EU Australia Online - News & information from the capital of Europe direct to Australian businesses

Vanuatu : Freedom, Custom and Change …

  • August 17th, 2014
  • Posted by EU Australia

2014 EU PICS SURFHandling the claims of the outside world – matching custom and change – is a way of life for the Ni-Vanuatu, the people of the Pacific Islands republic of Vanuatu.


It’s a struggle to face up to ‘modernity’, its opportunities, destructiveness and distractions, with the possibility of using traditional ways as the best answer.

In the colonial era the Ni-Vanuatu ended up under the two flags of a pair of jostling European powers, Britain and France, as the Condominium of the New Hebrides.

Because the plantation economy, mainly copra, was small, suffering from great remoteness, they were spared gross colonisation by settlers or importation of outside labour, (save for several Tonkinese, many, Catholic, voluntarily repatriated to South Vietnam towards 1960.) (Picture: colonial times, missionary graves).

2014 EU MISSIONARIES At independence in 1980 the colony had an estimated 5000 French settlers, and a much smaller British population,  boosted at times by crowds of meandering tourists in the main towns – Australians and others mainly from the regional neighbourhood. (Picture: street scene, Port Vila).

EU PICS VILA STREETIn his book Coconut Wars, about the separatist outbreak on the island of Espiritu Santo, at  independance, Richard Shears described a town scene in the capital, Port Vila, much as it would remain in 2014:

‘In the claustrophobic capital it was didicult to believe there was a crisis. The Rossi Hotel in rue Higginson was still serving continental breakfasts and excellent crabe farci for lunch, and Ma Barker’s across the street was still grilling superb steaks. Hertz could deliver a car to your hotel within minutes, and taxis prowled the streets waiting for a call from French, English, Melanesian or Austalian shoppers. The tourist ship Sea Princess still called by, spilling out the rich for a day in the maze of sidestreets. Boutiques offered local and international fashions, and the souvenir shops displayed wooden statuettes and coral necklaces. In this country with a split personality you could still find somewhere to sit and imagine you were in France, England, Australia, or a Pacific Island …’


Not that these islands had been exempted from the devastations of the colonial era, nor the rude impacts of an industrialising, hustling and fighting modern world.

They were a prime recruitment field for the ‘black-birding’ in the 19th Century that saw thousands inveigled onto trading ships as ‘indentured labourers’ for the new agricultural fields of Queensland. Many did not, or could not come back; some who were returned, were dumped on islands far from home, with cruel consequences.

The islands almost a century later were the scene for James Michener’s novel Tales of the South Pacific, then the musical and film, South Pacific, at the time of the Second World War. The American occupation above all set off Vanuatu’s experience of urban drift among its people.

Their building-up of Port Vila, leaving behind docks, air-strips and buildings, started the gross movement from island villages into the city – fewer than 5000 in 1940  increased at least ten-fold since then.


Yet, in the outer islands, and even on Efate where Port Vila is located, life could continue to follow an eternal Melanesian pattern, at least 85 language groups coexisting on 83 islands, 14 of them the larger islands. English language and now diminishing use of French would help to hold things together, if not as much as Bislama the local, universal pidgin.

Village gardens and small markets still keep up a good food supply, especially root vegetbles and tropical fruit. Many shools have been built.  Along the sweeping, vacant beaches on the ocean side of Efate, away from the capital, the electricity supply can be seen coming to the villages, one by one ; first poles extending along the roadway, more and more of them now strung with their cables.

Here and there villagers offer their products ; at one market stand the proprietor scrapes the charred skin off a breadfruit roasting in the fire. Looking like a browned rock melopn it tastes of warm bread. No wonder the Admiralty sent William Bligh to investigate them, as possible food for the poor of England.

The enterprising  owner of a small museum offers for sale, several Coke bottles, said to have been left there in their thousands by the departing US forces. Also left is a concrete swimming pool fed by a small stream, a place for the troops to disport themselves while awaiting orders for war. (Picture: the US swimming pool, Efate Island).



Among those arriving in 2014, some are looking to make some fast money, most looking for, and mostly finding  an affordable holiday experience of sunshine and exotica.

2014 EU PICS DEREKDerek Brien (picture), an Australian, long-term resident, is one who hopes to do more, in the way of helping out, through the development agency he co-founded, the Pacific Institute of Public Policy (PIPP).

‘It is important what will happen after the Millenium Development Goals expire in 2015’, he says, commenting that the national leadership will be heading into a generational change, the first since independence.

The Australian government has underwritten core expenses of the PIPP ; it is also interested in supporting more private enterprise investment in development related work, which will influence growth.

With an aid-for-trade approach, Mr Brien says, there should be scope for sharing so that gains are well distributed.

‘We will see how it goes’, he says.

‘An aim of development work is to protect the commons, and prices, so you do not have it taken off you ; rather than just opening up.’

What problems are coming up and what are the ways to deal with them ?


A land boom that started as the Port Vila population grew has hardly eased, and it has put the focus on a provision of the national constitution that forbids the alienation of commonly  held ground – virtually all land.

It can be leased long-term, opening up some pathways to finding loopholes in the law, now a pastime for foreign investors and their clients looking for commercial properties or space for a mansion overlooking the tropical sea.

That fraught issue has been made more fraught by the desire of traditional landholder groups for open-handed compensation, and still more compensation than paid to date, from the government or private sources, if they are being caused to cede property to new users.

Fast-growing population has brought dire pressure on land; the 100000 at independence has expanded towards 240000 this year.

Concern over overseas investment and settlement focuses also on a growing Chinese population responsible for many, if not the great majority of warehouses and retail stores still being built.

On one hand it’s welcome financial input, matched also at government-to-government level, as symbolised by the construction by a Chinese agency  of the convention centre at Port Vila, set to be used for meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum.

The taxi driver poll brings out another angle, to say, that the particular outside interest is not friendly enough to local interests; there are even Chinese workers engaged on the new project and others, instead of local employees.

Says one shopper, ensconced with shopping bags in the back seat :

‘People cook with a lot of rice; we can still get Australian rice but it is dearer, and now people are offered Chinese rice, which is a poor quality one, with small grains, but very cheap, so they buy it, and I think it is not good for them.

‘Even the iron pots are not as good ; they were French once; but now they are Chinese; cheaper but not as heavy and not as long-lasting, not as  good for the cooking.’

It sounds like a Pacific experience of a world-wide consumer issue, quality versus dirt-cheap.

It has a strong impact in this country where overall incomes are low, with per capita GDP estimated at just over A$3300 p.a.


As with other towns in Melanesia, most notoriously Port Moresby, shortage of jobs for young people to get a share of the formal economy,with the drift into town, and now crime are threatening to spoil lives, and spoil the peace.

‘I am sorry to inform you that we do not have the resources to deal with what is happening’, says a police offcer in a frank moment.

While there is help for the police, for example training at the regional academy in Fiji, they run short of petrol and run out of telephone credit, finding themselves having to reduce patrols, even worried about being able to intervene at critical moments.

There is not the gun problem found elsewhere, but there’s marihuana growing wild, amenable to abuse and to being traded ; young men who’ve been unable to get to town for school, get there on their own and can get into gangs.

According to the police, trouble starts if the young jobless are not with people from their home area. If mixed in with others from different islands or villages, there is no control, no supply of uncles as a sobering influence.

Crime rates, still modest, are steadily edging up, and the police have been working on the idea of community support to try and control it, sending officers around to talk with elders and communities. (Picture : elders can help; story-telling scene, painting, National Cultural Centre, Port Vila; ‘culture’, performers from Futuna Island).



Ben BohaneThe resort to village tradition and village authority might be the wisest available course to head off any cave-in of a society under great pressure for change, says Ben Bohane (picture) the Communication Director at the PIPP.

When conflicts arise between communities , he says, the custom is to try to get a solution, and an amelioration that is symbolised by an exchange of valuables – hand crafted mats or betel nuts.

It’s a joint effort, it avoids episodes of pay-back, ‘and so the peace tends to hold’, he says.

Journalists in Port Vila support the idea, wanting to see their media freedoms and free flow of information superimposed on an old, durable and deep sytem for keeping the community together.

2014 EU PICS EVELYNEEvelyne Toa (picture) from the Vanuatu Media Association, and Deputy Editor of the weekly Independent newspaper says her own publication tries to follow through on that idea to the letter.

‘We do not do the tabloid thing, but instead we give both sides; we explain things and let people decide’, she says.

‘If Ministers from the government come and thump the table we tell them we will put that on the front page to let people know what they are doing.

‘There is respect for chiefs, but if they also do not act in the interests of the people then we will need to identify this as people need to know.’

She has been prominent in negotiations over a Right to Information law that has now been set up for legislation, saying that while supporters might be holding their breath a little, the reform looks ready to go through.

Royson-Willie-LARGE-220x146Royson Willis (picture), Editor of the Daily Post, recalls the incident three years ago in which a Minister and some cronies beat him up in the newspaper office, together with Marc Neil-Jones the paper’s founder.

The man escaped with a light penalty.

Mr Willis sees a change now from stand-over tactics to a more independent-minded, younger generation, backed up with information being shared via ub iquitous cell phones – the market for ‘mobiles’ almost saturated in Vanuatu.


He points to Yumi Toktok Stret, the ‘straight talking ‘ website where some 15000 citizens regularly exchange views and information, and, he says, ‘they don’t hold back.’ See, (17.8.14).

It is a source for journalists on what is going on, he says, subscribing to the belief that this expression of an energetic community life will set a pattern. Leaders in politics who do not share in the information trade will find themseves badly left out.

Evelyne Toa says openess and cooperation in the community will support a drive for overcoming obstacles to a new paradise in the Pacific seas :

‘We need the community to come together’, she says.

‘ We need to fight things together. We have issues, challenges, difficulties, so together we must set out priorities …’