Hidden Taro, hidden talent
...by the Taro Genetic Resource Conservation and Utilisation project implemented in part by the Solomon Islands Planting Matrial Network.
Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is one of the most ancient cultivated crops. It is now believed that domestication may have occurred independently in the Indo-Malayan and the Pacific regions centred in Melanesia (Matthews 2000).
Taro is a vegetatively propagated crop with edible tubers and leaves that belongs to the family Araceae. In the family Araceae, Colocasia esculenta is cultivated in Solomon Islands along with several other edible species of the genera: Xanthosoma, Alocasia, Cyrtosperma and Amorphophallus. Taro has been an important crop in the Solomon Islands since antiquity.
Taro has an important role in the cultural identity of rural people and the traditional way of life, as well as making an important contribution to food security.
Taro, gnali nut (Canarium salomonense, Canarium indicum, Canarium herveyi var nova-hebridiense) and pigs are three products with the highest cultural value. These three foods are presented at feasts as a symbol of wealth, status and power.
High diversity in Solomons contradicts theories about distribution of taro
Taro genetic diversity is very high in Solomon Islands and in Melanesia in general.
Taro diversity in terms of number of landraces is highest in Papua New Guinea where many landraces are found. It then declines as one moves eastward into the Pacific.
Recent genetic analysis indicates that Pacific taro has a different origin from South East Asian taro which had previously been assumed to be the source of Pacific taro (personal communication G. Jackson).
The high diversity in Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea appears to indicate that this part of the South West Pacific is the centre of diversity. Recent evidence suggests that most cultivars of taro found in the Pacific were not bought by the first settlers from the Indo-Malayan region as previously believed but were domesticated from wild sources existing in the Melanesian region (Lebot et al 1992).
The Solomon Islands:
- is geographically in the heart of Melanesia, with Papua New Guinea to the west and Vanuatu to the south-east
- is the third largest archipelago in the Pacific with a land area of 28,900 sq. km
- made up of at least 922 islands with about 12 major mountainous islands with the largest mountains over 2000m
- has over 90 languages and distinct ethnic groups
- has approximately 85% of the population of 450,000 living in rural villages on customary land under traditional tenure
- is 90% Melanesian with some Polynesian Islands and Micronesian settlements.
The study of on farm conservation was requested by the Taro Genetic Resource Conservation and Utilisation project as part of plans to develop a complementary conservation strategy for taro in the Pacific region.
The initial focus of the project has been on ex-situ conservation including:
- seed storage
- maintenance of plants in field genebanks or botanical gardens storing cells
- tissues or pollen in vitro
- storing DNA.
Of these ex-situ approaches, field genebanks of taro have been attempted on numerous occasions in Solomon Islands but have proven very difficult to maintain. These include:
- collections made in the 1980’s which resulted in total losses (shown in a follow-up survey in 1994)
- collections made in 1999/2000 of 692 accessions of Colocasia esculenta from all nine provinces made as part of the Taro Gen Project were all lost by January 2002
- incomplete and depleted collections along with general deficiencies in maintaining taro genetic resources was a major factor in developing the Taro Gen project in 1998. (AusAID / SPC 2001).
In the opinion of the Planting Material Network, on-farm or in-situ conservation remains the most promising option for continued use of taro germ-plasm by farmers in their evolving farming systems. In-situ conservation:
- is dynamic, as opposed to the semi-static nature of ex-situ conservation
- allows continued evolution of species and crop populations in the environment where they are used within evolving farming systems.
Genetic erosion is occurring in farmers’ fields in Solomon Islands. This study aims:
- to shed light on what is happening with taro cultivation in farmers’ fields
- to indicate future areas of intervention or participatory farm-based research in order to strengthen farmers capacities to continue to maintain this genetic resource and heritage.
The study examined the complex of social, cultural, economic and environmental factors influencing the maintenance of taro crop genetic diversity on farm.
Unfortunately this study did not carry out research in non-Christian communities. It is possible that taro diversity remains highest in areas where traditional religious practices are maintained due to the important kastom values of taro. This is an area where additional research is needed on the spiritual and cultural values of taro and how these have been adopted and adapted in Christian communities.
Major factors effecting on farm conservation of taro
The study found four major factors were seriously influencing the production of taro and leading to a decline in genetic diversity through loss of landraces and loss of taro indigenous knowledge:
- cultivation and production constraints
- pests and diseases
- changing consumption patterns
- economic and market forces.
This paper discusses each of these in detail as well as a general background on the taro ‘culture’ identified by the study. In each section, implications for on-farm conservation are suggested. A summary of findings and some tentative conclusions is provided at the end of the report.
This paper is based on data collected using a Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) approach.
The study was carried out as part of the Taro Genetic Resource Conservation and Utilisation Project of AusAID and the South Pacific Commission, the farmer organisation, the Solomon Islands Planting Material Network (PMN), supported by a non-government organisation, Kastom Gaden Association (KGA), in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture and Primary Industries (MAPI) was sub-contracted to carry out the recollection of taro in the Solomon Islands along with a study into on-farm conservation.
limitations of the study
- the study had limited financial resources which prevented multiple visits to field sites and only allowed limited time for field work
- data collection was carried out over four weeks in conjunction with collection of taro for field genebanks in the four selected provinces: Malaita, Guadalcanal, Temotu and Choiseul
- maintenance of field gene banks proved problematic at times and considerable resources were needed to follow up and support the field collections for one season prior to the selection of a core collection for the Regional Gene Centre at SPC.
- taro from field genebanks is now being returned to farmers through community awareness raising events called ‘diversity fairs’.
Members of the Planting Material Network carried out the field work and were trained or briefed on the use of three Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) tools by the KGA manager and adviser. These PRA tools were used in small focus groups to promote discussion of taro in selected villages in each of the four provinces.
RRA tools used included:
- historical matrix- a matrix was drawn by a small group of farmers listing key historical changes in taro production, consumption, uses and importance, pest and disease at the time of World War II (1950’s), at the independence of Solomon Islands (1978) and at present (2001); a checklist then guided a discussion on change over time
- brainstorm and discussion - groups were asked to list all the taro cultivar names that they knew of; these were then ticked or crossed depending on whether they are still being grown in the area or are believed lost; a checklist then guided a discussion on taro diversity
- diagrams - groups were asked to make a garden cycle, ie. a step-by-step diagram of the production of taro. A checklist discussed gender, land and environmental constraints including pest and disease
The field work was carried out in four provinces: Choiseul, Malaita, Guadalcanal, and Temotu.
The provinces were selected by the Taro Gen Project technical director in consultation with the PMN adviser. Selections were based on the criteria of having provinces with:
- a high diversity of taro (Guadalcanal and Malaita)
- isolation, where diversity was expected to be high (Choiseul)
- leaf blight had not been introduced (Temotu being the only option).
These four provinces were considered to be a reasonable sample of the nine provinces of Solomon Islands that would be expected to cover most of the diversity found in the country.
Within each province field sites were chosen based on the areas of familiarity of the PMN members who took part in the study. An attempt was made to balance coastal and bush villages in Malaita and Guadalcanal through using different teams of PMN members in different areas.
- in Temotu, only agriculture officers and a small group of people in Lata, the provincial capital, provided data
- in Choiseul, participants came from a reasonable cross section of communities within a two hour motor canoe journey of Choiseul Bay, however the eastern side of the island was not covered.
Some bias can be expected. In particular, the lack of involvement of non-Christian communities on Malaita and a relatively poor geographic spread in each province.
The study assumed that three or so villages involved in PRA’s in each province would provide a reasonable snapshot of conditions of taro cultivation in that province. There is a very high cultural and environmental diversity found within provinces and so further work would be needed to confirm whether findings can be generalised across provinces or only apply to some parts of the province.
Collection team and sites
Collection of data was carried out in the four provinces by 10 facilitators in 28 villages involving 374 people (172 male, 202 female). An additional 62 young people (29 male, 33 female) were involved in a survey of root crop preferences .
Breakdown by province:
- Malaita (North Malaita and Central Kwara’ae): 7 villages involving 91 people (43 male, 48 female)
- Guadalcanal (East Guadalcanal plains and North East Guadalcanal around Longgu): 11 villages involving 220 people (estimate 110 male, 110 female no records)
- Temotu: Lata, provincial centre and one other village involving 13 people (12 male, 1 female)
- Choiseul (From Sasamuqa in the South to Tutu in the North): 3 villages and one workshop with participants from 6 villages involved 50 people (7 male, 43 female).
Recording and interpretation
A facilitator recorded comments in an exercise book. Additional comments of interest were also recorded by facilitators and these may have also come from conversations in kitchens, houses or gardens during the period of collecting taro or following it.
Limitations of the study
PRA’s were generally carried out by two lead facilitators experienced in community development with in-depth understanding of farming systems and culture in two but not all provinces of Solomon Islands.
The facilitators from the PMN membership, and assistant facilitators, were rapidly trained in the use of the PRA tools.
A number of constraints were noted:
- generally, no separate recorder was available for focus group discussions due to time and resource constraints; this led to loss of data during sessions.
- data recording (inote taking) was constrained by inexperience and poor functional literacy in general; this was remedied, where possible, by the use of follow-up interviews of facilitators carried out by the KGA and PMN adviser
- data from men and women was supposed to be kept separate to allow for disaggregated analysis of the data; during compilation it was found that a lot of data had already been compressed by the facilitators or gender was not recorded.
- lack of data from Temotu is evident in the study due to insufficient funds to make more than two visits because of the high cost of travel to the province; these visits were largely preoccupied by planning and support of the taro collection and selection of the core collection from the field gene bank
- the study was carried out during a period of post-conflict recovery following a coup and civil conflict in 2000; the situation in the country remains unstable with continuing law and order problems and insecurity in some rural and urban areas; this limited opportunities, particularly in Guadalcanal and to a lesser extent in Malaita.
Text information was grouped according to agreed codes (information labels or descriptors). Identifier labels were: Historical (H), Diversity (D), Varieties (V), Pest and Disease (P), Cultivation (C), Gender (G), Consumption (E).
Codes were analysed, grouped into themes and then edited into key points by the KGA manager and adviser working as a team.
The data from the PRA tools was also interpreted using other literature sources as a reference point. Quotes were selected to highlight key points and issues.
Issues raised by a number of people were generalised. Where appropriate, a tally was made of the number of times references were made to codes or key points and compiled into tables. These ‘density’ tallies did not necessarily refer to only one farmer raising the issue but often referred to the issue being raised by a group during discussions and the group agreeing in general on that comment or issue. Whenever possible, the tables were disaggregated by province to inspect any provincial differences.
\Additional areas were identified requiring further quantitative and qualitative research to confirm findings of this study or which require further examination.
The drafts were presented to various experts and leaders of the collection in each province for comment and suggestions.
History and Culture
The origin of taro in Solomon Islands may be linked to the arrival of the first human settlers or soon after in a process of domestication. The deep cultural significance and meaning probably indicates that taro must have been in use in Solomon Islands for thousands of years. Taro has a cultural significance similar to gnali nuts, which have been in cultivation for at least 9000 years in neighbouring PNG. (Yen, D. 1994).
Although taro is one of the original crops of Solomon Islands farmers, few people had any idea of the historical origins of taros. Typical comments made by farmers were:
- ‘Taro belongs to us.’ (Choiseul farmer group)
- ‘Taro has always been here.’ (Guadalcanal farmer group)
- ‘Taro comes from the people in the bush.’ (Malaita farmer).
In Choiseul some farmers thought that taro had come from the Sirovanga area in the north-west of Choiseul island. Many people in the Babatana area consider Sirovanga people to be the holders of ‘true’ Lauru (Choiseul) kastom (custom). This perception is probably related to genealogical knowledge of historical migrations.
In Choiseul there is also a kastom story related to the origin of taro from a possible wild relative: "A family used to eat the wild taro that grows along the side of the river. It can scratch and irritate when eaten. One day they went into the bush and they saw an unknown woman, possibly a spirit, planting a type of taro in a garden. They waited for her to leave and then they took some of the taro and planted it in a garden in the same way they had seen her doing it. They grew the taro and ate it and found that it tasted very good. This is considered to be the source of the original taros in Choiseul." (Female farmer, Choiseul).
There are similar stories in Babatana, Choiseul, with a similar theme about the discovery of wild fruits as being edible. People observe spirits or mythical figures eating the fruits, which they try and which then come into common use as a food.
A story of the origin of taro at a place called Birefuri is commonly known in north Malaita: "A mother and her children went into the bush to pick ‘amou’, (Ficus copiosa), a type of bush edible greens.
"She asked her children to wait while she walked further into the bush picking amou shoots. After their mother had left the children called out to her. When they called someone answered them ‘oooh’, ‘oooh’. When their mother came back the children asked if that was her that sang out. She said it was not her.
"The women decided to go back into the bush and asked the children to call for her again and she would listen for the voice. The children called out and again there was a call of ‘oooh’ in reply. The children continued to call and the reply came again and again.
The woman eventually found that the source of the call was a taro plant growing in the bush. She asked the taro plant if it was answering her children’s call. The taro replied ‘yes’. Then the taro said to the woman ‘ ..you take all my children (suckers). Then you and your children should go and clear the bush, burn the trees and then plant my children who will provide you with food.’
"The taro then went on to explain many important custom about how to plant and care for taro to the woman. This included the use of a special shell called ‘umari’ to cut the taro corm at harvest.
"Every child of taro is considered to have come from this one ancestor. Before this time people did not make gardens and only collected food wild in the bush.’ (Male farmer, Malaita).
Unfortunately, no taro origin stories were recorded from Temotu or Guadalcanal due to this issue not being included on the original PRA checklists in Guadalcanal and the limited data collection in Temotu, but there is undoubtedly a rich treasury of kastom stories attached to the origin of taro.
Cultural importance of Taro
Taro is one of the important symbols of traditional wealth along with pigs, yams (Dioscorea spp) and gnali nuts (Canarium spp). Taro is used to fulfil important social and cultural obligations including providing food for the family, for visitors and feasts. Scheffler (1965), in a study of the social structure of the Varisi people in north-west Choiseul, reported that taro production was the major subsistence concern in the past and most other activities were adapted to that concern.
A long history of use appears to have resulted in a high level of cultural significance that privileges taro above more recently introduced root crops such as sweet potato (Ipomea batatas), pana (Dioscorea esculenta) and cassava (Manihot esculenta).
An example is the common personification of taro expressed by taro growers:
- ‘Taro is a man too.’ (Malaitan farmer)
- ‘Taro belongs to us and is part of our people.’ (Choiseul farmer)
- ‘You must keep taro like a child. It must be in your heart. You must go and see it all the time like a child. You must love taro so it will love you and provide for you.’ (old woman - Choiseul).
The cultural and symbolic importance of taro is still evident today. For example, in the Marovo lagoon in Western Province, the consumption and exchange of taro is said to increase personal 'strength' and 'wealth' (Parks 1998:29).
- ‘Taro is considered the main crop of Malaita for festival, income, bride price, and other occasions.’ (mixed group Malaita)
- ‘We grow taro to buy shell money.’ (male farmer Malaita).
Traditionally, marriage involves the payment of a bride price, a form of bride wealth to compensate the female’s kin group for loss of her work and presence as well as her fertility (Keesing 1981:253).
In Malaita, taro would usually be included in the bride price and taro itself can be used to purchase tafuliae (traditional shell money):
- one tafuliae might be worth one hundred taro corms
- this could go up to two hundred taros depending on the particular situation and the availability of taro.
Apart from Taro, bride price includes tafuliae (traditional shell money) and other high value foods such as pigs, fish, kakake (Cryptosperma sp), edu (Alocasia sp), gnali nuts (Canarium sp) and yams (Dioscorea alata).
This practice is very important in Malaita and to a lesser extent Guadalcanal. In Longgu village, north-east Guadalcanal, the use of taro for bride price apparently died out in the 1970’s. Nowadays, rice and other store foods are now usually included in the exchanges of food.
- ‘During special occasions we eat taro with pig for feasts.’ (mixed group of farmers bush village, Malaita)
- ‘Before a feast must have taro, now it will be potato and rice.’ (Male farmer - Guadalcanal)
- ‘Value of taro for feasts is not there any more it could just as easily be rice or potato in a feast.’ (male farmer north Malaita).
Traditional feasting is a central, important component of Melanesian culture. For example, Scheffler (1965) reported that gnali nut together with taro formed the principle ingredient in a pudding (taoga) which was traditionally served at all feast associated with important transactions.
Feasts mark the passage of a period of time of mourning after death, marriage, land issues, and reconciliation. Feasts are also a means for ‘big- men’ to create and use surplus produce to extend influence and build alliances with other big-men clans and tribes.
Traditional feasts would almost always include taro but this may not always be the case today due to the lack of availability of taro and also to the increasing status of rice and other store foods.
Barter / exchange
- ‘We use taro to trade for fish from people on the coast.’ (bush farmer, Malaita)
- Barter is still practiced in some parts of Malaita but it is not as important as before.’ (Malaita farmer).
Barter or non-cash exchange involving taro remains important in Malaita where ‘saltwater' and ’bush' people exchange fish for garden produce - especially root crops like taro. Today this trade is more likely to involve cash but barter still occurs in some areas and is common where there is a prior arrangement between two people or families to make an exchange.
This study did not attempt to measure the level of barter trade but anecdotal evidence suggests that barter is increasing owing to the economic collapse of the rural economy following the ethnic tensions since 1999 and migration of people from Guadalcanal and Honiara.
- in Lau Lagoon, this barter trade has reportedly increased with the current economic crisis resulting in a shortage of cash in village communitiesi
- in East Guadalcanal a similar trade occurs between bush and sea people
- in other parts of the country the trade in taro has largely become monetised.
- there appears to be informal barter of taro and other root crops between Honiara residents and wantoks (relatives) in the villages; this involves the exchange of taro for store goods such as rice or other consumables available in town and valued in the village.
- ‘We must respect our taro and treat it like a man.’ (Malaitan farmers)
- ‘Taro is our life and I am very upset we are losing it.’ (coastal farmer Malaita).
- 'Many old varieties of taro are connected with kastom that is no longer relevant and no longer practiced.’ (male farmer Choiseul).
The religious and spiritual value of taro was alluded to by a few old people during the study. Taro evokes passionate and emotive responses from old people who are very concerned about its decline. Little detail was provided other than that taro cultivation is connected with spiritual forces and powers that are central to ‘kastom’, which is knowledge not readily shared with outsiders.
We have very little data to reflect further on this issue of the traditional world of taro in pre-Christian times and how that impacts on present perceptions of taro.
Old people were involved in group discussions in PRA’s in all the provinces except Temotu. More use of anthropological texts and methods is required to provide details of the spiritual values associated with taro.
- ‘Taro is the main source of income for bush people.’ (male farmer Malaita).
With the development of the modern cash economy, the economic value of taro has become more important than the spiritual values that were a feature of pre-Christian times. The pressure to earn income and the high value attached to taro compared with other root crops make it a profitable crop to produce. Traditional values remain in terms of exchange and custom feasts and festivals.
In some instances traditional practices have been integrated with Christian rites and rituals. For example, in North Malaita kastom feasts have been replaced with ‘saints days’ where similar traditional feasts, dancing and celebrations occur on religiously selected dates.
Sharing and social obligations
Informal exchange of taro remains very important. Sharing and giving of taro, along with other food stuffs, remains a highly socially valued activity. People will go to considerable effort to source taro for family feasts or to take bags of taro when visiting relatives in Honiara.
In Choiseul taro is made into a traditional pudding with baked gnali nut, called kuna and taoga. It is considered one of the highest foods that can be offered to friends and is a gesture of friendship. To eat this taro and nut pudding without sharing it with others is considered to bring misfortune. For example, it is believed that no fish will be caught if people eat this pudding without sharing before they go fishing.
There are some interesting traditional fallow management practices related to taro.
For example, in Babatana area of South Choiseul, if a woman or man dies the garden and fallow sites used by them cannot be recultivated by any other person in the tribe until a special feast is held to ‘open’ that ground. The feast is usually quite elaborate involving many pigs, taro, gnali nut and other foods.
Preparation for such a feast uses considerable resources and will often take many years to prepare for. This often allows for a long fallow to develop in areas that may have been under more intensive cultivation.
Kastom and the power for protecting taro
Many people in all four provinces associate the decline of taro with the failure to respect and follow the taro ‘kastom’ or traditional law. Increased pest and disease are particularly associated with abandoning and lack of respect for ‘kastom’. Successful taro growers will usually still follow some part of the ‘kastom’ from their area.
Despite the cultural diversity of the four provinces there is a surprising consistency between language groups and islands on general taro kastom although there are variations in specifics. Under reporting of specific kastom knowledge can also be expected because it is privileged knowledge not shared in public.
- ‘There are some rules people must keep when growing taro.’ (female farmer Malaita).
- ‘A man cannot sleep in the same house with his wife before going into his taro garden.’ (male farmer - Malaita).
Taro cultivation requires strict rules to be followed. Various practices were recorded during the study and these are listed below. This is by no means a comprehensive list of taro kastom but serves to illustrate the complexity and diversity of practices:
- special plants are used to protect taro gardens from spirits, sorcery or black magic from enemies (species include Coleus spp., relations to Oscimum species, Cordyline species, Rii Malaita name, unidentified sp.)
- special sticks are used to prepare the soil for taro planting; particular types of trees are used to make the digging sticks and they should be used in certain ways
- certain taboos are traditionally respected, particularly in Malaita; these include abstinence from eating turtle meat, mangrove fruits and abstinence from sexual intercourse before working in or entering taro gardens; ‘Bush people in Malaita used to have houses in their taro gardens for men to sleep in when working in their taro gardens; this was to prevent him from sleeping with his wife which is taboo during taro cultivation’ (Malaita farmer)
- a special shell from the sea is sharpened and used to cut taro corms and cut planting materials in preparation for planting; only this shell should come into contact with the taro plant and not any metal knives or tools; ‘When I cut taro with a knife the taro will bleed.’ (male farmer Malaita)
- in some parts of Choiseul it is taboo to enter a taro garden of a woman who has died because sickness will come to that person.
Taro sorcery and magic
- ‘It is very easy for someone with kastom powers to throw away some specially prepared turtle shell or mangrove fruits in my taro garden and all the taro will die. The smell will make the taro die.’ (Malaita taro expert).
Kastom poison or sorcery is believed to be an important constraint on taro production in Malaita and Guadalcanal.
In North East Guadalcanal, kastom magic was considered to be the second biggest problem affecting taro after taro beetle. It is likely that many farmers attribute the effects of taro virus, including TLB (Taro leaf Blight), to sorcery and lack of respect of kastom.
The areas where sorcery is a serious problem may well be areas where virus are effecting taro seriously. Unfortunately, the study was not able to confirm the prevalence of taro virus disease in North-East Guadalcanal due to the isolation of this area and limiting factors mentioned in the introduction.
Pollution from introduction of new taro
- ‘One farmer from Masilana village (an isolated bush area of Baelelea) had 18 different taro landraces that had been in his family for generations. One particular landrace, Binalofo, had been in his family for seventeen generations. He feared introducing any new taros for concern that it might introduce disease and also he was confident that these were the only taros he was interested to grow.’ (male farmer, bush, Malaita).
Some traditional taro growers maintain only their ancestral landraces and do not introduce new taros for fear of offending their kastom taros or polluting their taro gardens through introduction of disease or sorcery.
Implications for on-farm conservation of taro
Further research is needed to examine barter trade and its economic importance in local village economies particularly in the current economic crisis that is likely to take many years to recover from.
Review of anthropological literature and anthropological studies are needed to understand how taro cultural practices are operating and changing and what their influence is on taro diversity.
Distribution of diversity during collection
Taros have been collected in Solomon Islands in 1999 (the 1999 collection was subsequently lost) and again in 2001 as part of the Taro Gen project. Although the 2001 collection of taro was only carried out in four provinces over a short period of time, 843 accessions were collected.
Farmers reported areas in the bush of Guadalcanal and Malaita plus the weather coast of Guadalcanal where they thought very high diversity exists. We were unable to visit these areas and recommend that they should be included in future fieldwork.
- ‘I have never seen most of these taros from north Malaita’ (male farmer from central Malaita commenting during a visit to the Malaita field genebank).
In 2001, a large number of taro landraces were collected from the four provinces over a short period of collecting in a limited number of areas in each province. This indicated the high diversity in landraces. The differences in the provinces - for example in 291 in Temotu in 1999 and then only 46 in 2001 - indicate the time and resources involved in collecting and did not represent a decline in taro land races in that period.
In Choiseul, Guadalcanal and Malaita a more landraces were collected than in 1999 even though less collection locations were involved. Many landraces can be expected to be duplicated between provinces and also duplicates are expected within provinces. The level of duplicates will be confirmed when DNA fingerprinting of the Solomon Islands core collection is completed at Queensland University as part of the Taro Gen project. None the less, the variations seem to indicate that large numbers of landraces exist and that they have never been fully collected.
Within the memory of farmers involved in the PRA, an average of 20 per cent of landraces have been lost to local fields.
The pattern of genetic erosion through loss of landraces is uneven. For example, in parts of Choiseul some traditional landraces have disappeared but many new landraces had been introduced from other islands, leading farmers to conclude that there had been a net increase in diversity.
The highest number of taros still being grown were in Tutu village, an isolated part of North Choiseul with low population, and Faumalefo village in a bush area of North Malaita which still retained a high number of taros even though 57 per cent had reportedly been lost.
Larger number of landraces were known (named) in bush areas of Guadalcanal and Malaita than coastal areas of the same provinces. In Guadalcanal more than double the number of varieties were known in the bush village, but the erosion in landraces in bush areas was higher than in coastal areas. This seems to indicate that erosion of landraces is more recent in bush areas while in coastal areas many old landraces have been forgotten. None the less, bush areas still had higher diversity than coastal villages in Guadalcanal and Malaita.
An interesting exception was Tutu village in Choiseul that had the highest diversity overall and one of the lower rates of erosion, even though it is a coastal village. This part of Choiseul is sparsely populated and long fallow agriculture still practiced. As such, taro production is still very productive and appears to be continuing without major problems.
The data may indicate that the bush areas of Guadalcanal and Malaita involved in the study are now experiencing similar land pressures and cultural changes to coastal areas than a few decades before.
Naming taro cultivars
Farmers in Choiseul, Malaita and Guadalcanal commented that many traditional names are disappearing from use. Many younger farmers do not know the traditional names. With the movement of cultivars, names change over time as cultivars are moved from place to place.
- "Our women have forgotten the real names of taro. Our old people know the traditional names but now people give them new names." (Choiseul man discussing taro growing).
Cultivars are usually named according to criteria such as:
- morphological characteristics/ place of origin
- name of the person who discovered or introduced the taro.
- other reasons such as a story associated with its discovery.
Farmers have indigenous terms and systems for describing plant morphology. This was not recorded in detail during the study but was mentioned a number of times by farmers in all provinces. During the training in the use of morphological descriptors used during the taro collections farmers informally translated and explained the terms using local language terminologies.
Naming taro cultivars after people
Names of landraces are often based on the local origin of that taro. Taros are named after the place it was taken from or the individual who bought it.
Taro is often named after the people who ‘discovered’ them in a garden, for example, or who introduced them to the area. An example is ‘mana madara’ from Choiseul which is named after a person who died recently.
Naming taro cultivars after the place of origin or collection
Many cultivars are named after the place they came from. This could be the name of a village or language area of another island.
In Guadalcanal, Choiseul and Temotu, varieties were found with the name ‘Maleta’ or some similar name indicating a Malaitan origin. For example, ‘kake ni mala’ (taro from Malaita) is a taro from Malaita found in Choiseul.
Other reasons for taro names
Sometimes other names are given that are associated with the situation or circumstances that led to the acquisition of the taro landrace.
For example, a commonly planted cultivar in Temotu is named ‘selfis’ (selfish) because one farmer who grew it refused to share it with others. It was presumably eventually stolen from her garden. The taro originates from Makira but the Makira name is unknown. The story associated with ‘selfish’ has spread widely.
- ‘A female farmer introduced a new landrace from the neighbouring province of Makira. This landrace grew and tasted very good. When people asked the farmer for planting materials she refused to share them. Some planting materials were acquired, perhaps from the market or through theft form the garden. This landrace was then named ‘selfish’. Selfish taro has spread very rapidly across Santa Cruz over a few years. Many taro gardens in the area are now dominated by selfish even through other landraces are available and were grown previously.’ (Temotu agriculture extension officer).
Farmer named varieties may or may not be distinct genetic units (Jarvis 2000:p 21). In a situation where a new landrace is introduced from a different location and appears to be the same as a local variety, the new name may persist for that landrace because people will not be 100 per cent sure it is the same as the existing cultivar. They may believe that there are subtle differences. Thus names are changing regularly with farmers assigning new names to unidentified landraces as they move from place to place.
Displacement through introduction of new landraces
- "Many people don’t maintain the old varieties. They are always getting new varieties that make them forget about the old ones". (coastal farmer, North Malaita).
Farmers acquire new landraces regularly. These new landraces appear to lead to a gradual displacement of older landraces over time. Farmers are curious to try new landraces and if those landraces persist beyond the first experimentation it is usually because they have good or superior taste characteristics in the local conditions.
- "I want to collect new varieties that are strong because that is the type of taro I like to eat." (male farmer, Choiseul).
In contrast, some farmers in Choiseul and Malaita commented that more traditional taro farmers would not want new landraces as they believe they would pollute their traditional landraces.
- "I don’t want any new taros I grow only those taros that were grown by ancestors. New taros may introduce Alomae and make my own taros die. For this reason I don’t want any new taros." (male farmer, bush village, Malaita)
- "Norotina is a variety that I used to grow when I was young. I had forgotten all about it until now. I would like to get that variety back again if I could." (Choiseul man)
This type of comment about concern over introducing new taros was made in all four provinces. It was always made in reference to ‘other’ farmers.
Most people involved in the study were eager and interested to acquire new landraces if they were available. The most important factor in variety selection appears to be taste, which is considered more important than yield. Other factors mentioned include smell and corm colour.
Implications for on farm conservation of taro
Farmers are acquiring new landraces from other islands and even other countries. This poses a high risk for the introduction and spread of taro virus and other disease and pests.
Some traditional landraces continue to be slowly displaced by new landraces with superior taste and or growing characteristics unless traditional values of older landraces are able to be reinforced.
Areas identified by farmers as being centres of very high taro diversity should be included in any future studies (bush areas of Malaita, non-Christian areas of bush Malaita and Guadalcanal, weather coast of Guadalcanal)
On-farm conservation should aim to strengthen and extend traditional forms of exchange and sharing.
- "Even during this collection we will not be getting all the rare and hidden taros the farmers will only give us their more common varieties? we would have to build trust and relationship with them in order to be able to collect these hidden types of taro." (Guadalcanal agriculture teacher)
- "Many people hide their special varieties of taro. They do not share that taro." (Choiseul farmer)
- "I cannot give you my special taros if I do I give away my income." (Malaita taro farmer).
Cultivation and ownership of taro landraces and knowledge exists within the context of mutual kinship obligations and competition for control of important resources, which are central components of Melanesian culture.
Farmers in all four provinces sell their taro without the top of the corm. The corm is removed along with the top growing points of the corm for replanting. This makes propagation from market-purchased taros more difficult unless the corm is left to sprout rather than being eaten.
Some farmers maintain landraces of taro that they do not share readily with others. These may be:
- traditional landraces that have been grown by their clan or line for generations
- special landraces acquired by a farmer that he/she does not want others to have in order to have an economic or social advantage.
Farmers expressed feelings of advantage, respect, power and prestige in having landraces of taro that other local people did not have. Such taro can be used to advantage during feasts, sharing through social obligations, and sometimes in marketing.
Hidden taro landraces were often associated with hidden taro ‘kastom’ or knowledge that allowed successful taro farmers to produce good taro crops and hence gain social status and respect.
This finding has important implications for genetic diversity. Reported or collected varieties may not accurately reflect taro germplasm and the level of genetic erosion in the field. The variety and number of cultivars could be reduced if individual cultivars are not shared and become lost.
Hidden taros - Why don’t people share
- "I will lose my market advantage if I share my taro." (Malaita farmer).
- "..people will only be giving us their common taros when we collect." (collection team member, Guadalcanal).
A common answer to why people don’t share taro was selfishness ("hemi selfis tumas"). Underlying this motive were economic and/ or cultural values that discourage sharing that undermines personal advantage. For example, some people don’t share their varieties because of the importance of taro for cash income or as a source of exchange for shell money in Malaita.
Another factor is the traditional exchange of taro between close relatives only.
- "Sisters usually exchange taro varieties in their gardens."(Choiseul farmer group).
- "People keep taro and hide it from others because it is restricted to their families." (Malaita farmer group).
Implications for on farm conservation
- many rare landraces may have never been collected
- many taro varieties are believed to have been lost because people do not share the taro with others. Poor distribution means that individual cultivars are vulnerable to loss as very few individuals are maintaining the land race, often in a very limited geographical area.
Methods of developing trust and a sense of mutual benefit with farmers are needed in order to collect germ plasm and document cultural practices.
Exchange could be an appropriate form of compensation for sharing rather than payment which tends to reinforce the value of keeping taro hidden.
Discovery of new taro landraces
During this study farmers were asked on a PRA checklist where they found new varieties and if farmers ever grew taro from seed or had any understanding of cross breeding and pollination between taro landraces.
- "New varieties are sometimes found we call them ‘half half’' taro because they are similar to local varieties but there will be some differences." (male farmer Guadalcanal).
No farmers had any knowledge of how to cross-breed taro (other than those who had been involved in agriculture research projects in the past). But many farmers did describe discovery of new landraces in old garden sites, in the bush, primary forest, and along the banks of rivers.
- "We can find new taros growing when we clear new gardens where a taro garden used to be many years before." (bush farmer Malaita).
- "One common taro in Choiseul was found growing in a birds nest fern attached to a timber tree in the forest." (Choiseul farmer).
- "Maybe birds broadcast the seeds ? we see ‘kira’ (a type of green parrot) eating taro flowers." (Choiseul farmer group).
A significant number of farmers in Choiseul, but less so Malaita and Guadalcanal, reported that experienced taro growers can discover new landraces growing in an old garden site under fallow for at least six years but up to 25 years when the site is again cleared for cultivation after a long period of fallow.
The secondary forest that grows during the fallow is called ‘piaru muku’ in the Babatana language of South Choiseul. This is a mature secondary forest up to 20 to 25 years old with primary forest species emerging and with the presence of a closed canopy with forest vines such as Calamus spp that are local indicators of mature forest structure.
In Choiseul, bush fallow is usually cleared and then left for ‘pole’ - a secondary regrowth vegetation emerges dominated by Musa species and wild ginger. Some farmers reported that It is during the weeding or second clearing of pole that observant women can find new taros are growing, others reported that it was during the initial ‘danu’ or bush clearing.
The farmers believe that the plants are not suckers, sometimes finding tiny plants that look like seedlings. Observant women will grow out these taros and keep any interesting new landraces.
- ".. women who are experienced in growing taro have sharp eyes to observe the differences in the taros in their gardens. When they see something that is different - maybe a sucker that is different from the mother plant, or a taro growing in an old garden - they will grow and test the taro. If it tastes good then they keep it." (Choiseul group).
Some people notice that parrots eat the flowers and possibly the seeds of taro plants. This may explain the discovery of some new landraces deep in the forest where the seed may have been dispersed by birds.
- ".. one type of taro was found growing in a (birds nest) fern on the top of a 'gema’ tree. The taro was found when the tree was cut down for timber. This variety is now commonly grown in Choiseul (called 'porokoma')." (Choiseul farmers).
In Choiseul, many taros begin with the word ‘poro’ which means ’the place it grew from’ in Varisi language. New varieties found in gardens or in the bush are generally named after the garden or place of the person who planted there or the event that led to the taro being found there.
In Malaita and Guadalcanal, some farmers reported discovering new taro landraces in the bush or along river banks. There were also similar stories in Choiseul, such as the discovery of a different taro landrace along a river bank following a cyclone. This landrace was named ‘saeklon’ and is now commonly grown after its original discovery along the river but was unknown before this time.
It appears that taro plants sometimes cross naturally with their seed lying dormant (perhaps after dispersal by birds) in the bush fallow for long periods of time. Taro seed also appears to be dispersed into other non-agricultural environments: uncultivated primary forest and along river banks. This is an important finding that has not been previously documented in the Melanesian region, to the authors knowledge. Another possibility is that birds may collect the seeds in recently abandoned taro gardens where some taro plants are flowering and then disperse the seed into old fallow sites where the taro plants are discovered upon clearing.
Genetic mutation through suckering
The large number of landraces found in Solomon Islands is difficult to explain for a vegetatively propagated plant. While somatic mutation (the process of genetic mutation through a sucker from the same plant) may account for the development of some new landraces over time, the level of diversity is considered too high for this process alone to be responsible. Taro is believed to be able to develop some limited mutation through somatic mutation. This process can lead to the eventual development of new cultivars. The range of diversity present makes this method alone highly unlikely.
- "Farmers in Choiseul reported that observant women could notice changes in one sucker from the mother plant. This sucker would then be collected and trialed for any useful variations. If it was a good variety then it would be named as described above and become a new taro." (Choiseul farmer group).
There was no indication on how rare it is for this to occur. Farmers were asked if they were aware of some varieties changing over time. Only one group knew of an example of a particular variety (Akakomale from Malaita) changing over time, say twenty years. This taro cultivar appears to have changed with crossing having taken place. These varieties are known to flower a lot so it maybe that seedlings have been collected in the garden unintentionally.
Implications for on-farm conservation
Genetic mutation through suckering and farmer selection of natural taro crosses may provide a partial answer to the continuing historical source of the large numbers of taro landraces.
More research is needed to confirm these findings and understand their implications for taro diversity and how it might be affected by changing farming systems or environmental degradation.
More research is needed into the natural dispersal of taro seeds and the process of farmers selecting from sucker mutations and taro seedlings in the wild.
Taro and gender
This section will discuss gender classification of taro landraces and its implications for understanding farmers classification systems of taro and taro diseases. In addition, this section looks at gender issues in taro production.
In Malaita and Choiseul provinces there are traditional groupings of taro landraces according to gender ie. male and female taro have different characteristics including different vulnerability to disease.
Indigenous classification of male and female taros have no relationship with scientific classification of plant reproduction of Colocasia esculenta.
- "All the taros we have collected today are man taros." (old woman, Choiseul Province).
In Choiseul there are two types of taro:
- Vutu (woman)
- Pazam (man).
The male taros are believed to be effected by ‘sik’ or disease while the female taros are not or are less affected.
This is an old traditional classification of the kastom taros in Choiseul recounted by a 70 year old woman and confirmed in other interviews with other old women.
- "Taro is either a man or a woman." (male farmer, Malaita).
In Malaita, a similar system of gender based classification has been used:
- alogeni (female taro)
- alowane (male taro).
The female classification of alogeni may simply be varieties that are known to flower a lot, flower being a Solomon pigin term for menstruation.
Taro cultivation in Malaita is heavily influenced by the effects of and management practices in relation to two serious virus diseases called alomae and bobone. Male taros are susceptible to alomae while the female taros are resistant but may be partially effected leading to reduced vigour in growth and hence a small size. ‘Alowane’ are tall while ‘alogeni’ are shorter.
Some have speculated that this classification indicates farmers recognition of the resistance of some taros to alomae. The virus may even be partially infecting the plant leading to stunting but to no serious decline in yield.
One key taro expert in north Malaita questioned this hypothesis. He believed both male and female taros are susceptible to alomae and bobone. According to him, alogeni has a short life and alowane has a longer life (ie growing season).
Guadalcanal and Temotu
In Guadalcanal, some people were aware of a gender system for taro classification but it was not clear if this has been introduced from Malaita or was based on traditional local knowledge.
In Temotu one farmer commented that there is a male and female classification. The female taros have a lot of suckers - often referred to as ‘pikinini’ (children) in pigin.
- "Male taros are tall. Females have flowers and have a lot of suckers." (Male farmer Temotu).
Gender and taro cultivation
- "I started growing taro but people laugh at me and say that it is women’s work". (Male farmer - Choiseul)
- "If you want to learn about taro you will have to talk to the women." (Choiseul teacher).
- "Men and women grow taro in Malaita." (Female farmer Malaita)
- "?only old women grow taro - the younger generation is not interested- it is more work and takes longer to harvest than other root crops." (Choiseul farmer).
During the study farmers were asked who are the people who look after the most taro landraces.
In Choiseul, Guadalcanal and Temotu taro is primarily grown by women. In Choiseul in particular, women were almost exclusively the holders of indigenous knowledge about taro.
In Guadalcanal and Temotu, women and men were both involved but women took the main responsibility for taro production.
By contrast, Malaitan men are more prominently involved in taro cultivation and are often the holders of secret kastom knowledge associated with taro.
Production of taro remains a high status activity in Malaita that men appear to be proud to be involved in. However, women are growing taro with their husbands and sometimes on their own and were also aware of kastom knowledge.
In general there is a perception that older people are growing taro and younger people are not very interested.
In coastal areas of Malaita women are more likely to grow taro with men to be involved in fishing. In bush areas of Malaita men are more likely to be involved in taro production with their wives.
It seems that gender differentiation in taro production roles is more pronounced in coastal areas where men are more pre-occupied with fishing roles and women concentrate on agriculture - especially for family food production.
In all four provinces men are generally responsible for cash crop production. Care needs to be taken when promoting taro as a cash crop that it does not negatively impact on family nutrition and that women are not displaced in their role in production and small-scale marketing of garden produce.
Income from cash crops tends to be controlled by men even though women are often also involved in production (eg. in copra). Income from small-scale sales of vegetables and other home garden produce is more likely to be controlled by women and be used to purchase essential goods for the family welfare.
The gender of farmers who donated taro during collection appears to be associated with the gender of the collector. If the collectors were women then there were more women donors, if men were collecting then men become the main donors. Thus it appears that men and women are involved in taro production. Women collectors found more women taro donors while male collectors found more male taro donors.
Intensification of land use, gender and nutrition
While men may clear long-fallow sites and may assist with cultivation, women will carry out the planting, weeding, harvesting and transport of produce to the village.
Observations by Kastom Gaden Association field workers suggest that as fallow periods decline in the field women take an increasing role in site clearing and cultivation. This increases their workload in what may be an environment of declining soil productivity.
Travelling to more distant sites to find old fallow or primary forest in order to produce taro and yams has been associated with poor infant and child nutrition. Women who have to invest long periods of time walking to and from gardens leave infants with irregular and often inadequate daily meals in the village (personal communication, M. Partiimaa-Zabel 1997).
Implications for on farm conservation of taro
More research is needed to understand the cultural understanding of taro gender groupings and their relationship to traditional understanding of taro disease.
Women need to be targeted in all programs as taro growers and holders of indigenous knowledge. Specific approaches are needed in each area to accommodate local cultural differences in gender roles.
Gender balanced team are required in field work and research.
The implications of interventions on gender work loads need to be analysed and considered.
Taro Production / Cultivation Constraints
- "Population is an issue, land is an issue (in the decision to cultivate taro)". (Choiseul agriculture extension officer).
As mentioned in the introduction, taro is part of diverse food production systems that are evolving in response to population and competing land use pressures on customary land.
Factors leading to reduced taro cultivation are:
- the lack of appropriate land for many households due to population pressure
- cash tree crops increasingly occupying land previously used for shifting cultivation agriculture.
- higher and more rapid yield, and therefore lower labour input per unit of production, of sweet potato and cassava
Intensification of land use has revolutionised agriculture in Solomon Islands over recent decades. Rapid shortening of fallows has occurred hand-in-hand with the adoption of new crops that produce well in less productive conditions (ie. shorter fallows). Given high population growth rates, this trend can be expected to continue.
There are many local variations to intensification. For example, in Ferasubua, North Malaita, farmers have developed a range of intensified farming systems. Close to the village cassava will be grown on degraded and eroded hillsides and left for two to three years to fallow.
Further from the village sweet potato and sometimes yam are cropped in 4-6 year fallows. Some families grow taro and other root crops up to two hours walk away in long-fallow sites sometimes 15 or more years old.
In high population areas taro may well be on the road to disappearing from farming systems as a major staple although it appears likely to continue to be grown as a minor crop. Farmers make rational decisions when balancing their land, labour and risk strategies and options. The move to sweet potato and cassava is entrenched and has been readily accepted by rural consumers. To a lesser degree banana, kangkong (Xanthosoma) taro, and pana (Dioscorea alata) also represent new directions in cropping in less productive environments.
In Choiseul, Scheffler (1965) reported that by the 1960s sweet potato had become an increasingly predominant staple for nearly all Choiseulese.
The relative ease of production accounted for much of their popularity but their cultivation had been forced on the Choiseulese by a fungal blight (taro leaf blight) which had progressively affected taro and the land until there were only a few areas in which taro could be cultivated to an appreciable extent.
Lack of fertile soil or land
- "Before cash crops were introduced coastal people had flat, fertile soil to grow taro." (North Malaita farmer).
- "People have to walk a long way to find fertile soil to grow taro." (Malaita farmer)
In areas of high population density, such as coastal and some bush areas of North Malaita, it is very difficult to find good land for taro production. In some areas of North Malaita, fallows are now as short as 18 months to three years.
Taro is no longer an option in some of these farming systems under current practices that involve intensive burning and no external inputs of organic matter. Many farmers in coastal areas consider that taro needs a fallow of at least 6-10 years. Traditional fallow periods are from 15-25 years and still remain this long in parts of Choiseul and Guadalcanal. However, farmers in Malaita have been able to intensify taro production in some areas as long as fallows of at least three to six years are possible. Yields are acceptable but reportedly not as good as taro grown in mature secondary forest.
In other areas there may be land available but it is a long distance from the village or hamlet. This adds considerably to the time and labour required to grow taro. Farmers may walk up to two and a half hours to distant taro gardens. As mentioned previously, this has implications for the health of women and children in the family.
- "?even some bush people walk two to three hours to their taro gardens." (female farmer, Malaita).
In the Suava area of North Malaita some farmers have reportedly been able to produce taro under three year fallows where it is intercropped with yam and pana. But in the Suava farming systems, sweet potato is now the main staple.
Taro is hard work
- "Growing taro is for hard working people. Sweet potato is for lazy people. Today our young people are getting lazy and looking for the easy way." (Choiseul group).
- "Young people look for the easiest way to grow food." (Malaita farmer).
- "Lazy families do not plant taro." (Choiseul farmer).
In areas where long bush fallows or primary forest are being cleared, farmers will generally plant taro or yam as a first crop. This will typically be followed by one or two crops of sweet potato and sometimes cassava before fallow.
In shorter fallow areas sweet potato is more productive than taro and requires less labour input relative to yield. Sweet potato matures in three too six months compared to six to nine months for taro, and more carbohydrate is produced in each mound than for each corm of taro.
Storage a factor
Storage many also be a factor in root crop preferences.
Taro, in contrast to such crops as yams, is not storable for more than short periods. It can be kept in the ground for a few weeks but once removed it must be eaten.
Taro must be planted and harvested all year round to assure a steady supply at all times (Scheffler 1965:10).
Yams appear to be continuing in some short-fallow farming systems more so than taro. This may indicate a preference for the storage potential of yams and also its ability to fill a traditional seasonal hunger gap at the end of the wet season.
Specialised knowledge limits planting
Many people commented that taro is hard work that requires specialised knowledge to prevent disease and get a good harvest. Sweet potato and cassava are easier and less risky in comparison. Cassava in particular is free of any major pests and disease and can be grown under a wide range of environments, especially adverse conditions, and in particular is tolerant of poor soil fertility (Burke and Vovola 2000). It appears that in very high land pressure areas, including urban centres, cassava is now replacing sweet potato as the main staple.
Lack of planting material
Lack of planting materials was sited by farmers in Choiseul and Guadalcanal as a reason why it is difficult to plant taro on a big scale unless that family is planting bulk taro all the time.
Labour constraints and seasonal / periodic social obligations prevent most families from investing in large scale taro production and so access to planting materials becomes a constraint when opportunities may arise to plant a one off crop.
The garden cycle
The following section describes the results of the PRA exercise to draw and describe the steps used in growing taro (Garden Cycle Diagram). The information is not comprehensive but provides a snapshot of various taro production systems in the four provinces.
Complex local knowledge dictates such factors as:
- site selection
- plant spacing
- hole size
- preparation of planting materials.
These are adapted according to different landraces and soil types.
The move to polycultures with other new root crops is an erosion of traditional knowledge associated with the older taro-based farming systems but represents an evolution in indigenous knowledge to cope with change. More research is needed into these polyculture systems to understand how farmers are adapting taro production into new, more intensive farming systems and what potential these farming systems have to maintain taro diversity.
The Choiseul garden cycles
Selecting a site for the garden:
- the soil must be ‘soft’
- vegetation should be piara muku or sakapa (long 20+ year fallow or primary forest)
- the best sites are on a hillside; even a very steep hillside is considered a good place to plant taro
- good drainage will make the taro ‘strong’, a highly desirable characteristic.
- steep gardens appear to be less likely to be damaged by wild pigs.
Clearing and planting:
- bush undergrowth is cleared then trees felled
- the area is left to ’pole’ - a secondary vegetation is allowed to regrow dominated by soft plants like wild banana and wild gingers
- the ‘pole’ vegetation is cleared; sometimes the organic matter is burnt in small heaps, sometimes it is left on the soil
- taro is planted with the traditional digging stick; the planting work might be done by the eldest daughter in a family; spacing of the taro is important along with selecting microclimates within the garden with good drainage and particular types of soil or conditions; for example, some taro landraces will only be planted in the ashes where organic matter was burned
- the first weeding is three months after planting
- from this time and at subsequent weeding, small suckers may be removed from the taro and planted in new blocks
- the taro will grow faster if it is planted in blocks of uniform size
- slow-growing suckers are removed to blocks with other taros of the same size
- some women will weed another two times, others weed only once
- once the taro reaches a certain stage of maturity there is no need to weed any more; indeed, weeding at this stage is considered detrimental to the growth of the taro.
Traditionally, taro should be planted on its own in large monoculture plots interplanted with kalekua (Coleus spp.) and other strong-smelling kastom plants. ‘Kalekua’ is planted to prevent a disease called ‘gumi’ on taro.
Today, most people intercrop taro with sweet potato or corn.
- "One farmer is experimenting successfully with sorghum as a taro intercrop." (Choiseul group).
This contrasts with the belief of some people from Katupika language area who believe: ".. if you intercrop taro with corn or kabis it will die. (farmer from Katupika, Choiseul)
In some parts of Katupika, taro gardens are still growing along the coastal hillsides, with canoe access to gardens. These are very low population density areas practicing long fallows. In other parts of Choiseul taro is grown on distant ridges and hillsides.
Selection of planting materials
Suckers and taro tops are selected carefully. Only healthy ones are taken.
‘Pandi Kovasi’ is a small sago palm leaf house that is sometimes built in the garden. Taro suckers and tops are stored here before replanting. According to kastom, this should be within three days but, in practice, taro planting materials can be left for up to a few weeks.
Taro corms are cut from the pulled taro using a special shell. The roots are also pruned away with this shell. The top of the corm is cut off with a number of growing points left at the base. The taro tops should be planted within three days, according to kastom, but in practice they can be stored for longer.
- "If you leave taro on its own it will die like a neglected baby." (Choiseul woman).
Most families have two or three gardens or one big garden that is sequentially expanding on one side with the opposite side in stepped stages of fallow.
Certain taro landraces are known to only taste good when grown on particular soil types. This is an important issue in the dissemination of landraces.
Malaita garden cycles
‘Kwaenadu’u’ primary forest or long-fallow is a good site for a taro garden.
- the bush is cleared by men in long fallow sites
- tree stumps are left long to make the taro grow up to the same size
- organic matter is heaped and burned, often around the base of tree stumps.
- there are certain species of trees that are left standing in the garden; it is believed that if they are cut down and burnt they will poison the garden and all the taro will die
- taro is planted using the traditional stick, usually in monoculture plots
- different landraces have different locations or microclimates where they are planted in the garden; for example, some landraces are only planted along the edge of ‘biru’ - heaps of sticks and organic matter that mark the boundary of each planting block; another landrace is only planted in the ashes where a fire has been, another at the base of tree trunks
- women mostly do the planting and are sometimes helped by men
- strict kastom rules are to be followed when working in taro gardens
- usually, taro gardens are weeded two times - once when the taro has started to grow and a second time when the taro is ready for harvest
- special gardens are sometimes planted for planned feasts or festivals; these gardens are separate to those for family consumption and often involve communal labour.
In some coastal areas, the system has been adapted to shorter fallows (6-10 years). In such areas women usually do the clearing as well as planting and weeding. In long fallows the work is considered too heavy for women.
Generally in coastal areas, the soil is not considered fertile enough for taro although some taro plants may be mixed in with sweet potato gardens. Most people plant sweet potato intercropped with cassava.
Some farmers intercrop taro in yam gardens.
Sick plants are removed and burned. Some farmers have special places to do this.
Coleus species and other traditional plants are put in the taro garden to prevent sickness and sorcery (poison).
Guadalcanal garden cycles
Slash and mulch farming system in bush villages of North-East Guadalcanal:
- select a garden site with medium to big bush
- men clear under the bush
- the garden may need to be far away if there are a lot of pigs in the village (in Guadalcanal pigs are generally not fenced)
- mark boundary and blocks within the garden using the branches and stems of trees
- digging with stick and planting is done by women
- when the taro plants have two new leaves growing, the trees are cut down and laid in rows between the taro plants; a thick mulch is made from the leaves of the trees
- weeding is done by women
This is a traditional taro production system that does not involve the use of fire. It represents a form of intensification in that shorter (six to eight years) fallows appear to be used successfully for taro production.
Taros are left growing in the old garden until they are ready for transplanting to a new garden.
In other coastal areas such as Longgu the gardens are prepared with the use of fire in a system similar to that described for Malaita.
- "In Longgu in World WarTwo every family would have two to three taro gardens. Now the only people who still grown taro are intercropping with other crops."
In Longgu, people only plant a few taros along the edges of sweet potato gardens. Before World War II taro was commonly planted in large monoculture plots. Nowadays, two to five cultivars are planted by women in their sweet potato gardens.
- "Since cyclone Namu our soil has changed. Taro does not grow well any more." (Male farmer Guadalcanal plains).
On the Guadalcanal plains the soil is reported to have changed after the catastrophic cyclone Namu in 1986 that buried villages and much of the plains in metres of soil. Since that time taro has never grown well.
Temotu garden cycle
According to some farmers, in Temotu taro does not have the same importance as other high value traditional crops, especially breadfruit.
Taro was observed planted in monoculture plots and blocks in mixed gardens that also contained blocks of sweet potato, yam, banana, slippery kabis (Abelmoschus manihot) and other minor crops.
No PRA was done to collect data on garden cycle in Temotu because there were inadequate funds to cover follow -up visits to Temotu during the study period.
Coastal and bush production of taro
- "In the bush that is where you will find lots of taro." (coastal farmer, Malaita).
Bush or low population density areas are where taro cultivation remains prominent in Malaita, Guadalcanal and Choiseul.
In areas where land pressure is high due to population or plantation development, taro cultivation has been largely replaced by sweet potato and cassava.
Land pressure and lack of fertile soil from long-fallow farming is the main constraint to taro production in heavily populated or land-scarce areas. These are almost all coastal areas, but this pattern is also repeated in Kwalo village in the bush of central Malaita and may be found in other bush areas with high population.
In bush areas taro production is generally continuing but the major constraint is pest and disease (see section 5) and kastom sorcery (poison).
Pest and disease prevalence according to altitude
It is possible that upland and lowland farming systems are being affected differently by disease, with upland conditions favouring taro growth. This, however, is difficult to substantiate.
Certainly, taro is in rapid decline in high population coastal areas. High population leads to reduced fallow periods (and hence reduced soil fertility) and closer proximity of gardens to each other. This is, presumably, leading to the increased spread of disease, pests and their vectors. It is unclear which issue is more critical - low fertility soil or increased pest and disease. Most likely it is a combination of both.
Taro can still be seen to be producing well in coastal areas in the right conditions (long fallows in sparsely populated areas with bush barriers between gardens). On Guadalcanal, some bush areas where taro remains important and productive are ‘lowland’ in altitude and climate although they are a long distance from the sea. In Choiseul, some low-population density villages continue to grow taro in long-fallow sites immediately adjacent to the seaside or behind coastal mangroves. This suggests that population pressure and reduced fallows are probably the determining factors, rather than climatic or geographic factors which might be encouraging more disease in lowland environments.
However, farmers in bush communities reported that they have distinct landraces that are suited only to highland conditions and that coastal landraces will not perform well in the highlands and vice versa.
- " If I plant a taro from the coast here it cannot grow well. Also if I give one of my good taros to coastal farmer it cannot grow well down there." (male, bush village farmer).
Farmer innovation in high land pressure areas
While cultural practices appear to have assisted in managing pest and disease in long fallow farming systems, some ‘kastom’ practices may be a constraint to innovation in areas of intensification. Strict rules and taboos involve higher labour costs to the family while with newer root crops farmers are free to innovate without fear of offending kastom.
It seems likely that the labour input per unit of production worsens for taro as fallow periods shorten, but more research is needed to confirm this.
As fallow periods decline, sweet potato and cassava are increasingly favoured because of lower taro yields and increasing pest and disease problems in an environment of intensification. Decisions are based on labour and food needs for the family with the new crops offering better returns on labour and yield.
There is evidence that some farmers are innovative in their taro farming systems. Some examples observed by the facilitators include:
- mulching of taro plots at Mana’abu in very short fallow areas
- using botanical sprays made from local plants to manage disease and pests
- use of steel digging sticks instead of wood sticks
- alley cropping with Glyricidia sepum in producing Xanthosoma taro in Suava, North Malaita.
Implications for on-farm conservation
Different strategies are needed for bush/ low population density areas and coastal/ high population density areas.
- more detailed research is needed on the effect of fallow shortening on taro production, labour inputs and yields in long, medium and short fallows
- more information is needed about innovative practices where taro has been produced by farmers in shortened fallows for dissemination through farmer networks and on farm trials
- more research is needed on production constraints and opportunities in lowland and upland farming systems to determine if there are significant differences in prevalence of pest and disease.
Taro pest and disease
- "Pest and disease of taro started to become serious problem in 1970’s and 1980’s. Now it is out of control". (Choiseul Farmer).
- "In Tutu our disease problems started in the 1970’s." (Tutu village farmer, Choiseul province).
Pests and disease issues were recorded as part of the garden cycle diagram and historical matrix PRA’s.
Where pest and disease issues were mentioned discussions were held. Due to the significance of this issue, pest and disease data was commonly recorded in almost all the PRA exercises.
- "Gumi is our name for taro beetle. This is the biggest problem for taro in Choiseul." (farmer group, Choiseul).
- "?once the beetle comes in the garden there is nothing I can do - all my taro will be lost." (Temotu farmer).
Taro Beetle (Papuana sp) is a very significant pest / disease problem for all four provinces. It is the most important problem apart from Alomae in Malaita.
Taro beetle causes significant damage to taro corms. Sometimes the corms can still be eaten, and indeed they often are at the household level, but the damage leads to rapid rots in the corm making the taro unsaleable.
Researchers in PNG have found that intensification of agriculture, logging and deforestation may result in rapid infestation of taro beetle.
- "Short garden fallows provide suitable breeding habitats for taro beetles, such as fallen logs, dead trees, stumps, dead banana stumps and stems. Late maturing food plants such as banana and sugarcane are left after harvest in the old gardens acting as food sources for surviving beetle populations. Wild aroids are important food plants that establish rapidly in gardens under fallow and again support beetle survival and population
damage by taro beetles is likely to increase. There are no natural enemies known to regulate taro beetle populations." (Masamdu and Simbiken 2000:pg 754)
In Temotu farmers reported that taro beetle incidence has increased following logging operations.
Virus diseases including taro leaf blight
- "We have kastom medicine for this sik on the leaves." (Malaitan farmer referring to leaf blight damage).
Taro leaf blight (TLB) has reportedly been in Solomon Islands following World War Two. In many areas TLB decimated local taro production and was probably a critical catalyst in the widescale shift to sweet potato that occurred during the same period.
Taro cultivation was reduced by TLB but in the ensuing decades taro cultivation has been able to recover and continue through adaptations to farmers practices and perhaps through varietal resistance. In many gardens TLB symptoms can be observed on taro plants but it is not generally considered to be a serious problem by farmers. Farmers report that one or two leaves may die but the taro will recover.
We had speculated that yield may have been reduced over time but no farmers reported this. It is likely that TLB is still contributing to the continued decline of taro production. The increased risks combined with the other factors mentioned in this study, such as taro beetle, lack of soil fertility, and fear of kastom sorcery, make many farmers favour other crops for household food security.
In Temotu, were there is no leaf blight, taro yields appeared higher in the field genebanks with very large taros harvested. More research is needed to confirm if this was due to other local agronomic conditions or the absence of TLB disease.
It appears that sorcery is often held responsible by farmers for the effects on taro gardens of TLB as well as other disease such as alomae and bobone. Virus diseases are difficult to understand and can effect otherwise healthy taro. So it appears kastom is often used to explain the devastating effect of insect transmitted virus’ in taro gardens.
For this reason the lack of references to TLB does not necessarily mean that it is not a problem. For example, North-East Guadalcanal farmers considered sorcery to be the second biggest problem after taro beetle. It may well be that this is a kastom explanation for the effects of virus diseases. More research is needed to understand the correlation with the perceived effects of sorcery and taro virus disease.
- "If I see bobone on a taro I step on it with my foot and flatten the plant. The taro will then grow back. It is not a big problem." (male farmer, Malaita).
Bobone is a virus disease that seems to have originated in Malaita where it is known by this language name and widely recognised. It has spread to some parts of Guadalcanal and possibly elsewhere (for example, it appeared to have effected a few plants in the field genebank on Choiseul).
Most farmers in Malaita did not consider Bobone to be a big problem. The taro will die down and then recover, so harvest is delayed. It is ‘controlled’ by stepping on and flattening the affected taro plant. A new sucker will grow from the corm which will then produce a good corm for harvest. The net effect is a delayed harvest and perhaps a reduced yield.
- "Alomae is our biggest problem in the bush - my whole taro garden can die." (male farmer, bush village, Malaita).
Alomae (literally ‘taro die’ in Kwara’ae language of Malaita) is a major problem for taro production in Malaita.
It is a disease spread by a small leaf hopper insect that has been present in Malaita for a long time. Taro plants infected with Alomae cannot recover and will die.
Some landraces, however, appear to be resistant to Alomae. This was evident in the national taro collection planted in Fote, Malaita, in 1999/2000. The entire collection of 627 taros was exposed to Alomae. Hundreds of landraces were lost but a few dozen were resistant and survived.
Unfortunately, this Alomae resistant collection was subsequently lost due to inadequate resources and management of the collection.
Screening of landraces for Alomae resistance and then dispersal to farmers in effected areas could be a very useful exercise.
Farmers believe that kastom practices prevent alomae. There appear to be practical benefits to many kastom methods including isolation from other gardens where alomae may be present and careful preparation of planting materials.
There is potential that it could be better controlled by a community-wide eradication program that would remove and burn all alomae-infected plants from a given area and prevent reinfection through strict community-based quarantine efforts.
Other virus and disease
'Lamba' and 'lobis' are two diseases recognised by Choiseul farmers but do not appear to be major problems by the few farmers who referred to them. However, they may contribute to the higher risk involved in taro production.
- "Lamba causes the taro to die down, but it will recover and still have a good harvest." (Choiseul farmer).
The description of lamba sounds similar to Bobone.
- "Lobis’ is a ‘sik’ that has been on taro in Choiseul for a long time. It is believed to mostly affect the old varieties." (Choiseul farmer group).
‘Kastom poison’ or sorcery
- "It is very easy for someone to put some mangrove fruit or turtle shell in my garden and all the taro will die." (Malaita farmer).
- "Certain kastom rules mean that taro gardens must be made very far from other gardens." (Malaita farmer).
The increase in virus problems in recent decades is strongly associated with kastom - either sorcery by others or the result of failure to respect taro and its associated forces through following traditional law.
Kastom provides a ready source of explanation for crop failures and declining yields. 'Kastom poison’ or traditional sorcery was reported as a big problem on Guadalcanal from the 1950’s to the present. It is also of concern in the other provinces.
Kastom poison involves particular individuals who have powers of sorcery that can damage or destroy another persons taro garden. Use of kastom poison is a major concern for many taro farmers. It is the motivation behind many kastom practices that are believed to protect taro gardens from sorcery. The motivation for using sorcery may be revenge, jealousy or the request of enemies of the victim.
- "In Choiseul, gardens were traditionally in the bush. In the 1970s gardens moved back to coastal areas in some parts of Choiseul. Now they have moved back to steep ridges in the bush due to problems with wild pigs. The wild pig problem is a result of commercial logging in the interior of the Island which has driven pigs down into garden and fallow land where they have adapted to foraging in food gardens." (Choiseul farmer group).
In Guadalcanal and Choiseul, domestic and wild pigs create significant problems by destroying taro gardens. Domestic pigs roam free without fencing or tethering in many Guadalcanal villages. A problem arises if there is not an adequate buffer zone between villages so that gardens are far enough away to be safe from pigs from any village.
Gardens are pushed further away from the village at a safe distance from pigs. While fencing of pigs would seem to be an obvious solution it has proven difficult to enact on a community level and individuals households seem relatively powerless to influence other households. No fences are used in bush gardens in any of the provinces that were part of the study but pig fences close to villages are more common in some provinces.
In parts of Choiseul, wild pigs are a significant problem in food gardens.the problem began following commercial logging operations in the centre of the island. This has forced or encouraged pigs to roam in coastal ranges in areas where food gardens are made. Interestingly, some farmers said that this was encouraging people to plant more taro as it was less likely to be damaged by pigs than sweet potato or cassava. At Choiseul Bay we observed first hand pig damage to the taro field gene bank, so it appears that taro is also targeted by pigs, but perhaps less so.
Wild pigs are reported to be more of a problem in valleys and coastal plains. Food gardens planted on the steep sides of ridges are reported to have fewer problems with pigs and so have become the preferred sites for gardens. Flat land close to the village is difficult to use.
Traditional Management of pest and disease
A number of methods were mentioned by farmers to manage pest and disease.
In general, taro pest and disease management are closely connected with kastom and sorcery. This type of knowledge is often secret and we can expect considerable under-reporting of specific traditional management techniques.
Kastom management practices mentioned by farmers include:
- plant garden in long forest fallow where no crops have been grown for at least a decade
- gardens are kept distant from other gardens to prevent sorcery from passers-by
- plants infected with disease are removed and destroyed
- in some areas, farmers make botanical sprays that are used to control pest and disease and for kastom purposes
- kastom plants are used to protect taro gardens from sorcery but may have a practical effect as companion or insect repellent plants
- some farmers only grow traditional varieties and will not introduce taro from other places
- careful rules and kastom associated with entry to taro gardens; ie it is restricted to certain people at certain times
- careful selection and preparation of healthy planting materials
Implications of pest and disease for on farm conservation of taro
Taro cultivation has become a higher-risk activity due to the threats of virus, taro beetle along with the continuing threat of sorcery. Many farmers still persist with cultivation because of the high prestige and value of taro in meeting traditional obligations such as feast as well as the economic importance of selling or trading taro.
Taro beetle appears to be the most significant pest or disease problem with taro producers. Solutions are needed to reduce and better manage taro beetle, especially in areas of higher population density or land use. Methods are needed to control taro beetle in low external input farming systems.
A virus disease (Alomae) is a serious threat to taro production in Malaita and is likely to spread to other provinces. Developing or locating resistant landraces with appropriate eating qualities could assist in those areas where it is already present and help to prepare for the time when alomae arrives in other places
Quarantine measures need to be carefully considered within the Solomon Islands in any movement of germ plasm. Awareness-raising needs to be done to educate farmers about the risks involved, particularly in moving taro from Malaita to other provinces as it is clear that farmers are moving taro all the time in their travels.
Diversity fairs appear to have potential to promote increased awareness on taro conservation and exchange of germplasm but the implications for spread of taro virus’ into unaffected areas need to be carefully considered.
Trials of taro leaf blight resistant cultivars will confirm if this is an important debilitating factor in taro production or not.
On-farm research is needed to better understand and improve farmers traditional pest and disease management practices and where possible reinforce and improve practices based on scientific knowledge of these pests and diseases
More research is needed on the relationship between increasing pest and disease problems with patterns of land use intensification and soil / environmental degradation.
- "Many people are still interested to eat taro. If given a choice many people would prefer taro. (Choiseul group).
- "People are starting to lose the importance of taro as the main food for Choiseul people (as it was in the past)." (farmer group Choiseul)
In general, taro remains a highly desired food especially by middle age and older people. People like ‘strong’ or firm taro which requires specialised growing knowledge and the right climate and environment. The taste of corms appears to be the most important criteria for selection of landraces by farmers, over and above yield considerations.
Taro leaves are also commonly consumed in all four provinces. In Guadalcanal the stem/ petiole is also consumed. All landraces are suitable for leaf consumption. Some swamp varieties are grown almost exclusively for their leaves as the corm is known to ‘scratch’ if not prepared in the right way.
Taro is an important source of diet and has some nutritional advantage over other staple crops.
Taro is higher in protein and lower in sugar that sweet potato and cassava but not as high as rice. The nutritional value of the corms is similar to sweet potato although cassava has much lower vitamin A and vit C values. However, taro corms and leaves are nutritionally superior to the other root crop staples leaves and should be promoted as a nutritional source of these vitamins.
Particularly in urban and semi-urban parts of the country, there is a shift from traditional crops and green vegetables towards rice, tinned fish and biscuits. These shifts in diet are responsible for over and under nutrition in children and adults.
Young people and taro preferences
- "The diet for small children is changing. In the past they would eat a lot of taro but now they eat potato, paw paw and banana. They get used to these foods instead of taro. In the past taro was considered the best food for babies." (Choiseul group).
In Choiseul and Malaita farmers reported that there were special landraces of taro that were especially for babies. These landraces are soft and do not ‘scratch’.
Food taboos and infants
Health workers have made considerable efforts to discourage traditional food taboos that have negative nutrition effects on pregnant and breast feeding mothers as well as weaning infants.
These taboos mostly involve restricted diets and prohibitions on eating certain sea foods and, sometimes, certain types of leafy greens. The promotion of more nutritious mixed food for infants and mothers may have indirectly undermined traditional association of taro as the best food for babies.
Youth and taro preferences
- "Young people have grown up not eating taro. They don’t have the taste for it. They just want rice instead." (Choiseul farmer).
A number of farmers reported that young people do not like taro very much because they have not grown up eating taro as children and preferred sweet potato and rice.
It may be that children have not had enough exposure to taro in some areas. There were only a few references in the data that supported this proposition and the data was not convincing.
Survey of root crop preferences
- "There has been a change in that young people now favour sweet potato." (Guadalcanal group).
A small non-random survey was done to find out more about root crop preferences in young people. Sixty two young people (29 male, 33 female) were surveyed in Malaita (three villages in North Malaita), Western (Dude village, a semi-urban area next to Munda) and Isabel Provinces (Garanga Rural Training Centre). Twelve were under 15 years, 47 were 15-29 years and 3 were over 30.
These provinces were visited by KGA fieldworkers and young people selected by convenience. Survey respondents were asked the question: "If you were given the choice of taro, sweet potato, cassava and rice on a table, what would be your first, second, third and fourth preference?".
- cassava was the least preferred in all three provinces.
- taro was the most preferred in Isabel and Malaita but not in Western Province (3rd preference)
- sweet potato was the second preference in Isabel and Malaita, first in West
- rice was equal second or third preference in all three provinces..
The lower preference given to taro in Munda, West, may reflect differences in urban/ semi-urban exposure to rice. Research by Sasabe (1994) in nearby Noro showed that 47% of children had eaten rice in the previous evening meal while 66% had eaten a root crop.
The data was also examined by age groups. There appears to be a difference in preferences between young people aged under 15 years and those above.
- older youth appear to prefer taro the most while younger youths prefer rice, mostly in Munda. If respondents from Munda are excluded, the preference for rice in youth <15yrs was almost identical to taro and sweet potato.
- taro has a lower preference among the younger age group
- sweet potato is the second preference for both age groups
- cassava is the least preferred root crop for both age groups.
It appears that younger people (ie. under 15) may have lower preference for taro. This needs to be studied further to ascertain whether this preference changes as youth grow older or if this pattern continues as the younger generations grow up. More research is needed to understand better the urban/ rural differences and also differences among different socioeconomic groups.
Rice as the new staple
- "Before a feast was taro, now it will be potato or rice." (Guadalcanal farmer).
- "People can't afford taro - it is the rich mans food." (Honiara resident).
Earning income in order to purchase rice as a major staple has become a new food security strategy for many households, particularly in urban and peri urban locations. Rice consumption is related to income levels and urbanisation.
Traditional food security strategies are based on complex and diverse sources of garden and other foods that can provide a balanced diet in different seasons and also in times of stress (environmental or social).
In an environment of increased cash scarcity, this dependence on rice becomes a threat to food security. Civil unrest since 1999 has caused farmers and urban dwellers to revert to increased subsistence production strategies, usually of sweet potato, when their cash earning opportunities decline.
- rice has become an increasingly important staple with steadily increasing rice imports and local rice production (heavily subsidised by aid programs).
- increased rice consumption in rural and urban areas of Solomon Islands involves various factors including cost, ease of preparation, taste and status.
- rice is considered to be ‘white mans food’ and as such has higher status.
The dietary changes associated with increased rice consumption include increased consumption of sugar, tinned meat and fish plus lifestyle changes. These are leading to an epidemiological transition to lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
Planting and promoting taro consumption along with other locally produced root crops is important in the context of health. People with diabetes are encouraged to reduce their sweet potato consumption as the sugar content is relatively high.
Implications of food consumption for on farm conservation of taro
Comparative nutritional surveys between areas where farming systems have high taro production and those based on sweet potato or cassava could establish if there is a correlation between farming systems and nutritional status particularly of infants.
This may have important implications for on farm conservation of taro as it appears the program may need to be carefully integrated with a nutrition improvement program. Note that correlation would not necessarily indicate the causes of poor nutrition. Appropriate interventions could strengthen the nutritional status in taro based farming systems.
More research is needed on food preferences and demand in different socioeconomic groups and ages in urban and rural areas to better assess the potential demand for increased taro production and likely future trends in demand.
It is important to link conservation of diversity with nutritional factors at all levels.
Taro corms and leaves could be promoted as nutritious foods for children and adults. Health workers could be encouraged to reinforce the traditional values of taro as a baby food in combination with other foods to form a balanced diet.
Economic and market influences
- "Taro is a very important source of food and income for people living in the bush." (Malaita woman).
Research in Vanuatu has indicated that market forces have had a significant impact on the selection of landraces grown in farmers fields and that this has had a negative impact on taro diversity as farmers concentrate on a limited number of high yielding and market oriented landraces. They found that in-situ conservation had no practical value unless it can be shown to be of economic value to farmers (Anonymous, 1999)
In Solomon Islands this does not appear to be as significant a factor in the maintenance of taro diversity. Markets are willing to absorb many different landraces as long as the taste is good. Taro is primarily a subsistence and local economy crop used for food, social obligations and trade in small local markets. There is some supply of taro to larger urban markets but it is difficult to ascertain if this trend is significant although there appears to be opportunity for it to expand. Urban surveys and PRA are needed to determine this.
Nonetheless, there are important economic factors that need to be taken into consideration as market incentives and opportunities are powerful forces affecting farmers decisions.
Local markets - ‘solwara‘ and ‘bush’ people
Trade in taro between ‘bush’ (inland) and ‘solwara’ (coastal) communities was mentioned earlier as an important economic activity in North Malaita and North-East Guadalcanal.
In Lau lagoon this traditional type of trade involves a barter system where ‘solwara’ people living on artificial islands in the lagoon trade fish and other marine food products for taro and other garden produce from ‘bush’ people living in upland villages.
Today, this barter economy has become more monaterised the trade remains economically and socially very important .
This is the traditional means for bush people to access adequate protein and for coastal people to supplement their more-limited garden food production. These barter economies may be increasingly important in the current economic crisis in Solomon Islands as cash income is becoming increasingly scarce in rural areas. The economic opportunities for upland communities are particularly grim due to the added transport and infrastructure constraints. Seen in this context local exchange markets may have very important local economic and food security benefits.
- "Some people see the opportunity to grow taro when they see very little of it in the market. This makes them want to grow it to sell." (male farmer, Guadalcanal)
- "Taro is a rich mans food. I cannot afford it._ (government employee in provincial centre).
Taro prices are very high in most urban markets. Taro is generally only purchased by those on high incomes or for special occasions such as feasts. Table 16 shows some recent comparative prices.
Taro is significantly more expensive than sweet potato in all the markets surveyed. In Honiara in particular taro is an expensive and highly valued commodity.
Taro prices decline with distance from main urban centres. For example, in a small village market in Bita’ama, North Malaita, the price of taro is only slightly more than sweet potato. Sweet potato is cheaper in all markets but appears to maintain a more standard price than taro.
In all of the villages involved in the study, taro is primarily grown for subsistence and traditional/ social-cultural obligations. Marketing of taro in local produce markets is also important. There are some farmers (limited in number) who are growing larger quantities of taro for sale in Honiara markets. In bush areas of Malaita and Guadalcanal taro is considered an important source of income for people in areas that have very few income earning opportunities.
In Nadi village in the inland of North Malaita, taro was reported to be one of the most important sources of income and is also very important as a source of exchange for shell money used for bride price and traditional obligations.
In another area of Baelelea, North Malaita, farmers have organised themselves into groups who cooperated with marketing in Honiara.
Implications of economic and market influences for on-farm conservation of taro
More research is needed on:
- the demand for taro among different socioeconomic groups in urban and peri-urban markets
- expenditure patterns - particularly in relation to food purchases - of bush people who market taro.
- If the objective is also to improve food security, then it is important to find out what the cash income derived from taro is used for
- the constraints to increased marketing of taro to determine appropriate strategies to meet increased demand and possibly to reduce prices to increase consumption
Taro is deeply embedded in Solomon Islands culture and economy, both formal and informal.
As Solomon Islands rapidly changes, the demand for and practices related to taro are changing too.
Rapid population growth and increased land pressure are influencing both demand and supply of taro in some areas.
The conservation of genetic diversity of any particular crop species is important in the wider socioeconomic context and the needs of rural and urban people in Solomon Islands.
Complex layers of interwoven and interrelated issues have been exposed in this report that paint a picture of the multifaceted nature of on farm conservation of taro in Solomon Islands.
The need for genetic conservation V's food security needs will need to be carefully balanced in an environment of limited resources for agriculture and nutrition improvement. Where possible, integrated programs need to be developed that are complementary to both genetic conservation and food security.
We still have insufficient information to know if genetic erosion of taro landraces has stabilised in areas of high land pressure or if the erosion is continuing. It could be that taro is in terminal decline as a major crop in these farming systems and resources would be better targeted at other crops although taro is likely to remain an important minor crop even in areas of rapid intensification.
These trends may be partially reversible with appropriately targeted interventions that build farmers capacities to address some of the issues raised in this report. Such interventions could include improved pest management practices, particularly in managing taro beetle, improved farming systems and practices to improve soil fertility in short fallow areas, and participatory variety selection of virus resistant cultivars.
In bush and low-population density areas, taro remains a very important crop. It would seem that these areas are the obvious sites to promote continued on farm conservation. Potential interventions should strengthen traditional values, culture and uses of taro while attempting to overcome some of the considerable constraints to promoting new economic opportunities for taro growers.
On the demand side, more availability and a lower price for taro could well stimulate increased urban demand and consumption especially among young people. There appears to be considerable opportunity to market more taro if logistical constraints can be overcome for taro growers in high diversity areas to access urban markets.
Implications for conservation of taro genetic diversity on-farm
This section repeats for easy reference the key implications for on farm conservation of taro that have been identified in each section of this report.
Cultural and historical issues
- further research is needed to examine barter trade and its economic importance in local village economies particularly in the current economic crisis that is likely to take many years to recover from
- review of anthropological literature and anthropological studies are needed to understand how taro cultural practices are operating and changing and what their influence is on taro diversity.
On-farm diversity issues
- farmers are acquiring new landraces from other islands and even other countries; this poses a high risk for the introduction and spread of taro virus and other disease and pests
- some traditional landraces will continue to be slowly displaced by new landraces with superior taste and or growing characteristics unless traditional values of older landraces are reinforced
- areas identified by farmers as being centres of very high taro diversity should be included in any future studies (bush areas of Malaita, non-Christian areas of bush Malaita and Guadalcanal, weather coast of Guadalcanal)
- on-farm conservation should aim to strengthen and extend traditional forms of exchange and sharing.
Implications of hidden taros for on-farm conservation
- many rare landraces may have never been collected
- many taro varieties are believed to have been lost because people do not share the taro with others; poor distribution means that individual cultivars are vulnerable to loss as very few individuals are maintaining the land race, often in a very limited geographical area.
- methods of developing trust and a sense of mutual benefit with farmers are needed in order to collect germ plasm and document cultural practices; exchange could be an appropriate form of compensation for sharing rather than payment which tends to reinforce the value of keeping taro hidden.
Implications of farmer-selected taros for on-farm conservation
- genetic mutation through suckering and farmer selection of natural taro crosses may provide a partial answer to the continuing and historical source of the large numbers of taro landraces; more research is needed to confirm these findings and understand their implications for taro diversity and how it might be effected by changing farming systems or environmental degradation
- more research is needed into the natural dispersal of taro seeds and the process of farmers selecting from sucker mutations and taro seedlings in the wild.
Implications of gender for on farm conservation of taro
- more research is needed to understand the cultural understanding of taro gender groupings and their relationship to traditional understanding of taro disease.
- women need to be targeted in all programs as taro growers and holders of indigenous knowledge' specific approaches are needed in each area to accommodate local cultural differences in gender roles
- gender balanced team are required in field work and research
- the implications of interventions on gender work loads need to be analysed and considered
Implications of lowland and upland issues for on-farm conservation
- different strategies are needed for bush/ low -population density areas and coastal/ high population density areas
- more detailed research is needed on the effect of fallow shortening on taro production, labour inputs and yields in long, medium and short fallows
- more information is needed about innovative practices where taro has been produced by farmers in shortened fallows for dissemination through farmer networks and on farm trials
- more research is needed on production constraints and opportunities in lowland and upland farming systems to determine if there are significant differences in prevalence of pest and disease.
Implications of pest and disease for on farm conservation of taro
- taro cultivation has become a higher risk activity due to the threats of virus, taro beetle along with the continuing threat of sorcery; many farmers still persist with cultivation because of the high prestige and value of taro in meeting traditional obligations such as feast as well as the economic importance of selling or trading taro
- taro beetle appears to be the most significant pest or disease problem with taro producers; solutions are needed to reduce and better manage taro beetle, especially in areas of higher population density or land use; methods are needed to control taro beetle in low external input farming systems
- a virus disease (Alomae) is a serious threat to taro production in Malaita and is likely to spread to other provinces. Developing or locating resistant landraces with appropriate eating qualities could assist in those areas where it is already present and help to prepare for the time when alomae arrives in other places
- quarantine measures need to be carefully considered within Solomon Islands in any movement of germ plasm; awareness-raising needs to be done to educate farmers on the risks involved, particularly in moving taro from Malaita to other provinces as it is clear that farmers are moving taro all the time in their travels
- diversity fairs appear to have potential to promote increased awareness on taro conservation and exchange of germplasm but the implications for spread of taro virus’ into unaffected areas need to be carefully considered.
- trials of taro leaf blight resistant cultivars will confirm if this is an important debilitating factor in taro production or not.
- on-farm research is needed to better understand and improve farmers traditional pest and disease management practices and where possible reinforce and improve practices based on scientific knowledge of these pests and diseases
- more research is needed on the relationship between increasing pest and disease problems with patterns of landuse intensification and soil / environmental degradation.
Implications of food consumption for on-farm conservation of taro
- comparative nutritional surveys between areas where farming systems have high taro production and those based on sweet potato or cassava could establish if there is a correlation between farming systems and nutritional status particularly of infants: this may have important implications for on farm conservation of taro as it appears the program may need to be carefully integrated with a nutrition improvement program; note that correlation would not necessarily indicate the causes of poor nutrition; appropriate interventions could strengthen the nutritional status in taro based farming systems
- more research is needed on food preferences and demand in different socioeconomic groups and ages in urban and rural areas to better assess the potential demand for increased taro production and likely future trends in demand;
- it is important to link conservation of diversity with nutritional factors at all levels;
- taro corms and leaves could be promoted as nutritious foods for children and adults; health workers could be encouraged to reinforce the traditional values of taro as a baby food in combination with other foods to form a balanced diet.
Implications of economic and market influences for on farm conservation of taro
- more research is needed on the demand for taro among different socioeconomic groups in urban market
- more research needed on expenditure patterns - particularly in relation to food purchases - of bush people who market taro; if the objective is also to improve food security, then it is important to find out what the cash income derived from taro is used for
- more research is needed on the constraints to increased marketing of taro to determine appropriate strategies to meet increased demand and possibly to reduce prices to increase consumption.
Potential strategies to sustain diversity
Strengthening of on farm conservation of taro is hampered by a lack of information, lack of experience in appropriate interventions in the Solomon Islands context and lack of resources and capacity within local organisations in the government and non government sector.
The report identifies a number of diverse areas for further research. But it is important to qualify this with the recommendation that participatory research methods should be used such as: on farm trials; training of farmer/ villager data collectors; analysis of findings by farmer/ target groups; and the use of action research methods.
This allows the ‘research’ to become an awareness and learning process for the farmers and communities involved who will be the ultimate target of any intervention that may develop out of the results of the research. This study itself was an example of a process where the research was carried out by farmers assisted by experienced community facilitators from a local non government organisation. The process itself was thus building capacity of a local NGO and farmers network.
At the same time as participatory research goes ahead some practical interventions could be tested on a small scale and monitored for their effectiveness.
An example of such an approach has been the trial of taro diversity fairs held by the Planting Material Network in Malaita and Temotu provinces in early 2002 supported by the European Union Micro Projects Program and involving the taro field genebanks established under the TaroGen project.
The fairs were modelled on similar events held in other countries and documented by IPGRI (Jarvis et al, 2000). The diversity fairs were organised by farmer groups in Malaita and a local agriculture department in Temotu. Both diversity fairs generated a lot of interest with hundreds of farmers attending. This demonstrates the potential of these types of events in raising awareness about the practical and cultural value of taro genetic resource conservation on farm as well as allowing farmers a venue to share, exchange and value their indigenous knowledge. This report has shown indigenous knowledge is inextricably linked with on farm conservation.
Some of the ideas for strengthening on farm conservation that were suggested or were envisioned by the team doing the research or suggested by those involved:
- awareness-raising, including promoting and valuing the revival of culture and indigenous knowledge as part of taro and crop diversity conservation
- community diversity registers could be established (as part of the process above but also as a means of exchanging taros and monitoring the movement and maintenance of landraces)
- assistance with marketing from remote areas into urban markets - ie assisting to overcome transport, organisational, management and other obstacles using approaches appropriate for small scale producers - especially women
- post-harvest processing and new product development linked with market development especially of niche products that add value and make transport to market easier
- education of consumers, including young people, on the importance of taro on health and cultural grounds.
- develop links between the young and elderly in recording and promoting continuity in use of indigenous knowledge of taro in innovative ways to strengthen local culture and innovation
- address the issue of spread of virus disease due to high rate of movement of cultivars between islands and provinces
- improved pest management especially of taro beetle but also of taro virus disease
- long term participatory approach to improved farming systems in lowland and upland areas in high population areas
- participatory variety selection of virus resistant cultivars using seed from breeding programs and then allowing farmers to trial and select appropriate characteristics.
Much of the proposed research as well as the interventions proposed above could be done through suitably trained and supported community-based organisations linked to farm families with technical backup from government research officers perhaps teaming up with NGO’s with the community and participatory development skills.
This type of collaboration and network development at multiple levels from the national through to the village has the potential to make more effective use of limited resources and ensure that meaningful benefits are reaching farmers through strengthening food security.
The importance of integrating interventions to promote on farm conservation within the wider needs of food security, nutrition improvement and development of economic opportunities at the village level needs to be kept in mind at all times.
Such an integrated approach may well opt for addressing all staple root crops as part of a general agricultural plant genetic resource and food security initiative. This may be preferable to species specific approaches which may ignore or fail to reinforce the inter-species and well as within species crop diversity that is so important for food security in Solomon Islands. Such integrated approaches are more likely to have sustainable outcomes and to be widely supported.
Taro has been an important crop for Solomon Islands people for millennia and is linked to Melanesian place as the one of the cradles of agriculture. Its status, both in terms of production importance and cultural value is in a state of transition due to intensification with resultant change in farming systems and lifestyle changes. It remains a very important crop for many Solomon Islanders and is likely to remain so even if it is no longer at the top of the list in terms of daily food.
Farmers are balancing the advantages and disadvantages of various crops in their efforts for household food security and income. While taro’s importance is not what it used to be due to the constraints and issues identified in this report, the time is appropriate to promote, through carefully targeted interventions and research, its continued use and where possible revival. If successful this could be a catalyst for cultural revival with renewed valuing of the rich indigenous knowledge that taro demonstrates Solomon Islands farmers are the holders of.
Teaming up of scientific knowledge to value and strengthen that indigenous knowledge and thousand of years of defacto genetic resource management has enormous potential especially if it is integrated with wider food security and economic development concerns and should be encouraged.
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