COVID-19 forces Pacific Island nations to rethink subsistence models


Pacific Conference of Churches advocates care for creation and food security

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Hery Ramambasoa serves as World Mission’s regional liaison for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

LOUISVILLE — Hery Ramambasoa’s friends and family tell him he lives in a postcard.

As World Mission’s regional liaison for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, he has the privilege of living with his wife in Fiji.

Things are very different since COVID-19 arrived.

“For 18 months, when all countries of the world held out against the COVID-19 pandemic, the islanders stood impassively,” he said in a recent letter. “According to the World Health Organization, 12 of the 14 countries, which reported no COVID cases in April 2021, were Pacific and Atlantic Ocean islands.”

Sheltering in place, he began to see changes in March 2020 when major airlines abruptly halted flights to some of the small island nations that rely heavily on dollars generated by tourism.

Ramambasoa said that across the region, tourism had created at least 150,000 jobs and numerous ancillary activities. People were more concerned about economic survival than the pandemic. Overnight, staff was reduced by half and more as the weeks went by. The fear of being completely laid off destroyed morale. Unskilled employees who worked at holiday resorts went back to stay with families in their hometowns or villages of origin knowing that any relief would be long-term.

Local governments created relief packages, but the need far exceeded the available resources.

COVID invaded the picture-perfect islands of the Pacific. (Photo by Hery Ramambasoa)

“Hints of solidarity were arranged among the extended family: household sizes swelled to host siblings and X-degree cousins,” he wrote.” One family told me that their women improvised street-vending of snacks, but, after three weeks, passersby did not have any more cash to buy from them. Avind, a laid-off receptionist and part-time student, showed me his house. Before, he lived in it by himself. Now nine people live with him. He is joined by former colleagues and fellow students in a 270 sq. ft. one-room corrugated tin house, suffocating between heat and humidity.”

Prior to the pandemic, Ramambasoa said economists said Fiji had experienced 10 years of consecutive growth, to the point that the annual influx of tourists outnumbered the inhabitants.

A couple of years before COVID, Ramambasoa began to notice small projects of family gardening. Unlike many islands in the region, Fiji has fertile soil and arable land, while some of its neighbors have lost the ability to grow food because of the rising sea level and salinization of scarce water sources.

Staff of the Pacific Conference of Churches planted a vegetables garden by their headquarters in Suva, Fiji, as an act of witness to show care for Creation and promote food security in time of lockdown. (Photo provided by the Pacific Council of Churches)

The Food Bank project of the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), a global partner of the PC(USA), moved ahead, advocating care for Creation, food security, alternative consumerism and sustainable use of energy.

In Suva, the capital city of Fiji, across the government buildings, the PCC transformed its backyard into a vegetable garden challenging urban dwellers to be kind to Mother Earth. The harvest coincided with the drawbacks of the pandemic lockdown. The Food Bank provided vegetables and root crops for lunch to some 30 students during the first three months allowing those children to continue to go to school. Destitute residents of elderly homes in other areas of the city also benefitted. The project also created the planting of vegetables in boxes and other containers where space is limited. The initiative spread to Tonga, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, where churches assist families and the community in rethinking their subsistence models during the pandemic.

The Food Bank Project is part of the “Green Church Model” that PCC has been promoting to its member churches. The project is supported by the PC(USA) with grants that are reminiscent of a mustard seed compared to the billions of dollars invested in the tourism and hospitality industry.

Staff of the Pacific Conference of Churches planted a vegetables garden by their headquarters in Suva, Fiji, as an act of witness to show care for Creation and promote food security in time of lockdown. (Photo provided by the Pacific Council of Churches)

Ramambasoa said COVID-19 made it to the island in May 2021, and there now dozens of cases in and around Suva.

“We practice strict social distancing and wear masks for the first time. Border cases have spread into communities and could seriously threaten a fragile health system. Realities are sobering for businesses, and the planned recovery is delayed indefinitely, while in the USA and neighboring Australia, restrictions are easing,” he said.

The pandemic has compelled churches in the Pacific that are leaders in their communities to rethink the dependencies on traditional economic sources such as tourism.

“In the ‘new normal,’ alternative models of tourism that curb traditional patterns of consumerism are welcomed,” he said. “They should restore the dignity of workers since they are created in the image of God. Pacific Islanders must come to terms with the whole of Creation which has always defined their identities but of which they have been forcibly deprived, to satisfy other interests.”

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