Malaeolemā Alipia, 64, quickly chopped up freshly picked cucumbers from her garden and stirred them into a pot of tinned fish that was simmering on the open fire.
Hanging by the door of the outside kitchen is a basket of cooked taro from yesterday’s umu, an above ground oven of hot volcanic stones, that will go with the meal.
Her daughter, Lisa, had boiled the kettle and scooped in a generous dollop of freshly pounded Samoan koko, and stirred in the right amount of sugar, to complete the lunch.
The cucumbers, koko and taro all came straight from the family’s four-hectare vegetable garden and which wraps around their house.
Malaeolemā’s husband, Motuoaoa Aulia Alipia, 69, was in the garden, preparing to plant the next batch of cabbages in neat rows. Meanwhile, three bundles of freshly cut pandanus leaves, to be used for weaving mats, were lying by the roadside ready to be picked up by their new owner.
The Alipia family lives in the village of Auala, with a population of 900 is one of the remotest on the island of Savaii, the biggest of Samoa’s four main islands.
Unlike other villages in this area, water is not a problem for the family because they live a few metres from a reservoir.
The rocky land is not conducive to farming, so the family needed a lot of help in turning conditions around.
Motuoaoa is industrious and friendly. His passion for farming became his full-time job which has allowed him to support his family.
“It’s such a joy.”
“It is such a joy to see actual fruits of your hard labour when you wake up each morning and look outside, and be greeted by eggplants, cucumbers, pumpkins, lemon trees, cocoa trees and coconuts all bearing much fruit. Farming is a very rewarding line of work because you can actually see what can come from your own sweat and hard work,” he says.
The couple has nine children, five of whom live overseas, and 20 grandchildren. They are originally from the village of Leulumoega in Upolu, but they moved to Auala several years ago when Motuoaoa saw the potential in the land.
“I knew that I can make a decent living from working the land; and I have. This farm has put my children through school, and they have all ended up well, contributing to our family, church and our village meaningfully in various ways,” he says.
Three of his children and their children live on the farm and they all have a part to play. They grow cucumbers, tomatos, peas, pumpkin, eggplant, pineapple and cabbages as well as oranges, yam, taro, banana, cocoa, choko and ta’amu. They also grow ginger and turmeric between the main crops.
The Alipia farm is one of what are called ‘model farms’, created under the Strengthening Multi-Sectoral Management of Critical Landscapes (SMSMCL) project which aims to reverse the serious problem of large-scale land degradation.
Past attempts to address the problem have been fragmented.
With the support of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) the project promoted sustainable land management to improve food, water and energy security. Plants such as legumes, which fix nitrogen in the soil, were planted in critical landscapes.
That’s what Motuoaoa and about 20 other local farmers did, and they noticed a marked improvement in the quality of their produce,
Making a tangible difference
The project was funded by the Global Environment Facility via UNDP and implemented by the Government of Samoa. Costing about US$5 million, it was carried out over five years.
Farmers like the Alipias, as well as community organizations, youth groups, students and church groups in 126 villages around Samoa have benefitted, and at least 16,760 hectares of agricultural and forest land have been improved.
Food security has improved as farmers have been encouraged to diversify away from taro, but change was slow because taro was an important source of food and income for many.
The project recognized that a shift from mono-cropping to mixed use had to come from the community, which was why it was critical to help community groups who took the lead.
It also introduced climate-resilient food and tree crops.
Motuoaoa’s farm is also one of the main suppliers of vegetables and fruits for other families in the village and neighbouring areas. The family ships about 100 cartons of freshly made Samoan koko every week to be sold at their daughter’s shop on Upolu island.
Motuoaoa has become a household name in his region. The villagers stream to his farm to buy pandanus leaves and other in-season produce.
One of his most significant contributions was mentoring young farmers from the nearby village of Sataua. The youth group from the Congregational Christian Church in the village needed help as they began learning to farm.
“Sharing of knowledge and skills is one of the hallmarks of this project. It actively encouraged this. Motuoaoa was one of the stars of the project, and we wanted to capitalize on his traditional knowledge and expertise to duplicate his success to other farms, especially those starting out,” says Project Manager Talie Foliga.
Bringing everyone together
Churches also play a vital role by encouraging nature conservation. This aligns with the community’s common belief that land is a heritage from God.
The project was designed to involve government ministries and organizations, the private sector, academic institutions, local communities and the international donors working collaboratively to ensure families such as Motuoaoa’s see the full potential of their land and enable them to provide for themselves, and for those to come.
“I have now ventured into planting forestry trees for timber. That’s my bank for my children’s future. I’ve told them that the trees I’ve planted now won’t be useful to me, as I’ll be long gone when they mature, but those trees will be for them and their families,” he says.