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Water, food and trade: Impact on the Pacific Islands

The 6th reflection of the Seven Weeks for Water 2020 is by Athena Peralta and Dr Manoj Kurian, programme executives of the World Council of Churches Economic and Ecological Justice programme and Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, respectively.
Water, food and trade: Impact on the Pacific Islands

Photos: Albin Hillert/WCC, Nikos Kosmidis/WCC

The 6th reflection of the Seven Weeks for Water 2020 is by Athena Peralta and Dr Manoj Kurian, programme executives of the World Council of Churches Economic and Ecological Justice programme and Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, respectively. In this reflection, they are focusing on the perils of cash crops such as sugarcane, produced primarily for exporting, threatening to impact the freshwater levels of Fiji. Over-dependency on food import for its sustenance is not a sustainable practice.

Text: Exodus 23: 25-26

"25Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, 26and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span.”

Reflection

Small islands in the Pacific share common economic and ecological challenges. Because of their size, space to grow food is limited and many are overly dependent on imports to feed people. At the same time, their remoteness combined with temperamental markets contribute to soaring food prices, sowing hunger and malnutrition among the income-poor.  Though they are least responsible for global greenhouse gas emissions, small islands are also especially vulnerable to the ravages of climate change, causing sea-level rise, coastal erosion and in the case of some low-lying atolls, eventual inundation; contamination of water supplies and water insecurity; and unpredictable and increasingly disastrous weather events that are upending the livelihoods of ordinary farmers and fisherfolk.

The bittersweet story of Fiji sugar is set against this background and highlights the intersections between water, food and trade, especially in the current era marked by a warming climate and economic globalisation.

From the plane approaching Nadi International Airport in Fiji, the vast sugarcane plantations in the island of Vitu Levu are revealed. Fiji has been producing sugar for export, particularly to the United Kingdom and other European countries, since colonial times. At its peak, the industry comprised the largest chunk of the economy and brought indentured labourers from India to toil in the sugarcane fields and mills. Till today, working conditions in the industry remain difficult and in recent years farmers have protested over falling prices for their harvests.

Battered by the expiration of the Cotonou trade agreement and by Hurricane Winston in 2016, Fiji sugar is now struggling to compete with cheaper sugar from neighboring Australia and faraway Brazil. Once the country’s main source of employment, many jobs have been lost.

There are other impacts. Do you know that it takes around 1,782 liters of water to come up with one kilogram of sugar? This is the virtual water that is needed to produce agricultural and other commodities. For Fiji which is beginning to experience water scarcity linked to climate change, the virtual water embedded in sugar production cannot be overlooked.

There are lessons to be learned here. Cash crops for export, such as sugarcane, are rarely vehicles toward “development.” They are often beholden to skewed trade relationships that privilege wealthier, more powerful countries as well as to precarious weather patterns and worsening water shortages. Sugar cannot feed communities.  A country that imports 60% of its food requirements [1], thanks to an emphasis on sugarcane cultivation, is not sustainable, particularly because of the stress on water resources.

The Exodus text promises an abundance of food and water if we worship God, our Creator and Life-giver. Worshipping God means loving your neighbour and taking great care of creation. We can learn a lot from ancient Indigenous Oceanic wisdom that appreciates the profound connection between nature and sources of livelihoods; as well as from Indigenous practices reflected in the Kava ceremony[2] that promote values of sharing and reciprocity and a return to small-scale cultivation of local and diverse food crops that are nutritious, climate-resilient, and place little pressure on precious water supplies.

Questions

  1. How are water, food and trade connected in your context?
  2. Can you provide other examples of virtual water?

Actions

  1. As consumers let us reflect on how we may be outsourcing water depletion in another country or region through our consumption of imported food products.
  2. Let’s discuss how we can as churches and congregations advocate for just trade policies as well as promote life-giving agriculture that supports our local farmers, nourishes our communities and protects our water supplies and environs.

Resources

https://twitter.com/eurogeosciences/status/514853083629633537

https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-programmes/diakonia/economy-of-life/roadmap-for-congregations-communities-and-churches-for-an-economy-of-life-and-ecological-justice


[1] http://www.fao.org/3/a-an415e.pdf

[2] https://royaldavuifiji.com/the-traditional-fijian-kava-ceremony/