A walk in ancient ‘food bowl’.
Recently Te Ipukarea Society officer Liam Kokaua and intern Chris Benson ventured into the higher reaches of the Takuvaine Valley with two long-time caretakers of the valley, Colin Rattle and Celine Dyer.
Rattle considers the valley to have been the “Food Bowl” of Rarotonga in the early pre-European era of Rarotonga’s settlement. After completing the trek the two younger visitors totally agreed with this statement, as the soil in the valley seems to be incredibly rich. It was apparent that this valley still has the potential to be that food bowl, with over 20 species of edible fruit and vegetables easily observed growing naturally within the valley.
Of the cultivated crops, the main crop grown is our staple root – the taro. The Upper Takuvaine Valley is home to numerous varieties of taro including both introduced and native Cook Islands varieties. Some of these native taro varieties are very rare as they have been lost on the coast by cross-breeding with introduced varieties.
The taro is grown in ancient pondfields which are held together by man-made stone terraces (taro vai) which keep running water flowing over the taro plants. Many of the terraces are likely to be hundreds of years old and were made by early Rarotongan people by hand.
These terraces give the Takuvaine Valley an additional cultural and archaeological importance for all Cook Islands people. The landowners continue to clean and maintain as many of these pondfields as possible, although many have become overgrown over time.
Utu (mountain banana) is another natural wonder of this valley. It is a native type of banana which grows in high valleys and mountain ridges throughout most of the Pacific Islands. The utu has characteristic red-orange coloured bananas which grow “upside down”, pointing to the sky – a reason why they are sometimes called “King” bananas.
Utu bananas must be cooked before eating and are delicious baked with fresh coconut cream added. Rattle believes there are at least five varieties of utu still growing within the valley. During the team’s short excursion they saw two different types which had ripe bunches.
Rarotonga’s valleys are often safe havens for rare varieties of fruit and vegetable crops which are no longer found on the coastal flats. Not only does each variety of taro or utu taste different, but they have different characteristics such as growing time, tolerance of soil types, and climate changes.
The Upper Takuvaine Valley lies above the Takuvaine water catchment, which is a vital water supply for the Avarua district. Although planting occurs well above the catchment, landowners and planters know to respect the rules outlined in the Takuvaine Water Catchment Management Plan.
No chemicals such as weedkillers and pesticides are used above the catchment mark. The planters prefer it that way anyway, and one can taste the difference in the beautiful organic produce which comes out of the valley.
It is clear, the Upper Takuvaine Valley is of crucial importance to Rarotonga’s population - not only as a foodbowl for the people, but for quality drinking water, cultural heritage, and genetic diversity. Tapping into this genetic diversity may be the key to adapting to climate change, but if these species are lost, we will never know.
Other valleys such as those in Tupapa, Matavera, and Avatiu, could also serve similar roles for the people of those villages. These valleys also have ancient pondfields, but they are mostly abandoned today.
If used correctly, our valleys on Rarotonga could provide healthy foods for our people once again. However for anyone intending to start planting in the valleys, they should ensure that no agricultural chemicals, mechanical clearing, littering, or other forms of pollution occurs within these natural wonders.
So, if you are going into a valley, respect the area, its landowners, the plants, and the wildlife, and enjoy the riches of the valley!