Indigenous People Story

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Nonouti Island, the 10th island in the Southern Kiribati is one of the driest islands in the Kiribati chain with a population of 2,530.The 33 low-lying scattered atolls are vulnerable to climate change. Nonouti Island is no exception to prolonged droughts which is frequent in the Southern Kiribati where the island is situated. The drought kills many giant swamp taro (Cyrtosperma merkusii) plants on the island depriving the locals of their source of carbohydrates and other important minerals derived from the edible corm. The roots need to be cooked for hours to reduce toxicity in the corms which is rich in nutrients, especially calcium. Persistent droughts changed the locals eating habits and cultivation dramatically over the past decades due to threats by rising sea level caused by global warming. Traditionally, swamp taro pits have been historically dug by hand by ancestors hundreds of years ago to a width of 17+ metres or more with a depth of 3+ metres.

In Nonouti, a different swamp taro cultivar known locally as the “ikaraoi” with bigger corms weighing about 20 kilograms are reserved for very important occasions or funtions. Another cultivar known as “katutu” with smaller leaves and corms are eaten daily with fish, coconut or breadfruit when its in season. In traditional cultures, swamp taro (ikaraoi) presence in family big events such as weddings, birthdays, funerals, when a girl reaches womanhood (first menstrual period) and gifts is highly praised. Unfortunately, climate change is affecting the growth of swamp taro which is a staple diet for Nonouti people including the rest of the islands. Intrusion of saltwater coming from underground through the freshwater lens have led to a mass destruction of the entire swamp taro pit causing hundreds of swamp taro plants to wither and die thus causing farmers to abandon its cultivation. Swamp taro staple die gradually changed to imported plain rice and flour. And imported foods come with imported diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. Both diseases are on the rise causing many young people with amputated legs and strokes.

Swamp taro cultivation can be quite a strenuous task. It’s a back-bone breaking task! It requires physical manpower which is one of the reasons people living in these islands hundreds of years ago were physically and mentally fit. Barenaba Itaia fits the picture. He is one of the lucky men inheriting his father’s 3 swamp taro pits in his home island of Nonouti. As a teenager he attended the Roman Catholic’s College in the capital, Tarawa. Having completed his studies he married his wife, Takatu and moved with her to live with her parents on her home island of Makin, the first island north in the Kiribati Group. Makin Island is the exact opposite of Nonouti. It has a fertile soil and being a rainy island swamp taro is the staple diet on the island. Swamp taro is abundant on the island and thrives luxuriously in its rich soil. Barenaba and his young wife spent 8 years in Makin constructing their home garden and spend most of their time working in the swamp taro pits. Takatu, Barenaba’s wife said that they love planting food crops including ornamental plants and that’s what they planted in her home garden at Makin.

In 2004, Barenaba finally took his wife and 2 children to his home island of Nonouti. What awaits him left him speechless. With the passing away of both his parents when he was away studying, he found that he has no home. No house. No nothing. His close relatives know the situation he was in and they welcomed and took Barenaba and his family to live temporarily with them while they helped Banarenaba build a new home for his family to return to. Barenaba took his family to their new home. The first thing he did was visiting the 3 old swamp taro pits he inherited from his father about 20 metres from his dwelling house. What he saw were the last few stunted swamp taro plants scattered in a sorry state. He was just in time to rescue them as they were about to wither and die. He spent days discussing ways of reviving the pit with his wife and to plant as many swamp taros as they could get to fill in the 3 pits. They came up with a plan and within weeks of their arrival, their plan materialized. The couple started off by digging the pit further down. The work was tough but Barenaba and his wife kept digging daily for months exposing the freshwater lens and preparing the pit before planting the swamp taro.

It was more than a year when finally, Barenaba and his wife managed to fill 2 swamp taro pits. They could only plant 2 cultivars of the 11 known cultivars found and grown in Kiribati. They now cultivate “ikaraoi” and “katutu” cultivars. The couple’s sheer determination had paid off. Their swamp taro pit and plants is the most successful on the island. Barenaba and his wife loved challenges. When they joined KOIFAWP in 2006 and were asked to remodel the pits to terraces, they did not hesitate but readily agreed to give it a go. The swamp taro now is planted with kangkong at the bottom of the pit on the freshwater lens, taro plants on the next tier above, on second tier cassava, spinach and above ground level are papayas, drumsticks, breadfruits, pumpkins, kumara and many others. Barenaba Itaia and his family lack nothing. The swamp taro, “ikaraoi” cultivar is readily available for all kinds of special occasions.

In Nonouti, the traditional and cultural demand for “ikaraoi” for mwaneaba’s functions are held annually. On such occasions, names are called within the community where the head of a household presents the biggest corm from his swamp taro plant to be scrutinized by all. (A mwaneaba is like a meeting hall; it’s a big square house for community meetings and open on all sides and can accommodate hundreds of people).

Furthermore, over 300 hundred food crops, leafy vegetables, fruits, roots or corms are all grown in a small space which are available all the time to feed Barenaba Itaia’s family. Money is not lacking either. People in his community and from afar buy fresh vegetables from his farm. The couple provides cuttings to other famers free of charge and even shouts his surplus crops. Barenaba’s indigenous swamp taro farm is one of the most successful and sustainable farms on Nonouti Island.

“Where there’s a will; there’s a way”, he says.