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The objective of this study was to identify the special agricultural extension and training needs of farmers living in small island countries, using Samoa as a specific case. The study was conducted in July 2003.


Samoa is an island group situated in the Pacific Ocean about 4 235 km southwest of Hawaii and 2 500 km northeast of New Zealand. The country’s geographic position is between 171 23° and 172 49° west longitude and 13 25° and 14 10° south latitude; thus, it is situated close to the international date line.

The islands are of volcanic origin with most of the coastal area surrounded by coral reefs. Samoa’s two major islands are Upolu, where the capital Apia is located, and Savai’i, which is the largest island. The central areas of these two islands are high, rugged lands, with Upolu’s highest point being about 1 097 m above sea level, and Savai’i’s about 1 859 m. Samoa covers a total land area of about 2 830.8 km2, with Upolu accounting for about 1 123 km2 and Savai’i about 1 707.8 km2.

The climate of Samoa is tropical, with a wet season that runs from November to April and a relatively drier season from May to October. Rainfall varies considerably according to location and season. The annual rainfall in northwestern parts of the country is about 2 300 mm, while in the highlands of Savai’i it sometimes exceeds 6 000 mm. The country was hit by two strong cyclones in 1990 and 1991, which had a serious effect on the economy.

Samoa is made up of 330 villages grouped into 41 districts for administrative purposes. In the 1999 census, the population was estimated at 170 000. Although most of these people are Polynesians, there are also some of European, Chinese and other Pacific island origins. Village populations range from a few hundred to more than a thousand, depending on the territory and distance from towns - villages near towns tend to be larger. Most villages maintain their traditional laws and customs alongside the State’s political system.

Socio-political structure and customary land tenure[1]

The social unit of Samoan life is the aiga or extended family. Each aiga is headed by a matai or titleholder who is elected by consensus among the aiga. There are two types of matai titles: alii, or chief, and tulafale. Each type plays a different role within the fono (the village council) and within the village social structure and organization. The main features and roles shared by both titles are custodianship of the family and village lands, and maintenance of family status and dignity within the village, as well as at the district and national levels.

It is important to note that control over land is obtained indirectly by acquiring the title that has the pule or authority over that land. Access to the title itself is gained primarily by descent from a previous titleholder - or occasionally through providing service to the present titleholder - rather than by descent from those who actually occupy the land.

It should be noted that not all matai have access to pule or authority over the disposition of family land. In fact, usually a senior matai transfers certain rights over part of the family land to a lesser ranking matai. Overlaps in the control and management of lands and houses often arise where there are closely related titles of different ranks. Such overlaps also occur in circumstances where a resident subordinate matai has immediate pule over his own lands and house sites, while a senior matai of the same descent group theoretically has the overriding authority. Regardless of the normative arrangements, residence and the direct use of and control over titled lands carry great weight in the continuation of arrangements (O’Meara 1990, 1993).

Many researchers have concluded that land tenure is a hindrance to development, especially agricultural development, in Samoa. However, O’Meara (1993) challenges this view by stating that “like other aspects of Samoan culture, the apparent conservatism of the land tenure system is more superficial than fundamental”. Samoan land tenure has undergone some major changes. Most land is now held by the individuals whose parents worked it in the past, and inheritance rights are assigned exclusively to these individuals. However, for reasons of security in cases when land disputes arise among the titleholders, the land is still under the custodianship of the family member with the most senior title. This type of arrangement, which maintains features of customary land tenure despite the negative views expressed by many agricultural development researchers, shows that Samoans are adapting to changing economic circumstances. The security of tenure of this modified system should therefore not be seen used as an excuse for low productivity from village agriculture.

Instead, the major cause of agricultural stagnation in villages is the low economic return to agriculture.

The economy

Samoa’s economy is predominantly village-based agriculture, with the major crops being copra, cocoa, banana and taro. Remittances from family members working overseas and external aid also play important roles. The 1999 population census indicated that 70 percent of the economically active population was engaged in agriculture and fishing. Most of the rest were in the service sector, especially the government bureaucracy. Semi-subsistence agriculture and fishing at the village and household levels remain the main source of villagers’ livelihoods.

The introduction of modern farming techniques and methods has increased agricultural production. However, plant diseases and pests have made it difficult to maintain and augment these improvements. An outbreak of a taro virus, and the weak performance of coconut oil in world markets have both hurt agricultural exports. On the other hand, the majority of the rural population still utilizes traditional planting methods for taro and other food crops, and these have shielded farmers from the risk and high cost of using inputs associated with unpredictable diseases and from unstable overseas markets.

Fishmonger carrying the fish on her head, Cape Verde

FAO PHOTO/17091/M. Marzot

The agriculture sector’s contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) has declined since the two cyclones of 1990 and 1991 and the devastating effects of the taro leaf blight during the 1990s. According to the Government of Samoa’s Statement of Economic Strategy 2000-2001, “... in 1998, agriculture contributed 12.2 percent of the GDP. This had fallen to 11.9 percent in the first half of 1999. More generally the subsistence sector of the economy contributed 16.8 percent in 1998 and 16.3 percent in 1999. Fisheries by contrast have been increasing their contribution to GDP, rising from 4.4 percent in 1994 to 6.1 and 6.9 percent in 1998 and the first half of 1999, respectively”.

However, the government has put in place strategies to enhance agricultural opportunities through revitalizing village and subsistence agriculture by strengthening extension services, establishing more farmer groups, encouraging community-based marketing and facilitating credit access (Government of Samoa, 2001).

Farming systems

As already mentioned, agriculture is a key sector in the economy and important to the lives of most people in Samoa, especially those living in rural areas. The Statistics Department defines a household as an “agricultural holding”, which is “an economic unit of agricultural production under single management comprising all livestock kept and all land used wholly or partly for agricultural production purposes, without regard to title, legal form or size. Single management may be exercised by an individual or household,[2] jointly by two or more individuals or households by a clan, or tribe or by a juridical person such as a corporation, cooperative or government agency. The holding’s land may consist of one or more parcels, located in one or more separate areas or in one or more enumeration areas, provided the parcels share the same production means utilized by the holding such as labour, farm, buildings or machinery” (Government of Samoa, 2002).

The production base of agriculture in Samoa is comprised of closely interrelated but independent production activities in the crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry subsectors. Root crop production dominates the food crops sector, with small quantities of vegetables and fruit being grown, and coconuts and cocoa mainly as cash crops. Semi-subsistence is still the dominant management system, with most agricultural activities being carried out partly for home consumption and partly for sale.

Tree crops subsector

Coconut, cocoa and small areas of kava and coffee are the main tree crops of commercial significance. Other minor tree crops are oranges, avocadoes, breadfruit, lemons, limes, mangoes and pawpaws.

The agricultural census of 1999 (Government of Samoa, 1999) recorded that 94 percent of holdings were growing coconut, and the total area under coconut was 46 300 acres (about 18 750 ha). Regarding coconut within mixed cropping systems, the combination of coconut and cocoa covered the greatest land area, but other crops such as banana, taro and taamu (giant taro) were also commonly grown with coconut.

Food crops subsector

Taro is the preferred staple crop. Conditions of well-distributed rainfall are required to ensure a continuous supply of this starchy staple throughout the year. Taro takes about seven to nine months to mature, and the second crop takes about four months. Taro production is hampered during the dry season in areas with limited rainfall. According to the agricultural censuses of 1989 and 1999, the area under taro declined from 36 600 to 10 500[3] acres (14 800 to 4 259 ha) over the ten-year period. Taro leaf blight disease was the main cause of this decrease. The area under taro is all in the household sector, and it is nearly always planted as a single crop, although some farmers mix it with taamu or Alocasia.

Taro production was greatly damaged by the two cyclones of 1990 and 1991, as were the other major crops coconut, cocoa and banana. Taro was also severely devastated by taro leaf blight virus in 1993, which resulted in the complete destruction of the taro industry - the country’s main export and domestic crop. However, the crop has since shown a slight recovery.

In the past, banana was a major export and commercial crop. However, the many diseases that attack banana, together with the high costs of the pesticides required to counter these, has resulted in this crop now being grown predominantly by small farmers for home consumption and domestic sales. Recently, however, the decline of the taro industry is leading small farmers to return to banana production; between 1989 and 1999, the area given over to banana increased from 5 600 to 10 600 acres (2 250 to 4 300 ha), according to the agricultural censuses.

Taamu (Alocasia macrorhiza) or giant taro, is also grown. This crop provides a degree of food security in a fragile food system that is based on continuous supply and no storage facilities. When supplies of the main staple taro were inadequate, taamu was the most important substitute owing to its disease-free status and good growth performance in local conditions. Yam was another important substitute during the taro blight, despite its high labour cost per unit of yield.

Vegetables and fruits

Some farmers grow small quantities of vegetables, mainly for own consumption with small surpluses being sold in the market. The main vegetables are cabbages, peas, pumpkins, green capsicums and eggplants. Taro leaf petioles are also sold at the market as vegetables. Because of the high cost of chemicals for vegetable gardens, small farmers carry out only minimal maintenance activities.

Villagers on the drier western areas of the two main islands used to grow large quantities of oranges and mandarins, mainly for sale at the main market in town. However, following the devastating effects of the two cyclones, these crops are now grown for home consumption and are of very little economic importance to small farmers.

Young farmer on tractor, Antigua and Barbuda

FAO PHOTO/12374/F. Mattioli

[1] See Lämeta, 1998; and O’Meara, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1993, 1994.
[2] A household is defined as one or more persons who live together and have their meals together (Government of Samoa, 2002). These people contribute to farming activities, i.e. planting, cultivation, weeding and harvesting. The head of household is always a titled or non-titled male. In Savai’i, 96 percent of households were considered agriculturally active (producing for home consumption only, or mainly for home consumption with some commercial), while in Upolu 65 percent were classified as such (Government of Samoa, 2002).
[3] This figure also includes Taro palagi

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