Friday, July 06, 2007

Paradise Lost

A series by the BBC shows the difference between poverty and living poor and happy. What's so great about living in Vanuatu?
The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu is the happiest place on earth, according to a new "happy planet index". Beside the palm trees and beaches, why is life so good there?

On a tiny island in a set of islands in the Pacific paradise is real. In the Vanuatu chain of islands the people have their own gardens, vast forests for sustainable housing and hunting, they have an gift exchange economy based on tusks, and they are happy.

For centuries, Pacific islanders have used tusks, mats, shells and even giant rocks as currency for trading and ceremonial purposes.

But the Tari Bunia Bank is now taking that custom to a new level of sophistication - and helping to protect Vanuatu's isolated traditional communities from the harsher imperatives of modern capitalism.

They don't have capitalism on Pentacost island. They have peace, no crime, and a cooperative society. They are considered poor by world economic standards, but remind us that economic poverty is only rated by the standards of capitalist accumulation not joyful subsistence of human existence and daily life.

For years, campaigners have urged the government to pay more attention to Vanuatu's traditional economy. Official statistics show the country is one of the world's poorest and least developed.

But Selwyn Garu, secretary of the National Council of Chiefs, said those figures fail to take account of "80% of the population who live under another system. The government is focusing on the Western capitalist system. But we feel that is not justice."

But on the more remote Pentecost Island, the outside world is still being kept at arms length.

Before heading to the village hall for a lunch of yams cooked in a stone oven, and fresh seaweed, Chief Viraleo closed and bolted the doors to the bank.

So far there have been no robberies. All the branches, he explained with a chuckle, were guarded by spirits and snakes.

Ironically on another island, 'Paradise ' is falling prey to capitalist development.

As foreign developers rush to buy up the coastline around Port Vila, some are not convinced.

"In my heart this is still paradise," said Ricky Taleo, 29, watching builders carve up the shoreline in front of his village for a new resort.

"But the happiness is fading away slowly. And I guess in a couple of years it's going to turn into a dump."

Where they came into contact with capitalism during WWII they have adopted a unique interpretation of their experience.

One of the world's last surviving cargo cults is celebrating its official 50th anniversary on Tanna island in Vanuatu.

The John Frum Movement worships a mysterious spirit that urged them to reject the teachings of the Church and maintain their traditional customs.

The cult was reinforced during WWII, when US forces landed with huge amounts of cargo - weapons, food and medicine.

Villagers believe the spirit of John Frum sent the US military to their South Pacific home to help them.

Devotees say that an apparition of John Frum first appeared before tribal elders in the 1930s.

He urged them to rebel against the aggressive teachings of Christian missionaries and instead said they should put their faith in their own customs.

The John Frum cult first emerged in Vanuatu in the 1930s, when the island was jointly ruled by Britain and France as the New Hebrides.

Rebelling against the influence of Presbyterian missionaries, dozens of villages on Tanna put their faith in the shadowy figure of John Frum, variously described as either a real person or a spirit.

They believed he would drive out their colonial masters and re-establish their traditional ways.

The cult was reinforced during the Second World War, when the US military arrived with huge amounts of cargo, such as tanks, ships, weapons, medicine and food.

Islanders were stunned to see black and white troops working and living together, in contrast with the French and British officials who had treated them as colonial subjects.

The Americans' wealth and racial co-operation seemed to dove-tail perfectly with their own beliefs. So they became convinced that John Frum, their mysterious saviour, was an American.

Since then, the villagers have spent the last six decades dressing up in home-made US army uniforms, drilling with bamboo rifles and parading beneath the Stars and Stripes in the hope of enticing a delivery of cargo once again.


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