From Degraded Lands to Thriving Farms

How sustainable land management helps local farmers

The Alipia farm at Auala, Savaii — a lesson in sustainable land management. Photo: UNDP Samoa / L. Lesa

Sixty-four year-old Malaeolemā Alipia quickly chopped up freshly picked cucumbers from her garden and stirred them into a pot of tinned fish that was already simmering on the open fire.

Hanging by the door of the outside kitchen that she’s cooking in is a basket of cooked taro from yesterday’s umu (an above ground oven of hot volcanic stones) that will go with the meal.

One of her daughters, Lisa, had boiled the kettle and scooped in a generous dollop of koko Samoa (delectable Samoan cocoa, freshly pounded), and stirred in the right amount of sugar, to complete the lunch.

The cucumbers, koko and taro all came straight from the family’s vegetable garden and assorted plantation which wraps itself around their fale (house).

Malaeolemā’s husband, 69-year-old Motuoaoa Aulia Alipia, was working in the garden, preparing the next batch of cabbages to be planted 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 its new owner who bought them for $60 a bundle.

This is what normal looks like at the Alipia household everyday. And this was the scene that greeted us when we visited their plantation earlier this year.

Malaeolemā Alipia preparing a hearty meal of ingredients mainly gathered from her garden. Photo: UNDP Samoa / L. Lesa

Keeping a multi-farm going

The village of Auala (population approximately 900) is one of the remotest on the island of Savaii, the biggest of Samoa’s four main islands. It is on the western coast and is about 8.9 kilometres, or about a 2-hour drive, from the main township of Salelologa.

That’s where you will find the Alipia family and their multi-farm. Unlike other villages in this area, water is not a problem for the Alipia family. That’s because they live a few metres down from the government’s reservoir and borehole which ensures that they have a regular supply of water every day.

This helps a lot in maintaining the farm especially as it is located in rocky and rough terrain. The land is not conducive for farming, so the Alipia family needed a lot of help in turning these conditions around and still produce the kind of farm that they now have.

The family’s plantation is on the same land that they live on, which is different for other families, whose farms are often located far away from their homes. This means that the Alipia family can work on their plantation from sunrise to sunset every day. That and the fact that the farm is actually about 10 acres big, which requires a lot of daily work and constant attention.

Motuoaoa is one of the most industrious and friendliest people you hope to meet. His passion for farming became his full-time job which has allowed him to continue to take care of his family.

“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,” said Motuoaoa.

The Alipia household is made up of 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 as 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,” said Motuoaoa.

Three of his children and their children live on the farm and they all have a part to play. Their daily schedule comprises of working in their cucumber, tomato, peas, pumpkin, eggplant, pineapple and cabbage patches, orange grove, and yam, taro, banana, cocoa, choko and ta’amu plantation. They also grow ginger and turmeric between the main crops. Family members take turns working in different parts of the farm.

Multi-cropping at the Alipia farm — bananas, eggplants, ta’amu, papayas and cocoa planted together with coconut and breadfruit trees. Photo: UNDP Samoa/L. Lesa

SMSMCL Project — tackling the problem of land degradation

The Alipia farm is one of what are called ‘model farms’, created under the Strengthening Multi-Sectoral Management of Critical Landscapes (SMSMCL) Project.

A mouthful of a project name but nonetheless encompassing of what the project aimed to do regarding a large scale problem in Samoa — land degradation.

Land degradation in Samoa has long been identified as a serious problem. However, past attempts to address it have been ineffective because they were fragmented, ad hoc and sectoral-based. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE), the key government agency with the mandate to curb and reverse land degradation, uses a multi-sectoral integrated approach promoting the principle of sustainable land management (SLM) to work the land and to conserve land resources in order to facilitate ecosystem services.

This is where the SMSMCL project came in.

It aimed to strengthen local capacities, incentives and actions for integrated landscape management in order to reduce land degradation and greenhouse gas emissions, and promote nature conservation whilst enhancing sustainable local livelihoods.

To achieve this, the project supported sustainable agricultural land management to reduce land degradation and boost food, water and energy security, and also to ensure that communities undertake effective management of other land-use types within the production landscape to enhance ecosystem services and climate resilience.

Under the project, soil enhancing plants such as legumes were also planted in critical landscapes.

That’s what Motuoaoa did on his farm, and he said he noticed a marked improvement in the quality of the produce from the farm.

About 20 other local farmers were mentored under the project on how to manage their land sustainably.

The Alipias with their daughter, Lisa and her children in front of a billboard produced under the SMSMCL Project, highlighting Motuoaoa as one of the ‘model farmers’ under the project. Photo: UNDP Samoa/L. Lesa

Making a tangible difference in the lives of local people and families

The SMSMCL Project was funded by the Global Environment Facility via the United Nations Development Programme, and implemented by the Government of Samoa. Worth about USD$5 million, it was carried out over five years by a Project Management Unit, housed within MNRE.

Farmers like the Alipias, community organisations, youth groups, students and church groups in 126 villages around Samoa have benefitted from this project.

The project took a multi-pronged approach of promoting wider community-led sustainable land and water management actions, and also targeted households to assist them to convert from land degrading activities to sustainable land management actions.

It helped restore degraded land areas through replanting and reforestation programmes on urban and rural sites adjacent to major river systems which were identified as severely devastated by previous cyclones.

It worked with at least 5,000 farmer households in targeted landscapes to assist them to adopt improved land and water management practices.

At least 16,760 ha of agricultural and forest land had improved soil and water conservation and management practices, and had increased vegetative cover through changes in agricultural land use practices, restoration of degraded lands and forest rehabilitation by promoting native tree planting.

From growing seedlings to harvesting, the SMSMCL Project provided seeds, other necessary materials and mentoring for farmers to allow them to be sustainable even after the project ends. Photo: UNDP Samoa/L. Lesa

Safeguarding food security

The project added to efforts to safeguard food security nationwide by adopting more mixed cropping, as most lands that are currently producing well under farmer’s expectations have been and still are cultivated with taro only.

Farmers were aware that this was not sustainable, but change was slow because that was the major food security and income generating activity for many households.

The project recognized that a shift from this mono-cropping practice into a more SLM friendly mixed-cropping approach had to come from the community itself, which was why it considered it critical to establish community core groups, who took the lead to make a difference.

The project also promoted the diversification of traditional food crops through mixed cropping to improve productivity and resilience to diseases, pests and climate change, and to minimise soil erosion. It also introduced suitable and climate resilient food and tree crops to promote household incomes and improve soil and water conservation management.

Motuoaoa’s farm not only serves to feed him and his family, but is also one of the main suppliers of staples, vegetables and fruits for other families in the village and neighbouring areas. The family also ships about 100 cartons of freshly made Samoan koko every week to be sold at one of their daughter’s shop on the island of Upolu.

Motuoaoa has become a household name in their village and neighbouring ones mainly through his plantation. The villagers stream to his farm to buy pandanus leaves and other produce, whichever one is in season at the time.

He has also shared his knowledge of farming gained under the SMSMCL project to other farmers in the village.

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 was also part of the SMSMCL project. They needed a trainer as they were starting out in farming. Motuaoa was the natural choice as he was not only close by, but was also willing to share his know-how.

“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,” said Talie Foliga, Project Manager.

Bringing everyone together for the greater good

Local households and communities are ultimately the most important stakeholders for SLM — as most of the legal rights over land are vested in them.

As Samoa is a religious country, the churches also play a vital role in the communities by encouraging moral values and the importance of charity work, including nature protection. This aligns with the community’s common belief that land is a heritage from God, so it needs to be sustainably used, managed and protected.

The project was designed to involve Government Ministries and organizations, private sector, academic institutions, local communities and the international donors, to work collaboratively on integrated approaches to sustainable land management and to share access to land information systems.

The project was also designed to involve communities in a wider geographic area rather than focus on few “pilot” sites.

At the end of its five-year lifespan, the project’s achievements can be summed up in Motuoaoa’s words:

“This project has been such a great help for me and my family. I’ve always been a farmer, but never at this level where I’m at right now, thanks to the SMSMCL project. I have now ventured into planting forestry trees for timber. It won’t be for me, but 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 in the future.”

Project Team (l-r) Anne Trevor, UNDP; Maiava Gaugatao Veni, SMSMCL; Motuoaoa Alipia — farmer; Gardenia Elisaia-Morrison, SMSMCL. The close working relationship between the project team and the beneficiaries contributed to the success of the project. Photo: UNDP Samoa/L.Lesa

Story by Laufaleaina Lesa, Communications Analyst, UNDP Samoa

UNDP Multi-Country Office for the Cook Islands 🇨🇰, Niue 🇳🇺, Samoa 🇼🇸, & Tokelau 🇹🇰

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