Vetiver and the Pacific Islands – Fiji

From the Google Earth images, it is sad to see areas that were once protected by vetiver hedges in Fiji, now devoid of a lot of those hedges. It’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt. The young farmers and extension workers of today don’t know why those hedges were planted in the first place. I established those hedges over 50 years ago.

When we realised how effective the vetiver hedges were at controlling erosion, we approached the Colonial Government at the time with a strong case for making the ‘Vetiver System’ a conservation law in Fiji. They wouldn’t accept the idea. However the Sugar Company I worked for, the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. (CSR), were a damn fine (Australian) Company and by today’s standards, would have been receiving accolades from the Greenies. As the Sugar Industry ran Fiji’s economy, the companywould brook no interference from the government in the way it ran the sugar industry. So they brought out a covenant stating that they would not accept cane at their Mills from farmers who would not accept the Vetiver System of erosion control.

That was 50 years ago, the young farmers today would rather farm the easy way – ‘up-and-down-the-slope” (along the slope) and as there are no longer any standards left in the Fiji sugar industry, CSR having left 30 years ago, they can do what they like. Also as there is no effective extension system, or the extension system today has no ‘teeth’ they can’t enforce better farming standards on the farmers. Added to this, most of the Indian cane farmers are only tenant farmers, who have been treated badly since Independence, most of whom couldn’t care less what happens to the land.

So, how do you get a country to accept a simple extremely effective system of conservation for both moisture and soil when the farmers don’t understand the need for conservation and find they use less power and energy ploughing up-and-down-the-slope, as opposed to across slopes stabilised with vetiver hedges. Added to this, the Government are not really interested in farmer practices. How do you train extension workers to recognise that the terraces formed behind vetiver hedges do not need to be dug out and the soil returned to the top of the slope? How do you get tenant farmers to act responsibly when they don’t own the land they use?

The method I used in India, was to tell the farmers we had a technology that would increase their yields by 10% and help to drought proof their crops by better moisture conservation – the “Vetiver System” of hedges planted across the slope, easier to follow with the plough than a hedge along the contour. That ploughing and planting along the slope under rainfed farming conditions just ran their essential rainfall off their land. We didn’t mention ‘soil conservation’, and the tenant farmers showed great in interest.

Today, individual farmers can influence other farmers by demonstration – meaning, the importance of an extension service working an area through ‘field days’ using farmers themselves to explain the virtues and cost of the vetiver system and how it is managed on their farm, to other farmers.

Under rainfed conditions, the Vetiver system is the only hope these farmers have to survive – how do we get the message across? It seems that most farmers are not interested in “soil conservation”, but are interested in increasing their yields and sustaining crop production, if ‘the price is right’.

John Greenfield

If some folk say that erosion isn’t very high, just take a look at the sediment flows into the ocean surrounding islands like Fiji in the rainy season – and its not just soil, but also excess nutrients, phosphates, nitrates, pesticides and other pollutants – all of which have the potential for destroying the near shore marine life.

Dick Grimshaw