Digging my breakfast: Eating sustainably in the South Pacific

The author with her locally gathered food: Megapode eggs.
© The author with her locally gathered food: Megapode eggs.

Living the “locavore dream” in paradise: Local. Fresh. Sustainably-harvested. Non-GMO. Free-range.

By Eve M. Tai, Asia Pacific Director of Philanthropy, The Nature Conservancy

When you picture life on a deserted tropical island, what comes to mind? Some people think about a Swiss Family Robinson-style tree house, a sandy beach or endless amounts of time to read novels. Not me. I think about food.

Last month Robyn James and I flew to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. We climbed in a skiff and sped off to an island group called the Arnavons. Robyn is Conservation Program Director for the “Sols” and she was as eager to show me her territory as I was to see it.
© The Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area Project headquarters.
The Arnavons are a marine protected area and a great Conservancy success story of bringing together three long-time feuding communities to save the sea and its resources – including rare hawksbill turtles. It’s the kind of tropical paradise you fantasize about when you’re stuck in traffic. Breathtakingly gorgeous–and breathtakingly deserted. No espresso stands (big issue for this Seattle girl). No Thai noodle joints. No grocery co-op.

Most of our meals, it turned out, would be prepared from food we harvested ourselves. Barracuda from the sea, coconuts from the tree that anchored our hammock, milkfish from the mangroves, Megapode (a wild chicken-like bird) eggs dug up from the sand, and slippery cabbage–a leafy plant grown in local gardens.

Now, when I say “we,” I am stretching. I may know how to cook, and even grow herbs, but I’ve never had to hunt and harvest my food. That was all thanks to Moses Pema, one of the Arnavons rangers. Moses has stewarded these islands and counted sea turtle hatchlings and nests for decades. He knows every current, every snorkeling spot, every coral patch. He can sight a turtle slicing through the water and dive from a speeding boat to catch it in one stroke (not to eat, but to be tagged and measured).
© Moses Pema and Marilyn Gede preparing freshly caught barracuda near the beach.
Each morning Moses would slip off and then return to shore, depositing piles of gleaming fish on a makeshift work counter. After fileting the fish, Moses showed me where he dumped the bones in the mangrove and how eels, muscular and assertive, would wrestle them away. Instant composting.

One morning after a snorkel session, Moses takes us to a forest encircling soft, sandy mounds. “Dig!” he says. We get to work, sand flying into our hair. The egg we unearth is twice the size of a chicken egg and dense as stone. We find more eggs. Moses wraps these inside a criss- crossed thatch carrier so that we can take them back to cook into omelets.

Now again, when I say “we,” I mean Marilyn Gede and Moira Dasipio who are from the nearby village of Kia and have called this area home for their whole lives. Marilyn and Moira, - have made a name for themselves as environmental advocates in the Solomon Islands. As mining interests grow in this remote country, these women are leading the way to educate their community on mining’s potential impact on their natural resources.
© The comeback of the endangered hawksbill sea turtle is one of the great conservation success stories to come out of the Solomon Islands.
They told Robyn and me how, as girls, they used to come to the Arnavons to hunt and fish and how the turtle population had nearly collapsed from overhunting and a spike in global demand for tortoiseshell. They’d seen first-hand what could happen when people fought over their resources. They’d also seen the turtle populations rebound since the Arnavons were protected in 1995, ending hundreds of years of violent and bloody conflict.

Now middle-aged, these two women relished the chance to return to the Arnavons and harvest food and prepare dishes as their parents once had. They wrapped barracuda chunks in slippery cabbage and steamed them in coconut milk. Moira cracked open coconuts so that we could sip the juice and nibble the meat. We drank water that had fallen straight from the sky.
© Fresh-caught barracuda is a popular food in the Arnavons.
We were living the “locavore dream” in the Arnavons. Our food met all the qualities that get foodies back home all giddy: Local. Fresh. Sustainably-harvested. Non-GMO. Free-range.

Talk to any Solomon Islander and he would wonder what all this labeling is about. It’s just food. Nature’s food. Caught, gathered or grown with your own hands. That’s how the entire planet used to eat. If we do our jobs right, many people will continue to eat and live that way for generations to come.

Tags: Buy Local | Conservation | Fish | Local Food | Nature | Oceans

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