Growing Food and Preserving Seeds : Ni-Vanuatu Women’s Relationships with Food Security, Biodiversity and Food Policy
Problem Statement, Research Questions, and Research Objectives
More than 1000 varieties of root and tuber crops are grown across a sample group of 10 villages in the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Maintaining this diversity is the foundation of the island inhabitants’ food security strategy (CIRAD 2008). Global agricultural and food trade policies are fostering the dominance of cash crops like cocoa, palm and coffee on small farm holdings, altering tropical cropping systems and shortening fallow periods. Due to these changes, small farm holder communities are confronting issues such as limited access to traditional staple foods, depleted finances caused by buying other more expensive grains from the market, loss of biodiversity, and the disappearance of local customs around the cultivation and preparation of food (ANR 2010). Traditionally Ni-Vanuatu women have been responsible for food cropping while men are involved in cash crop production (FAO 2003).
This ethno-botanical study, conducted in the villages located in the island of Santo in Vanuatu, will describe the farming practices followed by women farmers in farms, home gardens and community spaces and ask the following questions – 1) As primary food croppers do women farmers play a decisive role in the in-situ conservation of indigenous genetic resources, maintaining resilient farming systems, and providing their families with access to a balanced diet 2) How are women’s farming efforts perceived and valued in the male-dominated Ni-Vanuatu rural societies by the community, men, and women themselves - as a domestic chore or as an economic contribution 3) How does gender influence a) access to and control over natural resources, b) differential preferences for selecting and growing crop varieties and c) different roles in food production (Gurung, Thapa and Gurung 2000) and 4) how do these social and cultural dynamics shape the gender sensitivity of policies and programs targeted at sustainable agro-development and building food security in Vanuatu.
“With equal access to productive resources and services, such as land, water and credit, women farmers can produce 20 to 30 percent more food, enough to lift 150 million people out of hunger”, (Diouf 2011). The preservation of biological diversity and plant genetic resources is key to food security. Women are responsible for providing their families with food and care and therefore have specialized knowledge of the value and diverse uses of plants for nutrition, health and income. Consequently they are often the preservers of traditional knowledge of indigenous plants (FAO 1998). Moreover, women often experiment with and adapt indigenous species and thus become experts in plant genetic resources (Karl 1996; Bunning and Hill 1996).
Despite widespread acknowledgment of the critical role that women play in sustainable agriculture and food security in developing countries, lack of synthesized data and analysis of their influence, cultural biases and gender constraints under-value and under-represent their contribution (Villarreal 2010). Much of women's work remains “invisible” (Quisumbing 1998). This lack of recognition of their efforts means that their interests and demands are often overlooked and women are excluded as an active partner and stakeholder in sustainable agro- development. For e.g., in Cameroon, an irrigated rice project did not assign women land because women were expected to work in their husbands’ fields (Quisumbing and Pandolfelli 2008).
The over-arching objective of this research using the context of women farmers in Santo Island in Vanuatu is to study if, and how women farmers contribute to the preservation of genetic resources, the cultivation of a wide diversity of crops and therefore enhance food security for small farm holder communities in developing countries. And at the same time review available evidence and documented studies that assist in understanding the representation and participation of Ni-Vanuatu women in food security and agro-development policy and decision making.
Field Site Selection and Justification
Subsistence agriculture and local food production is vital in the Pacific Islands (IPCC 2007). That small islands have high ecological dependency is well recognized (ADB 2004) with the dependence on plant genetic resources for food cropping can be as high as 80% in some island states with it being 35% in Vanuatu (Ximena 1998). Projected impacts of international food trade and climate change will hamper Vanuatu’s food security (IPCC 2007, ANR 2010). Ni-Vanuatu women are largely responsible for producing food. On average, women spend 30 percent of their time on food production (Agricultural Census, 1983-84). Yet, given the subordinated status of women in Vanuatu's culture, women's role in agriculture is not recognized in many policies, including delivery of extension services (FAO 2003). This makes the villages in the island of Santo, largely the most important farming community in Vanuatu and the principal supplier of fruits and vegetables to the Port Vila market, an ideal location for my research which looks for direct linkages between women, the preservation of bio-diversity in the form of plant genetic resources, and food security, and its subsequent representation in agricultural policy.
My overall goal at the end of this summer is to publish a policy proposal that documents empirical evidence, data and observations from my field work and contributes suggestive policies that could help realize the rights of women farmers in policies and programs focused on building food security and preserving bio-diversity across the developing countries.
Through an in-depth field research conducted in Santo Island, Vanuatu, my goal is to gather qualitative observations and quantitative data points around these themes. Research methods include ethnographic study, unstructured interviews, oral narratives and participant observation. The first few days will be spent in familiarizing myself with research groups who are already working in these villages, identifying the villages/farm sites for fieldwork, sensitizing myself to the cultural and social practices of the communities, explaining my presence to the community’s leaders and identifying collaborators. Quantitative questions include the extent of loss of bio- diversity by cash-cropping, how much time is spent on farming for commercial purposes, how much in farming for household production, how many different crops are planted and how many different varieties, what share of natural resources is available to women for food production vis-à-vis men etc. Qualitative aspects include the traditional practices followed in preserving seeds and planting material, the community's and women's perception of their role in securing food for the family, bio-diversity management and their representation in agro-development policies, and how they are adapting their traditional practices to new environmental and socio-political changes.
Personal Qualifications and Research Collaborations
Personal qualifications include past work done with a co-operative to support women farmers in southern India on similar issues, undergraduate and graduate level skills in research methods, and pertinent coursework at Yale specifically Social sciences theory and method, international environmental policy and governance, and environmental protection law. I have been in touch since mid-December with the French research organization CIRAD and VARTC (Vanuatu Agriculture Research and Training Centre) who are working in Santo. Dr. Vincent Lebot, the head of the CIRAD Vanuatu center, well known geneticist and expert on plant breeding in the Pacific Islands, has agreed to supervise my work. Official languages of Vanuatu are English, French and Bislama. I spoke beginner level French, have been taking French classes since the first term and am currently enrolled in Intermediate level French at Yale. French and colloquial English are spoken in the villages where I will be working.
- Confirm contacts, secure funds and plan on the ground arrangements
- Travel logistics
- Continue literature review, prepare questionnaires, work on research methods
- Obtain approval from the Yale Human Subjects Committee
- 1 week pilot survey, finding a guide and/or collaborator, appreciation of Bislama and introduction to the communities
- Interviews – Quantitative Questions
- Participant observations, quantitative with ethno botanical focus
- Participatory Work, Qualitative study, policy reviews and examination
- Write and finalize a paper