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Tonga Travel Guide

Vegetable Market
a local vegetable market on 'Eua Island

Agriculture and Land

In Tonga's feudal system, all land is property of the crown but administered by nobles who allot it to the common people. The king and nobles retain 27 percent of the land for their own use, while the government owns another 18 percent. Although Tongan commoners still have a right to the 3.34-hectare tax'api granted them by King George Tupou I, there's no longer enough land to go around, and 10,000 Tongans are landless.

This system has not been altered substantially since 1862, and a 1976 parliamentary law intended to redistribute unused land was vetoed by the king. Frustrations with the system are relieved by migration to New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. Foreigners cannot purchase land, and even leasing requires cabinet approval.

Only half the population is involved in the cash economy; the rest live from subsistence agriculture, fishing, and collecting. The production of food, housing, and handicrafts used by the producer is higher than the value of all goods sold for cash, a situation rarely reflected in official statistics.

The staples are yams, taro, manioc, and sweet potato. Crops are rotated, and up to two-thirds of a garden is left fallow at any time. Deforestation is a problem on islands like 'Eua, where land is still being cleared for agriculture (73 percent of Tonga's land is already used for pastures and crops, the highest level in the Pacific islands).

The biggest cash crop is pumpkins (squash), and since its introduction in 1987, this vegetable has become Tonga's biggest export by far, shipped mostly to Japan by air. Tongan pumpkins supply about half Japan's requirements for November and December, a "niche market" producers in other parts of the world can't cover for climatic reasons. Some 700 small farmers grow pumpkins July-December, and overproduction has led to soil degradation, groundwater pollution, deforestation, and an increase in pests.

Tonga's overdependence on this monoculture carries with it the risk of economic collapse, should the Japanese market evaporate due to competition from other producers or a fall in yields caused by depleted soils, plant disease, or drought. Vanilla is seen as an alternative, and the production, though still small, fetches top prices on world markets. Coffee is another niche crop of growing importance.

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