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Tokelau Travel Guide

The Changing Village

To be in the lee of the southeast trades, the villages sit on the west side of each atoll. The sandy soil and meager vegetation (only 61 species) force the Tokelauans to depend on the sea for protein. Coconut palms grow abundantly on the motus: What isn't consumed is dried and exported as copra. The islands are gradually being replanted with a high-yield coconut species from Rotuma.

Pulaka (swamp taro) is cultivated in man-made pits up to two meters deep. Breadfruit is harvested November to March, and some bananas and papayas are also grown. Pandanus is used for making mats and other handicrafts or for thatching roofs; pandanus fruit is also edible.

Pigs, chickens, and ducks are kept, and crabs are captured for food (but there are no dogs). Most land is held by family groups (kaiga) and cannot be sold to outsiders.

Today, as Tokelau enters a cash economy, imported canned and frozen foods are gaining importance. Aluminum motorboats have largely replaced dugout sailing canoes, and when gasoline is scarce the islanders cannot travel to the motus to collect their subsistence foodstuffs. European-style concrete housing is now the norm, and almost all households depend on water channeled into storage tanks from the tin roofs. Nearly half of the houses have flush toilets. Most cooking is done on kerosene stoves, and appliances such as washing machines, electric irons, freezers, and VCRs are widespread. Trousers are gaining preference over the traditional kie (loincloth).

Motorboats, Fakaofo
Outboard motorboats such as these at Fakaofo are the principal means of getting around the Tokelau Islands.

The changing values have also meant a decline in the traditional sharing system (inati). Outboard motors and electricity cost money: The rising standard of living has paralleled an increasing dependency on aid and remittances from relatives in New Zealand.

Three-quarters of the adult population smoke. Imported foods and the changing lifestyle are largely to blame for the rapid increase in noncommunicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and gout.

An average of one kilogram of sugar per person is consumed weekly, an 800 percent increase over the past 30 years. Dengue fever, influenza, and hepatitis are endemic in the population.