Koregu, Solomon Islands – Every afternoon as dusk descends onto the farm-terraced hillsides, the spotlight of acute environmental anxiety and resilience planning, traditional gender roles play out amid the struggle to adapt to hazard-inducing climate change in rural Solomon Islands.
As the UN Climate Summit gets under way in New York City, the plight of women in the Solomon Islands intersects with a pivotal political moment for environmental change.
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The country suffers the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions from the developed world in the form of extreme temperatures, which in recent years have culminated in pest and plant disease outbreaks, floods, and rising sea levels at 8mm per year since 1993. That’s more than double the global average of 3.4mm annually, according to the International Climate Change Adaptation Initiative.
As the primary food suppliers of the household, women in Solomon Islands carry the burden of climate change, feeling stress – and often taking the heat – when low crop production means less food on the table.
|Unpredictable climate patterns have wreaked havoc on planting and harvesting times [Dana MacLean/Al Jazeera]
“There is more fighting in the house because men think women are not tending to the garden enough,” said Veronica Kefu, 47, a sturdy outspoken mother of four hailing from the 300-person Tausese community of Koregu village in Isabel province.
“But it is not true, the garden does not produce the same as before.”
The traditional role of women farmers descends partly from matrilineal land ownership among certain tribes, and mostly from a heavily patriarchal culture where men make the decisions – and earn whatever cash is needed in the household through occasional casual work in the towns – while women plant, till, and harvest crops in the fields to bring home food and care for the family.
“Men usually do not even step foot in the garden after clearing it. They hardly go, but at the end of the day they still expect a big taro [root vegtable] on their plate,” said Benjamin Tambe, a research officer with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock based in Avu Avu.
Decades ago, when planting a garden promised nearly a full harvest, farming was only necessary a few days a week to secure enough food and surplus to sell to neighbouring communities at the weekly market.
But unpredictable climate patterns in the past few years have wreaked havoc on women’s planting and harvesting times, with unseasonable rainfall and violent storms that destroy gardens through landslides. Initiatives by the government, in partnership with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), have introduced dry rice farming, sites which provide seeds and other planting materials, and training to encourage the women to diversify the traditional Solomon diet.
Women farmers on the frontline
Taro, sweet potato, and cassava – the three traditional staple foods – have suffered extensively under increasingly erratic weather patterns. Extended periods of unseasonable rainfall have destroyed root vegetables, which can only stay submerged under water for a day without rotting, according to the UNDP’s SWoCK project – Strogem Woaka Lo Community Fo Kaikai – which works with the Ministry of Agriculture to provide root vegetables and seedlings in 18 communities across three regions in the Solomons.
“We used to know when to grow what, but now we don’t know,” said Linesu, 35, a mother of four hailing from Tausese community in Koregu, Santa Isabel province, which was recently the battleground for a 10-day typhoon that burst the Jarihana river banks and left cassava and kumara crops rotten and mouldy.
It is the growing discrepancy between commitment to labour and yield that remains the most trying aspect of the barrage of symptoms brought on by climate change.
“Where we used to be able to grow taro in three months, it now takes five. We do the same amount of work, and the garden produces less,” said Kefu.
While men are also worried, according to the village chief, Jaspar, and the local heads of households, “The women are the ones who face it on a daily basis, because they are responsible for procuring food,” said Jacob Pitu, the ministry’s chief field officer overseeing Koregu.
Rosemary, 28, gave birth to her fifth child on the kitchen floor of her leaf hut in mid-August with the help of her sisters, and plans to go back to the fields in a few weeks, though she is still tired from the birth and newborn care.
“If I don’t go, then we will not have any food to eat. We cannot rely on my relatives forever,” she told Al Jazeera.
Women, who on average have five or more babies, generally return to fields less than two months after delivery – strapping the babies to their backs or taking the older children to the fields with them to look after their younger siblings, according to Mary Waletasu, an assistant field officer for the Women in Agriculture Programme for the government.
“Nobody will go to work for them, so they have to work,” she said. “It’s not enough , but it’s part of our daily lives because it’s the woman’s task.”
Yet the fertility of the soil in the inland Tausese community makes the burden of food insecurity less than other parts of the Solomon Islands, along the windward coast, where growing crops is nearly impossible because of constant landslides and torrential winds, which wash away the top layer of soil.
In other towns, the only fertile soil is at the top, and if rainstorms wash it away, nothing can grow
“In other towns, the only fertile soil is at the top, and if rainstorms wash it away, nothing can grow,” explained Pitu.
Since 2011, the Solomon Islands government, in partnership with SWoCK, supported by the Adaptation Fund under the Kyoto Protocol, has provided farming training along with seeds and planting materials to grow different crops simultaneously, maximising chances for survival for at least one crop if disaster strikes.
“If water washes out the taro, there is rice or swamp taro planted in another place, which thrives in water,” said Nixon Buka, SWoCK’s provincial project coordinator based in Isabel province.
But even with adaptation methods, women still carry the burden.
“Women are working harder than men, even more so now. It needs to change, both of them need to work together in both garden and home,” said Waletasu.
Many climate scientists say time is of the essence.
“The more we wait, the more difficult, the more expensive, the more challenging it will be to adapt to climate change caused by human activities,” said Michel Jarraud, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, in a recent statement.