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Women power in the Pacific

Sisters are doing it for themselves in rural Vanuatu, using their entrepreneurial skills to create a better future for their families.

Words: Kelsey-Rae Taylor.
Photography: Artur Francisco

Rural communities across the Pacific are facing huge challenges to their traditional ways of life due to the increasingly chaotic effects of climate breakdown. With support from Oxfam and the New Zealand public, resilient rural women in Vanuatu are finding new cultivation techniques to cope with crop failure from hotter, drier and more extreme weather. The world over, it’s been found that supporting the economic empowerment of women ultimately benefits everybody. Here are seven stories of hope and inspiration.

In the eye of the storm

Extreme weather events pose relentless challenges for 36-year-old Liliany Buktan and her family. The last tropical cyclone destroyed her chook-house and killed her chickens, wiping out her main source of income.

It was a serious blow to Liliany, who relies on money from her poultry and vegetables to sustain her family.

The family have vivid memories of the last devastating storm. “The cyclone was very strong. Me and my kids were inside the house and the kids were crying. The wind blew off the thatch roof from the house and everything inside was wet, so we had to move and live with some [other] families.

“My husband lives in Vila so it was just us at the time. The cyclone was here all day and all night, and then the next day until afternoon, and then it went down.”

Despite the wreckage, Liliany decided to stay on. She is pictured here with her one-year-old daughter Elizabeth*, standing near their home in Pinalum, a village on Malekula island.

Liliany, 36, and her daughter Elizabeth*, 1. Pinalum, Malekula, Vanuatu.

Through Oxfam’s local partner FSA, Liliany is hoping to diversify into growing crops. Learning more about vegetable planting techniques that can accommodate the dry season, Liliany can grow more resilient crops and secure a new income for her and her family.

“At the moment with this weather, I cannot plant anything because once it goes into the ground, it dies”, she says. “The cucumbers that I have, the leaves also are dying so I could not plant anything”, she says.

With training and tools from Oxfam, Liliany is slowly gaining the resources she needs to face climate breakdown head on. “We have seen the changes. With the money I earn, I use most of it for school fees and food at home. Now we’re seeing that we make more money than before.”

Concrete advantage of pineapples

Lisy Lingi from Larvat, Malekula is the matriarch of her large extended family, and a respected leader of her village’s women’s group. With training and tools provided by Oxfam’s local partner Farm Support Association (FSA), Lisy has created a successful and profitable crop garden. She is using the income to improve life for her family, catapulting them from precariousness into a stable future.

The succulent, sweeter-than-sugar pineapples that she started cultivating two years ago are Lisy’s pride and joy. Grown by the hundreds to sell at the local market, the spiky golden fruits have changed her life for the better.

By constantly improving her knowledge and growing techniques, Lisy says she has seen her earnings soar. “The income I earn from pineapples is very good. It’s better than the crops that I used to plant.”

Lisy with the pineapples she grows with support from FSA. Farm Support Association (FSA), Larvat, Malekula, Vanuatu.

One of the first things Lisy did was save up enough to build a sturdy concrete home for her extended family. She feels safer and more at ease knowing her and her family’s home is now strong enough to withstand the cyclones that occasionally power past their remote coastal community.

Lisy has experienced first-hand the challenges of frequent extreme weather and hotter temperatures. Growing the hardy pineapple fruit provides Lisy with the sweet taste of a higher, more consistent income.

“After the cyclone last year, there was no more rain until now, so the place is very dry and the crops are not growing. The sun has been strong for a very long period of time since last year until this year,” she says. “But the pineapples are growing, even if there is no rain and there’s strong sun, they still grow.”

Change maker

As the sole income earner for herself, her pastor husband and three children, Bertha Harry of Larvat, Malekula started raising poultry and growing vegetables to protect her family’s future.

Traditional sources of income, such as fish, taro and yam are under threat in Vanuatu from climate breakdown in Vanuatu. Many people in rural communities, like Bertha, are finding new crops and animals to rely on as they adapt to their new reality.

Bertha’s close-knit community has also benefited from her growing poultry trade. Recently, she used the income from her roosters and hens to help install solar lights for extra night security and visibility.

Bertha, 54, with the chickens she raises with support from FSA. Farm Support Association (FSA), Larvat, Malekula, Vanuatu.

“With the sale of my first rooster I bought solar panels. So now, in this area, in all of our houses, we have solar lights on in the night”, she says.

At 49, Bertha is also inspired to pass on what she learns about farming from Oxfam’s partners with others.

“I shared what I learned with people in south Malekula, and in exchange they gave money for the third round of roosters. We pooled the income and bought a truck together”, says Bertha.

She often travels to her home village to teach them new techniques of planting vegetables and raising roosters, so they too can learn ways to cope with the changing environment.

In the face of a future dramatically different to what she knows, Bertha is determined to find a way forward. And it is her resolve to bring others on her journey that is creating a ripple of change.

“Now that I have the business skills and ideas that FSA gave me, I feel that I can help others out whenever I want to. I am happy that I can help them”, she says.

Winds of change

Forty-five-year-old Unes Sam of the Vanuatu island of Malekula, is skilled in the art of traditional pandanus weaving. This is her main source of income – but the money she earns from selling vegetables and raising animals has been crucial to improving her family’s quality of life.

Her husband lives with a disability and is unable to work, so Unes supports him and their three children by herself. She is pictured here with her daughter Jeannette*, aged 10, in front of their new home.

Unes, 45, and her daughter Jeannette*, 10, in front of the home they built with income from their pigs and goats. Pinalum, Malekula, Vanuatu.

There are frequent threats to Unes’ livelihood. Cyclones are common in Vanuatu, and Pinalum, the coastal village where she lives, has seen its fair share of devastation. The flimsy thatch dwellings that most of her community live in are no match for the brutal winds of a cyclone.

This used to be reality for Unes’ and her family. Now she sits proudly in front of the concrete house she had built for her family, a home that would not have been possible without the extra income she has pursued. “I just opened up an account for my 16-year-old son where I can do his saving. Now when I sell animals, I put some money into his savings account as well… for his school fees.

“It’s better than before, because I see that I have more income when I sell the animals. Now that I have the animals, I find that there is more money if I want anything.”

With support from Oxfam’s local partner FSA, Unes is continuing to develop the knowledge and resources she needs to confront the diverse challenges of climate breakdown. She says, “They help us, tell us how to care for our crops during the dry season and do composting, so that we can look after our gardens. If I have questions on how to look after my animals I ask them, and I am happy when they tell me how to do it so I can care for my animals properly. The money that I received from the chickens has helped me a lot.”

Sweet success

At least once a day Yvette Tahapat takes the journey to her gardens, trekking up a jungle path from her house, through the dense scrub and tumbling vines of Vanuatu’s Brenwei, Malekula.

Verdant plots with seemingly endless rows of leafy vegetables and fruit stretch out, all tended to by her and her husband. It is hard work, but rewarding.

Yvette, 45, and her daughter Grace*, five, are pictured here in the fruit and vegetable patches that have helped put all of her children through school. The field’s abundant yields are the result of years of hard work put in by Yvette, improving planting techniques, testing different crops and utilising the best tools and advice from the not-for-profit Oxfam, and its local partners.

Yvette, 45, and her daughter Grace* (5) in the fruit and vegetable patches she and her husband maintain with support from FSA. Farm Support Association, Brenwei, Malekula, Vanuatu.

Through good management, Yvette makes the income go a long way. “I use some for my kids’ school fees and for myself at home. I put some away as savings, and I help other families as well – two other families of my relatives. So that’s a total of 21 people that I am supporting with the money”, she says.

Over the years of cultivating her vegetable and fruit gardens, Yvette has seen her family’s quality of life improve. Their income is higher and more consistent, so she has put it towards her children’s future – ensuring their expenses are covered and they are able to finish their education.

“There was a change when I joined FSA [a local Oxfam partner]. In the past, it was hard. When my kids came to me and asked for something, I didn’t have anything to give them,” says Yvette. “I see now that when my kids come to me asking for this or that, I have enough money put aside that I can support them with what they need.”

Female-funded infrastructure

Makin Lingi, also from Larvat, Malekula is new to the pineapple trade. Having seen her family work with Oxfam’s team to improve their planting techniques, she has seen how small changes to traditional crop-growing can lead to fruitful results.

Recently, an unusually long dry, hot spell presented a particular challenge, as yam and taro and other traditional crops Makin usually plants kept withering and dying.

“We plant crops, but there is not enough rainfall and the sun is too strong”, says Makin. “There is no more rain. It’s just sunny and dry. There are rivers but they are far, so we have to travel by truck to collect water in another village.”

Makin, 43, with her pineapples. She is being supported with new techniques for planting by Oxfam partner FSA. Farm Support Association (FSA), Larvat, Malekula, Vanuatu.

Pineapples are hardier than other crops and improved growing techniques usually means a higher profit margin and more consistent income throughout the year. Nonetheless, for the women, water is a precious commodity to sustain their crops and livelihoods.

Part of the challenge of increased water scarcity is having a safe, clean storage method for when the rains come. So, after the last pineapple harvest, the women in the community used some of the proceeds to install a brand-new water tank, giving them a local water source for the first time in the community’s history.

“If the tank is full, the community will be very lucky because we won’t have to go get water from elsewhere”, says Makin.

For 43-year-old Makin this is a life-changing moment. She and the other farmers sustaining their families will no longer have to rely on expensive, faraway water sources to keep their crops alive during increasingly common dry periods. And it’s the first milestone of many, as Makin and her community work together to deal with the ongoing challenges of climate breakdown.

Growing new ways

Leitamat Tavpthan and her husband together own a sizeable vegetable garden and poultry farm in the surrounds of their Brenwei, Malekula home, in rural Vanuatu.

Morsen, 51, and Leitamat, 50, and the veges they grow with support from Oxfam partner FSA. Farm Support Association (FSA), Brenwei, Malekula, Vanuatu.

Their long-time involvement with Oxfam’s local partner, FSA, has helped them change their family’s lives for the better. Thanks to income from the family’s vegetable gardens, Leitamat and her husband’s four now-grown children were all able to finish school and go on to university or skilled jobs.

Despite the long-term success of their garden and poultry farming, the couple now face new struggles relating to climate breakdown and the extreme weather it brings. During cyclone season, the cargo ship that brings chicken feed to the remote island where they live is often delayed, so they struggle to find alternatives to feed their chooks.

Water shortages are also increasing, bringing challenges for both their family and their livelihood. They say the dry seasons are getting longer and hotter, and the same vegetables they used to grow no longer survive in the scorching ground.

“The weather is changing”, says 50-year-old Leitamat. “In the past it was different. Now when there is rain, the ground floods because the sun is so strong that the soil is very dry and hard. And now it happens every year.”

Leitamat is passionate about helping other women to learn new techniques to cope with the changes to their traditional way of life.

“Last month, I raised awareness with the women in Unmet, the next village over, where I shared my experiences as to how I plant my crops and vegetables. They’re very interested and slowly I am seeing that because of what Oxfam and FSA have done in our community, the women are coming up,” she says.

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