uneasiness.
New difficulties emerge
Tensions around a development project within a rural community are a serious enough danger in themselves. Add the misuse of funds, and those tensions are worsened.
And that is what happened in Anokwasi. Instead of being used to purchase tools, project funds were instead used to pay for the labour of members of the community farm project. Now used to being paid for their work, their interest in the project waned when the money ran out. This effectively destroyed the community spirit engendered by the project and threatened its sustainability.
In the end, Mr Clement and his family were left working on their own on a farm a full two hours walk from Anokwasi.
Prospects for the future of the community farm project faded, as did much of the farm’s produce and seed supply which was pillaged by people from bush communities.
Negotiating a solution
When the community farm group started to fracture, APACE asked Tony to go to Malaita and negotiate with the community. APACE management hoped that the project could be salvaged.
Tony went in a voluntary capacity as an APACE project officer and spent several months with the Anokwasi community. During this time, Tony negotiated a redesign of the project.
A new direction
Tony negotiated successfully with a group of interested farmers from nearby villages in the Anokwasi area – Texas, Kwaiana, Rara and Dada’ame villages. Farmers would work their own gardens but would share their experiences. Workshops were organised and Tony visited the gardens regularly.
The farmer’s group became known as the ‘Ilito’ona sup sup garden group’, which translates to something like ‘give it a try with sup sup gardens’ in the Toambaita language. Sup sup gardens are a Solomon Island term for vegetable gardens. The meaning is that of growing vegetables which can be mixed together in a meal such as a soup.
Most of the farmer’s group established their own sup sup gardens and successfully trialed new methods of farming. Although it almost faltered at times, the group maintained cohesion.
Eventually, the farmers joined the Kastom Garden training program at the Mana’abu Rural Training Centre.
In 1997, the “Ilito’ona’ group planted a communal block of upland rice (a variety of rice which is grown in dry soil rather than in a paddy system as is wet rice). This was grown successfully, harvested and shared.
The members continued to work their own gardens, making use of the mulching techniques introduced by Tony. Seed saving remained an important activity for all members.
Although the Lalano project had finished four years earlier, the group was still in existence in 1999. Leadership was now largely in the hands of two active farmers, John Kiri and Emily Gaote, both innovators in new agricultural methods.
Seed bank unsuccessful
A community seed bank was tried during the project but, as the project went on, farmers reverted to keeping their own seed.
As for the open pollinated crop varieties introduced and used successfully in the project’s early stage, a few are still being grown but the majority did not persist.
Those which remain in use have been shared widely throughout the Solomons via the Planting Materials Network. They include: pigeon pea, green wing bean, PNG gourd and Lombok Chinese cabbage.
And Mr Clement?
Eventually, Mr Clement and his family moved to Honiara where he set up a market garden at Aruligo.
Mr Clement continued to maintain contact with the KGP as a member of the Planting Material Network.
Learnings from Lalano
Working with communities
A Lalano project yielded a number of lessons about working with rural communities in the Solomon Islands.
In some cases these were verified by the experience of later projects:
- community farms rarely succeed for long; the agricultural tradition of the Solomon Islands is family based
- villages where more than one church divides a tribe are likely to face difficulties in a cooperative project; this is especially the case in the presence of the more evangelical churches which discourage cooperation with other church-based groups
- projects tied to a single community may experience inflexibility; a program should allow field workers to change focus and participants if needed
- land ownership needs to be raised in the project assessment stage, especially if the project involves any one major garden site.
Tools and technology are not ‘neutral’ elements in project design. Their introduction can have implications in communities once their potential is understood. The Lalano project showed that careful thought needs to be given to the introduction of tools and technologies not presently part of community life.
The impact of the tools and technology on relationships in the community, on the economy (both cash and non-cash) and of their ownership and control by groups within communities needs careful assessment:
- providing high cost tools such as chain saws can lead to disputes; the equipment may often be inappropriate for its intended purpose
- wherever possible, use local tools and materials.
Working with farmer groups
The Lalano project showed that working with farmer groups was a successful strategy for agricultural improvement if certain facts were kept in mind:
- groups work together better if they are formed out of a single, strong, existing local unit such as a single church congregation or a tribe
- groups need time to grow strong and to develop their plans and ideas at their own pace; this can conflict with the rigid timeframes of development projects with their focus on the quick achievement of objectives.