Andrew Campbell, CEO of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. Photo by: IRRI / CC BY-NC-SA

CANBERRA — The outcomes of the Pacific Week of Agriculture, held in Samoa from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4, included the development of a strategy for the 2020 International Year of Plant Health that aims to raise awareness of key agricultural and forestry issues in the Pacific — nationally, regionally, and internationally.

This strategy will draw global awareness to tackle the largest threats to agriculture production in the Pacific — including the coconut rhinoceros beetle, taro leaf blight, coffee berry borers, cassava brown streak disease, fall armyworm, and TR4 banana.

The week included a special session of the heads of agriculture and forestry services, which helps Pacific leaders identify concerns and plan for sustainable development of the sector, as well as engage with stakeholders including regional donors. It also incorporated the second ministers of agriculture and forestry meeting that was held as a part of Pacific Week of Agriculture, bringing together ministers and delegations from 21 countries and territories, including Australia, Fiji, Kiribati, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu.

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Among the week’s participants was Andrew Campbell, CEO of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, who discussed with Devex how the week has helped ACIAR’s plans for agricultural programs and support in the Pacific region.

What was the involvement of yourself and ACIAR in the high-level meetings, and the week as a whole?

It’s the biggest week for agriculture in the Pacific. It’s like a big agricultural show, but multinational bookended by the high-level meetings. Technically those meetings have happened from time to time, but it is the first time they have been brought together with the Pacific Week of Agriculture.

ACIAR was running four side events during the week. One was on our new Pacific coconuts livelihood program we are developing. Another was consulting the VIPs in attendance on our long-term strategy for the Pacific — taking a check that we are on the right track. We also had a session training journalists in the Pacific on how to tell agricultural stories in partnership with ABC International Development, as well as an alumni event for scholarship recipients in the region.

It was a terrific mix of science and practice that was there for the entire week.

There is a general consensus that this format has worked very well and the agreement is that this will be similar to the format we will see two years’ time, in Fiji.

What has been the benefit for ACIAR of having ministers and other VIPs provide feedback on your programs?

For me it was a very important chance to have a one-on-one chat with the acting Prime Minister of Samoa, and she provided positive feedback on our coconut program, telling me it was the tree of life — they can’t keep seeing the continued decline of coconuts, so anything we can do to help turn that around, Samoa will be behind us.

It was great for me to hear that directly, that our program is meeting needs.

The agricultural minister of Samoa is a farmer himself — a cocoa farmer — and to get it directly from them was important. Too many of their coconut trees are too old, they are not being properly managed and their productivity is low — just at a time as coconut is emerging as a new superfood and prices for coconut oil is going through the roof. That was really reassuring, but we had identified it as a priority and we’re developing a program that, ideally, Australia will do in partnership with New Zealand and France, who appear on the same page as us.

In the Pacific, different donors focus on different things. The French have always been really strong in coconut genetics, with CIRAD [Agricultural Research for Development] doing a lot of work in this area. In the Pacific you wouldn’t want to replant all of the coconuts with the same variety — a dwarf variety would be preferable so you can pick them while standing on the ground. French expertise comes in handy for this.

But it was also good to discuss fisheries and forestries, as well as how we generally organize ourselves. We’re increasing our investment in capacity development, such as scholarships and fellowships, so it was really good to get a reality check on the priorities there and whether we have the mix right. A lot of capacity in the Pacific is only one person deep. Doubling the capacity can make a huge difference in the region.

Were there critical gaps you identified in the Pacific that can be filled through targeted capacity development?

The Samoan campus of the University of the South Pacific was an example. That happens to be where the School of Agriculture and Food [Technology] is based and there is scope to help them build that school.

It’s identifying particular niches like that where a bit of money can make a huge difference.

Among donors, were new announcements at the high-level meetings?

Everybody is very grateful for the support they get from Australia and New Zealand, and the francophile countries are very grateful for the support they get from France.

The high-level meetings allow all attendees to share knowledge, and it provides a coordinated process for tackling common issues and threats, including climate change and biosecurity. coconut rhinoceros beetle is currently a big threat and African swine fever might also be soon.

In terms of donors in the region, is there any formality to deciding who will work where?

Where France is working, a lot of those countries are former French colonies and are French-speaking. Some of the break is formal and some informal — but we do discuss where we are giving aid and try not to trip over each other by working everywhere.

In some cases, our aid is deliberately targeted where the big donors are not. Gates [the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation] won’t work in the Pacific, for example, because not enough people live there. So we deliberately make sure we are in the Pacific. Where Gates have a bigger footprint in Africa, we have a smaller one.

In agriculture, we have a director of multilateral engagement — which was recently advertised — whose key job is to engage with these partners. But we have other discussions through the CGIAR System Council, which is made up of donors to look at priorities and figure out what we are going to do where — and what we will do collectively and bilaterally.

From the feedback of the Pacific Week of Agriculture, are you expecting there will be any changes to the work plan of ACIAR?

My gut feel is that it is about consolidation and reinforcement.

We’ve had some people developing our strategy who live in the Pacific and have been consulting people for a year — so we weren’t starting from a clean piece of paper. It was confirming what we had heard and whether we were on the right track. And it appears we are.

But countries where we are not working want us there, and in terms of capacity building everyone needs more — including funding of upgrades to labs, more control work and more.

For some of the development donors like DFAT [Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] — we are a research donor — would have certainly got good input on the development projects that would really be appreciated in the region. The main one right now is to do a big hit on the rhinoceros beetle.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.