The Ha’apai islands are off the beaten track, both commercially and for all but the most adventurous tourists (who mostly come for the annual Humpbacked Whale migration from July to September). 62 small tropical islands, only 17 of them inhabited, are home to around 8,000 people (about 7% of Tonga’s total population) and time, very broadly, has passed them by. Unknown to most of us in the west, apart from a few keen naval historians who would, of course, point out that this is where Captain Blight and 18 of his colleagues were unceremoniously dumped into a longboat by the mutinous crew of the Bounty, Ha’apai suddenly and briefly leapt into the world’s headlines on January 11th this year, thanks to the unwelcome attentions of Severe Tropical Cyclone Ian. Ian packed a fearsome punch with winds of up to 280km/h cutting a narrow but devastatingly destructive swathe centred across the most populated island, Lifuka; more than half the houses were badly damaged or destroyed, one woman was killed and 2,600 people made homeless, whilst the power of the storm ripped foliage from the normally dense vegetation and felled trees and telegraph poles with violent ease.
We dropped anchor there exactly 4 months after the event and the damage to buildings and livelihoods is still very obvious, even after the initial challenges to restore power and water and to sweep up the debris have been met. A significant international disasters-recovery aid programme has been operating successfully but a surprising number of people are still living in tents, or shacks made of the remnants of their destroyed houses. The next stage of the relief programme – the building of new and hopefully stronger houses – is yet to come, in the next few months.
Shocked at the scale of the damage on the ground, we were, though, keen to find out if the local people have an active part to play in the restoration of their shattered island or whether (as we westerners, with a touch of disaster-appeal weariness, might be forgiven for thinking), the cash promised doesn't quite reach the really needy people and the locals get side-lined whilst international organisations-who-know-best set about their work programmes and then leave.
|Salesi Kaitu'u in the EU-funded nursery|
By chance we met Salesi Kaitu’u. Wearing one of the several hats at his disposal, he came aboard our yacht as the Government Quarantine Officer, responsible for ensuring we were bringing nothing with us that could harm the local flora and fauna through disease or infestation. Disarmingly, he brought his 3 year old daughter with him and, formalities completed, he told us a little of the challenges the islands face; it transpired that his main hat is actually that of Officer-in-Charge of the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Fisheries for Ha’apai , managing a team of 19 staff. To learn more,we spent two hours with him a couple of days later and he outlined his vision for food and farming here in the aftermath of the cyclone which, to all intents, had wiped the ground clean for a fresh start. He’s an engaging man and well educated, with a degree in Agriculture and time spent in Samoa and Fiji. Before his posting to Ha’apai last May, he spent six years as an agricultural research officer in Tongatapu Island, 80 miles south of here, which is the seat of government and the centre of pretty much everything else in Tonga.
Salesi is optimistic that the portion of foreign aid that’s been targeted at agriculture will be the lever he needs to make sustainable change from the almost-subsistence levels of farming that existed here prior to Cyclone Ian. He plans something that will feed the people better and, at last, give Ha’apai an opportunity to export valuable crops such as vanilla rather than accept the current one-way traffic of often poor quality and unhealthy imports. In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone his team set up a nursery, with EU financial support, to grow and distribute 40,000 vegetable seedlings so locals could start their own kitchen gardens and the next 40,000 now growing in the nursery will go to the islands’ schools to get the youngest generation actively involved. The first tranche of financial aid from New Zealand (about £100,000) has resulted in the arrival of an old but serviceable tractor, plough and fuel from Tongatapu to prepare land for bigger-scale cultivation; the first crop (200 acres of sweet potatoes) is in the ground now and a trial of Irish potatoes is about to follow, whilst the tractor is currently making a slightly precarious tour around the outer islands on the deck of a small boat.
Salesi’s vision for the future of Ha’apai agriculture is clear and he has the Governor (the King’s representative, a man not to be trifled with) on his side. Even before the disaster, the Governor announced a plan, last December, to move all agriculture in Ha’apai to an wholly organic system; after all, reasons Salesi, the outer islands have managed without chemicals and fertilisers forever and so the farmers and growers on the bigger islands just need to relearn the traditional methods of maintaining the rich fertility of these volcanic soils. His enthusiasm is infectious and, though he acknowledges the significant challenges he faces, you can’t help share his positivity. ‘In the long term’, he says, ‘despite all the damage and hardship we've had to live with, we’ll come to regard the cyclone as the best thing that could have happened to Ha’apai.’
We met Salesi the following day and gave him a selection of old yacht ropes to distribute to local farmers; with any fences, such as they were, flattened by the cyclone, the ropes will be very useful for tethering animals. Salesi and his wife Muni invited us for supper that evening and we were treated as honoured guests with a full Tongan feast with a spit-roast pig as the centrepiece; it was a great evening.
|A very substantial supper!|