On the island of Taravai, we meet a self-sufficient family. Their lifestyle is not only more resilient, but also provides sustainability benefits.

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“What if the supply ship is being cancelled?” We detect a slight panic on the VHF radio. “Maybe we should hoard some additional groceries while we can!” Interested we listen to a conversation between other sailors. The coronavirus has reached French Polynesia and it is making its mark. Although the first cases are in Tahiti, about 1,000 miles away, strict measures apply across the country. We are not allowed to sail further and are therefore stuck in the Gambier archipelago for the time being. It is the talk of the town and many sailors wonder: what does the virus mean for the food supply?

Dependent on Long Supply Chains

Ultimately, however, the supply ship does arrive. The entire fleet of sailors gathers at the anchorage at Rikitea to stock up on fresh food as soon as the stores are open. Fruits and vegetables, such as cabbage, carrots and oranges, are sold out in no time. Sailors and local residents are therefore queuing up from 5 a.m. Those who get up too late have to wait another month. And yet that is a bit strange. Why are we so dependent on imported fruit and vegetables when so many crops grow here on the island?

“Many people in Rikitea have become accustomed to the supermarket”, Hervé says. He lives with his family on the adjacent island of Taravai. “They don’t have a vegetable garden or fruit trees, but buy everything in the store. Or from people who grow as much as possible themselves, like us.” He regularly sails from Taravai to Rikitea to deliver his harvest. That also explains why it is so difficult to buy local fresh produce in Rikitea: you have to know someone who grows it. We feel lucky that we are anchored in the bay near Hervé and are able to get fruit and vegetables from him.

Eating From Your Own Garden

The hospitality of Hervé and his wife Valérie is almost legendary. They have been opening their home to sailors for years. Every Sunday they organize a barbecue, where sailors meet and play volleyball and bocce with the family. One can exchange milk, rice or flour for lettuce, papayas, bananas and avocados from Hervé’s large garden. When he gives us a tour, we realize how much food is actually home-grown.

“We grow almost everything ourselves”, Hervé begins. “Sweet potatoes, cassava, beans and lettuce grow almost all year round. Just like coconuts, which we mostly use to make coconut milk. Other fruits grow seasonally. Currently, avocados and oranges are abundant. Unfortunately, you just missed the mangoes and lychees. I have so many bananas that I can harvest them continuously. Do you want some?” Before we can answer, Hervé hands us a whole stock. “We will hang them under the mizzen boom!” Ivar thankfully exclaims.

Fishing the Right Fish

The next morning we go fishing to prepare for the barbecue. Hervé knows exactly which fish are edible and which should be avoided because they can make you sick. “We first let sailors eat the fish and see how they feel the next day,” he jokes. “The fish poisoning ciguatera is unfortunately widespread, so you should always ask the local fishermen if it is safe to eat,” he continues seriously. He hasn’t finished talking yet or we’ve already caught one. With only a line and some bait we bring in eight fish within half an hour. The azure blue water below us is so clear, that we can see them bite.

Harvesting Your Own Energy and Water

Back on land, part of the catch disappears in the freezer. “It runs entirely on solar energy”, Hervé says. Next to the house is his installation: a double row of large solar panels with a watertight box underneath that contains the batteries. “We pay a monthly fee for the panels, batteries, refrigerator and freezer. After 15 years they are ours”, Hervé explains. “We are not connected to the electricity grid, but cover all our energy needs with solar energy.”

Right next to the solar panels is also a large, round tank. It is connected to the house’s roof via an extended gutter. “All the water that we use in the house and in the garden is collected rainwater”, explains Hervé. “We always have enough.”

Artistic Income

The family clearly arranges a lot themselves, but also needs money – for example, for the education of Alan and Ariki, their two sons. Valérie tells us that she has turned her hobby into a source of income. “I make portraits and drawings with different colors of sand. Watch.” She pulls out a roll of self-adhesive paper that shows the contours of a sailing boat and palm trees. “Many of my clients are sailors. I draw their sailboat and add symbols of French Polynesia. Or I make portraits.” She walks to the laptop. In disbelief, we look at her artwork on screen. Are they really drawn with sand? They look like photos, so realistic.

The Benefits of Being Self-Sufficient

Hervé and Valérie have built a relatively self-sufficient life on the beautiful island of Taravai. That was a conscious choice: they grow a lot of food themselves, while others depend on the supermarket. Part of their way of life was born out of necessity: their island has no electricity and water grid, so they have to generate electricity and collect rainwater themselves. Because they do not use packaging materials, cause transport emissions, waste food and cause hardly any pollution, their self-sufficient lifestyle also offers all kinds of other sustainability benefits.

While borders are closing to limit the spread of the coronavirus, it is once again demonstrated how much we depend on long, cross-border and vulnerable supply chains for our food supply. Hervé and Valérie’s example demonstrates the benefits of growing local food. They are well off while the world panics. Even if it is not possible for everyone to adopt a completely self-sufficient lifestyle, we can still learn from their example. In other places too, we can plant more fruit- and nut trees in gardens, grow vegetables ourselves, generate renewable energy and collect rainwater. This is not only useful in times of crisis, but also sensible for a more sustainable future.

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