In Vanuatu, Trading in Spam for Sweet Potato

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Sustainable Energy

In Vanuatu, Trading in Spam for Sweet Potato

Gathering yams for a wedding ceremony. The return to organic food will be aided in part by local traditions. Flikr/GrainConnoisseur Gidzinski

Vanuatu is a small nation, but a good deal of its people aren't.

Like many of the Pacific Islands, the area has been hit disproportionately hard by the global obesity pandemic. Diabetes has spread into the lives of nearly a quarter of the archipelago’s 250,000 citizens.

Torba, the northernmost of the 13 main islands, has begun pulling right at the roots of the epidemic. The provincial government recently banned all imported food at government functions. Yet the main step that the leaders took was the banning of junk food from tourist resorts. These vacation spots make up a major part of the local economy. 

Torba Tourism Council members hope that the rest of the nation will follow its lead. The change of food at the venues might seem like a small action in fighting obesity, but it's serving a double purpose. The leaders hope for the island to gain clout as a destination for eco-tourists, seeking the joys of a green country.  Sustainable and healthy food means a fair amount for the country's mostly western tourists—who mainly come for relaxation and peace of mind. Organic food eaten on the flour-fine sands of a beach tastes better without the tang of guilt.

A complicated problem

The obstacles—and rewards—that leaders stare down seem to be economic. Outlawing the import of junk food for Torba altogether could take at least two years, says the Rev. Luke Dini, the tourism council’s chairman. He's hoping that the switch to local foods won't just cut down on obesity. There's a chance for his home nation to turn the crisis into a path to a revitalized, more ethical economy. 

Complications are in wait. Most come from the World Trade Organization, which frowns on countries banning select imports. The Pacific nation had been trying to join the WTO, with the dream of boosting a stagnant economy. However, when the Samoan government attempted to ban the import of turkey tails, a fatty snack synonymous on the island for cheap indulgence, the trade organization came out in opposition.

There’s two explanations for the World Trade Organization’s stance—reasons Vanuatu’s leaders have no doubt given some consideration. The official version is that members cannot ban individual products.

The other implicit reason is the money larger countries make from selling these fatty foods, the demand for which is obvious. The 22 island nations that comprise the Pacific Island Countries and Territories received $30 million in cheap, low-quality meat cuts from wealthier nations. So if Vanuatu isn't going to import healthier food, it must return to homegrown solutions to take the weight off hearts and joints.

Torba’s leaders plan to flood the markets with produce grown right there on the island. Like in many countries, that sort of healthy food is really only affordable to the upper class. They have several geographic and cultural factors already working in their favor. Over 80 percent of the population has access to their own gardens and food supplies, which gives Torba a good chance to meet the tourism council's goal of becoming the country's first all-organic province by 2020.

A future in ecotourism

Pairing this return to local nature through non-locals makes a great deal of sense. Ecotourism, which focuses on the host country's natural resources, is the fastest growing section of tourism in the world. Vanuatu is a prime destination. Almost everyone in the nation is engaged in either agriculture, fisheries or forestry in some way. Demands for these home-grown products should work to carve out jobs for local citizens. A culture that asks for healthy food will grow in tandem with the resources to create it. 

The reasons for the health crisis in the first place are due to mostly to economic forces. When Vanuatu was rushed to westernize after World War II, its people had no acclimation period for the readily available junk food. As the indigenous island populations replaced their traditional subsistence living with a more modern way of life, obesity rates skyrocketed. The markets switched from traditional fresh fish, yams, and coconuts to Spam, soft drinks and beer, which resulted in an obesity rate of 67 percent.

Yet, the very factors making Vanuatu vulnerable to non-communicable heath crises could be the ones aiding a transition to a healthy future. Refrigerating insulin on a humid island is costly. At the same time, these warm, damp conditions grow oversized fruits and vegetables in the volcanic soil. Traveling overseas for diabetes treatment is financially impossible. But leaders hope that once healthy goods are cheaper and more in demand than shipments of junk food, importation costs will rise.

A green economy

The same geographic isolation that maroons many communities from accessing basic healthcare provides the island with vast varieties of flora and fauna for tourists and locals to enjoy and dine on. And the nation is beginning to reap the harvest.

On March 21, a UN Conference and Development team reviewed how Vanuatu could "realize gains from a green economy." There's a growing market for products with eco-friendly labels. The conference was an official way for the UN to "recognize the Government of Vanuatu's interest in, and enthusiasm for, a green economy." During a one-day workshop in Port Vila, the team asked a question that pleasantly amused locals: Why were the coconut and cocoa sectors experiencing such rapid growth in the world trade? It seems as though the capitalization of the market is already starting. Western consumers' growing passion for these greener goods sent demand skyrocketing.

Vanuatu's economy also looks to benefit from the trend of single geographic origin crops. But while demand is high, there's still more work to do.

Dini, the tourism council chairman, says this starts with guests. Accommodations for tourists include “no rice, no tin fish, no tin meat, no noodles.”

The tea brewed at lodges and bungalows “will use the ferns and the tea leaves and all these things to start with,” Dini said. “By doing that we start cutting out some of these imported items.”

Ten years ago, the Happy Planet Index ranked Vanuatu as the most ecologically efficient country in the world in achieving happiness. Dini's hoping to fight his country's problems through the renewal of this legacy.

“If you really want to live on a paradise of your own,” Dini says, “then you should make do with what you have and try and live with nature.”

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