Thursday, March 14, 2019

Ignoring Rennell

I sometimes joke that New Zealanders, and my fellow Pakeha New Zealanders in particular, believe that their nation is an island drifting in the Atlantic, between Western Europe and the United States. Certainly, many of us seem oblivious to events, even dramatic events, in the Pacific. I've spent a bit of time lately recently to get journalists and MPs interested in the wreck of a mining ship off Rennell Island, and the subsequent oil spill. So far, though, Radio New Zealand, the indefatigable journo Michael Field and blogger Pete George are the only Kiwi sources to cover the disaster on Rennell in any detail. The Guardian may be headquartered in London, but it has shown more interest in Rennell than antipodean newspapers.

Pete George's blog post incorporates some of my tweets about Rennell, and about the threat the island's eastern inhabitants have made in response to the wreck on their coast.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The fall of the nation of Turaga?


The jailing of Vira Leo, a kastom chief from Vanuatu's Pentecost Island, will perhaps mean the end of an intriguing social movement. Viraleo created a utopian community on Pentecost's isolated east coast, complete with its own currency, bank, and alphabet.

Like Walter Lini, Vanuatu's first Prime Minister, Vira Leo was born into northern Pentecost's Raga people. But where Lini tried to create a unitary state out of Vanuatu's many communities, Vira Leo wanted his 'Turaga Nation' to secede from Vanuatu.

Chief Vira Leo made the village of Lavatmanggemu the capital of his 'nation', and gave it a school he called the Melanesian Institute of Science, Philosophy, Humanity, and Technology, where scholars learned to write in Avoiuli, a script Vira Leo based on traditional sand drawings.

Vira Leo also made Lavatmanggemu the site of his Tangibuni bank, which held pigs' tusks, as well as banknotes designed by the chief. Vira Leo gave an Australian journalist a tour of the bank, and explained how it was protected by kastom magic.

Vira Leo's downfall began in 2015, when he led an attack on a neighbouring village, whose people he accused of poaching sea cucumbers from the waters of his nation. Houses, a shop, and a church burned; a police expedition arrived from Port Vila; the raiders were arrested.

Vira Leo showed his flair for publicity, when he insisted in leading his followers into a Port Vila court in traditional kastom dress, rather than the expected Western attire. His gesture was reported around the world, and slowed the progress of his case.

In the interviews he gave between court hearings Vira Leo presented himself as the champion of kastom, but many ni-Vanuatu criticised him as the creator of a violent cult. Al Jazeera ran a fascinating report from his decaying capital.

In 1980 Jimmy Stevens, a former bulldozer driver known as Moses to his followers, briefly established a state called Vemarama on Santo Island, with the support of French plantation owners and American anarcho-capitalists. Papuan troops invaded, on behalf of Walter Lini, and Stevens was jailed.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The gaunt messiah

In a fale on the edge of Nuku'alofa an old man, one of the last exponents of an ancient culture of carving, is dying. Outside, on the bleak streets, the Tonga he loved is also dying. I've written about Sunaia Siasau & the tragedy of Tonga for EyeContact.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Rising water

[I recently had this exchange with Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson on twitter. I appreciate her taking the time to reply to my queries about the situation of Pacific Islanders fleeing their homes due to rising water]
As someone who spent a part of 2018 on sinking atolls, I appreciate Marama Davidson & the Green Party's focus on climate change. But the Greens' response to the issue ignores some practical, cheap measures that NZ can take now in the Pacific to help climate refugees.
The Greens tend to focus on the necessity of international cooperation to cut carbon emissions & curb climate change. They talk of treaties, technological change. But we need to consider what NZ can do, alone, to help refugees already moving across the Pacific.
Although it is a relatively small nation, NZ can make an immense difference to the peoples being displaced by climate change. We can help save entire cultures from extinction, for less money than we spend hosting a World Cup or America's Cup regatta. Let me give some examples.
Some of the world's first climate refugees have been created in the Mortlock Islands, a name given to a series of atolls between the larger land masses of Bougainville & New Ireland. Huge storm surge waves, tsunami-like king tides, & salination are emptying the Mortlocks.
One of the islands worst affected is Takuu, where only about 20 people remain. The exodus of Takuu's population is a tragedy not just for one small island, but for all of Polynesia, & for all of humanity, because Takuu was a storehouse for an ancient & astonishingly rich culture.
As Briar March showed in an award-winning doco film, & as anthropologist Richard Moyle has demonstrated in a series of books, Takuu was the last place where Polynesians practiced their pre-Christian religion. Dances, songs, & rites that disappeared long ago elsewhere continued.
Almost all of Takuu's people have resettled in Buka, the capital town of Bougainville province, where they have been lent an inadequate piece of land. The refugees lack the customary fishing grounds & taro plantations that were the foundations of their society back home.
Like peoples of other devastated Mortlock atolls, the refugees from Takuu have struggled to obtain a piece of rural property on Bougainville, a place where they can rebuild an economy & culture based on fishing & farming. But it is hard to obtain such land, without funds. 
The people of the Carteret Islands, a group of atolls off Bougainville, seemed to have secured a piece of land for resettlement in 2016. But the deal fell through, after landowners on Bougainville's east coast refused to part with property without a large sum of cash.
It is understandable that Bougainvilleans are reluctant to part with land, even land they are not using, without generous compensation. In the '90s they fought a war against Papua New Guinea forces backed by a mining MNC that was despoiling their environment.
NZ helped broker an end to Bougainville's war. NZ today provides Bougainville's autonomous govt with personnel & advice. It is hard not to feel that NZ cash & legal advice could dramatically ease the way to land deals that enable the resettlement of Mortlock refugees.
Resettlement of atoll refugees & the survival of their cultures is possible, as the example of Kioa shows. That Fijian island was bought by landless people from the Tvaluan atoll of Vaitupu in the '40s. Today Vaitupuans thrive on Kioa, in harmony with their Fijian neighbours.
Marama Davidson's reply:
I have been engaging with Pacific communities on this matter and a clear priority is that they want to stay on their homelands, and that we need to prioritise 1.5 degrees first off.
They in large part have also rejected the term 'climate refugees'. And yes there must also be a focus on a plan for peoples displaced by the destruction of the climate. There is a programme being developed and it has to be lead by Pacific nations.
I also acknowledge that movement is already happening and that NZ has a responsibility to support best practice for this. Minister Woods is also leading some of this work.
The resounding urgency is absolutely taking the leadership of Pacific peoples and their calls for climate action, alongside having a robust plan for displacement, again led by them but with our support.
My reply to her reply:
Thanks for taking the time to reply Marama. I'd argue that there's sometimes an opposition between what Pacific peoples threatened by climate are doing and what their governments are doing.
Papua New Guinea has a corrupt and incompetent government, which takes little interest in the welfare of the peoples of Bougainville province. The peoples of the Mortlock Islands have been forced to act on their own, in response to environmental crisis. We could aid them directly, without trying to work through a PNG state that does not represent them. 

Friday, February 08, 2019

Brash and Ngata

Whenever Don Brash gets called out for attacking Maori, he mentions the name Apirana Ngata, and says he's only repeating points Ngata made long ago. I put this thread on twitter, after Brash invoked Ngata yet again, during his recent Waitangi speech. I've had some good responses to it from journos; I hope that they'll put some heat on Brash, the next time he tries to associate himself with Ngata. Brash is entitled to free speech, but he's not entitled to a free pass, when he distorts the most basic facts about the past.

Pete George has made my tweets into a blog post; there's a somewhat erratic debate developing beneath it.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Aotearoa New Zealand?


On social media I've made a few comments about the proposal to rename this country Aotearoa New Zealand, comments which Pete George has reproduced as part of his blog post on the issue. Although I support the proposal in spirit, I think it could have some unintended and awkward consequences.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Journeys to Oz

In a recent post to his popular yournz blog, Pete George said that Polynesians never visited Australia, & never encountered Aboriginal cultures. George's claim reflects received opinion, but there are some neglected pieces of evidence that suggest it is wrong.
We tend to think of the Polynesians sailing east, because of the explosion of voyages out of their Tongan & Samoan heartland fifteen hundred years ago. We know now their vaka made it all the way to the Americas. But Polynesians also went west - much further west than Australia. They founded colonies on islands like Kapingamarangi and Nukuoro, which are northwest of the Philippines.
Obsidian from Tuhua Island, in the Bay of Plenty, has been found in the Kermadecs, proving that early settlers of Aotearoa journeyed north, toward their ancestral homelands. Norfolk Island's soil has given up numerous Polynesian artefacts, including adzes.
While the finds in the Kermadecs & on Norfolk are well-known, very little publicity has ever attached itself to the discovery of a Polynesian adze on the coast of New South Wales in 1929. The adze sat forgotten for decades, but was recently analysed by three Australian scholars.
The Australian team found that the adze from NSW bore many similarities to artefacts found on Norfolk. They decided that it is likely a relic of a Polynesian journey from Norfolk to the continent.
No scholar, let alone team of scholars, has ever systematically investigated the possibility that Polynesians visited Australia. Those artefacts that hint at such a visit, like the NSW adze & a fragment of pounamu that turned up in Tasmania, were found by chance.
There are hints that Polynesians not only visited Australia but made return journeys east. In 1993 a team of Japanese archaeologists made an astonishing but little-reported discovery on Pukapuka, the northernmost island of the Cooks. They dug up the bones of a dingo.
The dingo is native to Australia. It has a cousin in Papua New Guinea, but is related only very distantly & indirectly to the Polynesian dog. If a dingo was present on the Polynesian island of Pukapuka centuries ago, then it would have had to have come from Australia.
To be fair, some scholars dispute whether the creature unearthed on Pukapuka really was a dingo. Geoffrey Clark feels it may have been a European dog
But the Pukapuka dingo is not the only piece of evidence for return voyages by Polynesians from Oz. In 1925 a man fossicking amongst midden-dunes on Muriwai beach discovered a boomerang. His discovery was reported in the Journal of the Polynesian Society the next year.
(To be fair, the boomerang found at Muriwai may have floated across the Tasman, and been thrown into the eroding midden where it was found. There's also a suggestion that the boomerang's wood came from a NZ tree, and that it was therefore made locally, presumably in relatively recent times.)
If Polynesians visited & even settled in Australia, then it might be possible to find traces of their presence in the stories & imagery of coastal Aboriginal peoples. The Muslim fishermen who visited Arnhem land for centuries left many reminders.
There's another model for tracing ancient Polynesian contacts with Australia. Over the past decade or so scholars have found convincing evidence that Polynesians visited California, by probing the vocabulary & aquatechnology of the Chumash people, who live around Santa Barbara.