Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics, and Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is Vice President for Botanical Science and Director and Senior Philecology Curator of the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden.
Indigenous people and local communities manage 25 percent of the land on Earth, so it is appropriate that that this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP28, chose Indigenous peoples as one of the themes to feature on each day of the conference. Given the large role they play in conserving biodiversity, the day is intended to recognize the importance of Indigenous people’s intergenerational knowledge, practices, and leadership in climate action.
At The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), the Plants and People of Vanuatu program, which has been operating in that South Pacific nation since 2013, is working with local partners to develop strategies and projects that help support Indigenous people and preserve the environment in which they live. In this post, we describe a very recent example of how NYBG’s International Plant Science Center is making an impact.
Vanuatu is part of a “biodiversity hotspot,” but this biodiversity is threatened by an abundance of natural disasters, ranging from earthquakes to tsunamis and volcanoes to cyclones. Over the past decade, cyclones in particular appear to be increasing in both frequency and severity. In 2023 alone, the country has been hit by two category-4 cyclones (striking less than three days apart in early March), and a category-5 cyclone in October. Three-quarters of Vanuatu’s population live in rural villages in largely cashless economies that depend on subsistence gardens to produce a rich assortment of nutritious foods, and so the storms have had a particularly strong impact on the people.
Among the many hardships caused by the recent uptick in cyclones has been the widespread destruction of coconut trees. Every part of the coconut plant is used by local villagers, including as an essential component in building traditional houses. On the southern island of Tanna, coconut leaves and native grasses are used together to create thatching materials for the roofs of these traditional houses, but after experiencing seven severe cyclones just since 2015, coconut-tree populations have been declining rapidly.
There are alternative solutions to this dilemma. One possibility is to abandon traditional houses made from locally sourced plants, switching over to concrete blocks and corrugated metal roofing, materials that are ubiquitous throughout much of the world’s tropical regions. But this approach would have three serious consequences. First, unlike traditional houses, which have been adapted to the local environment over thousands of years, so-called modern houses are extremely susceptible to storm damage. Second, unlike traditional houses, which are constructed from plant materials that grow naturally on people’s lands, concrete blocks and metal roofing must be purchased for money, leading to pressures to abandon subsistence gardening in favor of cash-based economies. Finally, and perhaps more subtly, moving from forest products to man-made materials will accelerate people’s alienation from the natural world, putting forest habitats at even greater danger.
Plants and People of Vanuatu is a partnership between NYBG, the government of Vanuatu, and local communities. Seeing the hardships caused by recent cyclones, local communities on the southern island of Tanna sought help from the Plants and People team. NYBG was recently awarded a grant from Nia Tero, a foundation that promotes Indigenous guardianship of Earth, to develop models of conservation that are compatible with Indigenous values and culture. As part of that project, the Plants and People team is also supporting local partners in Tanna to develop nature-based solutions to their coconut conundrum. They had only to look to the northern 75 islands of Vanuatu, where another palm species, Metroxylon warburgii, is native. This tree is related to the famous sago palm of Southeast Asia, and it grows quickly and robustly. Within five years, it produces huge leaves suitable for thatching, and it will continue to regenerate leaves for at least another 30 years. Moreover, the leaves of Metroxylon produce much more durable roofs, lasting up to 10 years, compared to only two years for coconut leaves, and they are less susceptible to the damaging winds of severe storms.
Within days of getting the news that the proposal to Nia Tero was approved, our partner Jean-Pascal Wahe of Tanna began setting the wheels in motion to propagate Metroxylon. He started a local nursery, where he planted 10,000 seeds. Some of the quickly growing saplings are already large enough for transplanting into village and forest sites. He is starting in the southeastern part of the island, near where his family originates, to test whether his propagation methods are working. Once confirmed, he will move to other regions spread across his island.
Climate change is already having massive impacts on people across the globe, and people living on islands are among the most vulnerable populations on Earth. High-tech solutions are often touted as the best ways to deal with these challenges, but most of these are still being developed, deferring their tangible benefits to sometime in the future. While the world needs technological innovation, the Metroxylon project in southern Vanuatu helps to demonstrate that many nature-based solutions already exist. They need only a fraction of the financial investment compared to high-tech solutions, and they have few-to-no environmental downsides compared to, for instance, mining rare metals to make lithium batteries and solar panels. Perhaps just as important, nature-based solutions support traditional Indigenous lifestyles rather than disrupt them. This is just another example of the ingenuity and resilience of the world’s Indigenous peoples.
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