October 2006

The Nation Reviewed

Port Vila For Sale

By Drusilla Modjeska
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The ads begin before you get there. Air Vanuatu's in-flight magazine offers all manner of access to "paradise": "boutique" resorts, "palm-fringed" bungalows, "dream" tours - even your own slice of "absolute beachfront from AUD$50,000".

In the second week of August, display tents were set out along the edge of the water in Vanuatu's capital, and above them banners announcing Port Vila For Sale. On show was the inventiveness of small business in a small country - cane and wooden furniture, water systems and dry toilets - but the banners were apt. With nearly 75% of GDP coming from tourism and property investments, the culture of Vanuatu and the coastal land of Efate and Santo, the two most accessible islands, is up for sale - alarmingly so.

Three-quarters of the coastal land of Efate has already been taken in the recent "grab" for 65-year leases, about half of it by Australians investors. Only three and a half hours by plane from Sydney, Port Vila is indeed the gateway to paradise: Efate's coast is clean and beautiful, the French legacy is evident in excellent restaurants and patisseries, and the place has a soothing reputation for political security. Where better to holiday or retire, and if you have qualms, you can comfort yourself that it's helping the ni-Vanuatu, who get a large injection of Western cash.

But the cash disappears fast when it's divided across large extended families; and when the lease is sold on, or the land sub-divided, the profit goes only to the leaseholder. When the lease expires, the custom owners must pay the improvement costs if the land is to revert. Consider the cost of houses, generators, water and septic systems, to say nothing of resort bungalows and running businesses. With loss of land, there's loss of livelihood; the local "beneficiaries" of the initial sale become taxi drivers competing for custom in Port Vila, or work for paltry wages in the resorts.

And because there's money to be made, there's corruption in its wake, and shabby deals that have villagers, not knowing their rights, signing away the foreshore and fishing in front of the resorts. The liberalisation of tourism and investment, negotiated with the Asian Development Bank and other international bodies, sets up unequal ground. The small investments of ni-Vanuatu bungalows and businesses are outflanked on every side by international operators and wholesalers. Pacific historian Claire Slatter, who has tracked these developments in a recent study, sees a "visible and widening divide between white wealth and black poverty".

On the outer islands not yet subject to these land sales, commerce and custom meet in ways that are at best comical, and sometimes disastrous. A large cruise ship drops anchor off a beautiful beach and, once the braided sailors have set up tents and seats and a first-aid post, the (mostly elderly) passengers are brought ashore; the islanders, busy since dawn, have transformed a genuine beach paradise into a Gilligan's Island of stalls and dancers and festive trimmings. The tourists take out their wipes every time they touch a black hand extended in welcome, but they buy the handicraft and bananas, watch the dancing, and the day ends happily for both sides. Tough negotiations between the provincial authorities and P&O bring in a hefty fee to the region, and a good whack of the money goes directly to the landowners. Don't think about the effect on the reefs of effluent (including photographic chemicals) discharged from the boats, and it can seem one of the few win-win situations.

Walk further inland to the serious festivals and ceremonies, and there's a trail of yachties who've got there before you. They come in their hundreds, find a beach, row ashore, and paradise is theirs; outside the towns, there's rarely a mooring fee, and no one to collect or enforce it. Word gets round about where the festivals are, and if you were a satellite you could map them by the movement of sails.

Imagine a dancing ground sculpted from the forest, high on the steep hills of Ambrym Island. A troupe of chanting, dancing men, led by the chiefs, brings the ram dancers through the trees. They come slowly into view, advancing and retreating, moving across the cathedral-like space of the nasara in rhythm with the great vertical tam-tam drums. Crossing in front of them, coming in close, is a tourist in a fluorescent shirt with thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment hanging from his neck. A chief calls out for him to move; he looks surprised, takes a step back, and another six tourists run forward with their cameras. The power of the dance forces them - 12 or even 20 of them by now - to move from its path, setting up an irritable jostling among the cameras. White children blunder round the stage, banging on the tam-tams.

At the entry to the nasara on the first day of the festival, a tall man in a yachting cap objects to the fee (for tourists, it's $75 for three days). "We're poor," he says. "We live off the sea." There are rumbles of agreement, wallets shut tight. "Anyway," a woman calls out, "what do you use it for?" The ni-Vanuatu stand firm. The principal of the French junior high school, who is also a dancer, explains that the fees for his school are US$500 a year, yet few families can muster more than $200. The people, he says, value education, just as they value custom. He invites anyone who would like to sponsor a student to approach him.

The tourists pay their money, and the grumbles die down, but nothing - neither logs arranged as seating, nor markers on the ground, nor the example of the large ni-Vanuatu audience, nor exhortations from the principal - could keep them and their tripods and their children off the stage of the nasara. On the last day, among thanks genuinely given, there's a petulant complaint that no one had explained what the dances meant. So anxious for images, the tourists had missed the choreography of a drama they'd been invited to watch.

With the economy dependent on tourism, and structural inequalities working against local businesses, and white tourists behaving as if the exotic is theirs to reap, the implications of seemingly small incidents can be serious. Ripples of resentment are everywhere to be heard. In the Vanuatu Independent of 13 August (which, I confess, I read in a patisserie) the lead article exposed cases of dubious land developments that bypass approval systems. Inside, angry letters challenged from either side. A ni-Vanuatu writer accused Australians of "gold mining", blamed "a new local black colonial stupidity" for benefiting from it, and raised the spectre of tribal war and the Solomons. A long term expat resident and property agent countered that while it might be a "difficult adjustment" for those who live off the land to begin thinking of the ground beneath their feet "as an investment opportunity or product", that is the "harsh economic reality" which must be faced up to; the people who settle on the leases can't be blamed for making an investment, and if there are corrupt agents and dealers, so too are there corrupt chiefs. "We should solve this the Melanesian way," suggested another writer, "by sitting down and talking."

It may be that Russell Nari, the impressive new director of the Ministry of Lands, can put on the brakes, and there's a lot expected of the land summit he's called. But even as the paper's editorial backs the summit as a step towards closing a "vast chasm" that's developing, its pages are dependent on the new money pouring into the country. You only need to read the advertisements to see it. While people in the villages struggle to pay local school fees, on the front page an ad for Kambala, the Sydney girls' private school, touted for business from expats and the wealthy local elite who sell Vanuatu's land, inviting prospective parents to a cocktail party with the principal and director of boarding. It was to be held at Le Lagon Resort, on Efate.

Drusilla Modjeska
Drusilla Modjeska is an editor and novelist whose book Stravinsky's Lunch won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. She has edited Meanjin and The Best Australian Essays.

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