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The Forum Secretariat reports a crisis in Tonga

Auckland, New Zealand


I was recently in Tonga last August. It was an exciting trip for me because I have been away from Tonga for about 19 years. I came back about 2-3 times during that time but only for short visits. I left MAFF in 1992 to join the Institute for Research, Extension and Training in Agriculture (IRETA) as a Fellow. IRETA is based at the University of the South Pacific at Alafua, Samoa. I went to join the South Pacific Commission from Samoa and came to New Zealand after.

The reason why I came to Tonga was to organise some work I have wanted to do for a long time. I was also curious to see what the situation in Tonga was like as the Pacific Islands Business (PIB) newspaper had reported the Tongan Government is on the verge of bankruptcy. The Government, PIB reported, is not making enough money to make ends meet let alone paying some of its overseas loans. The PIB was of the opinion the Tongan Government will default on its payments.

I was surprised when I arrived in Tonga. The rebuilding in Nuku’alofa has changed the way the CBD looked totally. There were a few multi-storey buildings in town. Some of the bars that we visited were just like the bars in Auckland. The building standards and decoration inside were very good. The roads were good. It gave a general appearance of prosperity.

The only glaring difference from the Nuku’alofa I was used to was the lack of foot traffic in town. When I was in High School, the CBD was always full of people. Villagers come to town for their shopping, pay off school fees, electricity and so on. It seems they were staying away in droves. When you start looking around the villages. It becomes clear that people do not come to town as often as they used to. They probably get everything they want in the villages. Maybe the bus fare is a bit more expensive now. Tongatapu appears to be decentralised. It may affect businesses in town.

I started talking to some people in Tonga about a possible project to increase the current rootcrop export from $1 million a year to $10 million a year. Its just a matter of increasing the rootcrop production from the 25-30 containers a year to 300 containers a year. Some people think its crazy, until I tell them that Fiji exports more than 600 containers of taro and cassava to New Zealand every year. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2009) ranks Fiji as second only to China in terms of taro export volume. I think there is still room for some yams, giant taro, talo futuna, ufi lei and even taro and cassava. These are the crops that we grow best. They are organic so no chemicals or fertiliser are used.

We can also revive the banana industry and supply green bananas to Auckland. There are 200-300,000 Pacific Islanders in Auckland so there is a huge market for it. The key here is whether we can use microorganisms to control Black Leaf Streak (BLS) and bioagents to control scab moth. Chemicals make banana production uneconomical. Banana bunchy top virus and nematodes can be controlled easily. We can export 10-20 containers every 2 weeks. That would add up to 260-520 containers a year. We exported about 20,000 tonnes (1,000 containers) of bananas in 1966-1967 before the BLS knocked out the Banana Industry. The same thing happened to taro with taro leaf blight in Samoa in 1993.
We can revive the squash export industry. If we can find ways to make it more economical to plant and export we can still export up to 20,000 tonnes (1,000 containers) a year like the 1990’s. I saw a few squash plantations in Tonga during my last visit so some people are still exporting small quantities of it.

We can increase the revenue from tourism by attracting an extra 10,000 people a year. If they spend 1,000 each in Tonga that would be $10 million a year. It can be achieved easily in New Zealand. I have heard reports that cheap tourist packages from Fiji is attracting up to 10,000 people a week! That is a staggering amount. But then Fiji is a very large island. We can achieve something like that in one year and still make a big difference to the economy.
One of the things that really stumped me on my visit was the lack of fruits on the fruit trees especially mangoes. Of all the trees I saw, maybe around 20-30, only one tree had 3 fruits on it. According to the locals, the fruit trees in Tonga rarely fruit for the last 20 years or so. It is well known that a fungus is the cause of the fruit loss. I refer to it as the flower blight of tree crops. Its a fungus called Collectotrichum (scientific name). The Tongan name is mahunu. Its the same fungus that attacks the early kahokaho crops which is planted at the same time the treecrop flowers bloom. It refers (mahunu) to the “burned” appearance of the kahokaho leaves when attacked by the fungus. The new flush of mango leaves also have the same “burned” appearance.

There may be as many as 40,000-50,000 tree crops in Tonga so this is a huge loss to the country. The losses to the banana industry maybe $ 200million or more (over 40 years) if you count the interest, but the tree crop losses are in terms of nutrition. There are around 100,000 people in Tonga whose nutritional requirements are being compromised by the fungus. The only local fruits you can still buy in Tonga at the moment are pawpaw, pineapple and watermelons. If papaya ringspot virus is introduced to Tonga, it will knock out the pawpaw, for sure. Watermelons maybe knocked out by zucchini yellow mosaic virus if growers to not do their cultural control practise properly. That leaves us with pineapple but it is only available 2-3 months per year. And only a few people grow them. So the alternative is what people are doing at the moment. Pick oranges and apples in Auckland and export them to Tonga.

I am putting together a project at the moment to use microorganisms to knockout the fungus so we can enjoy our mangoes, lychees, avocadoes and so on, again. Hopefully, everything will fall into place as required so we can do it. Otherwise, the treecrops may be more useful as firewood.

It did not shock me that the Forum Secretariat trade newsletter reported the crisis in Tonga last week. We are lucky the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has given the Tongan Government a grant of $9 million to help it through the next 6-12 months. But we have to think now of what to do about the current economic situation.

We can easily make $10 million/yr from rootcrops, $10 million/yr from tourism, $10 million/year from squash and maybe $5 million/yr from bananas if we are lucky. We can try increasing fish export. We can also substitute imported fruits with local fruits. These can all be achieved within the next 5 years. It will help. Maybe during that exercise we just might have some bright ideas of selling ice to the Eskimos to save the country from going under.

Semisi Pone

semisipone [at] yahoo [dot] com