Agritourism promotes food traditions in Palau


Rose Ongalibong shows off the pinkish-purple powder in a small bag. "It's taro flour," explains the genial retiree at her home on Palau's largest island, Babeldaob.

With its distinctive heart-shaped leaves, taro is traditionally cultivated by Palauan women in plots of land around the shores of this tiny Pacific country. The root crops provide a source of starch and have historically served as a symbol of wealth and an object of ceremonial exchange. It is also a key ingredient in Palau's plans to make its tourism industry more sustainable, more environmentally friendly and a more level playing field for women and men.

The slow food community, which Rose and a group of her female neighbours started last year, is an example of how Palau's Sustainable Tourism Value Chain Programme is being put into action with FAO support. For the community members, it's a chance to refocus on taro cultivation traditions, while also finding new, innovative uses for the product.

Traditionally, Palauans have eaten taro plainly boiled, served with fish caught in the ocean that surrounds them. However, in a recent workshop, Rose says, "We made pasta, noodles, pasta sauce, cookies, bread and brownies," using the taro flour and learned how best to package the products. "The potential is really big," she says. Meanwhile, Rose and her fellow group members are also working to bring back tourism to an ancient village and its taro gardens, which had been abandoned.

Tourism is the most significant driver of Palau's economy, although arrivals were slashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Micronesian nation is determined to build back better with this multi-faceted project. Among the elements supported by FAO are a tourism value chain assessment focusing on the involvement of women, a database of heritage foods and processing practices, an inventory of local agroecological and cultural diversity and training workshops for producers aimed at improving nutrition.

This sustainable tourism value chain programme is supported by the FAO Mountain Partnership, as well as the sub-programme, Empowering women in food systems and strengthening the local capacities and resilience of SIDS in the agrifood sector, which is funded by several resource partners under FAO's Flexible Multi-Partner Mechanism.

With Sustainable Travel International and Slow Food International as the other implementing partners, a key part of the programme is a carbon calculator, supporting Palau's goal of turning itself into the world's first carbon neutral tourism destination country. The calculator will help visitors work out the carbon footprint of their trip and make a financial contribution towards offsetting it locally through designated carbon sequestration sites and supporting sustainable food production.

Lukes Isechal, Acting Director of the Bureau of Marine Resources, says, "We already have a network of protected areas, particularly Ngermeduu Bay, which is a large estuary lined by mangroves. I think that is the best suited potential carbon sequestration site."

Women's contribution to value chains

As Rose explains, not everyone has grown up steeped in the taro traditions. "We are learning. I am new at this. I did not really go to the taro patch when I was young, or I did but I didn't really pay attention."

According to Jennifer Koskelin Gibbons of the Friends of Palau National Marine Sanctuary, "Making sure that those traditional practices survive does a couple of things: one, it's sustainable by definition. Two, it contributes to reinforcing our culture and making sure that these intellectual properties of knowing how to fish and how to farm are passed down from generation to generation, but also it gives us an economic opportunity of showcasing it for visitors: this is how we've lived for generations and you get to be a part of it if you visit Palau."

Palauans pride themselves on being part of a matrilineal society, where women have a powerful role, though inequality in certain realms is still prevalent. "It is important to create spaces where they can talk and exchange and recognise inequalities that affect their capacity to develop their full potential," says FAO gender specialist, Alejandra Safa. Among the issues that women have raised are the difficulty of getting bank loans, acquiring titles to land and managing a heavy day-to-day workload, she says.

The project aims to reinforce women's contribution to sustainable value chains by helping women learn new skills, get improved access to finance and better negotiate their roles within the family and community.

It is crucial that the tourism initiative supports vulnerable families, including single mother households for example. "We need to help those [farmers] do what they always do, but how can we tweak it to make it something attractive for an outside person to experience," says environmental consultant and gender researcher, Ann Kitalong.

Reducing reliance on imports

An important priority for Palau is to reduce its dependence on food imports, which accounts for up to 90 percent of the nation's consumption. This is a reality for a great number of SIDS. Palau has set a target of producing most of its own food by 2025.

For the last two years of the global pandemic, "all we talk about is food security," says Rose, citing concern over potential disruption to food supplies arriving by ship. As FAO's project focuses on SIDS and creating a sustainable tourism value chain, the experience of Palau is sure to provide insights worth considering for the other small island states scattered around the world's oceans. Mountain Partnership project coordinator, Giorgio Grussu states, "The aim is to link tourism and food systems in the country and that's something we would like to do in other countries as well."

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Photo: @FAO/Jesse Alpert

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