The small tropical paradise of Vanuatu is far from an international powerhouse in any arena, and that’s exactly how the Ni-Vanuatu like it. It is an 82-island archipelago 1,750km from Australia that has for much of its independent history chosen to remain cut off to all but a few key international partners. The capital city, Port Vila, contains only four embassies and the country maintains few alliances or trade deals outside of the South Pacific and Commonwealth. Yet in recent years, Vanuatu has begun to open up politically and economically, causing a deep rift between the country’s political elite and its largely subsistence, community-focussed population.

Vanuatu’s location in the Western Pacific Ocean, 1,750km from Australia’s East Coast. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Though a former Anglo-French colony, the indigenous Ni-Vanuatu ruled themselves during the colonial period, reducing the country’s European influence. When Vanuatu gained independence from the UK and France, it chose to govern according to the Kastom values system. Kastom is a catch-all term for the indigenous traditions, conventions, laws and economics that define the Ni-Vanuatu way of life. It is the reason for Vanuatu’s reluctance to enter the international arena, as the Pacific has several examples of Islands whose indigenous cultures were damaged by entering the global economy, and many Ni-Vanuatu institutions, including the state itself, prefer gift and barter economies to markets.

Though the Ni-Vanuatu government liberalised its economy after independence by positioning itself as an offshore financial centre, these activities were concentrated to Port Vila and designed only to provide enough capital to protect the Ni-Vanuatu without compromising kastom.

Recently, however, Vanuatu has opened itself up further, directly threatening the Kastom Ekonomi at its foundational level – land. Kastom uses land to identify family, lineage and inheritance, and assigns no monetary value to it. This system of hereditary land rights is enshrined in Vanuatu’s constitution, but a loophole in which indigenous land owners can lease land in perpetuity has been exploited by both the state and international investors, primarily hoteliers from Australia looking to develop beachfront resorts. Initially, the Ni-Vanuatu government restricted this development to one island, surrounding areas already designated by the government as Kastom Villages that allowed outsiders to observe kastom in a way the state could control. This restriction did not last.

By 2006, tourism was identified as a key growth area by the Ni-Vanuatu government and developments along coastlines closer to the nation’s main airport in Port Vila began to be approved. Some small-scale resistances like The Christensen Fund have won minor victories but have failed to amend the constitution and restore land rights.

A nambas dance as witnessed in a kastom village tour. Kastom villages allow the government to control kastom, with outsiders not allowed to witness many traditions and practices including the implementation of many legal systems. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

On the face of it, this is a classic story of heroes and villains. The Australian millionaire hoteliers are the ‘bad guys’, the Ni-Vanuatu government their greedy, willing accomplices and the indigenous land-holders the heroes of our tale. However, reality is stranger than fiction, and the government’s failure to respect the spirit of kastom land rights may not be the biggest issue threatening the kastom way of life.

Sea-level rise is an immediate threat to many Pacific Island nations, Vanuatu included. In addition to being some of the lowest-lying areas of the world, sea levels are rising up to four times faster than the global average in the West Pacific due to trade winds. Relocation schemes are already in place in Papua New Guinea and more than 20,000 residents of the Marshall Islands have been evacuated to the US. There are increasing numbers of families from Tuvalu, Kiribati and indeed Vanuatu seeking refugee status on the grounds of ‘climate change’.

Vanuatu is under threat from more extreme and unpredictable sources as well. Vanuatu consistently ranks as the country with the highest natural disaster risk in the world. In 2015, Cyclone Pam destroyed 100% of the buildings and roads in several inhabited Ni-Vanuatu islands and 96% of all the nation’s crops. With tropical storm intensity increasing worldwide, the risk of a repeat event is ever-greater. The reef ecosystem surrounding Vanuatu, on which much of the local economy and food supply is reliant, is threatened by ocean acidification. It is as if the island chain is being attacked from above and below.

Beach resorts may be the most immediate threat facing kastom, but are they its most existential? Photo: Flickr.

Against this backdrop, Vanuatu’s recent liberal shift begins to make sense, especially considering the parallel expansion into international political arenas. For years, Vanuatu was one of only seven UN-member states not to join Interpol, until earlier this week when it became the organisation’s 194th member. During the 2017 COP climate negotiations, in which the Pacific Islands took the lead, Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas spoke at a UN convention for the first time. “We believe that rapid implementation of the Paris Agreement is of existential importance” Tabismas said, “we survive or we sink together”. Vanuatu’s decision to become more international is more about survival than it is economics.

New Zealand, the largest country in Polynesia, has typically been looked at as the Pacific’s ‘safety-valve’ against sea-level rise, however recent developments have put that assumption in jeopardy. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s pioneering plans to develop a special climate refugee visa for Pacific Islanders have had to be withdrawn amid concerns regarding the visa’s application. Therefore, Vanuatu aligning itself with Australia, a much larger, richer and closer neighbour could be seen as a way to protect the future for the Ni-Vanuatu people.

The central schism at the heart of the kastom debate is what is more important to protect? The nation’s cultural identity or the people who practice it? It seems unlikely that a closed culture so antithetical to modern landed capitalism could thrive if the Ni-Vanuatu are forced to abandon their island homes, especially to the Pacific’s more ‘successful’ economic powers. Indeed, history suggests that kastom is susceptible to outside influence. The word ‘Kastom’ derives from the Bislama creole pronunciation of the English word ‘Custom’, and most Ni-Vanuatu speak English and French in addition to indigenous tongues. The development of beach resorts and tourist attractions may appear to be the first soundings of the death knell for Vanuatu, but could they also be the route to its salvation?

Henry Stout 

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