Archive for January, 2010

Ecological variability and ritual cycles in North Vanuatu

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia), Torres Islands on January 5, 2010 by salul

For some time now I have been reflecting (and preparing some collaborative materials) on the subject of ecological variability in relation to key ritual practices in the Torres Islands. The motivation for these ideas comes primarily from the gradual realisation, over the past decade, of medium and long term fluctuations by which certain key environmental factors (humidity of fertile soils,  rainfall and drought, ) horticultural products – especially, but not exclusively, kava – have appeared and disappeared from the local horizon of productive and ritual cycles by which Torres islanders organize their seasonal activities – horticulture, inter-island movements, ritualised exchange, which of course includes Church-related activities, etc.

Here, specifically, I just want to point to the manner in which ENSO, aka El Niño, had an apparently direct effect, over the past decade, on local people’s capacity to grow kava, and thence to organize the previously mentioned lehtemet rituals of grade-taking for uninitiated men.

While the fact that island societies in the South West Pacific are subject to mid- and long-term ecological fluctuations is not necessarily breaking news, especially to the community of biologists, ecologists and natural scientists studying the Austronesian world, the issue is that the specific environmental and meteorological factors at play in these variable – hence, only predictable with large degrees of uncertainty – cycles have only recently been taken more seriously by social anthropologists interested in things like food production, seasonal practices, climate vulnerability, etc. A cross-section of exemplars regarding this subject can be referenced herehere, here and here.

When one considers that food production takes up an absolutely vital and predominant part of people’s daily and long term effort across the Melanesian islands, and that it is a determinant factor behind the labour that is put into organizing ritualised exchange, it becomes increasingly clear that we have to pay more attention to what is happening, not just within spaces of social production but over time, to the environments in which local communities play out their cultural practices. This, I would argue is a corollary of the study of the array of “local/non-local” forces, flows of information and economic processes related to the environment (subjects that fall partly within the purview of political ecology, of which there have been several good and important contributions in recent years).

As for me, I only gradually discovered the surprising role that ENSO seems to have had, probably for centuries, on the timing of key ritual activities in the Torres Islands. The best, but not only, example that I can put forward is what I considered to be the unusually variable and infrequent celebration of the aforementioned lehtemet ceremony, by which young men begin the process by which, over the course of a lifetime, one or two of them eventually grow to become the most powerful magicians and high-ranking men of the islands.

In essence, this ritual requires that sponsors, aspiring initiates and various key participants in the lehtemet, are seen to be able to produce important quantities of kava (negí in the local language of Lo-Toga), which should preferably come from local gardens.

The issue here is that for long periods of time – which appear to correspond to the variable years of inactivity or low-intensity activity that characterise the time between one major ENSO event and the next – the soils of the Torres Islands tend to suffer from excessive drought, a condition which renders them particularly inadequate for cultivating kava. For reasons which are still not entirely clear to me, but appear to relate to very subtle aspects of overall rainfall patterns, the dryness of local soils tends to be slightly less intense on the windward hillsides of the islands of Toga and Hiw, hence rendering some of the gardeners from these two islands relatively important as sponsors for ceremonies in which some kava simply must be had (funerals, etc). It is therefore on these two islands that the cultivation of the local variety, or cultivar, of negí, known as “red kava” for the colour of its root, has been kept and continued from generation to generation. Interestingly, the islanders distinguish quite clearly between at least six different major soil types and up to 10 major and minor soils combined (these islands are very small coral uplifts, so the amount of differentiation, and people’s acute awareness of it, is quite surprising); sometimes, soil types appear to change in relation to mean annual temperatures and rainfall –  at least, this is how Torres islanders explain it.

Chewing on an ENSO-related bumper crop (?) on Loh Island. (c) C. Mondragon

When I first arrived in the Torres, in early 1999, just after a particularly intense ENSO event, most people declared that there was no kava in the islands. They didn’t just mean that there was no kava available, but seemed to imply that kava just wasn’t something that people planted or could cultivate in the Torres. This version of things was repeated to me over and over, until a visit in late 2007, when I realised that there was suddenly an abundance of kava gardens in all four of the main islands in the group. My surprise was compounded when I learned that, in fact, these kava plants had been maturing for over five years, and that it had been the first crop taken from the batches that had allowed the local community to organize their most recent lehtemet earlier in the decade.

In sum, after much inquiring into soil types and distribution, aridity, rainfall patterns and genealogical memories of rich garden sites and successful past gardeners (during my last field stint in 2008) I began to realise that there seems to be a pattern of long-term drought and short-term rainfall that tantalisingly fits into broader fluctuations associated with ENSO throughout the past century. Just to be clear, precision here is not what I am after, i.e. a direct correlation between ENSO and local kava production, but rather for broader patterns of rapid adaptation which Torres gardeners and ritual actors have developed over time in relation to their highly variable environment. This adaptability involves close monitoring of soils, humidity, seasonal variation in the combination of different garden crops in order to protect kava plantings, and various important meteorological factors (including the intensity of cyclones in different years).

I don’t think, nor have I seen any evidence to prove, that this adaptability is contained in a coherent, easily identifiable corpus of traditional environmental knowledge. Rather, I suspect that it is built into local systems of food production. Importantly, variability is also built into local ritual cycles in a way that allows for long-term inactivity (decades can pass between one and another lehtemet) because, as I pointed out above, ENSO is neither predictable nor reliable as an indicator for specific moments of horticultural practice. Nevertheless, I think what all this points to is the way in which certain practices and knowledge, as well as lifecycles and social structures, probably contain subtle but significant ways of interacting with broader environmental fluctuations.

It will be interesting, as I elaborate on my own work, to see how these data and insights are teased out and presented in the research of other colleagues.

The Noughties, from a Torres Islands perspective.

Posted in Torres Islands on January 2, 2010 by salul

[Note: this post was slightly edited on 01-02-10]

As the title of this post indicates, the intention is to try offer a summary of some important events, i.e., those that not only stood out but also had a visible medium or long term effect on daily life, from the point of view of my friends and hosts in the Torres Islands during the past 10 years.

There are two caveats that need to be clarified from the outset, 1) it being impossible for me to become a Torres Islander, this listing summarises some events that appeared to be relevant from MY perspective as an outside observer and visitor, but, 2), nonetheless, the fact that they had a lasting impact on local people’s lives is what, in my view, qualifies them for inclusion in this brief set of notes.

Sharing images from 1999, 2000 and 2004 with Joseph Merelete and a group of children (c) A. Malacara

So why bother, if my perspective is going to be partial and incomplete? (I have lived on the Torres between Spring 1999 – Summer 2001; Spring-Summer 2004: Summer-Autumn 2006; Summer 2008…36 months in all, which hardly comes to 3 years out of 10).

First, I feel that sharing these observations offers one more way of reflecting on the realities of social change in this community. Second, I hope this material may provide a little bit of food for thought regarding relevant experiences in the collective lives of a community who, by virtue of their often silent and out-of-the-way position on the margins of Vanuatu, do not fit easily within mainstream statistics about developments and experiences in this island nation. Finally, this list offers a slightly different take on the summaries of relevant issues that we are fed every end-of-decade by the global media (which is not meant as an invidious comment, just a statement).

At a more selfish level, this exercise helps me to put certain things into perspective that would otherwise mould away in my field diaries.

So, herewith a list of those things that mattered to Torres Islanders, in terms of altering their lives or activities in relevant ways, during the period 1999-2009…not that it would matter to most of the islanders in question, since Gregorian datekeeping is not relevant to people’s everyday time perception – an important point that, in itself, can render this whole exercise slightly artificial! But I digress.

In no specific order of priority:

  • The arrival, in Autumn 1999, of the first microwave telephone dish to the Islands, with which there has since been a more or less direct connection with the rest of the archipelago via four or five phone lines. Despite the ups and downs of this system, mostly due to failures of maintenance and the vagaries of hurricane season, over the years it has proven to greatly facilitate contact with family and business associates in Port Vila and Luganville, thereby altering the previous system of commerce (which was mostly represented by the hard-earned business set up twenty years previously by the single successful shop-owner in the Torres prior to the phone lines).
  • The celebration of a lehtemet (initiation ceremony) in November 2003. This was the first ceremony of its kind for over fifteen years, and saw a record number of young men (around eight) being initiated into the hukwe, or local graded society. The communal effort and preparatory planning for this ceremony took a good two years.
  • The death of olfala Philip Tagaro in the Winter of 2004. Olfala Philip was the second oldest man in the Islands and one of the last experts of traditional knowledge and ritual practices. He held a high rank within the hukwe, and was feared and admired in equal measure, as attested by the huge number of mourners who attended his funerary rites and feast.

Erecting Philip Tagaro´s memory stone (c) A. Malacara

  • In 2005, for the first time in most people’s memories, a teenage girl from the island of Loh made it past the virtually impossible (because dismal and highly competitive) Secondary School system in TorBa Province and managed to secure enrollment in a High School on Malo Island, close to Luganville (with a little bit of financial assistance from a certain Salül in respect of school fees). Sadly, the big city lights of Luganville proved to be more attractive and she dropped out during her first year. But she eventually made her way back to Loh and is now a budding Primary School teacher, the first more or less qualified local woman to make it that far, so all’s well that ends well.
  • Local enthusiasm for the establishment of bungalows inorder to attract more visitors to this remote corner of Vanuatu begins to seep in as a result of various nation-wide initiatives which were initially undertaken in the late 90s by government and NGOs and have gradually been formalised under the VIBTA. Between 2002-2004 two competing families erected their respective tourist bungalows. To date, only one of them was the more successful, but both families have had a very difficult time making any significant gains from their efforts, due to the vagaries of international tourism and the fact that, all in all, most one-off visitors to Vanuatu are not primarily attracted to flying to a tiny corner of the archipelago when they can visit the Tanna or Ambrym volcanoes, be treated to easygoing eco-tourism on North Efate, or witness “genuine” kastom ceremonies on Malakula.

Kamilisa Bungalow, Linua Island (c) A. Malacara

  • The election, for the first time in the history of independent Vanuatu, of a Torres Islander to the national parliament of Vanuatu, in 2006. For the most part, the constituency of the Torres Islands had always been held hostage to the voting preferences of its neighours (and many family) on Mota Lava, in the Banks Islands, given that the meagre number of eligible voters in the Torres was always too low to produce a successful local candidate. In this case, the Torres dumped their brethren on Mwotlap in favour of an impromptu alliance with communities on Gaua and Vanua Lava.
  • Tropical Cyclone Ivy (Category 4) bulldozes its way across most of Vanuatu, from south to north, in February 2004. Heavy garden damage in the Banks and Torres exposes local dependency on emergency food aid.
  • Summer 2004, the Melanesian Brotherhood establishes a Household on the Torres. It is named Towia Household, in honour of the first Torres Islander who was ordained an Anglican priest. This brought the Brotherhood’s activities and peculiar worldview much closer to many Torres youth, several of whom were rapidly inducted into the order.
  • Tropical Cyclone Funa (Cat. 4) scrapes just south of the Torres in January 2008. The associated tidal surge left a clear swath of destruction on the eastern edge of the lagoon separating islands Loh from Linua (mostly made up of coconut palms and mangrove). Damage to gardens is heavy, but some areas of the Torres are spared.
  • A series of earthquakes, the greatest measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, strike the Torres in October 2009. The epicentre for the three most powerful tremors was a mere 3 kms North of the Islands, at the edge of the Torres Trench and on the border with the South East Solomons. In the meantime, the volcanic caldera on neighbouring Mt. Garet (Gaua island) keeps acting up, threatening possible disruption across most of TorBa Province.
  • The gradual effects of a general sales tax (VAT) and the so-called reforms introduced, starging in 1997-98, by the Comprehensive Reform Programme (CRP) that was foisted on Vanuatu by the Asian Development Bank and several regional governments and aid agencies meant, among several things, the imposition of larger fees for primary health care and education (mostly at the Secondary School level). Both of these enlightened reforms have had a direct and obvious impact on Torres people’s lives, mainly by forcing many heads of family to have to work harder and divert ever more of their already meagre cash income in order to receive government services that were and should be either free or virtually so. I have strong opinions on this, and I know that there are some good arguments in favour of CRP, but I won’t go into that discussion right now (some relevant links here and here).

    (c) A. Malacara

Specific events and rough dates aside, two other processes which clearly caught people’s attention and affected their lives during this period were:

1) the increasing presence of DVD players in local villages. Although they are still only an occasional phenomenon -subject to specific people purchasing a player AND a petrol-run electric generator and then transporting them all the way to their village, only to have something break down sooner rather than later- the impact of videos on people’s perception of the outside world has been palpable: depressingly, most of the content tends to either be violent American or Asian movies, cheap music videos from PNG, Fiji or the Solomons, OR Christian missionary propaganda, and,

2) the recent effect of the Seasonal Guest-Workers’ Programme that was initiated by the New Zealand government in order to recruit ni-Vanuatu willing to work for specific periods of time in the agricultural sector. The flow of workers and subsequent remittances has begun to make a huge impression on the young men of the Torres, as well as the rest of the archipelago. It will be interesting to see, during my next visit a month from now, if anybody from Torres has managed to pay for their passport and get hired in Kiwiland yet, and how remittances might impact this small community.

And that’s about all that comes to mind right now.

More to come, if I can manage to post a little bit more often throughout the coming year!

Epilogue 2009

Posted in Torres Islands on January 1, 2010 by salul

I have been absent for quite some time now, but could not resist a quick post, given that I have always set a few minutes aside on New Year’s Eve in order to write about some significant issue or memory. In this case, I have thought of writing up a summary of the past decade’s events, as perceived by some of my Torres Islands friends. The reason? Just simply to offer a humble alternative, a footnote if you will, to the various grand listings of globally important things that opinion makers and the media are now rushing to compose as the first ten years of this new century come to a close.

As most of my acquaintances and family know, I am not one to go overboard about New Year. But in this case, the temptation is great, for two simple reasons. First, I hope I may kick-start my blog again by reflecting on how people in a very small island community which I happen to know rather well perceive time and events from their particular vantage point in the universe. Second, I realised this afternoon that I spent my first New Year’s Eve in the Torres Islands precisely a decade ago: on the night of December 31, 2009, I lay on the beach at Peliauluwo, a small, secluded and (at that time) uninhabited white sand beach of incredible beauty on the island of Loh. I lay there – in the company of my former partner and companion, Like – and watched the sky from a bit of land which was hundreds of kilometres from the nearest urban centre.

The beach I mention lies just beyond the vegetation at the edge of the sand.

Much has happened since then. Not least, from the point of view of the people who have continued to welcome and open their homes to me during my four return trips. The same people who will be seeing me again within a months’ time. So it seems as good enough an excuse as any to take stock of what they have seen and experienced, and perhaps some of what I have learned during the privileged time that I have been fortunate to spend with them.

But now it is getting close to midnight local time, and I am off.

Back tomorrow.