When I received an invitation from the government to speak at a symposium on sustainable agricultural development for Wallis and Futuna, I jumped at the opportunity. “When will I ever get to go to Wallis and Futuna again?” I reasoned.
Some of you may wonder where is Wallis and Futuna? Wallis and Futuna is comprised of three islands, Uvea (Wallis) and Futuna and Alofi (Futuna), which are part of the French Overseas Territories in the Pacific. Wallis and Futuna shares Exclusive Economic Zone boundaries with Fiji (to the south), Tuvalu (to the north), and Samoa and Tonga (to the east). Futuna is closer to Fiji though has closer linguistic connections to Samoa and has two kings. Wallis is nearer to Samoa but has language similarities closer to Tonga and has just one (elected) king, who was curiously recently dismissed.
An hour and twenty minutes after boarding the plane in Nadi, I disembarked at the airstrip in Wallis with the other workshop participants to be greeted by beautiful young Polynesian women who presented us with garlands of perfumed local flowers of all varieties. I later found out that this is the way of life on Wallis and Futuna. Every morning the ladies will choose selective flowers, leaves and seeds to send their men off to work in island colours and scents. And so it was that every morning at the workshop, our participants who hailed from New Caledonia, France, Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga were bestowed with these customary gifts.
I knew relatively little about Wallis and Futuna before arriving, except that I would need to drag out my rusty French from the dark recesses of my brain. I remembered to grab my French-English dictionary before I left, which proved to be somewhat useful, but not all that necessary since the Territorial Government organizing the workshop arranged for interpreters from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community to provide translation services. So, when I wanted to refresh my vocabulary, I would listen to talks in French, but when the French speakers got overly carried away in flourish and speed, as they are wont to do, I could simply press a button and with my UN-style headphones be fully briefed on the presentations in English.
Wallis and Futuna is a study of contrasts. There is no public transportation here on Uvea, which is 15 km long and 8 km wide, so people need their own vehicles and 4 x 4 Fords, Totoyas and Mazdas seem to be ever present. But with 47% of the people completely reliant on family farms and fishing, and with no domestic or export market for produce, I am baffled by how anyone can afford to purchase the cars. One source may be from remittances send back by young Wallatians and Futunians seeking study and employment overseas.
Indeed, that was a running theme of the workshop in terms of whether the recent surge in youth emigration is a problem or an opportunity. The customary leaders continued to express concern that their youth were losing their traditional knowledge of planting, getting fat from eating too much butter and jam, and are only interested in Facebook and the wonders of the internet. By contrast, some academics presented an alternative view that migration and education presented opportunities to bring innovation and skills back to the islands, as long as the youth are instilled with their local values from an early age so that they will want to return and build a sustainable future in their island homes.
Local values and traditional knowledge was another cross-cutting theme of the workshop. I think many of us were confused and somewhat appalled when the leader of the Territorial Assembly opened the workshop saying that “culture is a hindrance” to growth. By contrast, almost all of the subsequent presentations emphasized the need to build on the foundations of culture and traditional knowledge in order to ensure future sustainability and community resilience. For example, Pacific Islanders had past practices of planting and preserving “famine foods”, like fermented breadfruit, to ensure food security in times of local natural disasters.
The Territorial Government has aspirations to develop an Agriculture Development Plan that addresses both growth of economic opportunities and sustainability through 2030. But before putting their goals and objectives on paper, they wanted to learn from the experiences from their Pacific Island neighbors. They thus invited a diverse range of researchers and practitioners from the agriculture, fisheries, environment, culture and health sectors to think about island management in a truly integrated way. My contribution to the workshop came in the final presentation where I delivered a summary from a recent guide that we developed on Pacific Integrated Island Management, which highlights principles for good practice in managing across sectors and ecosystems in tropical island settings, and showcases examples from across the Pacific.
I have to congratulate the people of Wallis and Futuna for embracing the idea of holistic management. With such strong intact culture and rich natural resources, based on the foundations of an enormous wealth of agrobiodiversity, there is hope that the communities here can thrive into the future. What that means for Wallis and Futuna may be different from more developed countries. They will likely never rank highly on scales for Human Development Index or Gross Domestic Product, indicators that are traditionally used to describe growth and productivity. However, do these indicators actual relate to happy, healthy lifestyles? I think that if we measured across scales related to human well-being and cultural richness, we might find that Wallis and Futuna are leading the way.