Karen Mapusua is the new World Board President of IFOAM – Organics International. She’s been running organic certification programs since the early 2,000s. Karen is from Fiji and lives in the capital, Suva. IFOAM North America conducted an interview with her to hear her thoughts on her organic journey and new role.

I entered the organic movement while workIng for an N.G.O producing virgin coconut oil, the dominant crop in Samoa – a project in partnership with The Body Shop, exporting small amounts of coconut oil as part of their Community Trade Program. Other companies have consequently entered the coconut oil trade in Samoa, including a joint venture with Dr. Bronner’s. These ventures have made a huge impact on the exports of organically certified products and created valuable opportunities for local farmers. There is now a Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) program focussed on developing local markets and improving the consumption of local fruits and vegetables.

Now I work in Fiji, and similar to other countries in our region, Fiji is also growing organic ginger and turmeric, and in Papua New Guinea we’re proud to have a growing organic coffee market.

Organic in Oceania took life as an export market. As locals, we are very price sensitive and much of what was grown was organic anyways. In the last 10 years, there are new organic farmers markets springing up, with a real interest in offering solutions to our Non-Communicable Disease crisis. Local diets have changed dramatically since colonialization, with the serious consequence of having a huge impact on public health issues such as diabetes, heart diseases and obesity.

To help decolonize local diets, we’re working at rebuilding local food cultures and reclaiming health benefits from traditional food diets. In our region, traditional diets have included root crops, taro, cassava, sweet potato, yams, with plenty of coconut and fish. Greens are provided by taro leaves and a variety of indigenous green vegetables. 

Also in Fiji, the land tenure systems in our region are largely traditional, without major influence by big landholders. There is a strong connection by farmers to their land, and most local farmers work on their own lands. This land is predominantly under customary tenure, owned by extended families or clans.

The situation in Papua New Guinea is somewhat different from the rest of the region because most of the organic sector is foreign-owned. While their coffee sector continues to grow, many of the farmers involved in the trade are not aware of the certification programs that their farms area part of. They know that someone comes to their farm every once in a while and has a look, but they often have little understanding of improvement around organic practices.

We would like to see the organic sector offering more empowerment to these farmers.

The remoteness and small size of our farms makes PGS a valuable process, since individual certification is unrealistic. Growers are essential to the way 3rd-Party certification can take place. I’d like to see us do more work around Internal Control Systems, and the changes in EU organic regulations are going to have a huge impact on our grower groups. So it’s important to find ways to support this system and prevent farmers from losing their certification. We need to get a better sense of the value chain and the business case around certification, because PGS is valuable for both local market development as well as export and trade.

We accept PGS locally, but we’re hoping to get more recognition of PGS outside our region. There are people on the ground who understand PGS but we’d like to have more people involved in the regulation discussions.

IFOAM Regional offices have unique stages of development, and Oceania does not yet have its own, but we are working on it. Adding our voice in the IFOAM Network Committee would give us access to insight and experience in various other parts of the world. The Covid crisis has forced us to become better at working through those things, because we’ve had no other choice. We have to be able to communicate in better ways, and I’m hoping we can continue the learning we’ve experienced while building communication with our main office in Bonn.

IFOAM – Organics International has also learned to work with the regional offices in a better way as well. The next few years will require even more learning. The challenge is for the International office to get closer to the membership in our diverse regions and understand their unique priorities while supporting all the regions in meeting their individual needs.

For example, gender and equality are issues in all regions, with unique gender issues particular to the Pacific Islands. We find that while our development partners may push certain agendas, we try to ensure that the agenda is our own. We like to point out that some of our islands are matrilineal traditionally. At the roots, people who farm on the land here, eat from the land. Often handed down through the women’s side. But with colonialism, a lot of the matrilineal authority has been watered down.

Women have different roles across the Pacific region, and we work to recognize women’s roles and give them more visibility in the discourse. We support the economic empowerment of women in all these different cultures, particularly in societies that are largely communal, and we need to make sure that gender issues don’t become barriers to women. Race issues in the region are framed in terms of decolonialization, with predominantly indigenous people who are fully in charge of their future with land ownership and decision making.

Consensus building and facilitating the divergent voices of the organic movement

I’m a strong advocate for consensus and it’s been the usual way of making decisions on the World Board. This goes beyond our World Board team. Our organization is incredibly diverse and we’ve all come at this ‘animal’ of organics in very different ways with very different priorities. The key is making sure that we have developed a strategic organizational plan that is co-creating a vision that we all have bought into. And if everyone is working to that one vision, it doesn’t matter which path we’re walking on to get to it. We’re all contributing to that one vision, and the closer we all get to it, the closer we come together as well.

This new relationship with regional bodies is also really important because it facilitates strategic development that is co-creational. It rises from the grassroots members in the regional bodies, the international office helps to form that vision and gel it, then it’s sent back for consultation again to make sure that the messaging is clear. Rather than something coming down from the International office and out to the regional bodies, this collaboration process is key to building the kind of unified vision and purpose to deal with the challenges of the future.

We don’t want to lose the strong focus on the grassroot movement of IFOAM – Organics International, but we need to find ways to engage with the really big players who receive the bulk of the premium funding from organic consumers and if they were members and contributing to the business model of IFOAM – Organics International, they too would continue to reap increased benefits from the growth of international organic agriculture.

Our biggest challenges

One of our challenges at the moment is our business model. Membership fees make up a very small proportion of our overall budget, so we’re very dependent on donor-funded projects just for day-to-day operations and keeping our doors open. This leaves us financially very vulnerable. So when a crisis like the Covid pandemic comes up, there is less project money available, and implementation slows down. All of which seriously impacts our cash flow and financial viability. This means that as an organization, we spend a lot of time and energy finding the next project so that we can keep offering core services to our members.

The most important job we have right now is taking a fresh look at our old business model through the eyes that we’ve used to create innovations in our organizational structure, and develop a new business model that is more sustainable and better suited for moving the goals of Organic 3.0 forward.

We need to find a business model that gives us more flexible or core funding to allow us to be more responsive and deal with the issues of the members.

This is the big one for the World Board.

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