Watermelon growers in Tonga furious over shipment debacle

Ten containers of watermelons were scheduled to be shipped to New Zealand on 5 December.
Ten containers of watermelons were scheduled to be shipped to New Zealand on 5 December. Photo credit: Getty

By Sela Jane Hopgood for RNZ

Watermelon growers in Tonga are furious with the Government following the cancellation of the first shipment of the fruit since a temporary export permit was granted by New Zealand last week.

Ten containers of watermelons were scheduled to be shipped to New Zealand on 5 December.

However, the trucking companies assigned to transport the melons to the wharf in Tongatapu did not arrive to the growers' farms to pick up the produce, as RNZ Pacific Correspondent Kalafi Moala explained.

"The Government, in particular the Ministry of Agriculture had organised for the trucks to come pick up the melons and so the fact that it didn't happen over the weekend, the responsibility falls back on them," he said.

"I spoke to one of the exporters who told me that they tried to contact the Minister of Agriculture, Hon. Lord Tu'ilakepa, to try and intervene, but he was in Vava'u fulfilling cabinet duties with the Prime Minister.

"At this point we are unsure of the reason why the trucks didn't show up.

"The exporters and the growers were surprised that there were no trucks available to do the job or answer any queries. The ship left to New Zealand without the melons."

One of the main watermelon growers in Tonga, Kafoika Lautaimi, was furious and upset when he realised his three containers were not going to be shipped to New Zealand.

"I was angry because not being able to export my melons overseas for the last seven weeks has been the greatest loss of my life," Lautaimi said.

"We have cried out to the Government since the ban to help us, but nothing has happened.

"We are extremely grateful for the help and support from the New Zealand MPI [Ministry for Primary Industries] recently, but as for our government in Tonga, they have disappointed us tremendously."

Lautaimi said it was a circus on Saturday, trying to find the people responsible for organising the transportation of the melons.

"We knocked on every door that day, trying to look for someone or even the truck driver responsible, but no luck.

"We called numerous people and there was no answer.

"We wasted our time, our money and labour hire to ensure we had our containers ready for the first shipment to New Zealand, but we've been left with a massive headache as we now have to collect our large load of melons that were left to take back to our homes."

Lautaimi and other watermelon growers held a meeting on Saturday night to discuss how to support each other, in case the next scheduled shipment did not go to plan.

"We were all crying because we have already lost over US$8000 and we all have families to provide for, especially with Christmas coming up.

"We will now take our melons to sell at the local market, but it will be cheaper than it is if we were to sell it overseas.

"We have decided that if the government doesn't want to help us, we will start an online fundraiser and let people know that we are facing financial problems because of these mishaps here in Tonga," he said.

Moala said the growers had to collect their melons because every consignment expected to be shipped to New Zealand required freshly picked fruit.

The office of the minister of agriculture, Lord Tu'ilakepa, was unable to be reached for comment.