Promoting on-farm conservation of taro through diversity fairs in the Solomon Islands
…Report by Roselyn Kabu Maemouri, 2004
This paper is about the experiences of two diversity fairs that were held to promote on farm conservation of taro (Colocasia esculenta) in Solomon Islands.
The diversity fairs were held at the site of taro field genebanks in Malaita and Temotu provinces established under TaroGen, a regional project implemented by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) in collaboration with national partners and funded by AusAID.
Diversity fairs were organised by local farmers, with assistance from the Planting Materials Network (PMN) and agriculture department officers to coincide with the time that taros were ready to harvest from the farmer-run provincial field gene banks.
The overall aims of the diversity fairs were to distribute taro planting materials back to the farmers in the province where the diversity had been collected and to raise awareness among farmers about taro conservation. In addition, extensive reference is made in this paper to information collected during participatory rural appraisals (PRA) that were carried out with groups of farmers during the process of collecting taros from farmers for the field genebanks and during discussions, both formal and informal, held before, during and after the diversity fairs.
The Solomon Islands:
- is geographically in the heart of Melanesia, with Papua New Guinea to the west and Vanuatu to the south-east
- is the third largest archipelago in the Pacific, with a land area of 28,900 sq. km
- is made up of at least 922 islands, including 12 major mountainous islands
- the tallest mountains are over 2000 masl
- there are over 90 languages in Solomon Islands
- the population of 430,000 is ethnically 90% Melanesian, with some Polynesian islands and a number of Micronesian settlements
- approximately 85% of the population lives in rural villages on customary land under traditional tenure, practicing semi-subsistence agriculture based on various forms of shifting cultivation; current practices include a mixture of short and long fallow fields where different crops are grown to make use of different levels of soil fertility and cropping conditions.
Taro in the Solomon Islands
Taro has been an important crop for the people of Solomon Islands for thousands of years. It has very significant cultural meaning and value, having been used in the past – and still in the present – for bride price, as compensation, in pre-Christian religious ceremonies, in feasts and for sharing. It continues to be important for food security, for various cultural purposes, and for income (through barter and the formal cash economy), as it is generally the most highly valued root crop.
Taro cultivation is embedded in the culture and way of life of Solomon Islanders, who hold much traditional knowledge about the crop. Taro is also associated with ‘kastom’ power, sorcery and other traditional beliefs, including numerous taboos and rituals.
Taro diversity is very high in Solomon Islands in terms of numbers of landraces. However, there is evidence from molecular studies done by TaroGen partners and others that genetic diversity is actually rather limited.
Solomon Islands can be considered to be part of the Melanesian centre of origin of taro, and there is some anecdotal evidence collected by the authors that farmers are continuing to develop new taro landraces through traditional practices. These include recognition of occasional somatic mutations and of naturally-occurring hybrid seedlings.
The changes currently occurring in taro cultivation and taro diversity are complex and are closely related to the many different influences affecting Solomon Islands society in general.
In general, however, taro cultivation is in decline, due to:
- cultivation and production constraints (related to population growth
- changed settlement patterns and land degradation)
- pest and disease (especially taro beetle and various viruses)
- changing consumption patterns (particularly the move to processed white rice, noodles and white flour)
- economic and market forces.
As land use has intensified, largely due to population growth, it has become increasingly difficult for farmers to produce taro. As a result, taro has largely been replaced by sweet potato (Ipomea batatas), which is now the most important stable crop. A number of other new arrivals have also become very important in some places:
- cassava (Manihot esculenta)
- kangkong taro (Xanthosoma sp.)
- pana (Dioscorea esculenta).
Taro, however, remains a very important crop. In certain areas it is still a major staple, particularly in low population density areas and the highlands of islands that are settled in the interior.
Promoting on farm conservation
The Planting Material Network (PMN) is a national network of farmers with an interest in food security at the village level. It is supported by Kastom Gaden Association, an Indigenous non-government organisation registered as a charitable trust in Solomon Islands.
- promotes on-farm conservation of crop diversity
- facilitates the exchange of seeds and planting materials
- disseminates information through a newsletter
- provides training and facilitates exchanges between farmers.
PMN decided in 2001 to hold a number of taro ‘diversity fairs’ in an attempt to promote better management and conservation of taro diversity on farm. The diversity fairs were modeled on experiences of other countries, but were adapted to the local situation.
On farm conservation and off farm (or ex-situ) conservation are distinct but complementary approaches to maintaining and using the genetic diversity of cultivated crops.
On farm conservation programs use various different tools and interventions to encourage farmers to continue looking after and using crop diversity, and thus prevent it from disappearing from their fields and gardens. This allows for continued evolution of the crop within the environments and farming systems where it was developed and continues to be used.
Ex-situ conservation of taro in Solomon Islands has to date consisted of the establishment of national collections stored in field gene banks under the management of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Similar to the experiences of other countries in the region, field gene banks have proven to be very difficult to maintain in Solomon Islands due to the:
- high expenses involved
- difficulty of managing pest and disease
- decline in soil fertility
- poor management in general.
This is demonstrated by the total loss of collections made by the Ministry of Agriculture (MAL) in 1994 and in 1999/2000, and similar difficulties faced by PMN in maintaining collections in 2001.
Yet farmers continue to maintain a large amount of diversity on farm despite the increasing constraints mentioned above. Indeed, during PRAs (Participatory Rural Appraisal) conducted by PMN, evidence was collected that indicates some farmers – particularly older women in Choiseul province – are finding and generating new taro landraces through careful observation and collection of natural taro crosses that are occurring in their bush fallow gardens.
PMN decided that on farm conservation by farmers themselves may be the most sustainable conservation strategy for taro, with the highest likelihood of success and with results that would directly benefit farmers.
After the loss of a field collection PMN agreed to organise a recollection of taro for TaroGen with the proviso that a diversity fair would also be held and no attempt would be made to maintain the field gene banks beyond one season, given previous negative experiences.
These steps were followed in implementation of the project:
- training and planning
- collection in four provinces
- one season field genebank
- holding the diversity fair.
Each of these steps is described below, followed by recommendations and a discussion of the lessons learned.
Training and planning
In order to carry out the taro recollection, including the description of taros using morphological descriptors and basic passport data, training was provided by TaroGen team leader (Dr G.V.H. Jackson) to the four local collection team leaders:
- Tony Jansen and Roselyn Kabu Maemouri from Kastom Gaden Association/PMN
- Rex Filia from the National Agriculture Training Institute, Malaita
- Jean Galo from the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock’s Quarantine Division.
This group was then responsible to facilitate two to three day training and planning workshops in each of the four provinces with selected PMN members and farmers. About 15-30 farmers attended each workshop.
Selections made during the training included:
- the collection team
- villages or areas where the collection would take place
- the site for the field gene banks.
Groups of farmers then carried out the collection of taro in each province.
The collection teams were also trained in the use of three PRA tools:
- brainstorm list using focus group discussions
- historical matrix
- garden cycle diagrams.
This collected data about taro in the past and present
Three days proved to be a very limited time for the training workshops but nonetheless good results were achieved with many taro landraces and considerable information collected.
However, as the data were collected using a PRA approach there were some limitations:
- it was not always possible to make comparisons between provinces or to disaggregate data by gender
- the data pertains to only a limited number of sites.
More research will be needed to confirm if the findings are applicable in other provinces.
Four provinces of the Solomon Islands were selected for the collection of taro varieties:
Due to limited funds, all nine provinces could not be included. The selected provinces included two with large populations where taro was known as an important crop and two smaller provinces on either end of the country.
It was found that taro cultivars are usually named according to criteria such as:
- morphological characteristics
- place of origin
- name of person who discovered or introduced the taro.
Alternative naming methods
Sometimes, names are given that are associated with the situation or circumstances that led to the acquisition of the taro landrace. For example, a commonly cultivated cultivar in Temotu is named ‘selfis’ (selfish) because one of the farmers who grew it refused to share it with others. The variety originated from Makira, but its Makira name is unknown.
Farmers’ names for taro landraces commonly change as they are moved from place to place. Because of such situations, collecting duplicates was inevitable, both within collections and between provinces.
Another important issue identified during collection is that farmers acquire new landraces regularly. This appears to lead to the gradual displacement of older landraces over time. Farmers are curious to try new landraces, and if those landraces persist beyond first experimentation it is usually because they have good or superior taste characteristics under the local conditions. This observation has important implications for on-farm (in-situ) conservation and also for the prevention of the spread of virus and other diseases between islands.
In the end, a total of 824 taro accessions were collected in the four provinces.
Landraces collected by province in 1999 (first figure) and 2001 (second figure).
- Malaita 173/ 313 (collection areas: Kware’ae, Lau – bush and coastal; Tonbiata – bush and coastal)
- Guadalcanal 10/ 220 (Guadalcanal plains – bush and coastal)
- Choiseul 72/ 245 (six areas in north-west and south-west coastal)
- Temotu 291/ 46 (Santa Cruz island mainland)
- TOTAL: 594.
Hidden taros – rare landraces
The full extent of taro diversity in each province has not yet been collected.
Farmers in all provinces reported that they had ‘hidden taros’ that they would not share with just anyone. These hidden taros are rare landraces that have often been in the hands of one tribe for generations. One farmer in north Malaita, for example, had a landrace that he could trace back through oral history for 18 generations.
Establishing the field genebanks
Following the collection in the four provinces, field genebanks were established for each province.
The planting of taro in the field genebank was done using traditional methods from that area. This typically involved the clearing and burning of organic matter followed by planting of tops of taro corms using a digging stick and other local methods such as interplanting with Coleus in Choiseul Province.
Tabus are involved with taro cultivation in certain areas, especially in Malaita. These include:
- abstinence from sexual intercourse
- abstaining from consuming certain foods, such as turtle and mangrove fruits prior to working in taro gardens.
The sites for the field genebank had to have:
- fertile soil and no diseases (such as alomae) according to local farmers’ knowledge
- easy access for monitoring and the diversity fair
- a reliable group of farmers who agreed to take responsibility to maintain the genebank until harvest.
Agreements were made between PMN and the community or person who would be responsible for the field genebank. The agreement involved payments for care of the taro and labour involved in planting, weeding, and harvesting. Payment was necessary because the farmers would not own the harvested taro corms as they would be distributed during the diversity fair (as in Malaita) or sold (as in Temotu).
The Malaita and Temotu collections stand in marked contrast to those established in Guadalcanal and Choiseul, which were lost.
In Malaita, the community at Busurata/Kwalo in Central Kwa’arae was selected to maintain the genebank. They are well know to KGA and very active members of PMN.
In Temotu, Lazarus Kope was selected by the MAL officers in Temotu because this he is one of their best contact farmers.
In Temotu and Malaita the taro collection was well maintained by the selected local farmers.
In Guadalcanal the genebank was looked after by a rural training centre called St. Martin’s.
The genebank was not managed properly and the students were not involved as planned. As a result, the collection died during the dry season when hand watering and careful tending were required. There was not enough labour.
In Choisuel the genebank was to be looked after by the agriculture extension service.
Despite funds being available for labour and other expenses the collection was lost due to poor management and damage by wild pigs.
The PMN subsequently made its own recollection of taro for Choisuel in 2002. A total of 180 landraces were collected and a diversity fair planned for late in 2003.
The collection is looked after by Sam Moroto, a farmer from Poroporo village and one of the more active PMN members.
There is an important lesson here: farmers can be much better at maintaining and looking after field genebanks, as long as they are given training in labelling and laying out.
Making the core collection
TaroGen identified a core collection of 10-20 per cent of the accessions from the provincial field genebanks in Choiseul, Malaita and Temotu while all three were still alive. This is now in tissue culture at the Regional Germplasm Centre (RGC) at SPC (South Pacific Commission), Suva, Fiji.
The core collection was selected at random as the morphological descriptors recorded at the time of collecting taro in the field proved unreliable.
The diversity fair
Initially, there were plans to hold four diversity fairs but in the end only two were held due to the loss of the field genebank collections before they were ready for harvest in two of the four provinces.
From the outset, PMN decided to try to link the diversity fairs to a high-profile harvesting and distribution of the material from the provincial taro collections. It was hoped that this would attract farmer interest and provide a focus for the event.
The aims of the diversity fairs held in Temotu and Malaita included:
- bringing together farmers from around the provinces to learn about the diversity of taro in their provinces
- promoting the sharing of knowledge and experiences about taro growing among farmers
- distribution of the taro varieties in the genebank to the farmers.
Malaita is a long (about 180 km), narrow, mountainous (up to about 1000 metres asl) island with a narrow coastal plain in most areas. It has over 100,000 people, making it the most populous province in the country.
Many of these people live in the interior, particularly in north and central Malaita.
Temotu Province is located in the eastern part of Solomon Islands and is made up of many islands, including some inhabited by Polynesians.
Temotu is situated some 350 km east of the main Solomon Islands chain. Out of a total area of 865 sq km only 18,300 hectares is of agricultural potential.
In 1991, the total population was 16,850, with annual growth rate of 2.8%. Population density is 19 people per sq km in total but only about one person per hectare of land of agricultural potential land (ITTA).
Temotu is known for its good taro varieties and also for the absence of taro diseases like alomae, bobone and taro leaf blight.
During the collection of the taro and the initial training and planning workshop, a diversity fair committee was established in each province. The committees:
- consisted of about eight people including the farmer who would look after the genebank
- had to work with an allocated budget in developing their plans.
- met and discussed what activities would be carried out during the fair.
Responsibilities of the committees included:
- coordinating the setting up of stalls
- decoration of the venue with leaves, flowers and plants
- transport arrangements
- food preparation
- accommodation arrangements.
They aimed to see that all the farmers who came to the fair would be satisfied and happy to take part and that the event would be worthwhile to farmers. Committee members raised awareness and promoted the taro fair in their communities and through the media.
Diversity fairs a first
This was the first time that diversity fairs have been held in Solomon Islands so the committee members had to develop their own ideas and hope that they would be accepted and well received by farmers.
There is a tradition of trade shows and produce competitions so the fairs included this type of activity.
In Temotu Province:
- the local provincial office of MAL was responsible for organising the committee, which included most of the MAL staff and a few farmers
- promotion was done a couple of weeks before the fair in the villages around Santa Cruz Island and in the station, through notices and pin-ups sent out in villages.
- the committee was dominated by local farmers (men and women), but included the team leader from PMN and MAL.
- invitiations in Malaita were sent out to farmers by the organising committee a month before the fair; they were given to the farmers who had given suckers during the collection of taro and to members of the PMN.
The taro collections were planted at different times:
- in Malaita, they were ready to harvest in April 2001
- in Temotu the taro was not ready until July.
More than 200 farmers attended the fair at Kwalo/Busurata village. They were from villages in North Malaita (Bitaama, Takwa, Silolo, Mana’avu, Suava area) and Central Kwara’ae (Busurata, Kwalo, Gwonafu, Aisiko and surrounding villages in Kwalo).
We also had students attend from one of the rural training centres in Malaita (Airahu Training Centre) and from a youth training program of Kastom Gaden Association.
Farmers from North Malaita came one day before the fair because they travelled about 80km by truck.
In Malaita, there was much less involvement of government departments than on Temotu
About 150 people from Santa Cruz villages came to the fair in Temotu. Due to limited funds, other islands were not included (it is a one or two day boat ride between Santa Cruz and the Reef Islands and Polynesian outliers).
Various local representatives of government ministries were involved in the program in Temotu, including Agriculture and Livestock, Police, and Health and Medical Services.
The Premier of the province was made an encouraging speech.
Display illustrated varieties
In preparation for the day, stalls were built for all the taro varieties that are grown in the field genebank.
On Malaita, all the taros (over 300 accessions) were harvested and a bundle of each variety was tied together with leaves and placed on the stall.
On Temotu, each of the 46 varieties was planted in a polythene bag well before the show and five suckers with the corm were laid alongside each bag with the name of the variety.
This allowed farmers to see a living taro with leaves for easy identification.
The stalls at both fairs were designed so that people could walk around easily and see all the varieties.
Activities organised by the committees included:
- official opening
- speeches by invited guests
- cooking and taste competitions
- diversity prizes
- group discussion by the farmers
- entertainment (in Malaita, a local type of traditional music called ‘panpipes’ using musical instruments made of bamboo).
Farmers also brought their own varieties of taro and other root crops to the fair, which were displayed.
During the viewing of the stalls, farmers tried to guess the local names of the taro varieties according to their local knowledge. They were surprised to see so many different varieties on display. One farmer from the north of Malaita said that she found in the collection some taros that had disappeared from her coastal area, still grown by farmers from the highlands of central Malaita.
Cooking and tasting of the taros from the field genebank was one of the most popular activities. Taste is considered more important than other characteristic such as yield or size of the corm.
The Malaitan taste test
Organising the test:
- organisers divided the farmers into groups of three to four people
- each group took about five different varieties of taro and cooked them in the traditional way using bamboo
- the taros are peeled and sliced into halves or quarters depending on their size.
- the bamboo is spilt in sections with an opening on one end and it is filled with the pieces of taro and closed with a leaf
- a fire is prepared and the bamboos are put over the fire and slowly turned until they are cooked to prevent them from burning
The taste test:
- when all the groups were ready they brought the cooked taros together in one place and cut open all the bamboos
- about 175 different varieties were cooked and everybody took turns to taste many varieties.
- the taste was scored and all results recorded by one person in each group.
- many landraces were popular and there was no obvious favourite.
Malaita – regional differences discovered
There were significant differences between the taros of north and central Malaita, with farmers from both areas rushing to get taros from the other area.
Some of the taros have different names but are actually the same, while others are unique to each region. Farmers from north Malaita commented that they had never seen so many taros from central Kwara’ae, and vice versa.
Many farmers thought that north Malaita taros have the best taste, but the ones from central Malaita do not have as many diseases.
Malaitan taro sorcery and taro pests
In Malaita, a group discussion also took place after the cooking.
We divided active taro farmers into two groups of men and women to discuss some of the traditional knowledge related to taro. The discussion revealed that both men and women play an important role in growing taro.
In the culture in Malaita, men are responsible for taro growing but now it is women who do most of the work, including clearing of taro garden sites, especially in coastal villages where the bush fallows are short, and there are not many big trees.
The farmers discussed:
- taro poison (taro sorcery) and taboos associated with taro; sorcery is considered a big problem with taro cultivation; it requires expert knowledge to overcome these problems
- pest and disease, especially traditional ways of managing bobone and alomae.
- 10 varieties were selected for the cooking competition
- five varieties were cooked and five were baked
- participants were asked to taste all 10 varieties and write down the names of the variety they think that they usually eat; twenty men and women competed in the competition but only five participants got the names of the varieties right – they were given small cash prizes.
Both men and women are involved in growing taro. This contrasts with Choiseul, where women are the taro growers and the holders of taro knowledge.
Speakers offer encouragement and warnings
Speakers gave talks at the fairs, including:
- provincial and traditional leaders
- NGO representatives (local and international)
- key farmers.
- explained the importance of on farm conservation in which farmers have continuing access to their planting materials
- encouraged farmers to maintain taro varieties and not let them disappear due to new crops, introduced crops, and pest and disease.
Farmers said that a lot of taro diversity has been lost because of pest and disease, but the fairs seemed to make many farmers interested in starting taro variety collections.
Prizes were given out to three farmers who brought the most varieties to the fair:
- Johnson Ladota from Masilana village in the highland of north Malaita took the first price for bringing 13 varieties of taro; one variety ,called ‘binalofo’ in the local language, had been grown over 17 generations of his family
- the other two prize winners were two young women, Elsie Siale from Mana’abu village and Freda Siuta from Bita’ama village.
The three farmers were given T-shirts and cash amount of SI$30 each. The prizes encourage farmers to participate in such event and to maintain their taro varieties.
Only 10 farmers brought taro varieties to the show, fewer than expected, because some farmers did not get the message in time. Some had not yet harvested their taro and many are reluctant to share their ‘hidden’ varieties.
Over time, farmers might be more willing to share if they feel there is enough prestige associated with winning prizes at the fair. It is anticipated that more farmers will bring their own planting materials to future fairs now that they understand the purpose of the event and the possibility of winning prizes.
In Temotu the taros were sold to farmers in the late afternoon as tubers and suckers ready for planting. The tubers were sold for SI$0.50-4.00, depending on the size.
The ‘Selfish’ taro was the most popular because it has a good taste, grows really very well in the area and is without diseases.
The money the organising committee raised from the sale of taros was used for diversity fair expenses.
In Malaita, farmers were allowed to choose five varieties each to take home with them. This was recorded in a register. After everyone had been through the line, farmers were allowed to take any of the remaining material.
Conclusions and learning
The cost of the diversity fairs was rather high, at up to SI$14,000 each. This included transport for participants because the distances are large and travelling by boat expensive.
Despite the expense, both the PMN and the participating farmers felt it worthwhile for farmers to come together in this way. It was certainly a more cost-effective exercise than the ex-situ collections that end up being lost anyway.
Farmers went away with new diversity and an enhanced awareness of its importance. This bodes well for continued and sustainable conservation of taro on farm in these provinces.
National interest in the media
At the national level, the diversity fairs generated widespread media interest. This resulted in farmer groups and provincial authorities from two other provinces requesting the PMN to hold diversity fairs in their province.
Many farmers and the public in general were inspired by the stories of the diversity fairs and started to collect varieties on their own.
Diversity fairs strengthen in-situ conservation
Diversity fairs have the potential to strengthen on farm conservation.
On farm conservation is probably the only way that crop genetic resources will be maintained over the long term in a form accessible to farmers, given their limited resources.
As farming systems change, wider and more integrated interventions may be needed to provide other incentives for the maintenance of crops that farmers are slowly shifting away from.
The maintenance of crop genetic resource should be encouraged where it can help to meet other development needs. This can be done by strengthening traditional uses and values of the crop as well as providing new opportunities such as processing or new markets.
The diversity fair concept will need to evolve and adapt to the many different cultures and farming systems of Melanesia if it is to be a success. A participatory approach to planning and implementation, with farmers at the centre, is more likely to allow this to happen and create events that have real value for local farming communities.
- More diversity fairs should be held on a regular basis, not only with taro but also other root crops.
- Diversity fairs should take up to three days to allow more activities such as speakers and small workshops, run by farmers, about how they manage pests and diseases etc.
- There should be better recording of the distribution of taro from the fair to monitor how farmers maintain the varieties over time, and better recording of discussions by farmers, perhaps in local languages.
- Events could be organized in combination with another gathering, eg. provincially appointed days for sports, cooking, and competitionsp; these bring people together from the whole province and would save on costs as well as involving a wider sector of the population.
- Combining the diversity fair with a field genebank was a good way to generate interest in the fair; without the field genebanks it appears that very few farmers would have brought their own planting materials to share; more awareness prior to the event could overcome this problem.
- Farmers are much better at maintaining field collections and organising events than the Department of Agriculture, training centres or NGOs; a partnership approach between the NGO and farmers worked well; the support NGO proved more effective than MAL
- The diversity fair day encouraged farmers to look after their taro diversity and reintroduce traditional values and knowledge; it was an inspiring event for all involved that reminded them of the wealth of their ancestors.
Lebot V, Simeoni P, Jackson G(2001) Networking with food crops: new approach in the Pacific. In the Plant Genetic Resources in the Pacific, towards regional cooperation in conservation and management.
Jansen T (2002), Hidden taro, Hidden talents: a study on-farm conservation of Colocasia esculenta (taro) in Solomon Islands. Presented at SPC TaroGen meeting on on farm conservation.
Bonie JM (senior field officer), Improved Temotu Traditional Agriculture, Agricultural Extension service, Temotu Province, Solomon Islands. Intensive, low-cost, high output, tree-based multiple cropping in Temotu Province.