According to press reports, “Vanuatu has started to convert its largest coconut plantations to organic”. This move forms part of the Vanuatu Sustainable Agri-Business Initiative (VASABI) that was launched by the government in association with a range of support organisations, including Australia Organic. At present, “Vanuatu Virgin Coconut Oil is certified and Coconut Oil Production Santo Ltd is working to achieve organic certification.” Vanuatu producers are planning to sell “virgin coconut oil, crude coconut oil and copra meal (dried coconut kernel) to Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and the USA”. One of the lead organisations involved, African Pacific, projects annual production of 400 tonnes of organic virgin coconut oil and 1,000 tonnes of organic crude oil.
While coconuts in Vanuatu are already produced without any application of synthetic fertilisers, they have not to date been certified organic and as a consequence the producers have until now been unable to target “the premium-priced organic market sector”. World Vision’s Project Coordinator commented that “organic represents a new and exciting market opportunity for Vanuatu and its farmers.” Currently, around 60% of the rural population of Vanuatu are involved in coconut production, with 85% of the country’s population of 234,000 involved in farming activities.
The aim of the broader VASABI initiative is to “achieve full organic certification in 2015”, with coffee and cocoa plantations next in line to go organic, followed by the livestock sector.
For small island nations such as Vanuatu, converting the entire agricultural sector to organic production could offer major economic gains in terms of minimising inputs costs, reducing certification costs and developing a unique brand identity. If the island can become synonymous with natural (organic) high-quality production, this could considerably enhance the capacity of agricultural producers to gain price premiums on overseas markets.
However, the enormity of the task of converting the 14 main islands (out of 83) that make up Vanuatu to organic systems of agricultural production should not be underestimated. Currently, there is a thriving intensive market gardening sector serving local food markets and the growing tourism sector and a commercial livestock farming sector.
Moves towards wholesale conversion to organic farming will require the sincere and comprehensive buy-in of all stakeholders (both national and international), since the enforcement of organic standards will be critical to the success of such an ambitious programme.
For effective enforcement, community engagement will be critical. This is illustrated by recent developments in Fiji, where breaches of Fairtrade production requirements among sugar farmers supplying the Labasa Sugar Mill on Vanua Levu were reported from within the community itself, leading to an investigation and corrective measures by Fairtrade International.