No money, no poverty, just happiness, pigs and prosperity in Vanuatu’s traditional economy

On 07 Dec, 2011 By rait man

By Kirk Huffman*

The Republic of Vanuatu in the southwestern Pacific is classed by foreign economists as one of the world’s poorest nations. This mistaken view is only true if one believes that lack of modern money = ‘poverty’.

Vanuatu consists of 83 inhabited tropical and semi-tropical islands with a current – almost completely indigenous Melanesian – population of around 230,000 which possesses twice as many languages and cultures as the whole of the (expanded) EU.

The peoples and cultures have been self-sufficient for many centuries, and the 80% plus of the rural population, mostly following traditional social, agricultural and ritual cycles, continue largely to be so, with minimal needs for modern cash.

They effectively live mainly in a situation of ‘subsistence economy affluence’. The only areas of the country where the beginnings of what might be called ‘real poverty’ exist are the two main urban centres, which are just about the only areas one really needs modern money to live in (in spite of the fact that these two centres are where 90% of the the modern money in the country circulates).

The majority rural populations live, in general, culturally rich and contented traditionally-oriented lives under the protection of various types of traditional leaders (‘chiefs’) with little real need for government input. Compared to other nations, there are minimal environmental threats, and one of the main traditional roles of the chiefs is the protection of land and coastal environments. Levels of social contentment are extremely high, and almost all ni-Vanuatu have access to traditional clan/lineage/family  lands.

In recognition of the nation’s almost unique situation in the modern world, the New Economics Foundation, in its first International Happiness Index survey report (2006) nominated Vanuatu as ‘the World’s Happiest Nation’.

By the late 1990s, profound thinkers within the nation were becoming increasingly concerned about the potential dangers of the modern money system intensifying pressure on its peoples and cultures. To protect the peoples and cultures from possible damage by and over-reliance upon this relatively modern intrusion, the Vanuatu Cultural Centre began, in 2004, a major project to promote and legitimize traditional wealth items and traditional monies (tusker pigs, money mats, shell monies, etc) and traditional agricultural and economic systems.

This project was supported by UNESCO and has been extremely successful. In recognition of its importance, the Vanuatu government officially declared 2007 to be ‘The Year of the Traditional Economy’ – and to emphasise that even more, extended it to cover 2008.

By around 2004 significant threats to indigenous land, facilitated by a foreign-inspired law passed by the parliament in 2000, were resulting in significant expatriate land alienation attempts, particularly in coastal areas of the island where the nation’s capital resides.

In a move to try and make the government promote protection of indigenous land rights, the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and the National Council of Chiefs, along with individuals within the Ministry of Lands, convened the National Land Summit in September 2006. This was followed by the National Land Workshop in April 2009 and the meeting of MILDA (Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence Alliance) the following June.

The struggle to protect indigenous landrights from foreign ‘free market-inspired ‘Development’ models’ continues. Although the Vanuatu government formally joined the WTO on 26th October 2011, it did so against massive local resistance led by the National Council of Chiefs and the Vanuatu Christian Council (National Council of Churches).

Most ni-Vanuatu are rather suspicious of foreign ‘development’ ideas, believing rightly in the idea that they themselves are already highly developed within their own cultural idioms – and that following ‘development models’ imposed from outside will eventually lead to them losing their land, languages and cultures at the same time as these models introduce ‘poverty’ into areas where none existed before. Their suspicions are valid.

* The Author is Research Associate, Australian Museum, Sydney; Honorary Curator, Vanuatu Cultural Centre, Vanuatu; Member, Scientific Committee, Museum of Tahiti and the Islands, Tahiti, French Polynesia; Honorary Associate, Macleay Museum, University of Sydney; Corresponding Member, Institute of Advanced Studies, (University of) Nantes, France.

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