A Piece of Paradise?

On paper, Vanuatu – a collection of tropical islands in the South Pacific – is one of the poorest countries on earth. Yet you see little abject poverty. Almost no one owns land there, but few are homeless. CUSO staff writer Sean Kelly travelled to Vanuatu to find out why.

Inside a large thatched roof hut in a small village hidden by thick jungle, a dozen young men prepare the evening’s kava. The drink is a mind and mood-altering brew made from grinding – or sometimes chewing – the tough, gnarled root of the piper methysticum plant.

As they mash the grated root and strain it with water, the men’s voices mingle in harmonies that would have Ry Cooder reaching for his tape recorder. While they sing, smoke from an outside fire dances through gaps in the bamboo walls.

Kava may be phlegm-green and bitter, but the aftermath of the aftertaste is certainly relaxing. Knocking back a coconut shell of the mixture is one of the many fascinating customs still practiced in Vanuatu, among the most traditional and rural nations in the world.

Vanuatu – formerly known as the New Hebrides – is a collection of 83 islands and atolls of volcanic origin. Their steep peaks break the water’s surface along a 1,000-kilometre arc of the South Pacific, northeast of Australia. Sixty-nine islands are inhabited.

The majority of the country’s 205,000 people make a living as farmers and foragers, fishers and hunters. Most ni-Vanuatu, as citizens are called, live in small communities on the ocean’s edge, including the men partaking in the kava in this village on Pentecost island.

But here, in another distinct custom, individuals don’t own the land they cultivate or build their homes on. Yet this is one place on earth where you see few homeless people. And on paper, Vanuatu is a poor, ‘Third World’ country, yet you see little abject poverty.

I had traveled to Vanuatu to learn why, and to hear the story while it is still being written in the soil.

I began my travels on Efate island in the capital of Port Villa, a town of 36,000 carved into hills that overlook a beautiful, horseshoe-shaped harbour. Vila has a charming if somewhat faded colonial atmosphere, and cruise ships now include in their ports of call. Japanese-built mini-vans double as buses, dropping off passengers at a sprawling central market; pedestrian traffic moves at the more relaxed pace of the flip-flops most everyone wears.

On the freshly cut lawn of the National Museum in Vila, I meet Ralph Regenvanu, the Director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. The widely respected son of an Australian mother and ni-Vanuatu father, the 30-something Ralph explains that traditionally, land is used for communal benefit. “Land is held by clans, by extended families, not owned by individuals. Markers in the landscape – stones, trees, features in the land – this is the way that people have been able to determine ownership. And these features in the landscape all have stories; they are our history, our identity.”

Inside the museum, standing between two tamtam drums – large, hollowed out logs with slits originally used to send coded messages between villages – I ask him what makes his native country so unique. “It’s not unique,” Ralph corrects me. “This communal system has been found all over the world, in almost every country.”

“What’s unique in Vanuatu is that this system was entrenched in our modern constitution.” Vanuatu gained independence in 1980 from not one but two Colonial masters, France and Great Britain, after decades of joint rule. This odd arrangement, a response to German expansionism in the region, was officially called the Anglo-French Condominium.

Better known by locals as the Pandemonium, the two-headed administration led to dueling school systems, parallel currencies, and separate police forces. (It was said that the French prisons were more crowded, but that the food was much better.) British and French nationals had full rights and kept their home country’s citizenship, while ni-Vanuatu were officially stateless.

At independence, the country reverted to communal land ownership based on the extended family rather than the individual. Most land outside of the capital was returned to its indigenous, hereditary holders – the knowledge of clan use having been passed down through oral story-telling over many hundreds of years. In theory, no one can be landless, and Vanuatu is one of the few places where indigenous peoples have not been alienated from their ancestral home.

This agrarian, communal life is what I came here to explore, so I left the air-conditioned comfort, cold beer and imported foods of Vila, and headed for the outskirts, to the village of Pango.

A tastefully-designed tourist resort dominates the entrance to the community, taking advantage of a steady ocean swell that attracts surfers to these shores. I walk along a muddy road past a concrete Presbyterian church and cement block houses capped with corrugated tin. Bamboo crab-traps dry out on the beach.

Traveling with me is Joel Simo, a CUSO volunteer and field worker with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. Like the majority in Vanuatu, Joel is Melanesian, sharing genetic links with Polynesians, Papuans and Australian Aborigines. What he doesn’t have is the thick, frizzy hair that you see on most of the islands. He is, in fact, bald like me, and our two heads are a source of amusement in a country where gravity-defying hairstyles are common.

Joel also speaks many languages, useful in one of the world’s most linguistically-diverse nations. Over 100 distinct native languages are spoken in Vanuatu, in addition to English, French and Bislama, a pidgin English that serves as the national tongue.

And in most of those indigenous languages, people don’t refer to themselves as landowners, but rather as children or parents of the ground. In traditional culture, it is as difficult to imagine the buying and selling of land as it is the selling of your mother or child.

We stop at the home of Eva, a 72-year-old village elder who looks both frail and strong at the same time. She invites us to sit on her bamboo mat. Along one wall, half-a-dozen loose-fitting dresses with floral patterns hang neatly on a rope. These ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ gowns are a legacy of early Christian modesty; missionaries worried that outfits revealing a woman’s curvaceous figure would be distracting to their newly converted flock. The other wall is papered in bible school certificates.

The linguistic path travels from Pango to Bislama to English as Eva tells me what the land means to her. “The land is like our mother. It’s where we get everything we need. Our elders told us to look after the ground, and pass it on to our children.”

“But now,” Eva says, “that is starting to change.”

Communal ownership may be enshrined in the constitution, but there are loopholes. Custom landowners can register their ground with the government and then lease parcels of it to others for a maximum of 75 years – the productive lifespan of a coconut tree. This length is attractive enough for foreign investment, and in a country with a struggling economy, leasing to logging companies or land developers is the easiest way to make a quick buck.

In Vanuatu, land and fishing rights are inherited from either the mother’s or father’s side, depending on what community you are in (Pango, for example, is matrilineal). To use land outside your territory, you traditionally marry into another family. In the old days, boundaries between different clans were somewhat flexible. But as land becomes viewed as a commodity, conflicts have erupted. Special tribunals have been set up to resolve sometimes violent land squabbles, and the courts are now slogging through a backlog of cases.

And within families, one member of a clan can register and lease land without the consensus of the broader group.

Eva worries about future generations. “If the children go to school but there are no jobs when they get out, in the past they could come back to the village and make their gardens. But if the land is gone because a relative sold it, and there are no jobs for the children, I don’t know what will happen to them.”

Ricky is one of those youth. He studied at university in Vila, but wants to stay in Pango and try his hand working the land. He doesn’t like what he’s seeing in his village. “When one person sells land, the others see that he has a lot of money, so they go crazy about selling the land. People are brainwashed by western things, like a nice house and a shiny car. But it’s affecting us young people – our land is being sold to foreigners.”

I ask Ricky if it’s wrong to want a nice house. “It’s normal to want a nice house,” he admits, “but in the past, people worked hard to build a nice house. The selling of land is like easy money. You can get your beautiful house, but you separate yourself from the community. And when the money runs out, you have no land to farm.”

“It’s like living nowhere.”

While the cash from leasing land may help pay for school fees, hospital care or start a small business, access to traditional land is gone for a very long time. If the money is not used wisely or the business fails, it can be devastating for the extended families of that clan. And ni-Vanuatu don’t always appreciate the true value of what they have; there are cases where land was leased to an outsider who then sub-divided it for foreign residences at many times the original payment.

A few people in Pango did lease land to the Australian-owned tourist resort that stands in architectural contrast to the village. Although the hotel may be controversial, Vanuatu needs the investment. By conventional standards, Vanuatu is a poor country – 129th out of 177 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index. It’s heavily dependent on foreign aid, and imports outweigh exports. Gross National Income per capita is around US$1,180.

People are fed, but most don’t have the trappings of what we call progress.

Roads, hospitals, schools – these cost money, and the cash has to come from somewhere. Vanuatu’s cultural norms discourage outside ventures, so development banks and donor countries are pushing for the usual prescription: good governance, a favourable investment climate, and individual property rights.

Joel waits outside while I wander around the resort. I grab a drink at the open-walled, thatched-roof bar; the background throbs with the obligatory reggae beat heard in tourist hangouts the world over. I start asking questions but am quickly intercepted by Samantha, the hotel manager.

Several villagers told me that few people from their community work at the resort. Samantha disagrees. “I would say about 60 percent of our employees are from Pango,” says the outgoing Australian. “As a result of us being here, we employ a lot of villagers, and put a lot of charity back into the community. We support local youth groups, the women’s group, and help families with school fees. It’s a big investment in the resort, but also back into the community as well.”

I finish one Tusker, a Vanuatu beer that goes down considerably smoother than kava, and start another. I’m approached by Mark Bishop, an Australian developer now living in Port Vila. He overheard my conversation, and wanted me know that not all foreign developers are cut from the same imported cloth.

“It’s true,” he says, “that too many whiteys come to the country looking for cheap land – beachfront property, prime real estate. If it’s the wrong whiteys, the indigenous people are given a raw deal.”

“And the reality is that the land is gone for a long time. Now they are given serious cash up front, but it usually goes to trucks, new bikes for the kids, anything that opens and shuts. Ten years later, the truck is in the backyard because they don’t have the money to fix it. There’s still no jobs, and it’s deflating for them, and deflating for the country.”

“What my company wants to do,” explains Bishop, “is instead of whitey coming in and buying the land and subdividing it and making a bloody fortune, we want the native people to keep their land. We’ll do a project together, they’ll get a percentage of the profit, there’ll be jobs, and we can run the resort together. They then have esteem, they have respect, and they have a future.”

I was initially suspicious of Mark’s smooth-voice and ‘I-know-best’ attitude, except that what he says makes sense. Vanuatu needs quality investment – not just land speculation and secret tax-haven shelters. And tourism is becoming that cash cow. It’s already Vanuatu’s largest foreign exchange earner after farming exports such as beef, cocoa and copra – dried coconut meat.

Tourism does create jobs, but there can be negative side effects, from pollution to cultural insensitivity to dependence on a notoriously fickle industry. Many visitors don’t venture far from Vila, and stay at foreign-owned resorts and drink imported beer. But its unique culture is a competitive advantage Vanuatu has in the world of tropical travel, and co-ventures and community-based tourism projects could be a piece of the economic puzzle.

I check out the open-air pool, built on a deck overlooking the turquoise sea. I chat with Jane, a suitably relaxed, bikini-clad Australian tourist visiting Vanuatu for the first time. I’m conspicuous in my Mountain Equipment Co-op hiking pants and long-sleeve sun shirt. She thinks the country is very beautiful, with a nice combination of beaches, resorts and friendly people. But she hasn’t visited the next door village of Pango. “I haven’t done any traditional sightseeing. Not sure if I’ll have the time.”

I was also a tourist of sorts, and I did want to do some traditional sightseeing, so it was time for me to island-hop.

We’re flying north in a Canadian-built Twin Otter. The Australian pilot is wearing plastic sandals. It’s too noisy to talk to other passengers, so I peer down at the dark green island pyramids surrounded by a desert of ocean blue.

We land on Pentecost island, so-named because it was first seen by Europeans on the day Christians celebrate the descent of the Holy Ghost. I’m here to visit a community on the northeast side that is one of the most traditional and customary in the country (or as they say in Bislama, the most Kastom). And as the cliché goes, getting there is half the fun.

Several hours in the back of a pickup truck over rain-ravaged roads is followed by a long, hot hike down a steep jungle ravine, the hills covered in a woolly blanket of trees and vegetation. We reach an isolated stretch of coastline, the ragged ribbons of waves breaking over the coral reefs. Pale green sprouts emerge from fallen coconuts and Hermit Crabs with their borrowed homes scurry over the sharp ridges of the volcanic rock.

The path branches off and leads us inland to a village at the heart of the Turaga indigenous nation.

A cluster of huts with walls of woven bamboo strips are within drum-beat distance of a large nakamal building, a traditional gathering site. A smoke-filled cooking house is busy with the sounds of grating and grinding; meals are communally prepared by the women. Sweet potato, yam, taro, plantain, crab – food is plenty in this sparsely populated patch of earth. And naturally organic.

They greet each other here by touching foreheads. When I’m introduced to the Chief, I forget to take off my baseball cap. He waits for me to try again.

Chief Viralo is a handsome, charismatic leader with an aura of purpose – he has spearheaded the creation of a school of indigenous philosophy and technology. Matches and processed food are banned, but they do have a refrigerator and gas generator.

He leads me to his hut, a large building that serves as his institute’s headquarters. Without having to ask, the Chief – again, with two layers of translation – starts talking to me about land.

“Our relationship with the ground is very, very sacred,” he says. “Land is the foundation and the source of life. It’s from the land that we come from. In this society the land does not belong to individuals, but belongs to the two tribes that inhabit this island.”

“Everything we need is here. The sea, the rivers, the trees, we have it all. Nobody goes without food because every family has a parcel of land to make their gardens in a communal area. Our land is fertile, there are fish in the sea – it’s not hard work to live here. It’s a nice life.”

The serious-looking Chief offers me a slight smile. “You in the West,” he adds, “you work eight, nine, ten hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, and for someone else. Not us.”

But not everyone in Vanuatu may want to live this communal, subsistence lifestyle, however rich and rewarding the Chief may believe it to be. He has a simple answer for any individual who wants to leave for the capital, or even go to another country, and work in the cash economy. “They can go. They can just leave. If you’re not happy with your community or your chief, or you want to go work elsewhere, go.”

“But,” Chief Viralo warns, “from my experience I see them go away but not able to earn enough to sustain themselves for the rest of their lives. And when they come back they are the poorest in the traditional community, they are the poorest in the village. We find that a lot of them who go out to work elsewhere, when they are thrown out of their job and they have to return, their economic situation is worst then the people who have consistently lived in a traditional economy.”

One person who did very well for herself in the world out there, but who has nevertheless returned to her country’s roots, is Hilda Lini. This forceful woman, who has been my interpreter here, also happens to be Vanuatu’s first female MP. She spent over 10 years in Parliament, and was at various times a Minister of Justice, Culture, Religion and Women’s Affairs. She is now a volunteer working in this community on her home island, and has risen to the highest rank in a Turaga system of female chiefs. Hilda explains why they have set up an alternative to conventional schooling.

“The education system is so geared to the labour market that it doesn’t teach you how to use your land. I have my son here, who comes back and learns how to cut a tree, how to plant, make a garden and even how to grind the kava. They just don’t teach us those things in schools.”

I ask her it she would want her son to have just this traditional education. “I would like my son, and everybody else, to have both traditional and western schooling,” Hida answers. “But, they have to have their own first, and be so secure in their traditional values and philosophies. Otherwise, you go away and learn other people’s systems. You know theirs, but you don’t know your own, and you are floating in the air, because you don’t have an identity that is rooted in your own culture. You just float along with what the world says is the way to go.”

No one floats in this community – self-sufficiency is a religion here. They have even set up an indigenous currency bank, their own Fort Knox of pig tusks, shell money and mats woven from pandanus leaves. School fees can be paid with this kastom currency.

“Most people in the rural areas don’t have modern money,” says Hilda. “With our indigenous currencies, you produce it yourself, and people are so rich, you cannot be poor. When people talk about poverty, they are talking about not having the foreign currencies.”

The desire for self-reliance even extends to health. “We don’t use modern medicine, we only use herbal medicine,” says Hilda. She doesn’t see the need for Western medical treatments. “We have herbal medicine for all the different diseases. Even HIV/AIDS.”

Hilda is evasive when I point out that HIV hasn’t – fortunately – spread far in Vanuatu. Her herbal treatment has not been tested. “Well, the reason we’ve banned modern medicine is that it weakens the immune system. When we accepted manufactured food, it brought a lot of sickness to our people. So, produce your own food, eat your own food, and use your own medicines. It will keep you healthy.”

It is true that almost everyone I’ve met looks fit and relatively healthy – I’ve seen almost no overweight ni-Vanuatu in my time here. Life expectancy is close to 70 years. But I’m still glad to have anti-malarial medicine with me. I take the pills when no one is looking.

Many people in our Industrialized Countries may label this society as primitive, even backward. However, some stressed-out Westerners may view it as an almost mythical Eden. A growing ‘slow movement’ in North America and Europe wants to put the brakes on our hurried and harried lifestyle.

I’m not sure it’s Eden, but this village on Pentecost island is very real. While it is a small, contained world, within it there is a depth of culture, pride and identity. It’s also true that there is a culture of conformity; there’s little room for dissent or thinking outside the bamboo box. But harmony, sustainability and egalitarianism are the goals of these people, among the most noble of human intentions.

As a heavy tropical rain falls on my last night in the community, I walk to the nakamal under the protection of the forest canopy. There is no moon and the darkness is thick. I reach the large thatched roof hut, where a group of young men soak and strain that evening’s kava. They begin to sing to the beat of their work. Smoke from an outside fire creeps through gaps in the walls.

Kava is the drink of choice in Vanuatu. It’s drunk to welcome visitors, to seal alliances, and to mark birth, death and marriage. In many parts of the country, enjoying kava is an exclusively male activity, like here, complete with rituals and taboos.

I was warned that the Pentecost strain of the piper plant was strong and that I should only have one shell. They give me two. My lips go numb, and my hearing seems amplified. My eyes, however, are having trouble focusing – or I’m seeing things I wasn’t able to see before. We sit around in quiet reflection, punctuated by the requisite spitting.

Later, we meet up with the women and children of the village for more singing and dancing. I join in, and they welcome me with calming warmth.

The next morning, after a deep, kava-induced sleep, I wake to the sound of the Chief listening to his shortwave radio. Over a breakfast of broiled plantain and roasted yam, he tells me that the people of the First World are looking at poverty in the wrong way.

“In Vanuatu, if there is poverty, there is poverty of wisdom and knowledge,” he says. “We have everything here we need to live. Everyone in Vanuatu has land. But do they have the knowledge and the wisdom to make use of that land, to be secure and not poor?”

“Too many people depend on others. Ether they depend on the government or the church or foreign aid to give them something to live on. Or they depend on the labour market, and the hope that there’s going to be a job created and they’ll get paid. But you can actually do a lot on the land and live as a very rich person in Vanuatu without having to be dependent on anyone.”

Before I leave, the chief asks me if I would like to live here. I consider being the polite Canadian and say yes, but I tell him that my family has been in Nova Scotia for generations, and it’s where I want to raise my son. He seems satisfied with the answer.

What I don’t tell him is how much I wanted a real shower, not an ocean splash – I’m wearing the humidity like a pair of soggy long-johns. And I need to check my email. And I’d love to eat something other than a starchy root crop.

I’m not sure I would want to live this lifestyle. But maybe that’s the point; he probably does not want to live mine.

I say goodbye, touch foreheads, and start the steep hike back home.

Written September, 2006

Sean Kelly is a writer living in Prospect, Nova Scotia. He works with CUSO, a Canadian non-profit international development organization that works with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre.

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