PORT VILA — The small boat slices through the turquoise water that separates Efate from Pele — two of the 80-some islands that make up Vanuatu, a Melanesian archipelago in the southwest Pacific.
Kaltuk Kalomor, Vanuatu's Minister of Agriculture, is standing onboard, pointing out the receding coastline, a consequence of the rising sea level and erosion. “People didn’t believe it at first, but now they see that some people are going to have to move their homes,” he says.
The other two passengers on the boat are from Kiribati, and came along to learn from Vanuatu’s experience adapting to climate change. Located 2,000 kilometers away from Vanuatu, smack in the middle of the Pacific, Kiribati has an altitude of less than three meters above sea level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report predicts a 90-centimeter increase in the sea levels by 2100. The President of Kiribati is seriously envisioning a mass population exodus from his country.
Location of Vanuatu on the globe — Source: TUBS
But defeatism is not in the air. The small delegation from Kiribati is planning a visit to an experimental pig farm in one of the four villages on Pele. Even though the rise in sea levels is one of the most spectacular effects of global warming — including, in Vanuatu, the sinking of some islands — climate change also means extreme variances in climate between drought and flood, as well as an increase in the intensity of storms.
Agriculture, on the front line
These changes present the biggest challenge to agriculture, and two-thirds of the households in Vanuatu grow food and raise pigs. According to studies cited by Christopher Bartlett, the scientific advisor for the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) — the organization that is spearheading the project — pigs have a tendency to eat less and be less fertile during hot periods. Heat also makes them more susceptible to disease and increases losses due to hurricanes.
Caged pigs in Vanuatu — Photo: Philip Capper
“Our pigs don’t fatten up as much as they used to,” says the local project leader in Pele. At this pilot project, a new breed of pig was created by crossing imported white pigs — a very large breed — with the wild and domestic pigs native to the islands. Instead of letting the pigs wander around and feed exclusively on coconuts, they are kept protected in covered pens, surrounded by a garden fertilized by their manure.
The garden provides them with food: bananas, yucca, sweet potatoes and coconut, as well as tilapia raised in trays of stagnant water. The method, which is both self-sustaining and requires limited space, is going to be expanded to the neighboring village, whose small houses with undulating roofs and pandanus leaves, bordered by vegetable gardens, stretch from the beach to the forest.
Mangrove, tuna and banana trees
Initiatives like this are starting to appear all around Vanuatu, aimed at involving local communities. In some places, they plant mangrove and vetiver to protect against coastal erosion. In other, people are returning to traditional construction methods, which are more flexible and resist storms better. In other places yet, they have installed deep nets which allow the village inhabitants to fish tuna, which are not threatened by the accelerated decline of the coral reefs.
On Epi, in the north, students have created a map of the island, which allows residents to identify the safest places to relocate roads and coastal infrastructure that have been damaged by floods and erosion.
Another example: On the island of Efate, where the capital Port Vila is also located, an experimental farm tests different varieties of plants to find the ones that are best adapted to the new climate conditions. In a clearing cut in the thick forest in the island’s interior, several rows of taro and sweet potato grow. The sweet potatoes are native to the Pacific islands — Vanuatu has around 200 different varieties.
Man cooking bananas over a fire, near Montmartre, Efate — Photo: Graham Crumb
The plants grow without any fertilizer or irrigation in the black and grainy earth on this volcanic island. They will be selected for quality and resistance to drought. Nearby, between watermelon plants and sandalwood, Isso Nihmei, the project’s leader, is experimenting with a Samoan technique for cloning banana trees, conserving the smallest plants, which better resist storms.
“Leadership” in the Pacific
Vanuatu needs both the right vegetable varieties and the right techniques. “No need to look very far,” says Christopher Bartlett. “Vanuatu has hundreds of traditional techniques that will allow people to face weather challenges.” It’s just about identifying and spreading the information, the scientist says.
That’s the role of the National Advisory Board (called NAB), an office that opened in 2012 to coordinate all of the adaption projects on a national level. It’s a part of the Ministry of Climate Change Adaptation, which was created this summer.
Storm in Port Vila — Photo: Philip Capper
Florence Iautu, from the NAB, says he's proud to see his country take the lead in climate change adaptation in the Pacific. "We are at the vanguard in comparison to the rest of the world because in Vanuatu, global warming is not measured in potential economic losses, it is a direct danger to our population of 240,000 people.”
Vanuatu — which joined the list of the least-developed countries after its independence from France and Great Britain in 1980 — is in fact one of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to natural disasters. The archipelago, located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, has learned over the course of centuries to face not only the storms that batter it every year but also earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.