The thumping of the bass from the deejay’s music set went on until 4am as I awoke a few times from my jet-lagged slumber. I had arrived into Vanuatu right in the midst of its week-long Independence celebration.
I was originally meant to go to the Solomon Islands, the Temotu province to be exact, but due to an unforeseen event, here I was, temporarily residing on a 38’ Wharram designed catamaran in the harbor of Port Vila. I was here previously 6 years ago, volunteering as a marine biologist for a marine conservation organization that uses donated sailboats to visit remote small-island communities to help implement programs to better manage their marine resources and to build capacity.
The Republic of Vanuatu is a South Pacific archipelago of 12,189 square kilometers, consisting of 82 islands of volcanic origin and a population of approximately 243,000. The people of Vanuatu speak 113 Austronesian languages and each has its own traditions and customs, making this country the most culturally diverse one on the planet. There are 3 official languages – Bislama, English and French. France and the United Kingdom claimed parts of Vanuatu starting in the 1880’s and jointly ruled it until it became independent on July 30th, 1980. The capital city of Port Vila is vibrant with an amazing market, where women come from all over the island of Efate to sell their fruits, vegetables and locally made wares and spend the nights there until all of their produce is sold.
Vanuatu’s economy is mainly agriculture with the majority being subsistence farming and the main crops being taro, yam, coconut, kumara and bananas. One specific crop, Kava Kava, has been cultivated locally for thousands of years. Kava is a root vegetable that is a member of the pepper family, has psychoactive qualities, is highly prized and signifies Vanuatu’s kastom (custom) and national identity. It is advertised to be restorative and alleviate stress and is seen in a few ways – a traditional sacred substance, a cash crop and in some villages, to join drinkers to their ancestors. Imbibing it has been described as having numb lips and like being at the dentist. Supposedly it does not influence a drinker’s ability to think clearly as the effects are more physical. Years ago, while attending a music festival in Port Vila, I drank a few coconut shells full of kava and indeed, my lips became numb and I only tripped over my feet once when I got up to get some food!
Fishing is both a source of income and food for a majority of the local population. Fishing communities are experiencing challenges as they face climate change impacts and increased pressure on their local coral reefs as their village population increases and modern fishing equipment are being used. There are many conservation organizations, such as OceansWatch and Island Reach, that are working with local communities (including women groups) to empower them to conserve natural resources and build environmental resilience for conservation and food security purposes.
Tourism is on the rise and tourists have many opportunities to snorkel among the many island coral reefs and witness the local kastom of the various islands. Each island is unique: Tanna has one of the most active and accessible volcano in the world, Pentecost has its land diving tradition, Aneytum has Mystery Island with cruise ships visiting this island paradise and Epi has dugong tours. Port Vila receives about 8-10 cruise ships visits per month. Many organized tours include visiting a local village and the chance to buy a locally made basket, bag or jewelry.
Development is brisk in this country and there are new construction of buildings and roads, including many high-end resorts and apartment buildings. One hopes that with the increasing development and trade, Vanuatu will be able to hold onto its traditions and environmental beauty.
Noelle is a huge ocean enthusiast and a marine ecologist, whose aims are to raise awareness about current ocean issues and to work alongside local fishing communities on sustainability projects (such as alternative livelihoods and managed fisheries) to build capacity and have a toolkit to better manage their marine resources.
To learn more about her and the projects she has worked on, please visit http://noellewebsite.weebly.co
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