…This story is excerpted from Blue Seas and Bush Gardens – the story of an innovative NGO in the Solomon Islands by Russ Grayson.
Plant researchers in the Solomon Islands have discovered an unexpected diversity of banana varieties on the island of Makira.
A total of 81 different varieties have been collected and planted in a large garden which functions as a field gene bank at a rural training centre.
When the collection is further developed a ‘banana diversity fair’ may be held in 2003. The diversity fair could receive support from European Union Micro Projects, an aid funding body. During the fair, farmers will visit the training centre and take part in a ‘festival of bananas’ to share varieties, recipes, stories and knowledge about growing and using bananas. A taro diversity fair was held as part of the Taro-Gen project in 2002.
A positive partnership
The collection is being carried out by a partnership of the Solomon Islands Planting Material Network (PMN) and the Manivovo Rural Training Centre on the isolated weather coast of Makira.
“Manivovo is a vocational training centre for girls run by the Catholic Church. The PMN chose Makira Province to do the banana collection because bananas are very important to food security and many Makira people consider that they have more varieties of banana than other parts of Solomon Islands”, said PMN adviser Tony Jansen.
“The Makira collection is an important first step in helping farmers to continue to grow, manage and make use of their banana diversity.
“All too often, people forget the important cultural heritage that different varieties of food plants represent. If people of Makira lose their banana varieties then they are losing an important part of their culture they can never get back again.
“I hope this collection and the planned sharing of banana varieties through the Manivovo centre will help farmers continue to manage bananas in their own gardens”.
Establishing the collection
With help from the Manivovo team, PMN field worker Dorothy Tamasia has spent the last six to eight weeks collecting from coastal villages. She plans to extend her search.
“I have yet to make a collection from the highlands and will not do that yet because it would be a tiring job to carry all the banana suckers from the mountains to Kirakira and find transport to get them to Manivovo. I plan to collect from the highlands later and plant them somewhere in the highlands.
“The farmers have been very willing to share the banana suckers we collected. We will give those farmers a chance to get new banana varieties from the collection in Manivovo later on”, said Dorothy.
Participating in the work of collection is Manirovo Rural Training Centre’s Francis Wehi. He says that farmers have shown an interest in the varieties being established in the garden and that the training centre’s students are participating in the work.
“We have planted them out in careful rows with each one labelled with its accession number (a number given to each specimen to enable later identification), the person who gave the banana, its language name and where it came from. Most of the farmers have never seen so many bananas or thought about trying to put so many together in one place – they are very excited.
:The students will compare banana varieties and then take home different banana suckers with them to plant in their home villages.
“Interested farmers, including members of the Planting Material Network, will be able to come and get suckers from the collection.
“Bananas are a very important source of food for Makira people and we want to make sure we are not losing our different varieties”, said Francis.
Participation the key to success
A participatory approach and passing on of skills are key attributes of the approach taken by the PMN and its sister organisation, the Kastom Gaden Association.
“Our students are doing all the work. They will learn how to describe the bananas using scientific methods taught to us by the PMN”, explained Mr Wehi.
A wealth of bananas waiting to be documented
Speaking from the Burns Creek seed centre in the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara, Tony said that bananas are believed to have been domesticated in Melanesia thousands of years ago.
“We should expect, and we know, that there are a lot of varieties all over Solomon Islands. Domestication means that farmers in the past actively selected wild varieties and improved them through selection. We know from looking in markets and talking with farmers that there is a lot of diversity here but we do not really have much idea how many varieties farmers have and how they are looking after those varieties over time.
“Bananas are important to nutrition and food security. Varieties used for cooking can provide food for up to 20 years if they are well maintained. They are nutritious and people like eating them. They have a lot of traditional ways of cooking them.
“We should encourage people to plant more bananas as they are a more intensive way of using land than growing only sweet potato. This is important in areas where there is shortage of land for agriculture. Bananas are not damaged by wild or domestic pigs and grow well in wet weather when root crops fail”.
Science at the village level
“Next year we will use morphological descriptors developed by the International Network for the Improvement of Bananas and Plaintains to describe the physical features of the bananas and their fruit at Manivovo. This will be done by Manivovo students with help from the PMN and will demonstrate to students how practical scientific knowledge can be used to validate traditional knowledge and the understanding of banana varieties, their growing needs and uses”, said Tony.
“Hopefully, it will also teach them to respect the plant breeding and selection skills of their ancestors”, he added.
Farmers contributing to the banana collection receive free membership of the PMN and some seeds.