“With the hydroponics we have, we are able to grow just about any fruit or vegetable. People who regularly have places that are flooded or have bad soil because of the ocean, the breeze, or even crabs, have the chance to grow more than what they can grow right now,” Kateibwi explains. “For one of the families we’re working with, we set up their hydroponics right next to the lagoon. We literally put a table almost on top of the lagoon.”
The I-Kiribati practice a primarily subsistence-based fishing and harvesting lifestyle, supplementing the catch of the day with coconut, breadfruit, and taro, a starchy root crop. Kateibwi’s hydroponic boxes haven’t replaced these staple crops, but the program has introduced a new way for his community to remain self-sufficient and created a healthier and more affordable food source.
Some of Kateibwi’s neighbors saw the success of his hydroponic boxes and recreated them using found materials like plastic soda bottles. Other Islanders have developed their own solutions aimed at meeting their communities’ basic needs, including community garden projects, rainwater harvesting tanks, and sea walls handmade from shells, coconut fibers, and sand.
Ahling Onorio, a former schoolteacher, started an organic coconut sugar and coconut oil cooperative on Abaiang Island, one of Kiribati’s islands, that’s teaching families some of the skills needed to adapt to the influences of climate change and increased commercialization. She started the Kiribati Organic Producers in 2011 to help families on the outer islands generate income while retaining elements of their culture, she explains.
A group of four couples work together to collect the coconut flower’s sap, known as toddy, then cook the sap over an open fire until it caramelizes into sugar. The group has revived a traditional practice, called te karekare, to divide the work. The couples take turns stirring the sap for hours while sitting inside a thatched, open-air kitchen, an intensive process that requires constant monitoring to avoid burning the sugar.
“When it’s your turn to make the sugar, you get to make all of it and keep all of the money. This makes it less tiring and breaks up the work,” said Tiitika Iita, one of the sugar producers.
Onorio collects the sugar and sells it in village shops on Tarawa Island. The profits go directly back to the families or into the “Sugar Scheme,” a fund Onorio created to ensure the workers’ children receive education.
Most of the families are only able to earn between $30 and $60 a month, but that has been enough to help them remain on the outer islands instead of migrating to Tarawa atoll’s overpopulated villages in search of work. Although the sea will eventually make the islands uninhabitable, these grassroots efforts are allowing the I-Kiribati to avoid mass migration, retain elements of their culture, and remain on their homeland.