Volcanic Ash Could Destroy Tonga’s Export Crops

Heilala Vanilla has said that its crops in Tonga survived the tsunami, but the plantation could be destroyed by volcanic ash.

Vanilla is one of the island nation’s biggest exports.

“The uncertainty is very tough,” Heilala Vanilla chief executive Jennifer Boggiss said.

Boggiss said the company's vanilla crops were above sea level so were unscathed when the tsunami hit the islands after a massive volcanic eruption on Saturday.

“The one concern we have is the impact of ash rainfall on plants,” she said.

“If ash stays on plants for long enough, it will impact the plant, and obviously that's not just vanilla but all crops, so it’ll impact other export crops from Tonga like yams and squash.”

The eruption sent a thick blanket of ash into the sky, contaminating water supplies and cutting off communication. Volcanic ash is a mixture of rock, mineral, and glass particles, and can cause eye, nose, and lung irritation, as well as breathing problems.

Tonga has a small export economy based around exports of vanilla, fish and agricultural products, as well as tourism. The country’s main trading partners were New Zealand, the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, and Australia. Squash, coconuts, bananas, and vanilla beans were the primary crops, and agricultural exports made up two-thirds of total exports.

The Vanilla harvesting season runs from May until September, then the vanilla is dried and exported to New Zealand in October. But with no means of communication with its Tongan staff, Boggiss said it was a waiting game.

You can read more about Heilala Vanilla and their work in Tonga here.