Kiribati is located in the central Pacific Ocean.
People living on an isolated island community in the Pacific Ocean are finding ways to reduce their dependence on expensive imported food while promoting climate resilient farming techniques, thanks to a programme supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
Islanders in Kiribati have long recognized that they need to adopt more sustainable and climate-appropriate fishing and farming practices, in order to feed themselves; a situation which has become more pressing as the food imports are disrupted by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Kiribati’s low-lying topography makes it particularly susceptible to warming and rising sea levels brought on by climate change.
UNDP has been working with the authorities there to ensure islanders get enough to eat, promoting traditional farming techniques, as well introducing household kitchen gardens.
Teboboua, aged 62, was born and raised in Abemama, Kiribati. With five children and an equal number of grandchildren, he emigrated from Abemama in 1995 in search of work, and returned in 2017.
“Upon my return with my family, I have learnt that climate change is a real issue that has threatened many lives throughout Kiribati. I have seen huge differences in Abemama compared to how it was in my youth.”
Healthy Ocean for Survival
People living on the Abemama atoll of Kiribati are surrounded by warming seas. For fishers like Teboboua, this means scarcer, smaller fish, and even more challenges in finding enough food to feed his family. For every I-Kiribati, ocean health is imperative for survival.
Kiribati is a low-lying island nation, with an average elevation of just two metres above sea level. With 33 islands covering a section of the Equator larger than the continental United States, its sprawling archipelago straddles all four hemispheres, dispersed across 3.5 million km2 of ocean.
Residents of Abemama are dependent on thrice-weekly flights or a multi-hour boat ride for access to their atoll from the national capital. COVID-19-related travel disruptions have revealed how thin the strand that connects Abemama to the wider world is.
In many respects, this isolation can be salutary, if residents are able to rely on locally-caught fish and staple crops such as coconut, taro, and breadfruit. But this isolation also points out key vulnerabilities – like relying on imported food. For residents of Abemama, their remoteness increases the difficulties and costs inherent to importing food in small-island developing states.
With Kiribati among the world’s most fisheries-dependent countries for food and capital, functioning seas and healthy environments are vital for preserving islanders’ health.
For Teboboua on Abemama, “Everything has changed and been threatened by climate change. Since I came back, I realised how the temperature has increased and things have changed starting from the land to the ocean. Abemama is so rich in marine resources and the ocean is our store keeper, but now, the resources are being depleted and we are suffering the consequences of it.”
3 geographically scattered islands, 1 goal
With financing from the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) Least Developed Country Countries Fund (LDCF), the “Kiribati: Enhancing National Food Security in the Context of Climate Change” project has a range of activities promoting climate-resilient farming and decreasing dependence on imported food on three islands: Abemama, Maiana, and Nonouti.
Supported by UNDP, and implemented by the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Agricultural Development through the Environment and Conservation Division, the project’s goal is to build the adaptive capacity of vulnerable I-Kiribati communities to ensure food security in a changing climate.
Farming for the Future
With project support and targeted trainings, the traditional practice of planting local food crops is being revived in Abemama. In addition to project support for planting food crops, trees, and plants such as coconut, breadfruit, babai (giant swamp taro), pandanus, fig tree, banana, pawpaw, and cassava, trainings also included cooking classes.
“These trainings preserve the future and [help] this new generation to understand strategies and objectives on how to cater for their own survival either through livelihood, crops, and earning some income,” Teboboua Biribo.
There are 22 households on Abemama – from Baretoa, Tanimainuku, and Reina villages, as well as five schools on the island (Barebutanna Primary, Te Tongo Primary, Kauma High School, Alfred Sadd Memorial and Barebutanne JSS) where gardening has been initiated.
Farmer Teebwa Tiare-Tekinaiti says she is now practicing her craft and sharing lessons learnt with other village members who are just beginning to grow crops previously considered exotic, like cassava and taro.
Rui, another farmer from Baretoa says, “I now have a healthy diet… and I teach my children how to depend on food prepared from the garden rather than imported food. They are now less dependent on imported goods such as rice and canned food… The garden crops can sustain us during storms when it is not easy to catch fish.”
A Working Bee: A revival of tradition
Additionally, the revival of traditional communal work events, known as te karoronga, has been re-initiated through the advocacy of households in Reina village, where they’ve dug new pits for babai crops, after attending the project’s practical training on traditional plants. Household members take turns assisting one another to tackle difficult tasks like digging into the water table.
This spirit of collegiality and hard work helps meet the inevitable challenges, such as shortages of gardening tools, unavailability of seedlings, pest management, and difficulties in ensuring heretofore-unused exotic plants (e.g. cassava and taro) thrive on the notoriously-difficult coral soil.
Post-harvest fisheries and value-adding training were completed on Abemama Island in May of 2020. A team of five officials from the Fisheries Division conducted a second round of hands-on training with Abemama communities, aimed at improving skills in cooking and food preservation methods that help decrease food waste and enhance food security under conditions of climate change.
Approximately 250 participants, including approximately 150 women, took part in the trainings – starting from the village of Kabangaki and finishing in Tabiang – learning seafood recipes including bottled fish, smoked fish, fish balls, and sea grapes.
Each training also included awareness-raising on plastics and waste management on the island, ensuring that the marine and land environments remain healthy, clean, safe, and productive.
Global farming resilience, remote revolution
UNDP is supporting livelihoods and protecting lives in a changing climate – fostering resilience for food security in 46 countries. With 67 projects, representing $701 million under implementation, 4.8 million small-holder farmers are using climate resilient agricultural practices. Since 2008, UNDP has supported the protection of 853,900 ha of agricultural land.
For Kiribati, this means less dependence on imported food and greater resilience in the face of climate change. This work also contributes to the achievement of their SDGs in this final Decade of Action (particularly Good Health & Wellbeing, Sustainable Communities, Climate Action and Life Below Water), and supports Kiribati’s adaptation goals (set out under their National Adaptation Programme of Action and Intended Nationally Determined Contribution).