OCTOBER 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 10
G U E S T C O L U M N
The Plight of the Pacific
by Winnie Laban
My ancestors have lived in the Pacific for more than 4,000 years. They lived in harmony with their fragile environment, taking what they needed from the sea, making use of the few plants available and developing a life style that was sustainable. Like other indigenous people of the world, they achieved a balance between their needs and the resources available to meet those needs.
The peoples of the Pacific were resourceful; they developed complex systems of navigation which enabled them to chart the ocean and settle every inhabitable island. For us, the ocean was the universe as far as we understood it. Two hundred years ago, when the first Europeans arrived they were called "papa lagi," literally sky-bursters. They had arrived, as if from another planet, entering an intact social structure and ecosystem, changing it forever.
In the last 200 years, the islands of the Pacific have been "discovered," named, annexed, colonized and invaded; and some have become independent. Explorers were followed by missionaries, whalers, traders, soldiers and colonists. The nations of the Pacific became part of the global marketplace. We all became part of the cycle of production, consumption and disposal. Our traditional way of life was no longer sustainable; we had become consumers.
Today, the market system has spread to every corner of the globe. The rise of transnational corporations has turned the world into a global factory and local markets into a global shopping center. Goods produced on the other side of the world can be found on the shelves of shops throughout the Pacific. Poor quality and expired foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals are dumped in the Pacific; dangerous and toxic wastes are disposed of there; and weapons of mass destruction are tested. In short, the Pacific environment and marketplace has become a dumping site for the industrialized nations.
The Pacific is vast, but it is also fragile. It is not an isolated place where the industrialized nations can dump their rubbish without consequences. The Pacific is an interconnected part of the world. And, it is my home.
The following two examples illustrate the impact the consumer society of the industrialized nations has had on the Pacific.
The Marshall Islands
The Marshall Islands are a small island state in the North Pacific. The Marshall Islands were settled by Micronesian people approximately 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. They were "discovered" by the Spanish. Named by John Marshall, a passing British explorer, they were later colonized by the Germans, invaded and re-colonized by the Japanese and re-invaded and entrusted to the United States. They achieved independence in 1986.
Nuclear testing started in 1946 on Bikini atoll, the oldest site of human habitation in Micronesia. The debris from that site will be dangerous to humans for 50,000 years.
The economy of the Marshall Islands is based on rent paid by the U.S. government for the use of Kwajalein and other atolls as weapons-testing facilities. In Majuro, the capital, 95 percent of the food is imported. The levels of diabetes, hypertension and youth blindness are among the highest in the world. The people no longer cultivate and eat their traditional foods, and they rarely fish. The lagoon is polluted from human wastes and drift-netting has ravaged the deep water fish stocks. A major PCB spill occurred in 1989 and remains a threat to the water supply. There are no effective consumer laws to regulate the excesses of the marketplace; consumers are uninformed and have no access to redress.
The people of the Marshalls, from my observations, appear numb, lost, without spirit.
Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute states, "A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations." If we accept this definition, then questions must be raised about the sustainability of the Marshall Islands.
The Island of Nukulaelae sits on longitude 180 degrees, where East becomes West, and just north of latitude 10 degrees South. Nukulaelae is part of the Tuvalu island nation which consists of nine islands with a total land area of less than 26 square kilometers, at high tide, and a sea area of 900,000 square kilometers.
The demands of the industrialized world hit Nukulaelae in the last century, as reported in Te Tala O Niuoku, a University of the South Pacific publication:
... in May 1863, three vessels appeared off Nukulaelae. They were slave ships from the South American country of Peru [which] had come to steal the people. The Peruvians' first ploy was to offer their intended victims short-term contracts to make coconut oil on another island, and then return them home. When the people of Nukulaelae turned down the offer the Peruvians lifted the stakes and suggested gold mining, but this appeal to the greed was no more successful.... One of the Peruvians then went ashore posing as a missionary and invited the people to go on board and receive the holy sacrament. All the able-bodied men and most of the women went on board in simple faith (two hundred souls in all). The three vessels then sailed away, never to return.... In a single day, Nukulaelae lost two-thirds of its people.One of the people taken by the slavers was called Kenu. Samila Iakopo, his wife, waited on shore. She would, no doubt, have watched with foreboding as the ships sailed away, for she was pregnant. Little is known of the many people of the Pacific that were captured by slavers. It is known, however, that many died on the voyages to South America and many more lost their lives in the phosphate mines of Peru. Polynesians made poor slaves, and many of those taken from Nukulaelae would have died at the hands of their captors. Kenu disappeared into that untold history. Samila and her family survived. Her son was my great grandfather.
I visited Nukulaelae earlier this year. Nukulaelae is only accessible by boat, six hours from Funifuti, the capital of Tuvalu. Surf boats brought us ashore through the reef passage into a tranquil, turquoise lagoon.
Coconut palms, pandanus and a few hardy plants are the only vegetation. The soil is poor but the people cultivate pulaka, a form of taro grown in pits, kumara and a few other household vegetables. Fish is the major source of protein, but pigs, chicken and ducks are raised for cultural exchange and food. Toddy, the vitamin rich sap of the coconut palm is collected and drunk daily. These traditional Polynesian foods are now supplemented by flour, rice, sugar and canned foods from the island's co-operative store. The three hundred people on Nukulaelae live in harmony with their land, adapting what they require from Western society, sustaining themselves and their land as their ancestors have for over a thousand years. They live in a fragile ecosystem. Now their land is threatened; it is starting to erode. Climate change is affecting this low-lying island.
Living close to their land, the people of Nukulaelae know through their oral traditions what land belongs to which family and how much land there is. As with any land close to the sea, the process of wave action erodes some land and creates more, but these processes are in balance over time. However, over the last 10 years, the people have noticed a marked increase in the rate of erosion. The balance has shifted; the land is being flooded. This has caused concern and aid agencies have been approached for advice and practical assistance to reduce the erosion and stop the flooding.
The European Community has funded a sea-wall project on Nukulaelae. Concrete blocks are manufactured from the coral sand and are arranged along the coast in an attempt to stop erosion. The EC provides resources and the local people labor for this project. The long-term effects of this work have yet to be evaluated, but it is only addressing the symptoms. A sea wall can only hope to give temporary relief if global warming continues and the seas continue to rise and erode the land. The long-term solution must come from the industrialized countries, whose actions are causing the problem.
Tuvalu is not the only island nation affected. On the Kiribati, the Tokelaus and other small island states, the story is the same. For the first time in living memory or in oral tradition, salt water has been flooding ashore and killing coconut palms. Large areas of land, planted with prime palms, a critical part of the local subsistence economy, are now useless for plantations.
Salt water has also seeped into pulaka pits, destroying the food crops and rendering the pits unfit for further cultivation. The pulaka pits have been dug into the coral and maintained by each family with immense and constant labor. The pulaka plants gain their moisture from the lens of fresh water that is to be found some one to two meters below the surface of a coral atoll. As food cannot be kept in the hot tropical climate, the pulaka pit acts as a growing storehouse of food. Pulaka is the staple diet of the people of Tuvalu, and without it they will become dependent on imported foods. The ownership and cultivation of the pulaka pits is an important part of family identity, cultural pride and survival.Encroachment of the salt water into the pulaka pit threatens the future of the people of Tuvalu.
As we sailed away from Nukulaelae, I watched the island slip below the horizon and sadly reflected that, unless urgent action is taken to halt global warming, one day the people of Nukulaelae may have to sail away from their home and watch it sink below the surface of the sea.
This article is based on a speech presented at the Thirteenth World Congress of the International Organization of Consumers Unions, held in Hong Kong in July 1991.
WinnieLaban works with the South Pacific Consumer Protection Program of the International Organization of Consumers Unions.