Tristan, Coronavirus and Self-sufficiency

One of the great things about life on an island is that it is relatively easy to isolate it from the outside world.  In the case of Tristan da Cunha, being the world’s most remote inhabited island, 1600 miles of ocean to the nearest land mass provides a buffer zone which, if fully taken advantage of by controlling shipping and cargoes, is almost impossible for diseases to cross.

My second article on this web site was called Reflections from Cape Town, published on 11 November 2016.  At that time I was on my way out to Tristan, to take up an appointment as Agriculture Adviser.  Things that I discussed in that article included the implications for the management of cattle and sheep for an island having very little contact with the outside world, particularly with regard to preventing the arrival of diseases from other countries.  A large part of my work on the island focussed on minimising the risk of importing diseases.  As a remote island, Tristan has a great advantage in being largely disease free – it is so important to preserve this disease-free status.

In the same way that islands provide a privileged position in relation to animal diseases, human populations on islands are similarly protected from diseases that may sweep the mainland.  However, this protection carries with it certain risks.  Comparisons are sometimes made between Tristan da Cunha and St. Kilda, which is a tiny storm-bound rocky archipelago 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland.  The people on St. Kilda lived a very basic life not dissimilar to the life that used to exist in Tristan – seabirds and their eggs provided much of the islanders’ food, in addition to which they reared sheep and grew potatoes.  It is thought that the island had been inhabited for around 4,000 years.  However, at the end of the 1800’s and the beginning of the 1900’s, the lack of exposure to diseases that were common in the outside world proved to be the undoing of the people of St Kilda.  At this time, and for the first time, the island received visits from their first ‘tourists’.  They previously had no exposure to common diseases, and no immunity.  They went down like flies.  In one year, four children died from the ‘common cold’.  The population declined rapidly, until in 1930 it had reduced to an unsustainable level and the remaining 36 people were evacuated at their own request.

The parallels with Tristan are obvious.  In our time on the island, we observed the islanders’ concern every time non-islanders arrived, and we observed a wave of cold-like illness after most visits.  The case of corona virus is a little different, in that since it is a new virus no-one in the world has immunity to it.  If exposed to the virus, it is likely that 100% of Tristanians would develop the disease just like 100% of people in any other country.  The essential differences would come after the disease has been contracted by individual islanders.  In the first place, medical facilities on the island are very limited, with extremely limited laboratories and no provision for intensive care.  Secondly, there are many people who would find themselves in the high risk category for corona virus – for example the level of asthma and other respiratory problems is extremely high, as is the level of other underlying medical conditions, and there is a high percentage of the population who are over 70.  There is no doubt that an outbreak of Corona Virus would be extremely serious for the people of Tristan.  With this background, the Island Council made a sensible and logical decision on 9 March this year, to the effect that passengers on the three cruise ships that were due to arrive (Le Lyrial, Silver Cloud and Planeius) would not be allowed to land on the island.  In making this decision, the Island Council would have taken into account the loss of an important source of revenue from the cruise ship visitors, but the risks to the health of the people of the island were simply not worth taking.

In the days after this decision, there were all sorts of discussions on social media to do with the level of vulnerability that the island of Tristan da Cunha experienced as a result of Corona Virus.  These discussions revolved around the potential impact of the disease itself, and leading on from that the island’s reliance on imported food and the level of self sufficiency that it enjoys. Many of the views expressed were ill-informed, even though they came from people who had actually been to the island, and worked there.  The reality of the situation can be summarised as follows.

The island is heavily dependent on imported food.  In a normal year, nine ships are scheduled to arrive at the island, and among other things these ships carry a wide range of stocks for the island grocery shop. The island can and does survive perfectly well if one or two of these consignments fails to arrive, as sometimes happens for a variety of reasons.  Every household has a well stocked deep freeze and a decent stock of canned food, flour, sugar, etc.  Also, there is a culture of sharing and borrowing, so if a household runs out of one item the chances are that it can be obtained from a neighbour or a relative.  Survival during a period of short-term cutting of the food chain would absolutely not be a problem.

An analysis of the potential and actual self sufficiency of the island is another matter.  There are really only three products in which the island is truly self sufficient, these being water, mutton and fish.  The island is also virtually self sufficient in beef.  At any one time there is at least a year’s supply of beef ‘on the hoof’, and the beef items that are imported are limited to manufactured items such as beef sausages and canned foods such as meat balls – these beef items are not imported in large quantities.  On the other hand, chicken meat and pork are both imported in quite large quantities.  No pigs are currently kept on the island, and surprisingly the islanders are generally squeamish at the idea of eating their own chickens.  It must be remembered that in the event of Tristan making a decision to become self sufficient in chicken meat or in pork, the production of these two commodities could only be achieved by the importation of feed for the livestock, so in effect the home production of one commodity would be offset by the import of another commodity.

Tristan prides itself on the production of potatoes, but when self sufficiency is being considered there are two important caveats.  Firstly, there have been years in the past when disease, insect attack or the ravages of the weather have given rise to a partial or total crop failure, and there can be no doubt these crop failures will also occur in the future.  Secondly, in addition to the potatoes grown by the island a considerable quantity of potato products – particularly crisps and frozen chips – are included in every consignment of foodstuffs that arrives on the island.

Weather conditions on the island are harsh for the growing of vegetables.  Storms frequently wipe out a growing crop.  Also, it is an unfortunate fact that various harmful insect pests have managed to make their way to Tristan, and these insect pests can cause considerable damage partly because they have no natural predators to keep their numbers in check.  Most of the houses have a sheltered garden area in which vegetables used to be grown, but in many cases the garden ground has been taken over by the invasive New Zealand flax.  As with other elements of food production, it would be possible to envisage a significant increase in vegetable production, but this would only be following a long period of work in which all players (DFID or other funding agencies, the Administrator, the Island Council, and the islanders themselves) committed themselves to a rigorous development programme.  In the meantime I would suggest that the island is less than 25% self sufficient in vegetables (other than potatoes)

As far as fruit is concerned,  apples, pears and plums are grown but on a very small scale.  There used to be reasonable quantities of apples grown at Sandy Point, but there is now no production in that area.  Production from the few trees within the settlement could be significantly increased, for example by pruning of the trees and by cutting back the invasive New Zealand flax, but I found no enthusiasm among the islanders to care for their fruit trees in this way, and large tonnages of these fruits are imported.  It goes without saying that tropical and semi-tropical fruit simply could not be grown on Tristan.  Overall, I would suggest that the island is some 10% self sufficient in fruit, at the most.

Finally, with every shipload of provisions coming onto the island there is a large quantity of manufactured goods, which could not under any circumstances be produced on the island (particularly for the limited population which currently stands at around 246 people)  This includes staples such as flour, sugar, tea and coffee, also breakfast cereals, cheese and butter, biscuits, and frozen and tinned commodities.  It also includes large quantities of fizzy drinks and of alcoholic drinks.  There is no scope to produce any of these items locally, thus there is no possibility of any level of import substitution in the category of manufactured or processed foods.  Thus, in this category (with large tonnages involved) there is zero self-sufficiency.

One is left with the fact that Tristan is very far from being self sufficient in foodstuffs.  Some improvement in this position could be achieved, if the islanders wanted to go that way.  Alternatively, it is a perfectly reasonable policy for the island to produce what it does best – i.e. Tristan Lobster, and to import foods from areas that are better suited to the production of these foods – i.e. virtually the whole of Africa!  It is then of course sensible, or even essential, to maximise production of those things that do well on the island (beef, mutton, potatoes, etc) particularly as a strategic policy, which would be important in the event that several supply ships failed to arrive.  Which is where this article started with the Corona Virus and the passengers on the cruise ships!