(Photo by Eric Lafforgue)
Honorary Curator of the Vanuatu Museum, anthropologist Kirk Huffman says land is working in Melanesia – contrary to the view supported by AusAID, foreign economists and others. He says they need to rethink the sense of linking our self-sufficient, superior Pacific with an failed western development model.
“Land has been working for Melanesians, and working well for Melanesians for thousands of years. It’s just that, I guess, any sort of project that economists, development economists are involved in – because they only think about money – they think that land is not working for someone unless it’s making money.
“That’s a bit ridiculous in Melanesia where you’ve got the world’s highest percentage of people who are still basically self sufficient and still living on their own traditional land. The land is actually the biggest employer in the whole of Melanesia! It doesn’t just sort of hand out shillings at the end of every week like in the White Man’s World. In the White Man’s World money has become the God. Everything is focussed around this thing called money. If you look at money, modern money, from a Melanesian point of view the closest comparison you can make is that it’s rather like an addictive drug. It’s useful and beneficial in small quantities but if you over-do it it can become addictive and very socially divisive.
“Around the coast of the island of Efate in Vanuatu I think something like just over 60 per cent of the land has been alienated. And this is very rapidly. And the thing is it’s being promoted as, sort of, development. It does seem to me a little bit strange that something that is promoted as development is something that essentially means that traditional land custodians essentially lose control over their land.”There must be a better way around all this. OK, if you want development – right, one needs this, one needs that – we all know that. But let’s have the kind of development that is relevant for us. You know, we don’t need outdated and faulty economic theory forced onto, essentially, almost self sufficient island nations and cultures. Because if you pull them into the modern, highly unstable financial situation a little glitch or a hiccup or a collapse on the far side, the isolated side of the world like, for example, the United States or wherever, you could actually affect people in Melanesia. And it’s not fair! You’d think economists would actually learn something. It needs economists to respect the fact that there may be parts of the world that their type of economic theory does not fit.
“It’s actually a clash of cultures between a Western, money obsessed, capitalistic, individualistic system against Melanesian systems which are actually much, much older, a lot more sophisticated, a lot more communally orientated, a lot more geared to self sufficiency and profound thinking about ways of looking at the environment where you’re actually part of the land. The land is actually part of you.”