“Bushmen” was a derogatory term used by European colonialists worldwide to refer to local people who didn't appreciate calico and paper money, but rather continued to live independently and defiantly in “the bush” where most Europeans would die within days. Over the years, pith helmets have gone out of style, while self-reliance, sustainability, and ten thousand year of agricultural knowledge have quite suddenly re-emerged as topics of interest. In the same way that “cowboy” and “lumberjack” began as simple descriptions that carried negative associations only to develop strong positive connotations with time, “bushmen” is now beginning to be embraced as an expression of local pride.
In July 2013 I was in the Solomon Islands for a research trip just as this group was starting to coalesce. I did my best to support this development and strongly suggested the name “Malaita Farming Network” as I felt that it captured the scope of the project, Malaita being the island where this group was initiated. Casper, the president of the now official group, was missing from this particular conversation, and so after some discussion I set out with another team member for his homestead to get his opinion on the name. He heard us out but was not at all impressed, and I clearly remember sitting in his kitchen and watching him muse on the idea for a moment before calmly correcting me. “Bushmen Farming Network,” he said with a chuckle. The name was immediately and unanimously accepted by all members and fully endorsed by your international correspondent.
I have since occasionally been told by Americans that they find the name somewhat troubling, as if they feel obliged to be offended on the behalf of people who they think might be offended by people that they, as Americans, might represent. It is convoluted logic, but it is surprisingly common. In this case, I appreciate their sensitivity but I do not share their concerns. The term here is used by choice not attribution, and it does not bear racist or sexist connotations. An appropriate modern analogy in America might be “redneck.” If the term is used disparagingly to refer to someone who doesn’t appreciate it, then yes of course, avoid it, but if someone chooses to adopt the term and does so as a matter of personal or local pride then it would be ridiculous to be offended for them. While my initial recommendation was safe and would have been sufficient, the name Bushmen Farming Network captures the pride, defiance, and independence of the men and women who make up this group.
I cannot pretend to offer a complete picture of how this group came about, but my perspective might provide some insights. I first traveled to the Solomon Islands in the winter of 2010-11 as part of a wider trip throughout the Southwest Pacific, and I returned in the summer of 2012 to conduct a pilot food security assessment of a high stress portion of Malaita. During this time I worked alongside Jathan Basui, the vice-president of the Network and a man with an exceptional ability to understand complex social undercurrents and communicate clearly and effectively to seemingly any audience. Our teamwork on this project quickly fell into a sort of routine where I provided most of the novelty, he provided or translated most of the knowledge, and the several young men with us did most of the physical work—although, to be fair, they also provided some important insights and Jathan quite literally outpaced us all.
Upon the completion of this trip I asked my friends to introduce me to a local farmer with a good agricultural reputation as I had some additional questions about common local practices. They took me to meet Casper Saefo’oa, who we found working in his bush gardens practicing a form of shifting agriculture that he had learned from his father. With the help of a translator, I spent several hours visiting his various fields and discussing what exactly he did, how he made his decisions, and the ways in which things had changed in his lifetime. Somewhat in passing, I gave him a short explanation of how no-input shifting cultivation works on the acidic clay soils that dominate Malaita (and much of the global tropics). In short, the growth, death, and decomposition of native vegetation results in the development of a thin layer of high-fertility organic soil on top of the low-fertility clay. When the vegetation is cleared and the area planted, this nutrient-rich layer is “mined” to support crop growth. In addition, the burning of the vegetative debris and incorporation of the fire ash can temporarily neutralize the soil acidity, thereby making the limited nutrients more accessible to plants. Between removal with harvest and loss with erosion, the soil nutrients that accumulated over years or decades under fallow are often exhausted after only a single cropping season.
I gave Casper this scientific explanation primarily because it was the only thing that I might offer in return for the detailed agronomic knowledge that he shared with me. However he was clearly interested in the ideas and immediately incorporated them into what he already knew, such as that most crops grow best where old slash piles had been burned (resulting in neutral pH) and where the soil was darkest (due to high organic matter). Seeing this interest, I invited him to join us the next day to visit a nearby farmer who had been applying and testing alternative agricultural practices for years and had developed some highly successful systems on some very unforgiving terrain. I had visited this farmer, Lionel Maeliu, on my first trip to the Solomons, and seeing what he could accomplish on 45-degree hillsides of acidic clay was a large part of why I returned to the Solomons and Malaita in particular. Casper said little during this trip beyond a few targeted questions and left with a sack full of vetiver grass and gliricidia cuttings, a pocket full of pigeon pea seeds, and some brief exposure to contour farming and cover cropping.
There is an old adage of whether it is better to give a hungry man a fish or teach him to fish on his own, and this question underlies most international “development” projects. I personally don’t have a strong opinion as it entirely depends on how hungry he is and the state of the local fishing, but I also know that sometimes there is another option. One time I told a man that there was such a thing as a fish. Since then he has been teaching me what they look like, where they live, and how best to catch them. And it is usually over a dinner that he provides.
I returned to the Solomons a year later in the summer of 2013 to thank my friends for their help over the years, but to somewhat sheepishly admit that due to funding issues I was forced to shift my research to other regions that are a little more on the world’s radar. They nodded and said that was understandable, but interrupted me to say that I should probably go visit Casper as he had been quite busy and was doing some interesting things. Upon returning from Lionel’s farm the previous year, Casper had begun experimenting with alternative agricultural practices and had quickly developed a wide range of locally adapted strategies. These included making raised beds in low-lying areas, amending the soil with charcoal, and developing an advanced “slash-and-mulch” system, where the cut vegetation is laid in rows to slowly decompose during the cropping season. These practices are well documented in the global tropics as key adaptations within some traditional systems and are broadly recommended as highly efficiency low-input management practices to increase the productivity of shifting cultivation systems.
Despite Casper’s insistence that these practices were simply obvious extensions of what I had told him previously—that plant matter decomposes into nutrient-rich soil and fire ash can neutralize acidic soils—I had made no mention of these particular strategies nor seen them practiced anywhere that he might have observed them. After some experimentation is his own fields, Casper decided that he was comfortable with his new ideas, so he began to cultivate the most infertile soil that he knew of—an old playing field at the center of his village. I had passed this particular field dozens of times, and if I had been around when Casper began working there I would have discouraged him from trying. Years of soccer and volleyball had compacted the already infertile clay to the point where even pioneer plant species couldn’t become established and a spade couldn’t penetrate more than an inch. The soil pH of this area, as I measured later, was 3.8, a level at which most plant nutrients are chemically unavailable for uptake.
To convert this field into a taro garden was about as audacious as jackhammering the center lane of a Los Angeles freeway to plant an orange grove, but this is exactly what Casper did. Taro was the primary staple food on Malaita for thousands of years, but this crop has a high nutrient requirement and as a result can now only be grown in areas where virgin or long-fallow forests are cleared for cultivation. Or, apparently, in a playing field in the middle of a heavily populated area. When I asked Casper why he chose this place, he said that he was tired of walking to distant fertile fields and, given the results he’d seen from his new practices, he didn’t see why he couldn’t grow whatever he wanted wherever he wanted to. As he puts it—and this is something that I have now heard echoed in the area—he doesn’t need to go find fertile soil anymore, all he needs now is land and he can make it fertile.
Otneil was born in a "traditional" village, one that had not been exposed to Christianity, and he did not convert until he was twenty. Like many of the older Solomon Islanders, he carries with him a wealth of cultural and ecological knowledge that is not being fully passed down to the next generation. Here he is shown with the bow that he used for hunting pigeons when he was a boy (he claims to have been the best shot around). He died in 2015, uncertain of his age but having seen many generations of change in his lifetime.
Aaron (left), a Malaitan farmer who cultivates taro in a remote area amid primary rain forest, is pictured bringing traditional taro varieties to Casper for reintroduction into this highly populated area where taro hasn't been widely grown in decades.
August 2012 - Jathan leading the way to villages beyond the end of the road
September 2012 - Casper (right) describing his farming practices to Hendy, a long time friend of the Network who was interpreting for me (Casper hadn't yet learned English). The area immediately behind them had just been cleared and planted and older fallow vegetation is visible in the background.
September 2012 - Lionel (left, with hat) introducing David Alufo'oa, Casper, and Jathan to terracing and cover cropping. Mature vetiver grass contour walls can be seen on the left side of the picture.
September 2012 - Casper and Jathan returning from Lionel's farm with vetiver starts, gliricidia cuttings, and other new planting materials.
Playing fields such as this one are common sites in villages. The erosion and compaction of the already acidic clay makes these fields painfully infertile without major adjustments, and they are widely considered to have no agricultural potential.