Pam destroys food stocks and livelihoods


Author:Ellie van Baaren

Port Vila, Vanuatu – The concrete building that Shaline Nimal and her children sheltered in as Tropical Cyclone Pam barrelled through her village was one of only two left standing once the storm had passed. Her own house was a jumble of twisted roofing iron, wood and broken furniture; the village garden a mess of uprooted trees, bent and broken crops.

Shaline Nimal, her children and other residents of Rongorongo in Vanuatu, takes UN Women through what remains of their village after Cyclone Pam. Photo: UN Women/Ellie van Baaren

Two weeks on, the villagers of Rangrango, 20 minutes out of Vanuatu’s capital of Port Vila, have rebuilt several of the houses by hand, using whatever materials they could salvage.

“These are our homes. Without them we have nowhere to live. We have to rebuild,” Shaline says. “Every day we try to do a little more.”

The garden is another matter. Not only did it provide the 120 villagers with food for their families, it was also their only source of income. The men usually farmed the plot, while the women sold the produce – including tapioca, local greens, oranges, bananas, grapefruit, and coconuts – at the nearby Marobe Market House.

All of it is gone. Oranges lie rotting on the ground, the trees blown over or uprooted. The tapioca plants look like they have been mown flat by a concrete roller; while they look as though they are still in tact, the tapioca itself is rotten and inedible.

“We need money to rebuild and replant, but we need our crops to earn money,” Shaline says.

It’s a situation women across Vanuatu’s islands are facing in the wake of Cyclone Pam, which ripped through the island nation on March 13. The majority of the country’s market vendors are women and the majority of their produce is grown in their own plots or village gardens. The storm has therefore not only affected the availability of fresh, nutritious, locally-grown produce, it has also destroyed many people’s potential to earn the money needed to rebuild their lives and their homes, as well as to provide food, healthcare and schooling for their families.

Vanuatu’s volcanic soil is highly fertile but Cyclone Pam’s 300kph winds stripped the foliage from the trees that remain standing, robbing seedlings of precious shelter. The root crops and greens will take at least three months to re-grow; the fruit trees will take years. And in order to replant, the land must first be cleared, a mammoth task which will itself take time.

Marobe Market House is due to open later this week, at the very least providing the women of Rongorongo with somewhere to sell produce from once they have enough to sell. And for the next two months there is a grace period on the fees charged to rent a table at the market, something negotiated by the local market associations – set up as a result of UN Women’s Markets for Change project – market management and provincial government.

The village has started clearing the garden and replanting, it will take three months for these tapioca heads to produce root crops. Photo: UN Women/Ellie van Baaren

As with the rebuilding, the villagers of Rongorongo have already started work on their plot. A small patch of ground has been cleared and tapioca heads planted. They will continue to prepare the ground metre by metre, and in the meantime will rely on basic food supplies brought in as part of the relief effort.

Through its Markets for Change project, UN Women is working with market vendors, market councils, provincial and national governments in Vanuatu, as well as the Australian Government to help women restore their livelihoods and build resilience to future external shocks like Cyclone Pam.

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Girls and women are disproportionately affected by natural disasters like Cyclone Pam, which is why it is critical their differing needs are actively considered in the response, recovery and reconstruction efforts.

UN Women National Committee in Australia has launched and appeal for help. Your contribution can support UN Women in Vanuatu to protect the women and girls affected by this disaster, and invest in reconstruction that will benefit women and their families.

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