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Coconut drives Tonga's cyclone recovery

Thursday 24 Apr 2014 9:14 a.m.

The humble coconut is playing a vital role in helping remote parts of Tonga to move on from the destructive Cyclone Ian, which struck earlier this year.

In the Ha'apai group of islands locals are finding new ways of earning an income using old techniques and traditional produce.

Spirits remain high on Kauvai Island and although Cyclone Ian had other ideas for their crops, the locals feel they have a lot to be grateful for.

"I was in school and then I came here and worked," says Katalina Fifita, who says she enjoys working in a local coconut processing plant. For her and Pouli Tonga, it means they can contribute to what little their families get by on.

"Very, very happy to work in here for earn some money to help my mum," says Ms Tonga.

Like many of the Pacific Islands, in Tonga coconuts are abundant and with their health benefits increasing worldwide demand, the fruit is now becoming a rich income source for islanders.

Many of the rural communities are learning a new way to farm, harvest, process and eventually export this traditional staple.

Virgin coconut oil processing plants provided by Oxfam are affording many locals the opportunity to earn a small income, often for the first time.

On most of the remote islands of Ha'apai there are only three positions available with a salary – the teacher, the church minister and the town officer, which is why coconut processing plants are so vital to keep the smaller communities afloat.

"I think that the [virgin coconut oil] had not only given them [economic freedom], it has also given them the empowerment of them being something of the community," says Siale Ilolahia.

Most of the family is involved, the younger ones sent up the tree for collection and women increasingly involved in the processing side.

Katalina Fifita has 10 children and 16 grandchildren, most involved in coconut farming. The plant her family use is only now back up and running three months after the cyclone, when many of the trees were damaged.

"The income from the coconut has been very helpful and has helped them with their daily livelihood, and also with their other obligations to the community and the church," she says.

"Traditionally families on these remote islands have struggled, relying on help from family overseas.

With the majority of the population in Tonga living on the main island of Tongatapu and working in the capital of Nuku'alofa, many of the young people travel overseas to New Zealand, Australia and the US to work or study with the intention of sending money back home to their families.

Projects like these encourage young Tongans to remain on the smaller islands, with opportunities to provide for their families.

"It not only helps their parents… it's just empowering them to be contributing, either buying something their family or is just giving it to the obligations the family has in the community," says Ms Ilolahia.

Throughout Tonga there are eight processing plant projects underway, with the hope the coconut will continue to nourish and financially support the people of Tonga.

If you would like to help the people of Tonga continue their recovery from Cyclone Ian, visit oxfam.org.nz or phone 0800 600 700.

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