Pacific land alienation should be a UN issue says anthropologist

Kirk Huffman, a former Curator of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and a Research Associate at the Australian Museum says, when it comes to land, even well-meaning investors and aid donors in Melanesia have the wrong model of development.

Transcript of ABC Radio Australia news broadcast interviews regarding land alienation in Melanesia. Broadcast 7.4.11: broadcast and transcript available online on ABC Radio Australia 8.4.11. Reproduced with permission.

Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Kirk Huffman is a former Curator of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and a Research Associate at the Australian Museum

HUFFMAN: The way that I see what's happening in the Pacific now, it's a continuation of centuries of sort of the White Man thinking they've got the answer. It used to be "You've got to convert to Christianity", or, "You've got to do this...", or, "You've got to do that..." Now, it's "You've got to convert to a new form of something called 'Development'...", which is actually not based upon Melanesian models at all: it's based upon completely foreign models from the isolated other side of the world where the White People come from, and it's basically wrong. It works in some parts of the world, but it doesn't work, and it won't work, in Melanesia. There's a certain amount of aid and assistance that would be jolly useful, but if you force Melanesian cultures into Western-type economic development modes, you're going to create problems for the future.

GARRETT: How much of a threat is land alienation to the future of Melanesian nations?

HUFFMAN: Retention of traditional land is the most important thing there is in life for any Melanesian, and anything that takes them away from their traditional land is going to create problems.

GARRETT: Where do you see the cause for most concern about land alienation?

HUFFMAN: Incredible pressure is being put upon Melanesians and nations under the two headings of the mantras of something called "Development', and the mantra of 'assisting private sector 'investors", and I use those terms in inverted commas, because although some of the so-called investors may be well-meaning and some may be good..., a significant percentage of them are basically what one might call 'carpetbaggers' or 'thieves' or 'sharks', and they're basically really all out for themselves to make a quick dollar, and then get out as quickly as possible. White People have been doing this for centuries, and they're still doing it. They are still doing it, and basically what you really need... I mean, in Melanesia, Land = People = Culture.

Now the United Nations signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Almost every single nation on the face of the earth voted to support that. At the time, the nations that voted against it were: the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand - and Britain put in a thing saying that they didn't want to vote for it, but they had to because the EU supported it. But anyway, now Australia I think has signed up to it finally, but the thing is it's interesting that with a highly moral and ethical and proper UN declaration, it's terribly sad to note that the main nations that voted against it at the time were basically the main nations that are trying to force all these wrong models of development onto not just Melanesia, but onto many areas of the so-called 'Developing World'.

GARRETT: Melanesian countries do need economic development as well as traditional culture. How do you make land available for job creating investments without seeing this sort of wholesale sell-off that jeopardises peoples future?

HUFFMAN: If you support agriculture, then I mean Land is the greatest employer. Now the thing is people trained in the White Man's system, they sort of think that if you don't have a job that pays you money, like a 9 to 5 Monday to Friday job, then you're unemployed. Land and traditional use of Land is the biggest employer in Melanesia, and you can actually say that employment levels in Melanesia are actually higher than in Australia, the United States and Europe currently, because almost all of the population are employed with or on their traditional land. OK, there are ways to modify that possibly so they can earn money out of the land, but the thing is, with the Global Financial Crisis, one of the areas in the world that was least affected by the GFC was Melanesia, in spite of various sorts of think tanks and everybody trying to tell the Melanesian governments that they were affected. Eighty per cent of the population on the islands of New Guinea, the Solomons and Vanuatu weren't affected by the Global Financial Crisis at all, because they're based on their land.

GARRETT: Land is being lost very fast to leases in Papua New Guinea and in Vanuatu. What action would you like to see from governments and from donors to stop that happening?

HUFFMAN: Really, I think it really needs to come out to the public through massivemedia exposure. I mean, the thing is, Melanesians have been trying to speak about this for a long time. They're really concerned about it. But the thing is if you speak to people in the outside world about it, they sort of say "Yes, yes, we realise that that's a problem...", but they don't really do anything about it. It really needs to go to the UN; it really needs to go to the UN under the terms of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: because it's in Melanesia, if it's about land, it's about people, it's about indigenous rights and it's about culture. So it really needs to go all the way up there and be discussed at the highest level in the UN under the terms of the 2007 Convention on Indigenous Rights.

(ABC 8/4/11)