Author: Joel Simo
This article originally appeared: Sydney Morning Herald

To visiting Australians, my home, the island nation of Vanuatu, is either paradise or a Third World backwater. Holidaymakers prize our beaches and clear waters. But workers from aid organisations such as AusAID see limited employment opportunities and poverty.

Both groups have ideas for “improving” Vanuatu through holiday homes, tourism and a commercial track to “development”, including the establishment of Western-style property rights.

Their ideas suffer from a common problem – ignorance about my people’s way of life.

For centuries, Vanuatu’s indigenous people have not owned their land but served as its custodians, relying on it for bountiful livelihoods and taking care of it for future generations. Destroying that system in favour of a colonialist “ownership” model would disrupt communities and cast Vanuatu’s indigenous people into a permanent underclass.

Westerners think of land as a commodity to be bought or sold, parcelled out under deeds that confer ownership rights.

But in Vanuatu, land is held communally. All native people – the Ni-Vanuatu – have an inalienable right by birth to use and enjoy their traditional lands. Under Vanuatu kastom, these rights cannot be sold off and alienated permanently.

To redress the legacy of colonialism under which the Ni-Vanuatu lost control of substantial tracts of land, the writers of our constitution re-affirmed the rights of the people over their lands: “All land in the republic belongs to the indigenous people and their descendants forever”.

This constitutional safeguard has not been enough. As outside developers and investors have discovered our country, the Ni-Vanuatu are again being dispossessed to make way for “development”.

Beaches where Ni-Vanuatu families once picnicked are now fenced off. Traditional farmland is being converted to cattle ranches. In one village, an expat developer bulldozed land for a new subdivision beside a World Heritage site.

Troubled by these abuses but determined “to make land work”, the pro-development Vanuatu government, backed by AusAID, initiated a national land summit in 2006 to reform the system and encourage economic growth.

The result was the AusAID-funded “Mama Graon” program, which aims to resolve land disputes and guide policy for use in a way that facilitates more commoditised land “ownership”.

Mama Graon’s support for privatising communally owned land is at odds with Ni-Vanuatu culture. And history shows that such processes always end badly for indigenous people, ultimately dispossessing them of their land.

To implement Mama Graon, AusAID contracted with Land Equity International, an Australian company, which has little experience with Vanuatu’s culture. Each of our nation’s 83 islands has a different approach to land, as there are more than 100 cultural-linguistic groups throughout the archipelago.

The company’s ignorance has led to serious missteps. To spread word of new principles governing land use, LEI turned to the Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs. Although the council provides feedback on land use, it has no direct jurisdiction over customary lands. Confusion has reigned – and caused some Ni-Vanuatu to refuse to co-operate.

The Ni-Vanuatu have also objected to Mama Graon’s proposals to record land rights and eventually register titles. Such measures may seem innocuous but we know from experience that demarcation and registration propels land into a commercial realm where it can be leased or sold to non-indigenous people – and thereby lost to the community.

Westerners see the Ni-Vanuatu engaging in traditional farming, fishing and animal husbandry and think poverty – not self-sufficiency. They perceive our country’s low gross domestic product – about one-10th of Australia’s – as a “problem” that must be solved.

But there’s more to Vanuatu than GDP. A few years ago, Vanuatu ranked at the top of the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index, which focuses on life expectancy, experienced wellbeing, and ecological footprint.

Holding on to and using our land and waters provides us with healthy diets and lifestyles – and the best seafront views on the planet. We don’t want to exchange these for money now – and see our children in urban slums tomorrow.

Mama Graon holds that a GDP-based model of economic development and Western notions of property rights are in the best interests of indigenous peoples. But the Ni-Vanuatu don’t want to adhere to foreign, colonialist norms, which will only mire us in poverty and dependency.

If Australians want to help the Ni-Vanuatu, they should trust us to determine our own future – and our own land-use laws.

Joel Simo is the chief executive of the land and language desk at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and one of the founders of the Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence Alliance.


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