The last resort
Five years on from the UN Earth Summit David Ransom reports from
the South Pacific on the impact of a consuming culture
on a fragile environment.
Odette tucks a thin blue wrap firmly into the top of her bra as she greets us on the veranda of her home in Taravao - an hour or so by le truck (the local bus) from Papeete, the main town on the island of Tahiti. She is a handsome figure and the mother of 13 children. The latest of them is out on loan to a neighbour who is besotted with babies until they begin to talk.
Odette is a prominent member of her community. She helps with employment projects for young Tahitians like those who, a few months earlier at the height of the anti-nuclear protests on the island, torched the international airport terminal building at Faa'a.
Nonetheless, she gently laments the waywardness of her neighbourhood. Encouraged by a bar owner to drink alcohol on credit, the more gullible men have signed away the title to their land - in the presence of a lawyer hidden behind the bar. There are rumours of some kind of 'development' from which the perfidious bar owner and his French associates stand to make a killing.
Disagreements about land - there is little of it to go round are not uncommon in Tahiti, but now they are threatening to get out of hand. Some say the island's future rests on the outcome of a fundamental conflict between customary collective tenure and private property. For without private property, they say, who will build hotels and golf courses? And, now that the nuclear tests have stopped, without tourists how will Tahitians keep pace with the modern world? Odette regrets the passing of traditional ways and knowledge, but she does not wish to be cast adrift from the French, the colonial masters and source of all that is 'modern' in Tahiti today.
As we leave Odette's house my companion Claude, who is a teacher, tells me it is difficult for Tahitian children to understand the meaning of 'unemployment' in France. 'Why don't they go fishing?' the children ask in disbelief.
We cross the road and peer, over a pile of rubble, into a sort of lean-to garage. Hoarse cries issue from inside and we clamber around the rubble to find Tamui and Oti eating shark, a half-empty flagon of red wine on the formica table-top between them. Even Claude, who is Tahitian, cannot follow all the words that flow from these old men of the sea as freely as wine from the flagon. In response to a question about 'independence' Oti gestures towards the ocean: 'French, Germans, British, Americans, Japanese... they'll all have to bugger off in the end and leave us in peace... present company excepted, of course!' and he lifts his glass to toast me with a beaming smile.
Oti then fetches a thing that resembles an enormous wooden bottle. There is an opening in the middle and elegantly shaped floats are attached to each side. It is a safe for storing live fish at sea, and it is made by Oti from a single stave of bamboo with a dexterity akin to the art of the impossible.
Oti is no stranger to this art. He goes fishing beyond the reef on his own at night an extremely hazardous undertaking even if you are not, as he can be, too drunk to locate your canoe. Yet he always returns with a catch. There is little he does not know about the intricate, living structure of the reef - which makes the same fish poisonous in one place, not in another or the life-cycle of hundreds of fish species, the signals of sea birds, the featureless map of the ocean surface, the position of the stars. Claude says he will never stop learning from Oti: not all knowledge is written in books, but you must listen and remember in order to learn.
This is low-lying, black-volcanic, marshy ground. Land-crabs scuttle everywhere, retrieving into their burrows every last bit of organic material as soon as it falls. Plastic and cans have scarred a place that is accustomed to leave waste disposal to nature.
Here, too, beneath the coconut palms, the South Pacific Ocean meets the island of Tahiti with a caress, a whisper, the lapping of a lake. We take a boat out across the lagoon. A few centimetres beneath us are hard brown shapes that resemble giant sponges or steamed puddings coral heads. There are channels between them where the water turns to jade. Some distance out we drift to a halt over a sunken coral island of white sand with a varnish of crystal water. A couple of lovers bask beside a canoe, chatting softly in the stillness.
The coral fans out beneath us like the roof of a cathedral over a congregation of fish in fancy dress, falling away into the deep where sharks patrol unseen. Claude has taught his children not to fear Tahitian sharks. No self-respecting spear-fisher relinquishes a catch to a shark. A punch on the nose usually does the trick, he says, but you have to hang around in order to test the theory out. And, of course, sharks kill fewer people than cars do.
We head further out to sea, towards sudden flashes of white on the horizon great ocean breakers, trailing spray like comets from the outer ocean, pounding the reef with jarring force. Somehow the reef grows beneath them and breaks their power. Otherwise Tahitians would be swept away at once. Claude comes here to surf, a crash helmet his one concession to fatherhood.
For a while we ride the swell in the 'pass', a breach in the reef that is a highway for ocean-going fish stalking prey in the lagoon. We turn for home, and before us are the jagged volcanic peaks of Tahiti gathering tufts of pink mist in the evening light.
The beaches of Pacific islands are like the sidewalks of streets. As I go for a stroll Tuari, Claude's neighbour, calls me over. He points with pride to his small son and daughter, silhouettes fishing with rods in the sunset. Once he worked on a trawler from Korea. Never again. Now he is free, with no-one to give him orders. But every morning at half-past four, to make ends meet, his wife catches le truck to clean a school in Papeete.
Night falls without darkness. Palm leaves burnished by moonlight clatter in the breeze. The stars are close, sharp, inquisitive, shining undimmed from horizon to horizon. Tahitians believe, with a touch of vanity but good reason, that to leave their island you must be a fool.
And foolish I doubtless am to take a shot at proper tourism in Fiji. I listen to backpackers telling tales of where they have been and where they are going. I make off to Daydream Island with a party of Koreans, and to the Sleeping Giant orchid gardens laid out by the late Raymond Burr (Perry Mason and Ironside on TV). I catch the bus along the Coral Coast to Suva the main town that stops only at resort hotels: replica military bases with perimeter fences, security guards, staff villages, golf buggies and embalmed outrigger canoes.
I try, and altogether fail, to see the appeal of such places: servile, sterile, fantastically expensive ghettos operated by transnational conglomerates and enveloped in excruciating boredom. Who can possibly suppose that this might hold the key to the future of the South Pacific islands? Only the transnational executives who frequent them, I suppose.
Then, as I walk through the streets of Suva, there's a tap on my shoulder. I turn to find a large Fijian in sunshades beaming down at me. He says hello and asks if I recognize him. I say no. He asks if I am sure I do not recognize him. I say yes. He says he is the immigration officer who checked me into the country. I say she was a woman. He smiles and inquires about my plans. I play dumb, and eventually he wanders off.
Either this is a scam I've not come across before, or the guy is a spook for the military regime. The Fijian army, which supplies peacekeeping troops to the UN and has little else to do, staged a coup in 1987. It has tried ever since to set 'indigenous' Fijians against the other half of the population, who are descendants of Indian indentured labourers brought to the island by the British to work the sugar plantations in the last century. There are no reliable figures, but something like 70,000 of them are said to have fled the country since the coup.
Once the intellectual and cultural centre of the South Pacific, Fiji is now in a mess, a prolonged state of shock, bankrupted by kleptocracy. All the Fijians I meet share an apprehension of the contrived racist violence that has been too easily conceivable for far too long.
I discover plans for a logging contract with a US company that would clear-fell a large chunk of the remaining island forests and destroy the lives of thousands of rural Fijians. I am told of a project already completed by the British pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham to scan Fijian plant material for potential patents. I read about a copper mine at Namosi, originally planned by the Placer Dome mining company of Canada. It would dump the weight equivalent of a million Fijians (who are larger than most) into the ocean every day, and consume enough fossil fuels to generate as much electricity as the existing national grid. I ask since I know something about copper mines what measures are in place to prevent the island and its surrounding ocean from being fatally poisoned. No-one is certain. They agree that Fiji faces serious environmental dangers, but cannot be quoted as to who is responsible or what should be done. There is fear in the air.
The Fijian agents of such projects are the military and its cronies in the Council of Chiefs the self-appointed guardians of 'custom' and 'The Pacific Way' in Fiji, which they claim legitimizes their racist autocracy. Their 'principals' are, of course, the transnational corporations whose projects these are. That tawdry alliance between big business, environmental plunder, class division, racism, autocracy and the colonial past more than half the nations of the region are still colonies of one sort or another has found a last resort in the South Pacific.
You have to face the realpolitik, the power of money, to comprehend what is otherwise beyond belief. Here are mere periscopes of land peeping through the surface of the great ocean; island nations whose few acres cover the area of whole continents; seascapes of an almost painful beauty and fragility; truly remarkable people, bound together by extraordinary histories and perceptions, who imagined these places long before they found them with feats of navigation never since surpassed. A very special, precious place.
So what do we propose to do with it? Why, dig it up! Drown it! Chop it down! Contaminate it! Evacuate the people! Blow it to smithereens! What jealous, vengeful demons have we unleashed that are capable of this? As if to allow the place to flourish in peace would be an act of criminal negligence. Surely such a 'civilization' must have reached the limit of its useful life.
Five years ago the governments of the world gathered on our behalf at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Their task was to avert a global environmental catastrophe and set in motion an 'Agenda 21' for sustainable development into the next century. This month they reconvene at the UN General Assembly in New York to review what has been achieved in the intervening years. Let them come to the South Pacific and weep.
This, of course, they will not do. They have no talent for humility, no capacity for self-doubt or inconvenience. They prefer the view from inside the perimeter fence.
More congenial to them is a sneering fascination with exotica, with islanders in places like Vanuatu who revere 'John Frum' or 'The Duke of Edinburgh' and build warehouses in anticipation of 'cargo', the trappings of consumer society, that periodically appear from Japan or America. What we are being presented with is, of course, a parody of ourselves for we are the true 'cultists' of cargo who would sacrifice anything to obtain it though we lack the wit to see that this is so.
As a child in the 1950s I watched 'newsreels' in London's cartoon cinemas that sometimes showed film of nuclear tests in the atmosphere of the South Pacific. We'd sit there flabbergasted at what I feel sure we imagined would shortly be the end of us all. I feared, truly feared, that the world would be blown off its axis. 'Don't worry, kids!' they'd tell us. 'It's in the middle of nowhere and there's no-one there!' Not long afterwards atmospheric tests were banned amid panic about the worldwide contamination of milk by Strontium 90 too bad for the people who were there in the middle of somewhere and who've had a great deal more than Strontium 90 to contend with ever since.
The process that got under way with the forced evacuation of hundreds of South Pacific islanders to make way for nuclear tests, continued with the eviction of many more from the phosphate-rich islands of Nauru and Barnaba. It is accelerating today as island ecosystems are destroyed by a crescendo of logging, mining and industrial fishing, carrying away the raw materials of cargo culture in exchange for a few paltry 'export dollars', rendering large new areas of the region incapable of supporting human life. It will continue as global warming compounds natural sealevel rise, kills coral reefs and increases the frequency of terrifying tropical storms, drowning whole atoll nations and island coastlines. But don't worry, kids, it's in the middle of nowhere and there's nobody there.
What we are witnessing is, however, the early stages of an event of profound significance for us all: the progressive contraction of the habitable world. The expansion of human settlement that began in Africa tens of thousands of years earlier ended not much more than a thousand years ago in this very place which now faces the prospect of becoming the first on earth to be rendered uninhabitable. If it is, it will not be the last. The difference with other 'anthropogenic' (human-caused) catastrophes that may have overtaken parts of the Andes or North Africa in the past is that now neither we, nor the islanders of the South Pacific, have anywhere else to go.
People can cause catastrophes, but they can also prevent them. 'Pacific populations are normally presented as victims rather than actors,' comments Nic McLellan. 'It's hard to find images that reflect the daily life of islanders or the times when they have led the way, pushing their governments to take action against the nuclear build-up at the height of the Cold War.'1 To this one might add the collective efforts that led to a ban on driftnet fishing in the South Pacific in 1992. McLellan goes on to explain that although the 'Pacific Rim' may be the economic 'engine' of the next century, the islands are 'the hole in the doughnut' because of their low rates of economic growth.
The paradox is that the attempt to fill it with export dollars from extractive industries is making the environmental hole deeper. This is so not just for the South Pacific, but for us all. The islanders in the stories that follow are repairing the damage, but they need our support if the balance of power is ever to be shifted in their favour. That means, among other things, weaning ourselves off the cargo culture to which we've become addicted. After all, when you're in a hole you're supposed to stop digging. *
1Nic McLellan, paper prepared for New Internationalist.