Recently I posted a photo about a supply ships that delivers goods to the atolls of the Tuamotus and someone commented that 100 years ago these island people were self-sufficient and didn’t need supplies delivered on a boat.
That comment made me wonder how eating habits have changed in the Tuamotus since the introduction of modern transportation across the world. What was available to the natives before the influences of modern shipping and the delivery of foods from other parts of French Polynesia and other parts of the world?
Clearly, I am not an expert, but my friend Google allowed me to do a little research and from there I went down a rabbit hole….
Upon first blush, one could think the Tuamotus atolls are lush islands filled with beautiful sand, swaying coconut trees and abundant flowers all growing in rich soil. In reality, most of these atolls are coral rings in the salt water with coral pulverized by the sea to small sized rocks rather than sand. From a distance, the beaches look like smooth, silky sand but they are mostly coral pebbles or large flat rock-like areas. Combine mediocre soil with limited fresh water and farming becomes difficult.
Difficult farming makes self-sufficiency difficult too.
The Tuamotus have very little soil and that soil does not support a wide variety of vegetation. When subsistence cultivation was the norm, staple foods included yams, taro, coconut and breadfruit. These few plants along with the abundant food in the sea would have made up the diet of an atoll dweller. (Please note, other areas of French Polynesia have rich soil, but the majority of the Tuamotus do not.)
Coconut palm trees were native but grew mostly on the fringes of the water. These days the coconut palm has been cultivated to the point of overtaking most of the atolls’ growing areas. When we look at an atoll today, much of the original flora has been replaced by coconut palm trees. Copra production from these palms has become a mainstay of the locals income. Actually, we have learned that France subsidizes copra farming to encourage people to remain on the remote atolls of the Tuamotus.
The diet here is now supported by the supply ships which bring a wide variety of vegetables, giving locals an opportunity to have more balanced nourishment. However, the stores are also filled with processed foods like chips, cookies, sugary cereals, etc. So, like most places these days, healthy eating is available, but it requires discipline to choose the good things rather than the processed ones. The government does subsidize some staple food items in French Polynesia and those can be identified by a red label when shopping at the market.
One evening, Frank and I had dinner at the home of a couple who offered cruisers local cuisine. While dining, the woman mentioned that her doctor told her she needed to loose weight to control her diabetes. In light of that comment, I did a bit of reading online and learned that less dependency on subsistence crops combined with the availability of additional types of fats and processed foods has led to increased obesity, diabetes and heart disease among the Polynesians.
The conclusion for me is that sustainable farming in the Tuamotus would be very difficult because of poor soil and limited water. With proper education and knowledge of crop rotation and fertilization, growing vegetables today would be easier than in the past and might allow locals to support their own needs. However, this farming could create changes in water that runs off into the sea which can cause other issues. My understanding is that fertilizer residuals that enter the oceans negatively effect coral and marine life.
Ecosystem are complicated and inter-effective**. I lack the knowledge to anticipate how changing farming habits in the Tuamotus would affect the marine life that is vital to this area and the world.
Clearly this is a high level overview of the multifaceted issue of sustainable farming in the Tuamotus and I am not an expert. But perhaps learning about dietary changes in these islands was as interesting to you as it was for me.
For today, I am thankful to have access to vegetables and other healthy choices; when they actually arrive on the ships here in the Tuamotus.
**Inter-effective: a word I made up meaning: although one is independent, each action one makes has effects upon other people, places, plants and animals; effects upon the planet in general.
Thanks for stopping by to read our blog. If you have knowledge about this subject that you are willing to share, feel free to do so in the comments. Wishing you good health and fun adventures.