From my field diary: Of glass beads and property speculators

When I first left the Torres Islands, in February of 2000, I had been living continuously on Loh for almost one year.


During that time I witnessed several firsts, with the establishment of the first telephone connection probably having been the most iconic instance of the way in which technological changes were impinging on everyday life in this small island world. 

At right: the first public telephone in the village of Lunharigi (September 1999).



While the people of the Torres had been connected to the rest of Vanuatu through a very efficient network of tele-radios for almost 15 years prior to my first fieldwork stint, and were therefore no strangers to communicating abroad via wireless transmission, it was a very bizarre and unreal moment the morning I woke up to the sound of a telephone ringing in the middle of the village. On that first day no one quite knew what to do, but they quickly caught on and have become as efficient and proficient in its use as any other community on earth. 
Left: The same telephone pictured above nearly eight years later (yes, the natangora thatch has begun to rot away, but that’s still a good eight year life span for a humble thatch roof); note the hefty telephone diary in the hand of my good friend Hamson, who is sorting out various issues with contacts in faraway Luganville. 


The period 1999-2000 was also a time when VCRs and television screens had begun to make their first appearance in the Torres (the first functioning “video” machine was brought in 1997 by the local businessman John Hawelikwe, pictured in an earlier blog entry).

At right: Torres people watching musical videos from the Solomon Islands, Feb. 2008.

Admittedly, this last phenomenon was only present during those special occasions when someone managed to bring together a petrol-powered electricity generator, a VCR, a functioning television set and enough benzene to keep them running for a few hours (these days, DVD machines and television screens are slightly more numerous and are kept running more frequently, but their use is still limited by the fact that no TV signal or aerial is locally available).  

Upon my return to England, and my final year of doctoral work, I remember having had a recurring nightmare: I would visualise myself returning to the Torres Islands years later and discovering that they had been “touristified”, with numerous concrete bungalows dotting the once pristine beaches and local villagers having morphed into cheap guides for jungle hikes and touts for noisy aquatic sports. What was most shocking was that I would find them to be completely absorbed in trying to sell their islands to the highest bidder.

Joseph's bungalow


Left: One of two thatch-roof bungalows established on Loh Island since the year 2000; this one, belonging to Joseph Pele’s family, is soon to be torn down due to the swampy conditions of the ground on which it was built and its owner’s disillusionment at the overall lack of tourists visiting the Torres.


I realise that my primitivist (or modernist?) nightmare, and most of what I have said above can be construed as a rather flimsy form of exoticisation, in which I am describing the Torres as though they actually were a pristine, untouched and distant paradise, free from the perceived ravages of the modern cash economy. Naturally, this is not so. Indeed, I have intentionally highlighted these snapshots (the introduction of phones and videos) in order to better frame the final part of this post, which is to do with the way in which, this year, during my fifth return visit, I observed that Torres Islanders continued to make the best possible use of the very limited resources at their disposal.

In effect, about a year ago the people of the Torres Islands actually were approached by a rather sinister businessman, who, in league with a greedy local politician from the Banks Islands, represented the interests of a consortium of Australian real estate speculators (whose presence in Vanuatu has become too numerous and ominous in recent times). What this merry couple had in mind was nothing less than the wholesale purchase  -“lease”, in the current jargon, but for various complicated reasons it most often implies the definitive alienation of ancestral territory – of the small island of Linua, on which the airstrip connecting Loh with the rest of Vanuatu is located.

For a few months it appeared as though the Aussie speculator just might get away with murder. He regaled the three families who claim to have ancestral ownership of Linua with unsolicited gifts of large cooking pots, corrugated iron sheeting and fibreglass water catchment tanks – in effect, the modern equivalent of glass beads and steel axes. But then the Torres Islanders did what they have always done best: they gathered their wits and their chiefs about them, they held a number of highly charged village meetings, and they eventually decided that they were about to lend themselves to a nasty scam. Just in the nick of time they stopped the provincial secretary for land in the Banks and Torres from signing a lease agreement which had been fraudulently screwed around with to the benefit of the realty consortium, and told the prospective buyer to go away and never come back.

To conclude: I do not celebrate the technological and socioeconomic exclusion, geographical remoteness from urban centres and lack of access to basic services that the people of the Torres Islands have to cope with every day. I believe that they have as much right to these and many other artefacts of contemporary metropolitan life as any other person. But I could not but be overjoyed to witness the highly intelligent and careful manner in which this very small and potentially vulnerable society has managed to consistently administer itself in the face of potentially destabilising and unpredictable extra-local agents and phenomena for decades and, indeed, centuries. 

Whether or not they eventually choose to build bungalows and “touristify” their island home will ultimately be up to the people of the Torres Islands. As for me, I sleep better these days, because somehow I doubt that they will ever enter into such a pact without having first guaranteed that it is established on their own terms, and according to their own very subtle but effective standards of behaviour, values and expectations.

One Response to “From my field diary: Of glass beads and property speculators”

  1. Oh, thank God it is still as was, I need to get there soon, middle of this year, perhaps, where will I stay?
    Ken Loh

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