When Tropical Cyclone Winston struck Abhishek Sapra’s farm exactly four years ago, the damage was monumental. Sapra suffered losses of over $F500,000 (US$227,000).
“The trees were stripped of all their leaves, a lot of heritage trees fell over, crops were almost completely wiped out,” says Sapra. “Unless it was underground it didn’t survive.”
The majority of the production losses to Sapra’s 90-acre farm in Taveuni, the third-largest island in Fiji, were to his kava crop, a valuable cash crop which is fragile to strong winds. But Sapra also saw a drop in the numbers of native parrots, doves and bats which are instrumental for pollination.
The damage to Sapra’s land, which he and his family have been farming for 10 years, was reflected across the country. Winston, which struck Fiji on 20 February 2016, was the most intense cyclone in the southern hemisphere. It killed 44 people in Fiji and resulted in huge losses for Fiji’s economy.
While all aspects of Fiji’s economy were affected by Winston, the impacts were particularly felt in agriculture, which contributes 10.75% to Fiji’s GDP. About 45% of Fijian households derive some form of income from agriculture, and it is particularly important to people living below or close to the poverty line, with women comprising nearly 37% of those employed.
But since the storm, Sapra has been rebuilding and re-planting differently and his methods may help the country’s agricultural sector mitigate damage from future – and increasing – cyclone events.
Surveying the aftermath of Winston, Sapra noticed two key things that convinced him that there was a need to return to older farming practices.
The first was in his kava fields.
“In areas with tree cover, the kava was saved since the trees created natural windbreaks, branches that fell formed a protective blanket. But where there were no trees the crops were completely uprooted,” he said.
The second observation was that down by the coast, most of the land had been eaten away by the strong waves that swept 30-50 feet inland, except the area held in place by the roots of a massive heritage tree that had been growing for more than 100 years.
In the years before the cyclone struck, farming on Sapra’s estate was cleared of forests, which meant weeds and vines, naturally controlled by the shade of the trees, proliferated.
“My grandfather began using herbicides to control the weeds, and as the soil quality began to worsen he implemented the use of chemical fertilisers to keep production at a steady rate. Gradually our soil began to disappear revealing mostly volcanic rock making planting more difficult and the land became more acidic.”
Dr Sanjay Anand, a professor of soil science at the University of the South Pacific, says this practice of land-clearing has led to a loss of biodiversity and increase in soil erosion, and is on the rise across Fiji.
“As the population grows, so does the need for more food production, leading to more new areas being cleared for farming,” he said.
On his regular hikes into the forest, Sapra observed the structure of the forest – where large trees, which provided shelter to fruit bats and birds, would shelter smaller plants.
As he tried to rebuild and replant his farm in the wake of the cyclone, Sapra planted a variety of crops – intercropping kava with coffee, turmeric, ginger – in ways the mimicked the structure of nearby forests, underneath large trees to provide shelter. He has eschewed chemical fertilisers in favour of mulch and organic-based fertilisers such as those made from seaweed.
Within a year of starting this project, Sapra began noticing renewed health of the soil and increased blooms and fruit production from his citrus, breadfruit and mango plants.
His kava plants, which are planted among a mix of trees known for their nitrogen fixing properties, as well as others that act as windbreakers and provide shade, have a much lower incidence rate of “shot-hole” disease, which damages the health of the kava plant and is identifiable by several spots and holes in its heart shaped leaves.
As maturing trees have shed their leaves, natural mulch is created, which feeds snails, centipedes and various fungi species. On re-planting heritage species, he saw a rise in the numbers of iconic and endemic birds, such as doves and red shining parrots and bats each year.
“The ground is softer, easier to dig into, holds more moisture, and is a rich black colour. And with trees in place, the rich top soil does not wash away as easily in the rain,” he says.
John Bennet, a prominent ethnobotanist in the Pacific region, says such an approach is ideal, but as prices for some crops soar – particularly kava, the root of which is ground up and mixed with water into a traditional psychoactive brew, which is starting to gain international appeal – it is difficult to persuade some farmers, especially those with limited leases, to prioritise soil health over profit.
“Some farmers practice intercropping,” said Bennet. “But with increased mono-cropping of kava due to its increased value, many areas are being opened up to plant kava with little regard to sustainability”.
After witnessing the positive results, farmers who work on Sapra’s farm have begun adopting similar practices on their lands.
When Fiji was hit by Tino, a category-3 cyclone in January – the second cyclone to hit the country in less than a month – there was minimal damage to Sapra’s crops and soil, something he credits to the regenerative agriculture practices he has implemented.
As experts warn that warming seas will result in more frequent cyclones across the Pacific, working to protect agricultural land is essential.
Bennet says Sapra is on the right path. “Abhishek’s holistic approach is, without question, both appropriate, and, with our present climate anomalies, imperative.”
For Sapra, his methods are equally motivated by philosophy and economy.
“The main purpose is to create a working farm resilient to harsh climate, where people are able to make economical use of the land without degrading the environment,” said Sapra.
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