THE AVOCADO FESTIVAL - Next held: 1 - 4 May 2014
The Avocado Festival is held each year in Nece tribal village on Maré. Now an essential event in New Caledonia, this festival showcases farmers' work and, through home-stay accommodation, offers visits grounded in authenticity.
At the start of the 1990s, some growers (Messrs Wayadri, Cawidrone, Urene, etc.) decided to organise a very simple little festival in honour of the avocado, in the north of Maré Island. The following year, the High Chief of Guahma District, Nidoish Naisseline, invited them to get together again and offered them the Nece (Wacaele, an old word for "coral") site. Despite very brief preparation, the event was a definite hit. The Avocado Festival was born. It soon increased unexpectedly in scale. Today part of New Caledonia's calendar of essential festivities, just like the Bourail Fair, this year it celebrated its 17th anniversary. Its objective: to showcase the fruit of the farmers' work through a friendly event, to prove that custom is not a hindrance to development, and, of course, to establish the reputation of the Maré avocado beyond the borders of this Loyalty island.
Home stays with local residents
The organisers' credo is not to copy what is done elsewhere, to promote authenticity and to show guests from New Caledonia's main island or metropolitan France how people live in a tribal village. The Avocado Festival honours the encounter between the Nece inhabitants and the visitors (the word "tourists" is not used here) they receive as friends in their homes. And in Nece the meaning and quality of the welcome are not a myth. "This is the fifth time I have taken part in this kind of festival event," says one woman visitor. "I am always a bit afraid that it will be artificial and touristy, but each time I am astounded by how authentic the welcome is and how kind the people are."
The number of people is limited to 300. Nearly this number will this year "invade" the traditional huts in Nece and also in the neighbouring tribal villages: Mebuet, Padawa and Tuo. For the record, the latter village was the first to launch home stays with local residents, during the 1980s.
Twelve people, all from Nece, work for six months to prepare the festival. They divide up the tasks and the responsibilities: accommodation, transport, tastings, harvesting... The Pahnamenenge ("the tribal village" in the Nengone language, literally "all the houses") Committee works with various partners: the Maré fishermen's association, the transport GIE (economic interest group), the local council. And DIL, Destination Loyalty Islands, the "motor" which, in Noumea, takes care of promoting and getting the word out about the festival, in close consultation with the committee. DIL offers attractive boat transport and accommodation packages and, locally, various tourist activities that go well beyond the agricultural setting.
"Three-quarters of the tribal village's inhabitants have no fixed salary. They live from agriculture and fishing," explains Billy Lolohea, head of the committee. "The Avocado Festival is a very important time for them. It is also a solidarity festival." Indeed, it generates direct spin-offs for the accommodation families (2,500 XPF per person per night), the cooks and those providing transport. The event costs 6-7 million francs (about 55,000 euros) and has a turnover double that, divided up between everyone. The organising committee's plan for 2011? "Share the festival with other neighbouring tribal villages."
Pawpaws, bananas, passionfruit, taros, yams (of course), sweet potatoes and so on. As well as avocados, many fruit and vegetables, guaranteed organic, are offered on the exhibitors' stalls arranged in front of the Guahma grande chefferie (high chieftaincy). There are also fishermen's stands, decorated with bream, parrotfish, snapper or lobsters, home-made products (honey, cordials, flèches faîtières (wooden totems), doorposts, etc.), and stands where old women teach visitors the subtleties of weaving and make pandanus or coconut-palm frond baskets with them. Several food-service stands and many performances on the giant podium (Kaneka or Pacific Island dance groups) lift things out of the ordinary. Beneath the farés (traditional shelters), other people play euchre, dominos or...bingo.
Key to the festival is the Friday lunchtime meal and tasting, lovingly prepared by the Nece mothers. It is a Rabelaisian buffet (for only 2,000 XPF), with a variety of avocado-based salads, various types of bougna and a selection of desserts including an avocado tart. Further off is a caravan snackbar where the high chief's wife reserves her famous avocado milkshake for initiates. No point asking her the recipe: a secret must remain a secret! Just one clue: honey instead of sugar.
Saturday is devoted to numerous exploration activities. Snorkelling on the coral spurs off Nece, a boat trip, a mini game-fishing competition, tours of the main sights on Maré (the Bone Hole, the Warrior's Leap, the Natural Aquarium, Cengeite and Wabao Beach, the Padawa Caves, the Church of La Roche and so on) or else hikes: Eoce in Roh, Pawaguam in Nece, and Ascicen, north of Nece. The last hike is done following Papa Jo'on, one of the "forest guardians". He will tell you old legends and the myths about the taboo pebble. He will show you the many traps for coconut crabs set right along the coral path and the giant beehives hanging from the cliff, and will explain that all the piles of wood arranged near the path pay homage to the spirit of the ancestors. The walk hugs a cliff studded with caves of varying depth, sometimes concealed by curtains of banyan-tree roots which fall down the cliff's entire length. At the summit, the view over the canopy is worth a brief halt.
The avocado has become the iconic Maré fruit. Originally from South America, the local variety was introduced to New Caledonia in 1863 by Evenor de Greslan, a Reunion Island settler. It is also called the "butter avocado" due to its colour and taste. It is the Maré Islanders' favourite and the most frequently grown. It grows everywhere, in front of each house.
Avocado cultivation took off about 30 years ago, the period of the first orchards. "About 50 varieties were brought from Martinique, originating in Mexico and Guatemala," remembers nurseryman Sylvain Urene. "The Choquette, the Hall, the Fuerte, the Nishikawa, and so on, and they were simply grafted onto other species." Today it is impossible to know how many, between those fruiting early, late, mid-season...
This fruit is not difficult to grow on Maré, unlike on the Grande Terre. Here, the well-drained limestone soil facilitates its care, which is not demanding. Here too, pesticides are banned, "except where there are very severe bug attacks, when the fruit is still young". Most varieties ripen in May, which is why the festival is organised at this time.
Production and disposal
The average yield can reach 5 tonnes/hectare. About 20 Maré orchards produce between 30 and 40 tonnes each year. In addition there are all the avocados consumed directly by families and not marketed. In 2010, too much sun and not enough rainfall hurt farmers: the fruit was too small. Before the Avocado Festival (around 1.5 tonnes sold), the organising committee disposes of part of the production in Noumea's supermarkets and Downtown Thursdays. The capital is supplied with Maré avocados from April till September.
There is no other outlet for the time being. Export? According to the Loyalty Islands Province, "We would first need to establish a strategy, explore the markets and improve the quality. Exporting is tricky; if we invest, it's over the long term."