|The Courier N° 150 - March - April 1995 - Dossier: Refugees - Country Reports: The Bahamas, Guyana (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)|
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A success story in the Pacific
by Carlos Saavedra Rodriguez del Palacio
Fiji is a country of more than 300 islands in the south-west Pacific It has white, sandy beaches fringed with coconut palms, clear waters for diving, wonderful landscapes both on land and at sea, a variety of cuisines and a rich and interesting culture. The traditional lifestyle. which had been practised for centuries. was not surprisingly affected by the arrival of the Europeans (Abel Tasman sighted the islands in 1643 and Captain Cook landed for the first time in 1774). Sandalwood forests were discovered and these were immediately exploited by various companies who brought new colonists known as the 'beachcombers'. Living alongside the Fijians, they brought with them knives and firearms and some became mercenaries, playing a decisive part in the wars between local chieftains. Between 1820 and 1850. traders became less interested in sandalwood. turning instead to sea cucumbers, which are highly prized in Chinese cuisine. At the same time, groups of missionaries appeared on the scene introducing the Christian religion to the islands (and putting an end to the practice of cannibalism).
An event which was to have considerable influence on the subsequent development of Fiji's social structure was the arrival of Indians at the end of the 1800s. The British brought them to their new colony to cultivate sugar cane, usually under very harsh conditions. Since that time, the Indian community has grown in numbers, taking control of much of the country's commercial life and raising their standard of living in the process. Now adays, the two race structure of Fijian society (49% native Fijian, 46% Indian) is the main cause of political and social instability. This was clearly illustrated in the military coup (albeit largely bloodless) which occurred following the victory of a coalition made up of the majority Indian party and the Labour Party, at the 1987 election. In economic terms, this event had serious negative repercussions Subsequently, a new constitution was promulgated, based on a parliament in which the majority of seats were reserved for Fijians.
Sugar under pressure
The battered Fijian economy is not helped by the climate of instability and concerns about the nature of the new political system, although overseas aid and tourism have gradually been restored. The economic backbone of the country is still sugar cane, which is worked overwhelmingly by members of the Indian community. Before 1988, sugar represented 60% of total exports but this figure has fallen to 40% (as measured over the last three years). The liberalisation of world trade brought about by the GATT represents a serious threat to the country's economy since Fijian sugar would probably not be competitive without the preferences and support it currently enjoys.
Some years ago. a project to research into alternative crops to sugar cane was begun in a deprived region of Vanua Levu, the archipelago's second largest island. At the time, the main aim was to produce an acceptable amount of citrus fruits, but the project proved unsuccessful. It had a positive side, however, in that it demonstrated the adaptability of the pineapple crop to the region's dry climate. This was the origin of the micropineapple project (MPP) financed jointly by the Fijian Government and the European Union through the European Development Fund.
Marketing integrated into project
The MPP is being developed in Western Vanua Levu, a region which is short of resources and inhabited principally by Indian farmers. The greatest concentration is at Labasa, a dusty town reminiscent of the Wild West. The main sugar mill is here, together with branch offices of the Ministry of Primary Industries which is in permanent contact with the Segaga Research Station where the offices, cold rooms, nurseries and packing facilities are housed Normally. agricultural projects are strongly geared to production. In order to reach targets. emphasis is usually placed on preliminary studies, good technical assistance, adequate infrastructure and short training courses for the rural population and others In this case, the subsequent marketing stages are also the responsibility of those running the project -something which is less common with projects of this type According to Aad Van Santen, a Dutch technical assistant who was also involved in the earlier citrus scheme, this is crucial for the project's success 'There is', he says. 'direct communication between seller and producer, and in this type of market for fresh produce, a rapid reaction is extremely valuable' Thus, for example, questions from the importer such as 'Can you tell me today if I can have 10 COO more pineapples for next week?' or 'At what temperature do I have to store the fruit from the last shipment?' require a quick and specific response unencumbered by red tape. Direct management from Segaga means that, each week, New Zealand receives 5000 pineapples of excellent quality which last scarcely a day and a half in the supermarkets. Fruit which does not reach optimum export quality is sold locally, thus ensuring that the entire product is marketed.
From this description, it may seem that everything is clear cut and simple. But. in fact, it has taken five years to achieve the first exports and not all the initial objectives have yet been accomplished. This is not to devalue the hard work undertaken by the expatriate officials and technical assistants involved. To complete an agricultural project which meets all of its targets is undoubtedly difficult, especially when it is an 'integration' project relying on the active participation of local workers and farmers. In Fiji, the pace is more relaxed. 'Here, things have a particular rhythm, two or three times slower than in Europe, but things do get done and they get done well, comments Naren Pandaram, manager of the Farmers' Cooperative which organises project management and which will continue to operate independently once the project is completed. 'If, for example, a distant relative dies', he continues, 'a worker will have to be away for up to a week in order to be present at the lengthy funeral ceremonies. He needs time to travel to his village, which might be on any one of the hundreds OF islands in the archipelago.'
The Micro-Pineapple Project has a fairly simple structure. First, a number of farmers prepared to devote part of their land to cultivating pineapples were chosen, these farmers having, in one way or another, already produced the crop on a minor scale for their own consumption. Short training courses and on going technical assistance gave them an introduction' to the use of suitable fertilisers and the necessary machinery. The nursery produces 500 000 seedlings each year and these are distributed among more than 100 farmers, according to a set weekly order. so that there is continuous production of pineapples throughout the year. Once the fruit has reached the required degree of maturity, it is harvested, selected, washed and classified according to size.
It is then placed in suitable packaging and kept in cold rooms for subsequent shipment to the New Zealand market. The infrastructure of roads, off ices, cold room and packing plant is funded by the project's budget, but the actual farmers, working through the Cooperative, have to pay back the costs of fertilisers and seedlings once the fruit has been sold.
Challenge to increase production
There is no doubt that the MPP has been a success. For one thing. it has demonstrated the viability of pineapple cultivation in the area, something which many people and even some technical researchers were reluctant to believe. Moreover, private funds have begun to be invested in this sector and a south Korean businessman already has a considerable acreage turned over to pineapples. In addition. the fruit which is harvested each week and sent to New Zealand is of much higher quality than pineapples from Australia or Hawaii, according to the actual sellers who are beginning to demand more 'Fiji pineapples', the name under which it is marketed. Actually meeting this considerable demand is the greatest challenge facing the cooperative in the coming years. Distributors in New Zealand require a constant supply estimated at approximately 50 000 fruits per week. This suggests considerable scope for improving market share among the Fijian growers. There has also been a study which suggests that a suitable promotion and marketing campaign could raise demand in New Zealand to 250 000 pineapples per week.
An increase in production with a view to achieving a sustainable level, will require further land to be put under cultivation and will involve most of the farmers in the cooperative, with the concomitant use of more fertilisers and the construction of new access roads and another monitoring office in the expansion zone. It will also be necessary to rely more on trained and experienced local workers.
So, when will it be possible to regard the project as completed? Although we accept that several objectives have been achieved, we must also realise that, at the moment, the project would not survive a hypothetical withdrawal of aid. At the present time, cooperative members are beginning to receive the first profits from sales. They are earning enough to feed themselves and their families and to cover household expenses. but not to put funds aside for expansion. Moreover, many applications from local farmers to join the cooperative have to be turned down simply because the group does riot have the capacity to supply the necessary seedlings. The logical step would appear to be expansion of the MPP. 'We must continue with this project up to the time when local workers are capable of working on a large scale in the postharvest phase', believes Mr Van Santen. He adds, 'for many years. we have been telling the beneficiaries what to do and, unfortunately, many of them have become accustomed to this situation We need a bit more time to teach them and to give them the confidence they need to take on responsibility and to make their own decisions'.
As things stand, a further five-year phase might therefore be merited although there is currently no formal proposal for this. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestries in Fiji could seek not only to consolidate the successes of the first phase, but also to diversify into other species of tropical fruits. such as mangoes or papayas, for which the prospects on the Japanese, Australian, New Zealand or Canadian markets are formidable These are questions for the future. Let us hope that, within a few years, it will be possible to publish a follow up to this article describing commercially viable pineapple production on Vanua Levu.