Indigenous knowledge and leadership underpin a new approach to agritourism for the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, evolving from ACIAR-supported research to support business development in the region.
One recently completed project evaluated the need for a third-party verified voluntary sustainable certification program for key food commodities in Vanuatu.
And when the research team and project stakeholders discovered there was no existing certification standard that met their needs, they decided to create their own.
This has led to the launch of Regenerative Vanua as a not-for-profit third-party certification organisation, the drafting of world-first regenerative agritourism standards and development of a regenerative pathways program.
Defining Vanuatu's agritourism
All of this has emerged under the guidance of the Vanuatu Agritourism Association, which itself was formed as the result of the ACIAR-supported Pacific Agribusiness Research in Development Initiative (PARDI).
The PARDI project found that ‘agritourism’, as it was approached across the Pacific region, mostly benefited rural communities and farmers supplying food products to larger resorts and hotels; but it was actually more aligned to agribusiness or culinary tourism.
Less supported were farm businesses, which provide agricultural experiences for their local communities and tourists.
Chairman of the Vanuatu Agritourism Association Mr Benson Samuels said while agritourism has had a presence in Vanuatu for many years, when the association was first formed, members worked hard to define what agritourism meant to them.
‘We came to the discovery that regenerative agritourism is a way forward for Indigenous people,’ said Mr Samuels.
The development of the new regenerative agritourism standard and certification now provides a guide to advance local enterprises. It takes its core definition of agritourism as ‘visiting a farm for an educational and immersive learning experience and building connection to people, places and products’.
Closely interwoven with this are the Indigenous knowledge systems of the country’s agritourism operators, which form part of the agritourism experiences they provide.
Dr Cherise Addinsall, an adjunct fellow at Southern Cross University, University of the Sunshine Coast and member of the Australian Centre for Pacific Islands Research, has led the sustainability certification project for ACIAR.
‘While there are many organisations offering third-party certification for sustainable agriculture and tourism, there was an issue of accessibility when it came to auditing,’ said Dr Addinsall. ‘The process is also too expensive for many Indigenous rural smallholders and tourism businesses.’
As a result, Regenerative Vanua was formed as an Indigenous-led, not-for-profit third-party certification organisation to support the diversification of local agribusinesses and Indigenous Ni-Vanuatu people into agritourism ventures.
It does this by helping them to apply regenerative concepts to business developments based on their Indigenous knowledge systems, land sovereignty and protecting and promoting traditional and cultural knowledge.
Dr Addinsall said through third-party verification, Regenerative Vanua will ensure that Vanuatu’s regenerative agritourism operators meet core sustainability criteria set out by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, and additional standards in regenerative agriculture. The aim is to ensure agritourism operators cause no impact to their landscapes or communities.
‘We also have a regenerative recognition pathway program that acknowledges agritourism operators that are on a regenerative pathway. We do not audit this as we believe a regenerative pathway is constantly evolving. However, we acknowledge when an operator is authentically following a regenerative journey,’ added Dr Addinsall.
Ms Laurana Rakau-Tokataake, operations manager for Regenerative Vanua, said that as a non-government organisation, Regenerative Vanua acts as a bridge between agritourism operators, communities and the relevant government agencies seeking to support resilient, diversified and regenerative rural development.
‘Regenerative goes further than “sustainable” because it ensures the diversity, quality of production, vitality and health of the soil, plants, animals and people improve together.
‘It’s not about minimising damage of income earning activities, it’s about building on our traditional knowledge to improve the wellbeing of our people, communities, the land and ecosystems,’ said Ms Rakau-Tokataake.
Indigenous knowledge and traditional farming
As an expert in traditional agriculture and an organics auditor, Ms Norah Rihai has been a participant in the project and highlights the value of this approach in supporting traditional farming practices and foods.
‘The exciting thing about regenerative principles is that it is based on Indigenous knowledge systems,’ said Ms Rihai. ‘Research is showing as agriculture globally is struggling with the impacts of climate change, it is our traditional knowledge that is being applied as a mechanism to adapt to these impacts.’
Ms Rihai believes regenerative agritourism standards will also help businesses and communities to better appreciate and promote traditional foods. ‘Like any of the Pacific countries, food is very important to the culture of Vanuatu. Our food is unique to us, we need to be proud of that and take ownership of that.’
Ms Votausi Mackenzie-Reur, the director of Lapita Café and the Vanuatu-based leader for the certification project, emphasised the central role of Indigenous people in the work.
‘We are facing a global crisis in regard to climate change,’ explained Ms Mackenzie-Reur. ‘I think it is really important that we as Indigenous people take the leading role in getting people to revisit what we have.
‘Our population continues to increase, and we have limited land space, but through our research, we found that with Indigenous knowledge systems a small piece of land can sustain one tribe for centuries. So, this is something that we want to continue to explore and promote amongst our young people, and see reflected in our government’s sustainable policies,’ said Ms Mackenzie-Reur.
Importance of certification
Mr Jerry Spooner, executive director of Regenerative Vanua, said the organisation is working with the Vanuatu Bureau of Standards to facilitate training of independent auditors, then putting forward recommendations
‘Our approach now is to highlight the importance of third-party certification to ensure that our regenerative agritourism operators are developing businesses that do not impact on our environment while supporting climate resilience,’ said Mr Spooner.
‘We are starting to demonstrate that these standards developed by our Indigenous people promote quality, consistency and credibility in the use of our Indigenous knowledge systems.’
Ms Ruth Amos, CEO of the Vanuatu Bureau of Standards, said the Vanuatu Agritourism Association had played an important role in empowering local operators and providing a voice on how the sector should be developed and the policy and resource support needed.
‘The Vanuatu Bureau of Standards has been supporting Regenerative Vanua in developing regenerative agritourism standards and will continue to, as a priority for our organisation,’ said Ms Amos.
Dr Anna Okello, ACIAR Research Program Manager, Livestock, said that the project is about levelling the playing field for smallholder farmers. ‘This project was born out of a need to add value to non-commodity outputs like sustainable farming systems and agritourism.’
‘Prior to COVID-19, about 50% of Vanuatu’s GDP came from tourism. So, moving forward, they want to enrich regenerative agriculture and sustainable tourism, and to do this you need an independent framework for certifying products as sustainable.’
These standards have been submitted to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and on completion of a verification workshop in April, the ACIAR-supported project is winding up.
Regenerative Vanua will now be overseeing the third-party verification of regenerative agritourism in Vanuatu and the regenerative agritourism pathway and experiential learning program.
ACIAR PROJECT: ‘Development of a third party verified voluntary sustainable certification program for beef and other key commodities in Vanuatu’ (LS/2020/155)