Climate change alters diets in small, remote parts of the Solomon Islands

Coconut trees pictured along the beach in Rennell
Island Sun Newspaper
Rennell Islands
Climate change alters diets in small, remote parts of the Solomon Islands

For more than 25 generations, the people on Rennell Island, located 209 kilometres South of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, depended on their land, forests and the surrounding sea for food and on the rain, springs, groundwater and coconut trees for drinking. But the environment of the island has changed over the years, forcing most families to turn to imported food to meet their daily needs.

“The temperature level has increased significantly, and it has affected our gardens and sources of drinking water,” said Christina Nasiu, a mother from West Rennell who has spent most of her life on the island.

Dry seasons now last longer, scorching their newly planted crops and garden soil. They believe these changes to the climate have led to poor harvests and worry about what it means for their futures and the availability of local food.

“Changes to our environment are worrying not only for me but for our communities because most of us rely on our environment for survival,” said Nasiu.

John Tingi’ia, a father from Lavagu Village in West Rennell, said he'd witnessed an increase in dry seasons and noted that some of them lasted longer compared to previous years.

A drought that struck the island in 1993 due to an El Nino event is remembered by residents as one of the worst ever, he said.

"This drought killed the trees and birds. There was also a new bird discovered here after this drought. Its features are similar to a hawk but it is smaller in size. It killed other creatures, like flying foxes,” said Tingi’ia. 

John Tingi'ia
John Tingi'ia / Credit: Mike Puia

Scientists from the United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have found that droughts and heavy rains are made worse by climate change and that increasing temperatures are depriving soil and plants of much-needed water.

The Solomon Islands' State of Environment Report (SISER) published in 2019 noted that climate change presents the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the people of the Solomon Islands.

According to this report, the Solomon Islands are experiencing the effects of climate change through increasing temperatures, decreasing precipitation, changing weather patterns, more extreme weather events and accelerated coastal erosion due to rising sea levels.

The report stated these changes in climate have disrupted food availability by reducing production, which has impacted industries such as agriculture and fisheries and influenced how local people eat.

Already many land-based ecosystems and some of the services they provide have changed as the planet gets warmer, increasing the potential for species loss and extinction as well as the spread of invasive species, which are not native to the local ecosystem and can cause harm in these new environments.

The increase in global warming has also exposed more people to poverty, with food and health systems no longer able to meet the needs of growing populations, making them at risk of food shortages.

Dr. Melchior Mataki, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology, says the effects of the changing climate on food security are evident by the increasing requests the Ministry’s National Disaster Management Office receives for food relief following extreme weather events like droughts or heavy rain.

“Climate change is an additional stress over existing non-climate change factors, such as changing food preferences for processed food, people not [being] involved in agricultural food production, destruction of land suitable for agriculture by mining and logging [companies] and an increasing population,” said Dr. Mataki.

Small islands bear the brunt

The Solomon Islands is ranked 4th among the top 15 countries in the 2019 world risk index published annually by the German relief organization Bundnis Entwicklung Hilft. This index analyzes disaster risks worldwide and indicates which countries most need to strengthen measures for coping with and adapting to extreme natural events.

The Solomon Islands’ vulnerability is exacerbated by its low socio-economic status placing it in on the UN list of Least Developed Countries.

Records from the Solomon Islands Meteorological Service (SIMS) show that the temperature of the Solomon Islands is increasing in the range of 0.4 to 1.0 degree Celsius by 2030.

The SIMS also noted that rainfall has declined in some parts of the country while increasing in intensity in other areas, causing severe flood damage to properties and the loss of lives. The report acknowledged that droughts are usually associated with the El Niño phenomenon.

Compared to other parts of the country and the region, Rennell and neighboring Bellona Island are located within an active cyclone zone, exposing these small and remote islands to the greatest number of natural calamities.

Slash and burn farming methods and logging and mining operations are adding further stress to the fragile environment of Rennell.

Nasiu said because dry weather now occurs more often and for longer periods throughout the year, households have altered how they prepare their gardens.

Families on Rennell traditionally prepare their gardens according to seasons, with planting occurring at the end of the year, said Nasiu. By mid-year, gardens are typically ready for harvest, and a second round of planting begins.

Some families in Rennell have attempted to ignore their gardening patterns in response to the changing weather by preparing their gardens outside the regular gardening months, she noted. But these gardens yield almost nothing during harvest.

In most cases, she says families then return to their normal gardening patterns, even during dry weather. Yet the heat has already burned many of the newly planted crops and the ones that survived the heat are attacked by pests.

In some parts of Rennell, families believe their soil is no longer fertile.

Jorge Tauika, from East Rennell, said the size of taro and potato now are “very small” compared to past harvests.

“Some families have also given up on planting other crops, like yams, because it involves a lot of work but does not provide a good harvest,” said Tauika.

The shift toward imports

Coconut trees are integral to the livelihoods of the people on Rennell, especially in the east. The people there depend on these trees for food and drink, while coconut leaves are used for shelter, weaved into baskets and for fishing.

In fact, the Rennell Island Tall, which has large and pointed fruits, is a renowned coconut variety that was discovered in East Rennell in 1964. This important tree is now being attacked by rhinoceros beetles and giant black rats – both pests new to the island.

Dr. Roland Bourdeix, who conducted research on the Rennell Island Tall, noted in his report that coconut trees in Rennell are in a dire state not only because of rhinoceros beetles, giant black rats and putative diseases but also due to mineral deficiencies. (His research does not establish a clear connection between mineral deficiencies and the changing environment.)

The hard work involved in gardening, the decline in crop yields, growth of pest attacks and issues with soil fertility have forced many families on the island to shift their reliance on staple foods grown locally to imports.

Boxes of imported food
Imported food brought by ship to Rennell / Credit: Mike Puia

That worries Tauika, who says imported food forces people to depend on cash, which is difficult for them to access on an island that has traditionally operated as a subsistence economy, with most families household consumption reliant on backyard farming.

“Most families in the island are now becoming more concerned about their livelihoods over their environment,” said Tauika.

He fears that once people start relying on imported food, with their gardens not providing good harvests and their sources of drinking water affected, people will offer their forests and land to logging and mining companies in order to access money for their livelihoods.

This has already happened in West Rennell, where opposition to logging and mining operations broke down over time.

Tauika said increased reliance on cash on Rennell is a clear indication that diets are mainly imported foodstuffs. The SISER report published last year noted an increase in the trend of families moving away from traditional diets to cereals such as rice and cheaper imported foods like noodles.

More than 80 percent of Tauika’s family’s own diet is made up of imported foods, he conceded, and he worries this diet exposes his family to illness.

Local experts have not yet drawn a clear connection between the changing environment and the impact potential dietary changes may have on people’s health. But the Solomon Islands National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA, 2008) explains some of the impacts climate change has on overall human health.

“In the Solomon Islands, specific diseases have been linked to climate and or weather patterns, including malaria, mental illness, malnutrition, diarrhea, acute respiratory infections, micronutrient deficiency, parasitic diseases due to poor sanitation, tuberculosis, leprosy and non-communicable diseases,” the NAPA report stated.

It went on to note that “… such changes to health and disease place additional burden on women and children” and that consideration of vulnerable communities and regions highlighted that existing health vulnerabilities are likely to be exacerbated by climate change.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN).

Banner image: Coconut trees grow along the shores of Rennell / Credit: Tony Morris via Flickr

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