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Humanitarian crisis spurs Forest Service ecologist to action in Micronesia

Man standing next to and pointing at a breadfruit tree
The Chief of Fais shows off his breadfruit tree in August 2018. The tree was planted in fall 2017 as part of Melai Mai. USDA Forest Service photo.

HAWAIʻI – In March 2015, the strongest recorded pre-April Typhoon in the Northwest Pacific pounded Micronesia. Chuuk and the outer islands of Yap, primarily Ulithi and Fais, were most impacted. Super Typhoon Maysak caused widespread destruction, with its most devastating impacts to food supplies. Nearly 90 percent of crops grown on the islands were decimated.

Eager to help, a community from Yap living in Hawaiʻi began sending critically needed supplies. Amanda Uowolo, an ecologist with the USDA Forest Service Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry and member of the Yap community was part of this effort, and soon discovered a potential problem. While imported rice and packaged foods were essential to the emergency response, these products were not a viable long-term solution to food security concerns in the area.

“Rice is a short-term solution in these types of crises,” said Uowolo. “But it does not grow in the islands, so it must be imported which leads to a shift away from people’s native diets. If communities no longer eat or grow local food, they become dependent on food shipped onto their islands.”

This is not a sustainable way of life if shipments are delayed for any reason. It also separates people from the land and resources where they live. This realization inspired Uowolo to find native food sources that could sustain the people of Yap without the need for imported goods. This pursuit lead to breadfruit, a staple forest product and culturally significant tree species across Yap.

Group photo of five men and one woman; the woman is holding a sign that reads Melai Mai
Amanda Uowolo (center) meeting with the Counsel of Tamol, the counsel of the chiefs of the outer islands of Yap, as part of Melai Mai food security effort. USDA Forest Service photo.

Soon Melai Mai, was launched. Melai Mai literally translates to what the program does: “planting gardens of breadfruit” across the islands of Yap. The program is a collaboration between the USDA Forest Service, Breadfruit Institute, Yap Division of Agriculture and Forestry, Palau Forestry, Palau Bureau of Agriculture, Palau Community College, Geo-literacy Education in Micronesia and the Council of Tamol.

There are many subsistence plants that grow across Micronesia, so why focus on Breadfruit?

Breadfruit trees, with their thick foliage and large melon-sized fruit have provided for Pacific Islanders for thousands of years. With hundreds of varieties available, these trees are a common sight on many Pacific Islands. Breadfruit provides a vital source of carbohydrates, fiber, protein and essential minerals. It can also be fermented and stored underground.

“This [storage capability] is really important to ensure food availability outside of the fruiting season” says Uowolo.

Additionally, breadfruit provides a valuable garden base for Pacific non-timber forest products. Its trees provide shade, organic soil, and a cooler micro-climate for other species important to Pacific subsistence living.

Described as a “wonder food” breadfruit can be prepared hundreds of ways and different species can be used for different tasks. While some varieties are great for eating with because of its potato-like starchiness, others are used for sap and wood to construct canoes and building materials. Other varieties are used as ink in the beautiful traditional tattoos for which Pacific cultures are famous.

Pacific Islanders had been growing and utilizing breadfruit for thousands of years, but with the increased ease of food importation from other countries, islanders’ food preferences have changed, and fewer farmers grow food on the island. Melai Mai seeks to change this trend and increase locally sourced food yields by replacing lost breadfruit trees on islands that have been impacted by violent storms, and to promote the use of breadfruit trees on other Micronesian islands.

As the climate changes, so do weather patterns, temperature, sea levels and the intensity of storms. No place will see these impacts more drastically than the Pacific islands. For the people living here, breadfruit trees and the ancestral knowledge of native plant use provides a promising avenue for food independence and sustainability.

In this goal Melai Mai has had considerable success. More than 1,250 breadfruit trees have been planted across the islands of Yap, and the program is expanding to other islands in Micronesia. Melai Mai is partnering with local governments to deliver 650 trees to the islands of Palau. With further projects on the horizon Melai Mai continues helping Pacific Islanders face the challenges of food security in the face of climate change.

For more on how the Forest Service works to strengthen the ties between humans and the forest throughout the Pacific check out our article, “Forest Service Scientists Highlight Hawaii’s Human of Forest Connections.”

Five men offloading boxes of food supplies from a small private plane
August 2018 delivery of Breadfruit trees to Island Fais, as part of the Melai Mai food security effort in the Pacific. USDA Forest Service photo.
group of men women an children gatheres at the beach, discussing the benefits of breadfruit. One of the men is holding a Melai Mai sign
The community of Fais discusses the importance of using breadfruit to address food sustainability concerns in the Pacific. USDA Forest Service photo.