Veteran anthropologist criticises AusAid's approach to land | Pacific Beat

Veteran anthropologist criticises AusAid's approach to land

Veteran anthropologist criticises AusAid's approach to land

Updated 28 September 2012, 12:09 AEST

The Honorary Curator of the Vanuatu Museum, anthropologist Kirk Huffman, has written an article for the Australian Museum's quarterly magazine, "Explore", questioning the wisdom of programs that seek to mobilise land for faster economic development in the Pacific.

Several years ago, the Australian aid agency, AusAID, produced a two volume report titled "Making Land Work." but Mr Huffman says it is working already.

Presenter: Sean Dorney

Speaker: Kirk Huffman, Honorary Curator of the Vanuatu Museum

DORNEY: Kirk Huffman has a long association with Vanuatu. When I first visited the New Hebrides in the lead up to its independence from Great Britain and France in 1980 he ran the museum in Port Vila. These days he's based in Australia and does work for the Australian Museum. The article he has just written for the magazine, 'Explore', is titled "Making Land Work" followed by a big question mark. That is printed over a photo of two items from the Australian Museum - two pieces of sandalwood from Erromango Island which were donated to the museum by a missionary back in the 1800s. Sandalwood was a highly sought after fragrant wood 200 years ago and he says he began his article by talking about the damage that trade did to the Melanesian people living on that island.

HUFFMAN: Peter Dillon discovered sandalwood there in 1825 and kept it secret. And he started collecting it there in 1829. Between 1829 and 1865 boats from, mainly from Australia, were just queuing up on the island of Erromango to just take sandalwood. And things got horrific. The population of the island was over ten thousand before this all started and by the early 1920s it was down to less than 400. The population has risen to sixteen hundred now.

DORNEY: You give a figure of a population for Vanuatu something like, three times ...

HUFFMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DORNEY: ... what it is now.

HUFFMAN: The population now is only about a third of what it used to be before the white people arrived. Estimates of pre-European contact of Vanuatu population vary between a minimum of 150 thousand and a maximum of a million and a half. The population was probably between 600 to 800 thousand.

DORNEY: Those islands supported a lot of people then?

HUFFMAN: The introduction of European diseases, firearms, alcohol, blackbirding, everything like that - I mean it was just horrific. And by the late 1920s the population of Vanuatu was down to only forty thousand. The population now - maybe 234 thousand or so - is ... of course the economists from overseas, not necessarily knowing the original situation [say], 'Oh the population's getting too big!' It's not getting too big at all. It's only a third of what it used to be before any outsiders came in.

DORNEY: Kirk Huffman argues that the drive to try to make land in Melanesia economically productive under the "Making Land Work" policy is misguided - that it will simply lead to land alienation, ongoing disputation and probably poverty.

HUFFMAN: The article that was published - Making Land Work, Question mark. Because 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. And you get what we call in Vanuatu: "Sick belong money!" Money sickness.

DORNEY: In Vanuatu, how much land has actually been alienated?

HUFFMAN: Around the coast of the island of Efate I think something like just over 60 per cent of the land has been alienated. And this is very rapidly, uh! 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. 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, fully 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.

DORNEY: Kirk Huffman says that in discussions about economic development policy in the region he would like to generate what he describes as a more profound debate about how to achieve better outcomes for the people of Melanesia and the rest of the Pacific. Sean Dorney for Pacific Beat.


Contact the studio

Got something to say about what you're hearing on the radio right now?

Send your texts to +61 427 72 72 72

Add the hashtag #raonair to add your tweets to the conversation.

Email us your thoughts on an issue. Messages may be used on air.