Blog Post

Coconuts and Co-Ops: Preserving Culture in a Kiribati Village

Participating in a coconut sugar collective helps Tebwebwe Tekemau and Tiikoba Terarua buy school supplies for their children. All photos by Janice Cantieri.

“This helps us. It doesn’t meet all of our expenses, but still, it helps,” smiles Tiitika Iita, as we sip water mixed with his homemade kamwaimai, a sweet coconut syrup. “We have a son in preschool, and this helps us provide for his books, pens, and other expenses.”

Iita, 20, and his wife, Utireta Tebou, 21, live a primarily subsistence-based lifestyle in Taneau Village, Kiribati, but they earn between $30 and $60 a month making coconut sugar and the syrup we’re tasting in our sweet drinks. The pair work collectively with four other couples as part of a social enterprise, Kiribati Organic Producers. The project helps families in Kiribati's outer islands remain economically self-sufficient, while reviving the cultural knowledge associated with sugar production and the traditional division of labor within the village.

The group uses a traditional practice, te karekare, to divide the work. Each of the five families collects the sap from the coconut flower, known as toddy, every four hours. They then hand it off it to another couple, who cook the toddy until it caramelizes and turns into sugar. The couples spend two days cooking the sugar, and every ten days, they each earn between $10 and $20.

Te karekare “is a practice from our ancestors,” Iita explains. “We work as a group and we all bring a certain amount. When it’s your turn to make the sugar, you get to make all of it and keep all of the money. This makes it less tiring and breaks up the work.”

Iita and Tebou work closely with Tebwebwe Tekemau, 30, and his wife Tiikoba Terarua, 31, one of the other couples in the cooperative. I joined the older couple for the day when it was their turn to cook the sugar. First, each couple in their cooperative arrived at Tekemau and Terarua’s thatched kitchen with their toddy. Tekemau tested it all with a pH indicator, then poured it into a large silver basin. His wife lit a fire in an open-pit burner on the kitchen floor and the stirring began.

Tebwebwe Tekemau, 30, and his wife Tiikoba Terarua, 31, stir caramelized coconut sap until it turns into sugar.

“We have to stir it the whole time to keep the heat steady and prevent the sugar from burning unevenly,” Terarua explained while stirring the toddy onto the sides of the basin. This process is extremely labor intensive; it takes at least four hours—and sometimes even overnight—for the sugar to caramelize to the right consistency.

As the sun began to set, the sugar finally started changing into a caramel. And once we removed the basin from the heat, the sugar gradually turned into a light-brown powder with a distinct, sweet aroma. This batch was between two and three kilograms, which would earn Terarau and her husband between $10 and $15.

In addition to generating income in Taneau village, the Kiribati Organic Producers project has revived interest in cutting toddy among the younger generations, says Bwataka Moorei, 44. Moorei is the oldest in the sugar-production group, and works with the younger members to keep them encouraged.

“I am excited about this project because I can use the skill my forefathers passed down to me,” Moorei explains. “[When this project came] it was the first time that we came together as a group to discuss the skills and the way to cut toddy. Before, it was a closed knowledge within the family,” he said. “We all shared this knowledge, we shared it with the youth. Seeing them, especially the unemployed youth, do something they are inspired to do makes me so happy.”

Tiikoba Terarua sits here for hours, stirring the sap over an open flame.

Ahling Onorio, founder of Kiribati Organic Producers, says she founded the project to preserve traditional skills in a way that generates income. The profits, while small, can help families remain self-sufficient on Kiribati’s rural outer islands, which still practice a primarily subsistence-based lifestyle, rather than relocate to the crowded, cash-based villages of South Tarawa in search of work.

“There is a phrase called te ewenako that refers to waking up early to start the day's work. You can hear the swishing of the broom, the men singing from the tree as they cut the toddy or dragging the canoe out—this is our traditional way of life,” she explained. “The te ewenako and te karekare are very important.”

Onorio has noticed that her project has revived these traditional practices, especially te ewenako, with the men rising early to cut toddy, she explains excitedly. She emphasizes the use of traditional skills in her projects, she says, because she is concerned that many of these skills are dying out with the older generations.

“There is this idea that development and the cash economy comes in and overtakes the subsistence economy,” she says. “But they must be combined together. I really want to take from the old and merge it with the new and that is what [these projects] are doing—adding value to our traditional skills and empowering our young people.”

The sugar production and the opportunities it has created, however, are not immune to Kiribati’s rising seas. Many coconut trees, especially along the shoreline in Taneau Village, have fallen into the sea. The loss of these trees threatens the sugar-making and the subsistence lifestyle in the outer islands, explains sugar co-op participant Tiitika Iita. “We’ve been planting a lot more coconut trees, but most of them are gone because the waves have taken them away.”

Janice Cantieri is a journalist and researcher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who is on a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to document the stories of displacement and adaptation between the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Fiji. She is following the stories of the Banaban Islanders, residents of a phosphate island in Kiribati, who were displaced to Rabi Island in Fiji by the British Phosphate Commission in 1945 and have been separated from their ancestral homeland for the past seventy years. She will also follow the stories of i-Kiribati on the Tarawa Atoll, who are currently facing the possibility of migration and displacement to Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific as the sea level continues to rise and inundate the low-lying islands, which are only 2-3 meters above sea level. She will be telling the stories of the Kiribati people, their culture and heritage, while also documenting the adaptations, challenges, and innovations they have developed in response to the changes they have faced.

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