Bellona is a typical tropical paradise island. A limestone atoll draped in lush green, sitting on the blue ocean and usually described as a land “where milk and honey flow”.
But, this serenity hides a calamity brought about by climate change—a fertile phosphate-rich land where food no longer grows well, a disappearing culture of traditional gardening, a stunned people struggling to come to terms with their changing environment.
Daley Tesuatai, a 50-year-old primary school teacher tilts his head skywards, his glazed eyes lost in the distance as he recalls his younger days.
“Gardens on Bellona just don’t produce food as it did before. I remember in the late '70s, the '80s, I would follow my parents to the garden and just be fascinated by the huge tubers that would break through the mound surface. We would dig and remove the soil around them carefully, slowly unearthing the huge sweet potato tuber. I would carry a huge one-and-half foot potato tuber and place them where we piled them. The same for yams. I remember yams more than three feet long.”
Suddenly he looks sad. “Alas, those memories are painful to recall when what we are facing now on Bellona is completely different,” he laments.
Over the years, root crop harvests have given yields which are getting smaller in size and number.
No matter how hard one works, the harvest will still be bad. Tesuatai and others old enough to remember the "good days" (of past decades in relation to gardening and harvests) share the same story—everything now is different.
“Bellona filled up the ship MV Kangava in the late '70s until it nearly sank with local food. When it arrived in the capital, Honiara, members of public gathered by the wharf and were amazed at the amount of food brought over from Bellona, says Wilson Taungabea, 77.
“Sadly, that feat is impossible nowadays,” he laments.
Bellona is 170km south of Solomon Islands’ capital—Honiara.
Together with Rennell island, the largest raised coral atoll in the world, they form the country’s smallest province—Renbel. The Renbel people are Polynesians. Solomon Islands is predominantly Melanesian.
The fertility of phosphate-rich Bellona is famously underscored by Danish geographer, Sofus Christiansen in his book ‘Subsistence on Bellona Island (Mungiki)’ (1975): “The highly fertile core land is the light of the eye of every Bellonese, and proudly demonstrated to any visitor.”
Edible plants and crops grew and yielded in abundance. Crop tubers were gigantic by today’s standards. Food was aplenty; it was said, when one harvests, the whole island eats.
Nowadays, the people on Bellona are questioning where this fertility has gone.
Shocking changes, disappearances and migration
Strange never-before occurrences are unfolding in Bellona, which their ancestors never dreamed could ever happen there.
Local foods such as dry coconut, pana, yam, cassava, fish and even water are being brought over from Honiara to feed people on the island.
Bellona’s bats have also disappeared. Locals believe it could be connected to the phenomena that fruit trees on Bellona are no longer bearing fruit.
Days are getting hotter. According to Kristian Dalsgaard’s publication, “Soil profiles of Bellona’ (1967), the island’s average day temperature in the 1960s was 25°C. Nowadays, locals say 40°C is a normal day temperature.
June Paieke, 50, says, “Since garden harvests are always bad, relatives in Honiara send over bags of crops to help supplement rice. This is just shockingly new, unbelievable that I would live to see this in my lifetime."
“Foods which we thought were abundant here, are now being sent over from Honiara. Coconut, even though Bellona is completely covered with coconut trees. Fish, even though Bellona is surrounded by a huge clean, unpolluted ocean,” says Paieke.
Recent invasive species, including the coconut rhinoceros beetle, are also making matters worse.
Food security woes have been counted as one of the push-factors for Bellona’s population-drain towards Honiara.
Twenty-two-year-old John, who requests only to be called by his first name, is a high school drop-out and left Bellona three years ago to live with relatives and friends in Honiara.
“It is very difficult to live on Bellona when gardens offer very little to no food. So much hard work using up all my energy that I feel like an old man even though I am young. I came to Honiara because here it is easier in terms of food, and I can also find work to survive,” he adds.
He is yet to find employment.
The weather puzzle
One fundamental aspect of a successful subsistence way of life is the traditional knowledge of weather patterns, handed down hundreds of years.
But, locals are now accepting that traditional knowledge is helpless against climate change.
Prince Sokaika, 61, is well-versed with traditional knowledge on the island’s weather patterns, seasons for planting and harvesting, for sea-faring, fishing and diving.
“Weather nowadays is just all over the place and very confusing, without any set pattern. A difficult puzzle of sorts. For nearly two decades, I have observed sporadic disruptions to known weather patterns. At first, they randomly occurred between long intervals of months to years. Now, the disruptions have increased in frequency to the extent that the traditional weather pattern of Bellona is lost," he explains.
“Since last year, Bellona has had this weird weather of rain and sun every day. This has disallowed planting, which begins in May. May used to mark the beginning of the dry season, the planting season. We don’t plant in the wet season. When you plant during rain, the potato vines rot. Above soil, the potato leaves are green, but underneath, there are no tubers to harvest,” he adds.
For communities near the coast in Bellona’s lower western end, who utilize the sea more often, it is a question of striking at the right time with the spear-gun, or deciding when to drag out the canoe with the fishing lines.
Sea level rise is not a direct threat due to the island’s topography of high coastal cliffs.
Nevertheless, disappearing sands, higher swells near the shore, waves breaking closer than before, have all been noted.
Tourism operator Greg Baiabe, 54, blames climate change for what they are experiencing.
“With the abnormal weather, everything we know regarding traditional planting and fishing methods along with their seasons are no longer applicable. The sand has disappeared. Vast shorelines which used to be covered with sand have now turned into rocky ones," he says.
“With deep sea fishing, old techniques and knowledge regarding seasons are no longer applicable. Dry seasons are now no longer dry. Rain all the time. Unexplainable weather variations were begun to be noticed around 2010. Weather patterns changed with sudden unexpected rainy seasons, and sudden unexpected sunny seasons. We don’t know how to explain these changes, except to just make a blanket-blame on climate change,” Baiabe muses.
Many abandoning gardening practices
With the hardships faced with bad harvests, more and more people are leaving the practice of gardening and turning to modern, processed foods from the shop.
Rice is replacing potato and yam as Bellona’s staple food. This expensive switch is having a toll on Bellonese—most notably their health and financial capacities.
Several factors are arguably behind this switch, the two common ones being—continuous bad harvests despite more effort thrown towards gardening; or sheer laziness.
Monty, 54, refuses to garden this year.
“I am taking a sabbatical this year from gardening. Maybe next year I’ll plant again. For now, I am resting and depending on relatives and family for food.
“My whole life on Bellona, I’ve been gardening. Before it was good, with good harvests. Now it is frustrating and discouraging. You give all your energy, time and effort, and harvest only a handful of potatoes (or yams, bananas, etc) in the end. Tangani mamate ai (I might be killing myself over nothing for a lost cause)!”
Meanwhile, Milton Pongi, 66, believes the younger generation have lost interest and knowledge in gardening.
“Young people nowadays are not strong enough, or even interested in gardening. Land is plentiful. Land sharing is still part of our culture, so those who do not own land can ask their close kin for land to garden. Before, gardens could be found from the backyard all the way up to the rocks (rocky terraces before coastal cliffs). Nowadays, people just don’t garden. Some who do, only make little ones beside their house,” says Pongi.
An expensive switch
It is estimated only around 300 people live on Bellona, mostly children. The vast majority of Bellonese live in Honiara or overseas.
Most Bellonese live below the average income line. Thus, this switch to rice is proving very costly for them.
Paieke says it is already a struggle to feed her family, pay for children’s education. Problems brought about by climate change make it worse.
“When our gardens produce very little food, we depend on family members in Honiara to send us food such as rice, etc. We also pay with whatever little we have from the retail canteens here, which sell at exorbitant prices to cover their expenses.”
The main transport connecting Bellona and Honiara is the Solomon Airlines’ weekly flights. At a freight rate of SBD$20 per kg, it is burdensome on the wallet of someone sending food to Bellona from Honiara.
Rice and non-communicable diseases
Rice is the staple diet on Bellona for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In the ', potato, due to its ease of planting, became the staple diet. Now, potato supplements rice. Sometimes there is banana, yam, pana and taro.
School teacher, McQueen Tekatoha, 52, explains that in the 1980s and '90s rice was treated as a special food and only consumed occasionally.
“Before, rice was only eaten by chiefs and special guests. Families fortunate to own a bag of rice kept it safe for special occasions only. Nowadays, rice is eaten by everyone every day, morning, lunch and evening.The dominance of rice in the daily menu began after the year 2000. Slowly at first, eaten once or twice a week. Then, a decade ago, it became almost a daily diet. Now, every meal of the day is rice,” she says.
Newly retired nurse Josephine Angiki, 58, says during her 32 years of service to Bellona, she had noticed the impact of rice (loosely used here to represent modern processed foods from the shop) on people’s health.
The rise of rice consumption correlates with the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) on Bellona.
“The switch to rice as main diet has also led to the huge prevalence of Non-Communicable Diseases on Bellona. Before, Bellona would register five or less NCD patients per year. Nowadays, each family has at least one NCD patient on Bellona. More and more young people are now being presented with pre-diabetic conditions,” she adds.
Food shortage and poor shipping service
Each year, Bellona has a season marked by low food supply. Christiansen (1975) describes the food shortage period—kangakanga—after gardens have been harvested completely, awaiting new gardens to mature.
Over the years kangakanga has slowly increased in frequency. Locals say kangakanga occurs only once a year, rarely twice, and would last a month or two, depending on when gardens would be ready for harvest.
But, in the last 10 years, kangakanga has taken a remarkable twist to depending on ships.
Single mother Tiare Tamaika, 50, says over the years, each kangakanga has been worse than the last. “This year’s is worse than last year’s.
“Since the garden harvests are always bad nowadays, and a lot of people not gardening anymore, Bellona depends heavily on ships bringing processed and even local food from Honiara. Very expensive way of life. Making matters worse, shipping service to Renbel province is very poor. This year only three ships have visited Bellona. This exacerbates the situation in Bellona, with its already bad food security status,” she says.
Solutions going forward for Bellona
All is not lost for Bellona. Few communities and enterprising individuals are piloting ways to adapt to climate change impacts.
Since it is always raining on Bellona, hindering potato growth, some people are switching to banana which grows better in wet weather to complement the staple food, rice.
Pongi Tebai, 43, is promoting the idea of moving away from potato and focus more on the few banana species on Bellona which thrive in wet conditions.
“More than five years of predominantly rainy weather on Bellona is ruining potato for us, so we are focusing on the available banana species which grow well in wet conditions such as the Huti puga [Hopa banana] and several cabbage species which grow fast in wet conditions. We cannot change the new weather pattern, so we look at what we can change. Since potato does not grow well in wet conditions, we can no longer rely on potato as our main food crop. We see these banana species as the answer to our food security problem,” says Tebai.
At the political leadership level, Renbel’s member of parliament is silent on this matter, but its provincial government is working towards an ordinance to address climate change.
Premier of Renbel province, Japhet Tuhanuku, recognizes the seriousness of climate change and its detrimental impacts on Bellona.
“Renbel has no ordinance to address climate change and its impacts on Renbel. However, we are rushing against time to remedy this by pushing towards the formulation of a guiding policy with the ministry of environment (MECDM). From this policy an ordinance could be created by 2023.”
A recent UNDP-supported climate change study on Renbel’s capital Tingoa, on Rennell island, is a potential benchmark towards the province’s climate change and food security policy.
Renbel provincial secretary Aubrey Sau’eha says, “This document could be extended and amended to suit Bellona’s context and implemented there.”
The country’s ministry of environment and climate change (MECDM) is also rolling out a major project, Solomon Islands Integrated Vulnerability Assessment (SIIVA), which will be carried out on Bellona most likely in 2023.
Thaddeus Siota, Acting Director of MECDM’s Climate Change Division, says SIIVA will assess Bellona communities holistically, focusing on climate change and non-climate change factors, agriculture, health, education, ecosystem, income security, communication, water and sanitation, etc.
“This will help the government accurately address the specific problems each Bellonese community faces.”
Climate change poses a real threat to more than 300 people in Bellona. For now, farmers and villagers like Tesuatai will continue to face the challenges of producing nutritious and enough food while protecting the ecosystems and avoiding crop and food losses.
This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published on December 29, 2022 in The Island Sun and has been edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Potato vines nicknamed ‘telephone’ which often fail to develop into tubers these days / Credit: Irwin Angiki.