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Op Ed by Maureen Penjueli, Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG)
As the impacts of the COVID19 pandemic continues to reverberate, for Pacific Island Countries like Fiji, access to productive lands has meant that agriculture has again gained prominence as a potential powerhouse for livelihoods, food security and to stimulate economic growth.
Last week, Reset Fiji focused on Agriculture. The panel provided a sobering analysis of the current state of agriculture in Fiji and removed any romanticised notions of what it would take for an agriculture reset. During its heyday, 20 - 30 years ago, Fiji research and development in agriculture was rated and considered world class. Decades later, after neglect from successive governments, agriculture has been brought to its knees. As pointed out by Wah Sing, ‘unlike other industries agriculture cannot just be switched on. It is a product of biological and genetic processes and it takes time to develop’. Agriculture is a long-term game changer that needs to be supported by a “super billion-dollar budget”.
The panellists brought home the significant challenges along with key messages as well as potential ideas and solutions for the immediate and medium term but more significantly on how to begin the long road to resetting agriculture in Fiji.
One of the most immediate and significant economic impacts of Covid-19 has been the unemployment figures, over 40,000 people have lost their jobs in Fiji. Increasing numbers of people are going back to villages to farming, fishing while back-yard gardening has sprouted in urban and peri-urban centres to shore up food security and widen livelihood options. Livai Tora, pointed out, this drift back to the land is bringing new a set of challenges and potential conflict.
Food security should not just be seen as being able to produce enough food for consumption but also supporting people to be able to buy and preserve enough food to survive. With so many novice farmers, back yard gardeners mostly run by women, showed that there is a need for resources on where people can go for basic help. Growing for personal consumption can help buffer the impacts of COVID19 but while the urban centres are critical markets for local produce and can provide livelihoods, they are susceptible to price volatility. Increased produce means lower prices for farmers. Kyle Stice brought home the point – prior to the pandemic, the price of cucumbers $45 (US$22.50) per bag was at an all-time high $140 (US$70) a bag, during the pandemic it dropped right down to $10 (US$5) and stabilised at $40 (US$20) at current market price. Key staples such as cassava whilst enjoying good prices now is likely in the next six months to drop.
A key solution promoted is the self-organising of farmers – ‘farmers helping farmers’ to share knowledge, ideas, skills and innovations. There are five established, “farmer to farmer” organisations in Fiji which can and do help build greater resilience and support structures covering backyard gardeners, to semi subsistence farmers, export producers, creating a stronger base for an expanded agricultural sector. Lavinia Kaumaitotoya highlighted this also provides effective avenues to promote greater involvement of women in agriculture particularly in horticulture which has many flow on effects for nutrition and gender equity.
Agriculture is at the heart of discussions for diversifying Fiji's economy but with a balance between growing foods for a domestic or foreign market. The decline in the tourism industry has hit domestic producers as hotels are a key consumer of locally grown products, all over the Pacific Islands. At the same time Fiji and many Pacific Island Countries have distinct advantages in agriculture due to the natural environments, climate and fertile soil, providing opportunities for not only large-scale produce but also niche markets.
Agricultural exporters also face many challenges. National airlines have been for too long set up to service the golden goose of tourist markets, the pandemic has brought home the fragility of our over dependency on tourism. The critical issue of freight access and its cost for fresh produce was raised by panellists, highlighting the importance of national airlines to respond to the current economic situation and service the needs of their agricultural export producers who can buffer our economy in the interim. Farmers in Fiji have been able to demonstrate that they can organise and increase the freight to market from just one freight flight per week, to one flight per day to three major destinations – Australia, NZ and USA. Whilst seemingly small these freight flights are critical for recovery.
Entry into markets was raised as a key challenge as many exports from Fiji and the Pacific face duty-free and quota-free market access but aren't able to meet other barriers like quarantine standards. As Fiji's Trade Minister Kumar said at a panel in March, New Zealand has opened up pathways for 59 agricultural products to enter whilst Australia, which is a larger market, has created pathways for merely 29 products. Free trade agreements, like the regional deal between Australia, New Zealand and some Pacific Island Countries known as PACER-Plus, don't offer solutions to these issues as not only do they not offer any new market access for Fiji or others but any promises of support to meet quarantine standards could be offered outside all the other issues of a trade agreement.
The continued decline of the Fiji sugar industry brings to the fore the challenges in diversifying an economy. Panellists spoke to the dying sugar industry but also how many small towns in the 'sugar-belt' are still reliant on it. Moving out of sugar is difficult but some farmers are innovating and trying to connect with other niches sectors such as agro-tourism or move into high-value crops which then face export issues freight etc.
There was a strong consensus on the need for greater investment and government involvement in agriculture. Livai Tora called for a “super budget” of FJD$1billion (US500 million) for agriculture in Fiji. We await the outcome of Fiji’s Agriculture census to guide research help innovation and inform policy. Further investment in extension services like people, seeds, pest management and market information would support new farmers and existing ones. Added to this is the need to ensure social access to productive resources as well as upholding the stewardship of the natural environment to ensure that it isn't over exploited.
Agriculture is an industry that needs long term planning backed by adequate funding and technical expertise. As Fiji attempts to diversify away from heavy reliance on dominant exports like sugar it is also having to adapt to the COVID19 challenges that declining tourism and employment are adding to the mix. The resilience of producers in Fiji and other Pacific Islands in the face of cyclones and other extreme weather events shows that such challenges can be met.
For Fiji and many PICs, agriculture is a key part of any attempts to grow a more prosperous and equitable economy. It requires deliberate planning, foresight, research, investment and the need to place people, communities and the environment at the centre of policy making.
RESET Fiji is a pioneering initiative of civil society, mainstream media, and academia, and it produced by Mai TV, Oxfam in the Pacific, the University of the South Pacific and the Pacific Network on Globalisation.
Maureen Penjueli, is the Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), a regional watchdog promoting Pacific peoples’ right to be self-determining.
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