Gunilla Olsson is currently employed by the Swedish International Development Agency, Stockholm. The data for this article were collected during the course of a consultancy for UNDP/FAO project RAS/R6/036. South Pacific Forestry Development Programme.
In most of the literature dealing with Vanuatu, the reader is left with the impression that the country's forests, in spite of extensive cover, are of little or no value. This article will argue the contrary: that the forests of Vanuatu may not hold high value as timber, but their non-timber value has always been, and continues to be, of significant importance. Implications for development are discussed.
The 80 islands that make up the Republic of Vanuatu are estimated to be 75 percent under natural vegetation (Barrance, 1988). This is in contrast with the general situation in the South Pacific, where most countries have extremely limited forest cover. As part of the Second National Development Plan, 1987- 1991, objectives for the national forestry sector include improved efficiency of use of forest resources.
A regional project supported by FAO and the United Nations Development Programme is helping 14 participating countries in the South Pacific, including Vanuatu, to upgrade the status of forestry development and thereby to improve the socio-economic well-being of their people. When the project was conceived, it was clearly stated that in considering priorities for forestry development in the South Pacific it is necessary to define forestry broadly, encompassing agroforestry and non-timber/non-wood forest products. The study that forms the background for the present article was commissioned in this context.
The overall value attached to land is central to an understanding of the important role forest resources play in the lives of the people of Vanuatu. The relationship between people and the land is the most fundamental and permanent aspect of the Vanuatu culture. Traditionally the land represented life itself, both materially and spiritually. A person who did not control any land had no roots, status or power (Arutangai, 1987; Bonnemaison, 1984).
Traditionally, there was a very clear distinction between the clan's ownership of the land and ownership of the plants on the land, which belonged to the individual who had planted them. When the plants were perennial, such as coconut palms, planting became a way of permanently appropriating the land. Plants and trees remained the property of the person who had planted them, or of that person's heirs. However, the widely practiced custom of cutting down permanent crops following the owner's death helped to prevent the permanent accumulation of land by individual families (Weightman, 1989).
In the Constitution of Vanuatu, which came into force with independence in 1980, it is clearly stated that all land except that acquired by the government in the public interest (a very small portion of the total area) belongs to the indigenous custom owners and their descendants; and that the rules of custom form the basis of ownership and use of land (Hakwa, 1984). The clan chiefs act as custodians of the land and are responsible for its allocation within the social group.
In theory, every member of the clan should have access to a piece of land. The present situation, however, is somewhat problematic. There is disparity in the amounts of land held by different clans. As long as the land was primarily used for subsistence purposes, this inequality was less significant. But with the increase of cash cropping, complicated by pressure from foreign investors seeking logging concessions, the situation is changing; disputes over control of custom land are becoming the single largest threat to the development of rural Vanuatu.
In the past, non-timber forest resources played an essential role in the lives of the Ni-Vanuatu (people from Vanuatu). This was the case not only in terms of daily subsistence, but also in a wider socio-cultural and economic context. For example, trade and exchange between islands - today only nomina - used to be a very important part of the socioeconomic structure (Weightman, 1989). The islands in the south imported bows and arrows, and clubs made from Casuarina, from the island of Erromanga, which they traded for pigs; Malekulans travelled to Santo to obtain a special dye for their mats; and so on.
Changing values and these issues of land tenure and use are diminishing dependence on non-timber forest products for basic sustenance; however, the Ni-Vanuatu still value their forests and the products they provide. The following sections describe some of the uses made of non-timber forest resources, and discuss related development issues.
During the course of the present study, it became clear that progressively fewer food resources are being drawn from the forest; nonetheless, their contribution to the rural "breadbasket" is still significant. In fact, interviewees often exclaimed that they had never thought how much of their food was actually derived from the bush.
Staple food patterns have remained virtually unchanged for the past several centuries, with either yam or taro being the main crops, and bananas and breadfruit important secondary products. A number of mainly forest-based foods supplement staple crops. In most areas, a wide range of these are still available and exploited. Particularly important are sugar cane and its close relative naviso (Saccharum edule). Understorey plants, such as ferns, herbs (e.g. watercress) and Amaranthus, and the leaves of woody plants, trees, shrubs, and palms are collected from the forest and prepared as vegetables, sauces, condiments and flavouring. Three different fig (Ficus) trees are very widely used. Palm "cabbages" (e.g. Cycas and Caryota spp.) - all simply labelled "wild cabbage" - are frequently collected. During a two-hour walk along a track from one village to another, a group of women from Paama identified five cabbage species that they collected and consumed more or less regularly. It is considered particularly important to use wild cabbage and not the cultivated variety for special feasts and important occasions.
Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)
The breadfruit tree is a good example of a multipurpose species. Several different cultivated varieties are consumed, and in some places even the seeds are roasted and eaten. Apart from providing food, the trunk provides excellent raw material for canoes, paddles and traditional slitgongs. The latex sap was formerly used for caulking seams and for trapping birds, and healers still use it to treat fractures, sprains and rheumatism. The roots are also reputed to have medicinal value and the stamens are burned as a mosquito repellent.
Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)
Growing tips and young leaves of other plants are at times eaten raw, sometimes cooked, and at least in one instance pickled. Vegetable dishes are also occasionally prepared from flowers (e.g. Gnetum gnemon), which are cooked and eaten. Mushrooms are also consumed, although relatively infrequently.
It is noteworthy that several of these plants have a market value. The heart of the wild palm (Veitchia spp.) is particularly sought after; served in restaurants, it is popularly known as "millionaire's salad". Young shoots from bamboo are sold in the market of the capital Port Vila.
Pigeon, wildfowl, numerous other birds, flying fox, wild pigs, crabs, freshwater prawns and eels were all once part of the native diet. Although relatively few wild forest-dwelling fauna are now consumed, in certain parts of Vanuatu selected species are still utilized. For example, feral cows and bullocks and goats are hunted in Dillon's Bay. Two native fruit bats, Pteropus anetianus and Notepteris macdonaldi, are consumed in the household and are also served in Port Vila restaurants. The egg and abdomen of two stick insects, a brown and a green type, are also roasted and eaten.
Other forest food resources were used only in times of hunger because of the amount of work required for either their collection or their preparation. These included wild taro (Alocasia macrorrhiza), arrowroot (Tacca leontopetaloides), some species of wild yams, elephant yam (Amorphophallus campanulatus) and sago (Metroxylon).
The situation with relation to "hunger foods" changed with the introduction of the sweet potato, which can be planted at any time of the year and produce an edible crop within three months, and manioc, which can be left unharvested for as long as two years or more. The cultivation of these new crops provided almost total security against famine and provided insurance against food shortages, thus making most of the traditional famine foods obsolete. However, roots, rhizomes, tubers and corms, which all provide starch, are still collected on occasion. Most important are the wild and sweet yarns (Dioscorea spp.) that are reputed to taste far better than cultivated varieties.
The traditional beverage kava is prepared from the pulp of the woody root of Piper methysticum. The social significance of this drink, which is consumed as part of a group ceremony traditionally based on ancestor worship, goes far beyond its nutritional value. Relatively few other forest products are currently used to produce beverages. However, the thick stems of the vine Entada provide drinkable sap when cut, and Hibiscus flowers are also used to make a drink.
Vanuatu is also rich in frequently consumed fruits and nuts, from both native and introduced trees. Beyond the banana (Musa troglodytarum), mango (Mangifera indica) and guava (Psidium guajava), other cultivated fruits and nuts that are important in the diet of rural people in Vanuatu include passion-fruit (Passiflora edulis), roseapple (Syzygium malaccense), and Barringtonia edulis, Burckella obvata and Canarium indicum. Although the relative importance of these products in the diet has not been quantified, it is significant that trees, shrubs and wild plants which yield fruits and nuts are usually saved when land is being cleared for gardens, and have been preserved around village areas. Most of these fruit-bearing trees are also used for other purposes (see boxes on breadfruit, coconut, pandanus and Cycas).
Although the present study has identified uses of non-timber forest resources for food, there is an obvious need for more detailed information. Areas still to be investigated include the importance/use of forest foods in relation to other food sources, in terms of both volume and nutritional importance; and the relation between their use and household standard. Data are needed regarding which species are used and in what concentrations; who collects and why; trends in forest food consumption related to gender, age, social status; bush food preparation processes; etc.
Coconut (Cocos nucifera)
The coconut palm deserves special note, given the large area of Vanuatu devoted to coconut plantations and its multiple uses. Apart from copra, which is a principal cash crop for export, coconuts provide food and beverage for human consumption. The edible heart of the young sprout is particularly relished by children. The nut is also fed to pigs, dogs and chickens. The coconut shell is used to make utensils, ornaments and charcoal. Husk fibres are used in making a strong cord. The leaves are used to weave rough mats, baskets and brooms, and to make thatch. The secondary ribs of the leaves are also used for making skewers and brooms. Coconut oil has a variety of uses.
Coconut (Cocos nucifera)
Undoubtedly, these are all complex issues, but their investigation is essential in order to ensure that future plans for forest development take into consideration the non-timber needs of local people. Worthy of note is a recently approved research project under the auspices of the Institut français de la recherche scientifique pour le développement en cooperation, which will examine the dietary importance of fruit- and nut-bearing trees.
Fuelwood is still the major source of energy in rural Vanuatu. Supplies are generally plentiful and fuelwood is almost never sold in the rural areas. On the other hand, shortages are beginning to be experienced on some of the smaller islands, where population pressure is obvious, and in heavily farmed areas. Bundles of fuelwood are occasionally seen for sale on the road to Port Vila and in the city itself.
Even where supplies are still adequate there is an evident shift in use patterns. Selectivity in terms of species has declined significantly. Older men and women noted that species which in the past were not utilized, owing to less than optimal characteristics, are now being burnt for fuel. Nevertheless, in Erromango, where supply is ample, almost everyone asked preferred cassis (Leucaena leucocephala).
Despite these apparent changes in consumption patterns, rural people in Vanuatu do not consider fuelwood to be a commodity in short supply. This provides strong support for an argument against the development of projects or programmes aimed at the establishment of fuelwood plantations or village woodlots; such efforts would almost certainly not receive popular support. On the other hand, there is a clear need for the development of integrated management approaches to forest resources. Otherwise, with increasing population pressure fuelwood will inevitably go the way of other non-timber resources -greatly missed only once they have been depleted.
Today, although local clinics, hospitals and dispensaries are increasingly important in Vanuatu, "kastom" medicine is still widely trusted and used. The forests of Vanuatu are an extremely important and highly valued source of traditional remedies. In the course of this study it became apparent that the use of traditional medicines is often a function of proximity to the resource; if a disease can be treated, either with a herb remedy which is difficult to obtain and time-consuming to prepare, or by a visit to a nearby dispensary where medicine can be bought, the latter generally is chosen as the more convenient option. Certain diseases are, however, almost always treated by traditional medicine. These include muscle cramps or pain; fever; sexually transmitted or urinary diseases; hepatitis; and treatment against poison fish (ciguatoxin). Treatment against poison fish is of particular interest, since there is no alternative to traditional medicine.
The tree fern (Cycas) is one of the most sacred plants in Vanuatu. Its importance is such that it even figures in the country's coat of arms. The starchy pith of the plant provides a flour similar to that of the sago palm. Other parts of the tree are used in medicinal preparations intended to treat poisonous bites. Images carved out of the trunk are important symbols at funeral ceremonies, and other totems are used to delimit sacred areas.
In discussions with the nutritionists of the Government of Vanuatu and the South Pacific Commission it was confirmed that this was an area of research which is of interest in relation to nutrition and preventive health care. It was therefore agreed to examine possibilities of exploring traditional medicine practices. Reliable information in this field would help shed light on the extent to which a reduction in forest resources will affect the well-being of the people. These issues, just like those concerning bush food, merit special study.
Chemical components, extracts and exudates
Resins are sometimes, though nowadays more seldom, used for waterproofing boats and baskets, as glue, incense and fumigants. For example, the sticky fruit juice of Cordia dichotoma is used throughout Vanuatu as a temporary glue. Resin from Evodia species is used as a mosquito repellent and some Canarium was used as a light mosquito repellent and also as a canoe sealant. Older men in both Vanuatu and Tonga remember using the sap from the breadfruit tree as glue and also for trapping birds. Moreover, the sticky fruits of Pisonia umbellifera and Pisonia grandis were used to trap birds in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
The production of oil has almost altogether disappeared in Vanuatu, although the Ni-Vanuatu women speak nostalgically about grating sandalwood and boiling with coconut oil. Gardenia, Cananga odorata and other species have been used to scent oil, but are all in decline.
Bitter orange (Citrus macroptera) and lime (Citrus aurantiifolia) have existed in Vanuatu since ancient times. Improved varieties are a highly popular fruit. Wild varieties, although usually not eaten, because of their sour or bitter taste, are used instead of soap.
Pandanus (Pandanus tectorius)
Pandanus (screw pine) is historically one of the more important species throughout Polynesia and Melanesia. The English common name refers to the spirally arranged leaves and evergreen foliage. The soft, brightly coloured pulp of the fresh fruit can be eaten raw or cooked. Although infrequently used for its food value in present-day Vanuatu, it has many other important uses. The leaves provide a source of thatch for houses and for making mats and baskets. In Vanuatu, pandanus leaves are usually used for finer mats, those for presentation, land exchange or burial rites. The common mat put on the floor for daily use is generally made from coconut leaves. The sections of the pandanus fruit are used to make fragrant necklaces. The male flowers are used to scent coconut oil and sometimes the fruit and flowers are just left in a room to provide a pleasant smell. In the past, grass skirts were produced from pandanus leaves.
Pandanus (Pandanus tectorius)
Some forest plants lend colour to paint and dyes for domestic use, but today most of these colours are bought in the store. Only very old women remembered having used their own, home-prepared dye when colouring woven mats.
Many plants yield effective fish and pest poisons. An example is Derris elliptica, a vine whose roots yield a substance used both as a fish poison and as an insecticide. Three species of trees (Barringtonia asiatica, Acacia simplex and Harpullia spp.) are all used to poison fish. Parts the plants and roots are pounded or grated and thrown into the lagoon or placed into the rock crevices at low tide. The poison stuns the fish but apparently teas no harmful effect on humans who eat the catch.
The production of handicrafts for practical local use has declined dramatically. For example, the traditional bark cloth has almost completely disappeared, although it is still produced in other South Pacific island nations (see box). Beautifully carved war clubs (often made from Casuarina) and pig-knockers (made from other hardwoods) are other examples; with the decline of ceremonial practice the production of artifacts has been drastically reduced.
In some places, however, as on the islands of Ambrym and Tanna, the practice of producing certain objects for ritual use has survived. North Ambrymese still carve ornate slit-drums. On Tanna special poles are made from yeremanu to carry in ritual dances. The people in the South Malekulan bush still carve representations of the sun and the moon; special plaques for circumcision ceremonies; masks, spears and sculptures for each grade of nimanki (graded society); hand-held figures for puppet shows; and life-size models of recently dead men, called rambaramp (from palm and bamboo). The most common plant from which sculptures are made in Vanuatu is Cycas (see box).
Paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera)
As the essential raw material for traditional bark cloth (tapa), paper mulberry is one of the most important plants in the Polynesian and Melanesian sociocultural systems. Although bark cloth was produced primarily as a covering for the body, it also had the distinction of being the clothing of the gods and was therefore omnipresent at rites of birth, puberty, marriage, hospitality, war, tribute, worship, treatment of the sick and death (Scott Troxler, 1971).
Bark cloth was also used for interior decorating, and to provide partitions. Canoes were decorated with bark products and would, if there was a chief on board, carry bark-cloth flags. Bark-cloth products were also valuable in barter and formal exchange.
To manufacture the bark cloth, the bark is slit lengthwise, lifted of the felled stems and soaked in water. The bark strips are then beaten over a wooden anvil. The natural sap in the bark of the paper mulberry tree serves as an adhesive agent if the bark pieces are beaten together while still moist. It is then completely or partially dyed in characteristic traditional patterns.
In Vanuatu the manufacture of tapa was discontinued with the introduction of cotton calicoes as trade goods in the mid-nineteenth century. In Tonga and many other countries, however, it has retained its importance in religious and funeral rites and as a symbol of wealth, and is still linked with the offering and exchange of gifts. In addition, it is a high-value handicraft with good market potential.
Although many of the traditional handicrafts from Vanuatu may not hold the aesthetic appeal (to Western eyes) of similar products from other South Pacific islands, production and sale of handicrafts as tourist items or for export could, with appropriate development, represent significant economic potential. Lessons could be learned through observation of successful efforts to develop handicrafts "industries" in other South Pacific countries. On neighbouring Tonga, for example, commercial handicraft-making is an important cash earner, and several products are exported (see box on paper mulberry and bark-cloth production). In fact, according to Slatter (1984), export earnings for handicrafts totalled 1.9 million Tongan dollars and ranked behind only copra and tourism in foreign-exchange earnings. (Ed. note: see article in this issue on handicrafts development in Indonesia.)
In Vanuatu, the forest is an integral part of a traditional life-style. Yet the relationship of the Ni-Vanuatu with their forest resources is undergoing significant variation. In many cases, this change is characterized by decreasing use of non-timber forest products. However, this decrease should not be seen ipso facto as an indication of a parallel decrease in the socio-economic value of these products, or of a lack of future potential.
Many products are no longer available, owing to changes in resource exploitation. For example, many villagers claimed that forest fauna, particularly birds, had disappeared after logging. In other cases, with the increased importance of a cash economy, many of the traditional forest products are being abandoned owing to their relatively low monetary value, even though they are still seen as important. However, the costs of acquiring through cultivation and cash purchase all the products that are currently obtained from the forest would be considerable. In addition, the poor, the old and women - people who depend most heavily on non-timber forest products -would be affected with disproportionate severity.
Therefore, there is a strong argument for the full integration of non-timber priorities in overall development plans. For the forests of Vanuatu to continue meeting basic needs and increasingly to contribute to meeting new needs, the first priority will have to be to more fully understand non-timber forest resources and the needs and desires of local people, then how local knowledge and traditional systems can interact with new inputs and technologies to achieve higher-value, sustainable production.
Nationally, policy- and decision-makers at the highest level must endorse an integrated approach that takes into consideration the following issues indigenous management systems, land tenure issues; institutional mechanisms to assist local people in managing their own forest resources; the relationship of traditional values and modern management; the possibility of creating forest reserves; etc. These issues are complex; information about experiences from other countries in the South Pacific region should be sought - the South Pacific Forestry Development Programme offers an excellent mechanism for these exchanges.
At the local level, extension is urgently needed to assist local people in making well-informed decisions with regard to the sustainable management of forest resources for multiple ends. In its absence, custom owners risk being bewildered by "deals" offered by outsiders based on cash payment for short-sighted, narrow use of forest resources.
Vanuatu is at a crossroads; it is not yet too late to incorporate traditional values in modern forest management and to assist local people in managing forest resources for sustainable use.
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