Tonga: “Dirty hands help family survive”

Monday, March 08, 2010

For Jessica, the garden is the family’s lifesaver. It helps her feed her grandchildren, earn a small income and protect the environment the people of her Tongan village rely on.

Jessica is part of a women’s programme supported by Christian World Service (CWS) whose partner, the Tongan Community Development Trust (TCDT), works with village women’s groups to improve health, food security, water access and income. They receive training, plants and ongoing assistance to develop organic home gardens, harvest rainwater, beautify the villages and protect coastal areas from erosion.

Another woman, Ana Hefa, also grows a wide range of plants. These provide food for the family and a surplus to sell at markets. The vegetable and traditional crops enable women to feed their children without spending the cash they rarely have. They also grow medicinal plants, flowers and pandanus, which is used for weaving. The flowers enable families to make their own leis (garlands) and wreaths for visitors and ceremonies instead of having to buy them.  The programme is also working to make Tongans less dependent on imported food.

In the past women were isolated, say the group members, even though all women faced similar hardships. Thanks to the TCDT, women now have access to training, better education, are becoming comfortable in leadership roles, and are more involved in local politics.

In Ana and Jessica’s village, the women enjoy working together. They are planning to build a shelter so they can weave their pandanus communally and protected from the rain. The handcrafts they produce will provide a small income.

For many Tongan villages, the struggle for food, health and income is now threatened by climate change and rising sea levels. In Lifuka, for example, coastal erosion can no long be ignored. Strong wave actions are digging into coastal land, uprooting plants and vegetation, destroying homes and local ecosystems. Weather patterns are changing - too warm in summer or cold in winter – which is depleting fisheries and agricultural production.

The TDCT is appealing for support from the international community. “We may not contribute much to the problem but our island environment and people are definitely suffered from the negative impacts of climate change.” In the meantime, it is doing what little they can.   One key action is coastal forest and vegetation restoration to mitigate the sea’s encroachment. The TDCT is also working on disaster preparedness to help communities deal with cope with environmental damage.

The work of TDCT is like that of many CWS partners. Enabling people to help themselves at the local level while engaging in and challenging the larger global processes that underlie Pacific poverty and environmental destruction.