Australia and Pacific

Apologies for Cannibalism on Fiji

As mentioned the other day, Melanesia has long had a negative reputation in the Western cultural imagination, quite in contrast to its neighboring Pacific region of Polynesia. In the 1800s and early 1900s, disparagement of Melanesia typically focused on cultural practices deemed savage, especially cannibalism. Cannibalism was noted in some parts of Polynesia, particularly Samoa, but not to the same extant as in many parts of Melanesia.

In the 1960s and 1970s, anthropologists began reappraising received perceptions of savagery among indigenous peoples. Reports of such practices, many scholars now argued, were colored by racial prejudice and cultural condescension, resulting in grotesque exaggeration if not outright lies. Cannibalism in particular came under scrutiny. In 1980, Oxford University Press published William Arens’ The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, which argued that systematic, culturally sanctioned cannibalism was a myth, perpetuated by bigoted Western explorers, missionaries, and scholars. Not a single credible first-hand account of the practice, he argued, could be located. Arens’ book made a significant impression; as a graduate student in cultural geography in the 1980s, I was taught that cannibalism had never been anything but an isolated, aberrant occurrence. Indigenous peoples, according to the newly prevailing orthodoxy of cultural romanticism, lived in harmony with both the natural environment and their fellow humans.

The Arens thesis has not fared well over the past 30 years. Credible reports of systematic cannibalism turned out to be numerous, and direct archeological evidence is now firmly established. Even more problematic for adherents of 1960s-style cultural romanticism is the fact that a number of indigenous peoples themselves have no doubt that their ancestors were cannibals. Many are ashamed of this heritage, and some even fear that it generated curses that continue to plague their societies. As a result, one Fijian village organized a ceremony of apology in 2003, focused on the consumption of the missionary Thomas Baker and his fellow travelers in 1867. According to one participant, “we ate everything but his boots.”

The 2003 ritual of atonement was a massive event, attended by more than 600 people, including the prime minister of the country. Eleven descendants of Thomas Baker also joined the ceremony, where they were asked for, and granted, forgiveness. As the BBC reported, They were given the traditional drink of kava, and attended ceremonies on Thursday, at which they were to take part in a ‘symbolic cutting of the chain of curse and bondage over the village.’”

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Territorial Disputes and Cultural Accommodations in Vanuatu

Melanesia, as we have seen, is culturally varied. Global linguistic diversity probably reaches its extreme in the highlands of New Guinea, but Vanuatu contends for the title. Its 243,000 people speak 113 indigenous languages. According to the Wikipedia, its “density of languages, per capita, is the highest of any nation in the world, with an average of only 2,000 speakers per language.” But as all Vanuatu’s languages are Austronesian, its linguistic diversity at the family level does not match that of Solomon Islands, much less New Guinea.

Vanuatu’s unifying language is Bismala, a creole tongue often called “Pidgin English.” Although more than 95 percent of its vocabulary is of English derivation, Bismala’s grammatical structures are heavily Austronesian. But Bismala is only one of three official languages of the country, the others being English and French. Their use reflects Vanuatu’s unique colonial heritage as an Anglo-French “condominium.” After competing for control of the archipelago in the late 1800s, Britain and France decided in 1906 to rule it jointly. Unfortunately, rivalry between Anglophone and Francophone Vanuatuan elites has generated much tension.

Vanuatu’s current relations with France are strained, owing to the Matthew and Hunter Islands dispute. These small, uninhabited volcanic islets are conventionally mapped as part of New Caledonia, hence of France. France maintains an automated weather station in the area, and its navy patrols the local waters. Vanuatu, however, claims sovereignty. In June 2010, a high-level delegation from Vanuatu visited New Caledonia to take on the issue, apparently with little success. Vanuatu’s political opposition was not pleased, claiming that “the government is on the verge of backing down to France in the dispute over Matthew and Hunter islands.” One opposition leader appealed to physical geography to uphold Vanuatuan sovereignty: “Geographically, it [Matthew and Hunter] belongs to Vanuatu, that’s all our interest.” As the Google Earth image post above shows, the two islands are linked by submarine physical features to Vanuatu rather than New Caledonia.

Vanuatu is a poor and remote country with few economic resources. As part of its development policy, the government has been encouraging off-shore banking and tourism. The latter strategy has been relatively successful, building on Vanuatu’s remarkable natural and cultural environments. Tourist arrivals reached almost 200,000 in 2008, propelled in part by the 2004 television show,Survivor: Vanuatu — Islands of Fire.

Some Vanuatu tourism sites tout the island of Tanna, noted for its cultural preservation. A number of Tanna communities have partially opted out of the contemporary world, restricting modern inventions and eschewing public schools. In these so-called kastom (“custom”) villages, women wear grass skirts and men don the time-honored Melanesia penis sheaths. Another tourist attraction of Tanna is kava, the traditional psychoactive beverage of the region.

Despite its reputation for traditional customs, Tanna has intensively interacted with contemporary global culture, interpreting the outside world in its own terms. The most intriguing of its cultural accommodations may be the John Frum Cargo Cult, which essentially worships an American solider from the second world war, and the Prince Philip Movement, which venerates the husband of Queen Elizabeth the Second, the United Kingdom’s prince consort.

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Cultural Disparity and Political Solidarity in the Melanesian Island World



The islands of the southwestern Pacific are conventionally divided into Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, based on the writings of the French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville from the 1830s. The etymology is Greek, with the base word nesos — hence “nesia” — meaning island, while “mela-,” micro-,” and “poly-” denote black, small, and many, respectively. The terms were not well chosen. There are “many” islands in all three regions. “Micro” islands (atolls) are also widespread in Melanesia and Polynesia; and a number of Micronesian islands, such as Guam, are substantial. And whereas Micronesia and Polynesia were named after the supposed attributes of the islands themselves, Melanesia received its name from its indigenous inhabitants, in reference to their skin color.

In early anthropological studies, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia were thought to be differentiated by the traits of their indigenous human societies, but only Polynesia is now regarded as forming a genuine culture region. All Polynesian languages are closely related and clearly descended from a common ancestor, and similar cultural and political patterns are found throughout its vast extent. Micronesian and especially Melanesian cultures, on the other hand, vary significantly, with few unifying features.

Owing to its lack of cultural commonalities, Melanesia might be regarded as a “racial” region defined by the physical appearance of its inhabitants, but this tactic also falters. A recent genetic study indicates high levels of genetic differentiation between separate Melanesian populations, which are especially pronounced in the interior regions of the larger islands. The same study also found relatively few genetic links between Melanesians and Polynesians, even though the ancestors of the latter passed through Melanesia before reaching what later became Polynesia, spreading their Austronesian speech in many coastal areas. But if Polynesian and Melanesian peoples remained genetically and culturally distinct, their separation was not absolute. Some studies indicate a Melanesian origin of some Polynesian Y chromosomes, while the Melanesian archipelago of Fiji later experienced a substantial flow of both genes and social practices from the Polynesian islands of Tonga.

The ancestors of the Polynesians are believed to have moved from Taiwan through insular Southeast Asia and then the coastal stretches of Melanesia before arriving at the previously uninhabited islands of Tonga and Samoa. There they developed the distinctive Polynesian cultural complex that subsequently spread, thanks to their unsurpassed navigational abilities, trough the vast triangle formed by Hawaii, New Zealand, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Polynesian mariners also returned to Melanesia, where they settled on smaller islands outside of the main archipelagoes. Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu contain many strictly Polynesian islands, known to anthropologists as Polynesian Outliers. If defined in purely cultural terms, Polynesia therefore intermeshes with Melanesia rather than forming the spatially separate area that is typically depicted on maps.

Although the varied people of Melanesia have few cultural or genetic bonds, they are gaining a sense of political solidarity, as we saw in last Thursday’s posting. Such newfound cohesion is perhaps best represented in the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), a trade association composed of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji. This Melanesian quartet seems to have drawn more closely together after the 2009 suspension of Fiji from the Pacific Islands Forum on charges of political repression and human rights abuses. Some scholars think that the MSG might “mobilise around Fiji, … as Fiji, forsaken by its traditional antipodean friends [i.e., Australia and New Zealand], ‘looks North’ to Asia, most particularly China and India, for new friends.” Melanesians are also banding together to protest what they see as anti-Melanesian prejudices held by other peoples. In the European cultural imagination, “Polynesia” has long connoted a tropical idyll of sensual delights, while “Melanesia” suggested savagery and cannibalism. Melanesian intellectuals insist that such views are deeply racist and need to be jettisoned.

Similar prejudice can be encountered among Pacific Islanders themselves. A June 24, 2010 article in Pacific.Scoophighlights the work of Dr. Tarcisius Kabutaulaka of Solomon Islands who is confronting the issue. Anti-Melanesian sentiments, he argues, are directly encoded in Polynesian speech: “[Melanesians] are referred to as uli in the Tongan language, which means ‘dirty,’ while in the Samoan language they are referred to as mea uli, meaning ‘thing.’” Professor Kabutaulaka added that the issue “is not often discussed openly amongst Pacific Islanders” as it is considered too sensitive. The Pacific.Scoop article goes on to discuss the racial animosity felt by Melanesian students when studying with other Pacific Islanders in such schools as the University of the South Pacific, a multi-campus institution jointly owned by the governments of a number of Pacific island countries. Several Polynesian students quoted in the same article, however, deny the prevalence of racism.

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Ethnic Strife and Cultural Solidarity in Melanesia


In trying to separate from Papua New Guinea, the people of Bougainville have sought full independence rather than union with Solomon Islands,* the country that encompasses the rest of the archipelago in which their island is located. The sentiment is not difficult to understand; Solomon Islands is a poor and unstable state beset with ethnic conflict.

Solomon Islands’ troubles intensified in the late 1990s, when feuding between the indigenous inhabitants of Guadalcanal and immigrants from the neighboring island of Malaita brought it to the edge of state failure. In 2003, the Honiara government requested international security assistance; Australia, New Guinea, and 20 other Pacific basin countries responded by sending a sizable peace-keeping mission, dubbed Operation Helpen Fren (Pidgin for “help a friend”). While reestablishing basic security, it did not generate stability. In 2006, rioters in Honiara torched the Chinese commercial establishment after rumor spread of Chinese businesspeople bribing members of parliament; the PRC had to send in chartered aircraft to airlift hundreds of its citizens to safety. Additional troops were deployed from Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji, but the Solomon Islands government fell, and its economy plummeted.

The turmoil of Solomon Islands is not unusual in its locale. Ethnic strife, governmental instability, and general insecurity characterize much of its immediate neighborhood. As a result, Australian commentators have deemed the area an “arc of instability.” This politically fraught region extends from eastern Indonesia through Melanesia to western Polynesia (see map). But while “arc of instability” is an evocative phrase, it is ambiguous; other authors have deployed it elsewhere (including Central Asia and the vast swath of the planet extending from the Caribbean Basin to Southeast Asia).

Although much of Melanesia is beset with local discord, one Melanesian government has set its sights on what it sees as a more fundamental ethno-political conflict: that occasioned by Indonesian’s annexation of Western New Guinea. On June 21, 2010, the parliament of Vanuatu unanimously requested an international investigation into Indonesia’s acquisition of, and continuing rule over, the territory. The conflict is often framed in religious and regional—or metageographical—terms. As reported by Radio Australia, Vanuatu’s Parliamentary motion asks “the UN General Assembly to direct the International Court [of Justice] to look into the manner in which the mainly Melanesian and Christian western half of New Guinea island was incorporated into the Asian and Islamic country of Indonesia.”

Vanuatu’s leaders expressed confidence that other Melanesian governments will follow their lead – with one notable exception: Papua New Guinea (PNG), the giant of the Melanesian world. On June 23, 2010, a Vanuatuan member of parliament chastised PNG for “being out of step with Melanesian opinion on the legality of Indonesia’s Papua province.” But Papua New Guinea’s reluctance is not difficult to understand, as it would be highly vulnerable to potential Indonesian reprisals. In its case, both military and economic considerations tend to outweigh the desire for pan-Melanesian cultural and geopolitical solidarity.

In next Monday’s post, we will explore what “Melanesia” means.

* The country’s official name is “Solomon Islands,” without the use of the definite article (“the”).

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Election Controversies and Ethnic Complexities on the Not-So-Tiny Island of Bougainville

In June 2010, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) voted out three quarters of its parliamentary representatives along with its president. Whereas the outgoing leader was a former revolutionary committed to independence, the newly elected chief executive favors continuing ties with PNG. Most sources, however, do not see a loss of interest in sovereignty. The election focused on governmental competence, which the voters of Bougainville evidently found wanting in the former administration. Another divisive issue was the future of the shuttered Panguna mine. While most candidates supported reopening, they disagreed over who should carry it out. Some favored returning control to the former operator, a subsidiary of global mining giant Rio Tinto; others argued for turning to Chinese investors.

Security formed another electoral concern. Interethnic strife remains deadly, although the body count has diminished in recent years. Violence is concentrated in southern Bougainville where, according to The Economist (June 10, 2010, page 47), “some 14 armed militia groups still openly carry arms.” During the election campaign, the successful challenger accused the incumbent of condoning the warlords who hold sway over much of the south.

Ethnic tension in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville is linked to pronounced cultural fragmentation. Roughly two dozen languages in three families are spoken by the region’s 175,000 inhabitants. Two of these families, North Bougainville and South Bougainville, may be unique to the island. They were formerly classified within the Papuan family, but linguists no longer think that the “Papuan languages” constitute a genuine group, descended from a common ancestral tongue. Other forms of cultural distinctiveness further divide the peoples of Bougainville. According to the delightfully discursive Wikipedia article, among the northern peoples of Bougainville, “Cheerful friendliness is the prevalent norm. Austronesian Bougainvilleans and especially Bukas value outgoing openness, chattiness, a generally friendly mien.” South Bougainvilleans, in contrast, are said to “value privacy, discretion, quiet. Just listen to the silence of their markets and religious and political gatherings. When they are contemptuous of ‘redskins’ and ‘mastas’ (i.e. white people) it’s not that they are vulgar racists as to the colour of your skin. It’s that they find noisiness and intemperate speech shocking and impolite.”

On an unrelated issue, Bougainville also offers a lesson on human perceptions of spatial scale. The otherwise excellent article on the island’s problems in The Economist magazine begins as follows: “The tiny troubled island of Bougainville has a new president …” Tiny? Bougainville is the 79th largest of the world’s roughly 100,000 inhabited islands. It covers more territory than such substantial islands as Cyprus, Crete, or Corsica. Bougainville is almost as large as Hawaii, which is called “the big island” in reference to the fact that it is seven times the size of Oahu, the state of Hawaii’s demographic, economic, and political center. Yet even Oahu, which covers almost 600 square miles, is almost never described as “tiny,” a term best reserved for islands like Australia’s Norfolk (13.3 square miles).

My point is not so much to chide the normally astute Economist for an uncharacteristic slip as to illustrate a common problem in geographical perception. Unfamiliar places far from one’s homeland tend to diminish in apparent size, as illustrated by Saul Steinberg’s famous “view of the world” New Yorker cover. A tendency to mentally shrink exotic places seems to be a natural human disposition. We should be vigilant against it if we want to remain geographically accurate.

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Oil Theft and Insurgency on Bougainville, Papua New Guinea



On June 18, 2010, Australian news announced that the government of Papua New Guinea had just seized a sizable tanker filled with allegedly stolen oil. Registered in the Marshall Islands, the Singapore-bound ship was carrying crude worth an estimated $A16.3 million ($14 million US). Its 20 crewmembers were arrested and charged with various offenses, including possession of pornography.

The most intriguing aspect of the story was the source of the purloined oil: it had evidently been siphoned out of rusty tanks at the derelict Panguna copper mine on Papua New Guinea’s island of Bougainville. That the Panguna site, shuttered since 1989, still held millions of dollars worth of oil indicates its size; when closed due to civil unrest, it was the largest open-pit mine in the world. When the mine began operating in the early 1970s, Papua New Guinea gained the financial resources considered necessary for independence from Australia. If the peace-making deal made in the late 1990s between the government of Papua New Guinea and the insurgents of Bougainville is to be honored, this story could soon be repeated: a reopened Panguna could provide the economic base for Bougainville to secede from Papua New Guinea as a sovereign state within the coming decade.

Bougainville is physically part of the Solomon archipelago, which otherwise forms its own country. It owes its geopolitical position to late nineteenth century European colonial competition. As German traders and imperialists pushed south from northeastern New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago, the British consolidated their power in the southern Solomon Islands. In 1900, Germany transferred all of its holdings in the archipelago except Bougainville and associated islets to Britain in exchange for a British withdrawal from Samoa. After Germany’s defeat in World War I, German New Guinea, including Bougainville, passed to Australia as a League of Nations Mandate. Australia joined these lands to its own previously acquired holdings in southeastern New Guinea (technically under British sovereignty), forming the territory that became Papua New Guinea in 1975.

Bougainville erupted into insurgency soon after the opening of the Panguna mine. Local residents complained that Panguna benefited the central government and outsiders who worked and manage the mine, while they suffered the associated environmental and social disruptions. In 1975, rebel leaders declared the independence of the Republic of the North Solomons, which functioned as an insurgent state for about six months. New Guinea forces gained the upper hand, but the rebellion simmered. In 1988, the new Bougainville Revolutionary Army effectively targeted the mine and its power supply, forcing a suspension of operations in 1989. In 1990, the Port Moresby government placed Bougainville under blockade, prompting rebel leaders to once again proclaim their sovereignty. But rather than cooperating to build a working state, the island’s various armed camps and ethnic groups quarreled, resulting in civil war.

Civil strife in Bougainville allowed the Papuan army to advance on the island, but not to regain full control. New Guinea requested assistance from Australia and New Zealand, but to no avail. In 1996, it turned to Sandline International, a British-based private military force with South African connections. The employment of a mercenary force, however, provoked scandal in Papua New Guinea, bringing down its prime minister. A new government opted for negotiations, with New Zealand brokering. A 2000 peace treaty established the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, promising its people that they could vote on full independence sometime between 2015 and 2020.

Although most residents of Bougainville apparently viewed the Panguna mine as an environmental disaster when it was operational, the current consensus seems to be that independence would require its reopening. But mine revenues alone would not form an adequate foundation for successful sovereignty; for that, competent governmental institutions and civil concord are also necessary. Bougainville’s record on these issues, as the next Geocurrents posting will explore, remains mixed.

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The Temporary Rebirth of Lake Eyre

As the Southern Aral Sea dies, another massive lake on the opposite side of the world is being reborn, although its life expectancy is not long. When full, South Australia’s Lake Eyre is about the size of Cyprus. More often, Lake Eyre is a giant salt-flat pocked with briny pools. But Ayer’s drainage area is massive, covering one sixth of Australia, and when heavy rains fall, the lake fills. The lowest part of the Eyre basin — 49 feet (15 meters) below sea level — floods roughly once every three years. The entire lake fills about three times a century.

2009 saw a partial flood in Lake Eyre, and 2010 promises much more. The runoff from the early 2010 storms in central and southeastern Queensland has slowly made its way to the southwest, and is now pouring into the lake. Forecasters predict that at least 70 percent of the basin will fill. Members of the Lake Eyre Yacht Club, who have been waiting for a flood like this for years, are thrilled. As their website announces, “2010 looks like the best year for sailing in the Lake Eyre Basin since 1989-90. HIP, HIP, HOORAY!!!”

Lake Eyre’s rebirth will almost certainly be temporary. In the lake itself, a familiar boom and bust cycle is in the making. Fish that washed down with the floodwaters will thrive in the nearly fresh water of the renewed lake. In about six months, however, the salt crust will have dissolved, killing the fish. The lake will then begin to evaporate away. As it shrinks, its salt content will steadily increase. Eventually Eyre will turn pink, owing to the beta-Carotene pigment found in one species of salt-tolerant algae. Then it will vanish altogether until the next flooding cycle commences.

Lake Eyre’s major tributaries–Cooper Creek, the Diamantina River, and the Georgina River–exhibit extraordinary fluctuations of their own. The annual runoff of the Georgina apparently varies from nothing at all in extremely dry years to as much as 6.28 km³ (5,100,000 acre feet) in a year of heavy rains. Copper River has the largest discharge, but little of its water ever reaches the lake. The Diamantina River, the Georgina River, and especially Cooper Creek lose most of their water as they flow across the exceptionally flat Channel Country of southwestern Queensland, where they divide and redivide into innumerable waterways (see image above). Seepage and evaporation in the Channel Country prevents the flow of even the Diamantina and Georgina from reaching Lake Eyre in years of average or below average rainfall. In dry periods, which are frequent and can be long, these streams are little more than strings of waterholes.

When heavy rains do fall, as they have recently (see map), the Cooper, Diamantina, and Georgina swell into major rivers, up to 15 or even 20 miles wide in places. As the floodwaters rise, local cattle stations (ranches) find themselves isolated for weeks or even months. But the pastoralists seldom complain, because as the waters recede, lush forage returns. During flood periods, the rivers of the Channel Country effectively irrigate vast areas. Years of drought in the early 2000s brought desperation to the region; now, as The Australian reports, the continent’s “Red heart [is] turning green as life returns.”

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Taiwan and the Pacific: Contracting for Recognition


On March 15, 2010, a number of newspapers announced that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou would visit his country’s allies in the South Pacific: Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau, Tuvalu, and Solomon Islands. Such headlines were doubly wrong. The region specified is not exactly in the South Pacific, and the countries mentioned are not exactly allies of Taiwan.

To be sure, much of the territory of the six countries on Ma’s itinerary is in the South Pacific, but roughly 40 percent actually lies in the North Pacific (see map). This minor error is extremely common; Palau and the Marshall Island (along with the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, and the Northern Marianas) are almost always conceptualized as being in the South Pacific, despite the fact that they are entirely north of the Equator that divides the ocean into its northern and southern halves. This unmoored usage of the term “south” stems from a time when the entire Pacific was called the South Sea (or Mer du Sud; see map above), referencing the fact that mariners usually entered the ocean from the south, sailing around the tip of South America.

Additionally, regardless of where they are situated, it is not quite accurate to describe these countries as allies of Taiwan. An ally, according to the common definition, is a “state formally cooperating with another for military or other purposes.” It is difficult to imagine Nauru, a mined-out semi-wasteland of eight square miles and fourteen thousand people, coming to the aid of Taiwan for military or any other purposes. The relationship between these countries and Taiwan is actually one of clientage rather than alliance. In essence, Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Palau, and Solomon Islands sell their diplomatic recognition to Taiwan in exchange for aid. Taiwan thereby gains a small measure of international legitimacy, while these small Pacific countries gain much needed financial resources. A couple of them have switched their recognition between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China on several occasions, rewarding the more generous patron with their acknowledgement. Nor are they alone in the practice; Taiwan maintains the diplomatic recognition of 23 countries in total.

Nauru was once a rich little country with vast phosphate deposits. But the mines have been played out and the trust fund looted, putting Nauru in a desperate situation. Its only real resource now is diplomatic, based on its status as a recognized sovereign state. In 2009, it received $50 million from Russia in exchange for recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such recognition may seem to mean little in practice, but it evidently has value.

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Christmas Island: Land Crabs and Detainees


Christmas Island is 52-square-mile rainforest-covered limestone and basalt platform several hundred miles south of Java. Most of the island is a national park, sheltering a limited and highly distinctive native fauna. It is best noted for its eponymous red crab, a land dwelling crustacean than lives in rainforest burrows – in staggering numbers. At the onset of the rainy season, some 120 million red crabs migrate to the sea to spawn, overrunning much of the island. Intriguingly, early accounts make scant mention of the unavoidable crabs. Some ecologists speculate that the red crab population had been kept in check by the endemic Maclear’s rat that once populated the island, also in large numbers. The introduced black rat, however, evidently infected the native rat with an exterminating disease, perhaps allowing the crab population to explode (although we must wonder why the black rat was not able to similarly limit the crab). Currently, crab numbers are declining due to the spread of the yellow crazy ant, a highly invasive “tramp ant” species. Supercolonies of yellow crazy ants have formed, killing an estimated 20 million crabs and reducing the populations of several bird species. Efforts to control the ants are now underway.

Phosphate-rich Christmas Island was annexed by Britain in 1888. Workers came from China and Malaysia; their descendants form the bulk of the island’s current 1400 inhabitants. The phosphate deposits are largely worked out, and efforts to establish the island as a gambling center and as a spaceport have not been successful. Prior to 1993, Christmas had postal independence, allowing it to profit by selling stamps to collectors. The booming business of processing and incarcerating asylum-seekers and thwarted immigrants is now the island’s economic mainstay.

Like Norfolk, Christmas Island is a geopolitical anomaly: in this case, a non-self-governing territory of Australia, located outside of Australia’s migration zone (see yesterday’s post). The island does have an elected advisory council, and its residents do vote in Australian federal elections. But in the end, Canberra runs Christmas. In recent years, the national government has decided to remake Christmas Island into a detention center for refugees and undocumented immigrants trying to reach the Australian mainland. In 2007, the island’s administration was transferred from the Department of Transport and Regional Services to the Attorney General’s Office, reflecting its prominent role in Australia’s fight to control immigration.

The increased population is straining the island’s infrastructure – some say to the breaking point. Both the local inhabitants and the detainees are highly concentrated, roughly on opposite ends of the island. The expanding population of Christmas Island has increased the cost of living of the local inhabitants. Housing especially has gone up, as outsiders have been brought in to staff the detention facilities. As one local reported, “Now the island is at breaking point, the sewage treatment plant can’t cope, the power station can’t cope, the health system can’t cope, and the school can’t cope…” The housing shortage eased recently when a number of immigration workers were moved into Christmas Island’s mothballed casino. The detainees, meanwhile, are kept in bleak compounds on the far end of the island from the settlement. According to recent reports, the compounds will soon be expanded.

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The Zone of Excision: Australia’s Island Screen

The standard model of global geography depicts all international borders as equivalent, simple lines on a map that indicate precisely where the sovereignty of one state ends and that of another begins. In actuality, land borders vary tremendously in their significance and permeability, ranging from the heavily militarized “demilitarized zone” of Korea to the almost residual divisions within Europe’s Schengen Area of open movement. Maritime borders are still more complex. According to international law, state sovereignty extends only twelve nautical miles from the low tidal line, a baseline that is not easily established on jagged coasts. In a more limited sense, however, territorial waters would seem to encompass the full 200 nautical miles of every maritime state’s exclusive economic zone, with some countries claiming continental shelves that extend even further into the open sea. Since neighboring countries’ 200-mile zones frequently intersect and overlap, enormous complications attend border-demarcation for all countries that front the sea.

In the case of Australia, recent governmental actions have generated a particularly ambiguous situation. Starting in September 2001, Australia “excised” a large number of islands from its official “migration zone.” As a result of this legislation, Australia’s northern islands have become a realm apart, still part of the country but not subject to its laws as far as migration and residency are concerned. Specifically, a person arriving at one of the excised islands has no right to apply for an Australian visa, and can be summarily expelled to another jurisdiction or even another country—a policy much criticized by refugee advocates. It has also been questioned for possibly compromising Australian sovereignty over this insular realm.

The Australian policy of excision stems from its desire to prevent undocumented immigrants from reaching its shores. If boats carrying refugees or illegal migrants reach one of the excised islands, their passengers are generally shipped to detention centers. One of the largest islands in the excision zone, Christmas Island, now harbors a growing detention facility of its own. On March 6, 2010, the Sydney Morning Herald outlined a report claiming that “the detainee population at Christmas Island is expected to reach 5000 within the next four years, sparking fears that Christmas Island may soon resemble a penal colony.”

Christmas Island is an interesting place in its own right, as we shall see tomorrow in the final post on Australian islands.

 

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The Tax Haven of Norfolk Island

With just 13 square miles and 2,142 residents, Norfolk Island is not large. Lying 900 miles off Australia and 600 miles from New Zealand, it is also very remote. But Norfolk played a key role in the British colonization of the Austral realm. Extensive groves of tall, straight Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla, now a common houseplant) carpeted the uninhabited island when James Cook happened upon it in 1774, as did thickets of New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax).The British Navy, concerned about the declining supply of masts from North America and hemp from Russia, took a deep interest in the island’s resources, contributing to the decision to found a settlement on the Australian mainland. Through the early 1800s, Norfolk maintained close contact with New South Wales; it too served as an early penal colony.

Although unpopulated when discovered by the British, Norfolk had been settled by Polynesians six to seven hundred years ago. It is not known what happened to the settlement – Norfolk was one of a number of Pacific islands that were only temporarily occupied by Polynesians. The Polynesians did leave their rat, however, along with an ecologically simplified island.

The human geography of Norfolk was transformed in 1856 with the arrival of 192 settlers from Pitcairn Island, a magnificently remote outpost east of French Polynesia. Pitcairn, a volcanic island slightly larger than Norfolk, had been settled in the late 1700s by the famous mutineers of the Bounty along with their Tahitian wives. It was not an idyll, with drunken violence decimating the men, but the population grew nonetheless. When the community threatened to outgrow Pitcairn, a contingent was relocated on Norfolk. Along with the settlers came their distinctive dialect, usually described as a blend of eighteenth-century English and Tahitian. Today the Norfolk language—Norfuk—has official status along with English on the island. Local officials fear that it is falling into disuse but are trying to encourage it. (To hear the language spoken, visit the Norfolk Language website.)

Norfolk is under the sovereign authority of Australia, but it is legally autonomous. The inhabitants have made money by doing the same thing that the legally autonomous islands attached to Britain (Man, Jersey, and Guernsey) have done: set themselves up as a tax haven. Norfolk’s government has further tried to leverage its autonomy into becoming an offshore banking center, but here it has found little success, as such moves have been resisted by the Australian government.

Norfolk controls its own immigration policy, demanding that Australians come with passports. It sometimes refuses permanent residency even to wealthy outsiders. According to the Wikipedia, Norfolk rejected singer Helen Reddy, despite her roots on the island. Norfolk’s anomalous geopolitical situation sometimes gets noticed in the North American news. In February 2010, The Vancouver Sun reported on its role in a complex legal battle over the estate of Eldon Foote, a Canadian-born entrepreneur and philanthropist, that pitted Foote’s widow and children against two charitable foundations. The heirs wanted to argue the case in a Canadian court, but the charities insisted “that Norfolk Island, a sun-drenched tax haven and self-governing territory of Australia, was the philanthropist’s legal home.” An Alberta judge ruled that this was the case, thwarting Foote’s wife and children.

Geopolitically anomalous islands – including Norfolk – occupy significant positions in the global financial order, serving as refuges from standard legal systems. Island governments take advantage of such irregularities, as do wealthy individuals and corporations. Whether the global economy as a whole gains from such stratagems is a different question.

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Lord Howe Island: Return of the Tree Lobster


Isolated oceanic islands, with their small to non-existent populations and scant resources, are ignored in most discussion of global geography. Yet there are good reasons to pay them close attention. Remote islands form natural laboratories for research in biogeography, and their unique assemblages of flora and fauna are highly vulnerable to introduced species and other threats from the outer world. In regard to culture and geopolitics as well, isolated islands present us with significant curiosities and anomalies.

The largely submerged “continent” of Zealandia (see last week’s Geocurrents post) contains several islands of particular note. Today’s post will examine Lord Howe, and tomorrow’s will turn to Norfolk, two Australian islands celebrated for their beauty and unusual natural features.

Lord Howe Island, a 22 square mile gem sitting near the center of the Tasman Sea, was classified as a World Heritage Site in its entirety in 1982. Its waters contain some of the world’s southernmost coral reefs. Unknown to humankind before 1788, it held an array of endemic bird, insect, and plant species. The first visitors found the island’s wildlife completely — and tragically — unafraid of people. As one seaman reported, “When I was in the woods amongst the birds I cd. not help picturing to myself the Golden Age described by Ovid to see Fowls … walking totally fearless… so we had nothing more to do than to stand a minute or two & and knock down as many as we pleas’d wt. a short stick…” (quoted in Tim Flannery’s superb The Future Eaters, page 177). Within a few decades of discovery, the Lord Howe swamp hen, the white-throated pigeon, the red-crowned parakeet, and the Tasman booby had all been exterminated by human hunters. Several more bird species disappeared after the inadvertent introduction of the black rat in 1918. Similar rounds of extinction have occurred on other newly discovered islands, regardless of whether the first interlopers were European or Polynesian, but on Lord Howe Island the process is remarkably well documented.

The environmental future of Lord Howe Island seems promising. The human presence is strictly limited; only 347 people live on the island permanently, and visitors cannot exceed 400 at any time. A major restoration project is now underway. The endangered Lord Howe rail (or woodhen), currawong, and flax snail have seen significant recoveries. Several invasive species, including feral pigs, have been eliminated, and ecologists are discussing the possible reintroduction of several close relatives of the island’s extinct fauna. In February 2010, Australian authorities announced that they will drop 42 tons of rat poison by helicopter over the full expanse of the island in 2012, taking special precautions to protect the remaining native species. Once rats are eliminated, ecological restoration projects will have a much greater chance of success.

Prospects for environmental restoration were enhanced in 2001 with the discovery of a tiny surviving population of the noted Lord Howe stick insect, Dryococelus australis. Reaching up to 15 centimeters in length, these formerly common insects were called “tree lobsters” or even “walking sausages.” Dryococelus australis is remarkable not just for its size, but for its behavior as well. According to the Wikipedia, “The males and females form some kind of a bond. The males follow the females and their activities depend on what the female is doing. During the night the couple sleeps together with three of the male’s legs wrapped around the female.”

Thought to have been exterminated by rat predation in the 1920s, the Lord Howe stick insect was rediscovered on Ball’s Pyramid, a nearby island. Ball’s Pyramid is itself a remarkable feature; measuring only 656 feet across, its summit sits 1844 feet above sea level (see photo above). Basically a barren rock, Ball’s Pyramid supports one small pocket of vegetation. On and under a single Melaleuca shrub, researchers discovered two dozen stick insects. A successful captive breeding program was soon underway. By 2008 the population had grown to 450, allowing 20 insects to be returned to Lord Howe Island.

The human residents of Lord Howe benefit directly from the island’s unique species. Other than tourism, the island has one major economic activity: the export of kentia palm (Howea forsteriana)seedlings. Noted for its three-meter long fronds, this Lord Howe endemic is considered an attractive ornamental species, and is now grown over much of the world.

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New Caledonia’s Unique Troubles

Yesterday’s post referred to the French-controlled island of New Caledonia as a “nano-continent.” Owing in part to its continental origins, New Caledonia is classified as a biodiversity “hotspot” by Conservation International, noted for its large number of threatened endemic species. New Caledonia also occupies a unique position in terms of human geography. Its official status is that of a “sui generis collectivity” of France, sui generis being the Latin term for “of its own kind.”

European imperial holdings have often been divided into two categories: “settler colonies,” in which immigrants from Europe became the dominant population, and “colonies of occupation” in which small numbers of Europeans came, usually on a temporary basis, to rule and extract profits. The distinction is not entirely clear-cut, as some colonies that experienced large-scale European migration retained an indigenous majority (South Africa), whereas in others most settlers eventually left, often involuntarily (Algeria, Kenya, and Zimbabwe). New Caledonia, however, remains uniquely in the middle, partly a settler colony and partly an occupation colony. Today, the indigenous Kanaks comprise some 45 percent of its population (which totals 250,000), while people of European descent account for some 35 percent. Roughly 12 percent are migrants from French-ruled Polynesia, particularly Wallis and Futuna. Today, roughly 16,000 Wallisians reside in New Caledonia, whereas only 10,000 remain on the home island of ‘Uvea (or Wallis). Relations between the Wallisians and the indigenous population are generally tense, having boiled over into bloodshed in 2002.

The indigenous population of New Caledonia is itself ethnically diverse, divided into more than 30 linguistic groups. Conflicts with European and Polynesian migrants, however, have helped unite the indigenes into the singular Kanak ethnic group. (The term Kanak oddly stems from a Hawaiian word that was used by missionaries and traders through much of the Pacific.) Resisting French rule and racial regulations, and angered by continuing immigration, the Kanaks launched an insurgency in 1980s. Peace came with the Nouméa Accord, signed in 1998. This agreement gave increased autonomy to New Caledonia as a whole while institutionalizing power sharing between the Kanak community and non-indigenous population. The Nouméa Accord also promises a referendum on independence, to be held between 2014 and 2019. Currently, the process of devolution continues to unfold. On February 26, 2010,Radio New Zealand announced the arrival of the French education minister in New Caledonia to discuss transferring responsibility for secondary education from Paris to the local authorities. France has also recently allowed the New Caledonian census to include questions about ethnic identity, a forbidden topic in France itself.

Many people of European descent have lived in New Caledonia for generations, and hence view themselves as Caldoches, members of an ethnic group that is often compared with South Africa’s Afrikaners. Relatively conservative and worried about the empowerment of the Kanaks that may accompany independence, Caldoches generally vote for “loyalist” parties that want to maintain ties with France. As the map above shows, voting remains highly polarized, with the heavily indigenous districts in the north and east voting strongly for nationalist (pro-independence) candidates. A number of European and Polynesian leaders, however, have been striving to create a new political party, called “Future Together,” that would strive for multi-ethnic inclusion, but the process has not been easy.

New Caledonia is a prosperous land, benefitting from massive deposits of nickel (25 percent of the world’s total) and other mineral resources. Its per capita GDP is well over $15,000, a relatively high figure. The distribution of wealth, however, is highly unequal, concentrated in the European-dominated areas on the drier southwestern side of the main island. As the Google Earth images of Nouméaposted above show, the capital city is well appointed, allowing a segment of the population to live very well indeed. And as is true in other French overseas territories, the cost of living is extremely high, adding to the discontent of the indigenous population. Although New Caledonia has been relatively stable in recent years, troubles may reignite as the independence referendum approaches.

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Tribal War and Natural Gas in Papua New Guinea

With roughly a thousand languages divided into a surprising number of linguistic families, New Guinea is noted for its extraordinary cultural diversity (see map above). The central highlands of New Guinea also form a diversity center of a different sort: that of warfare. Tribal combat remains ubiquitous, especially in the troubled Southern Highland province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Most conflicts here are localized, short, and fought with traditional weapons, but the cumulative casualty rates can be substantial.

Few tribal wars from New Guinea reach the global media. Access is difficult when not impossible, and the stakes are regarded as low by the rest of the world. When conflicts are reported it is generally due to unusual circumstances. In February 2010, for example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recounted a battle between two clans in the southern highlands that was provoked by a young man sending a pornographic text message to a young woman in a different village. Her male relatives were offended enough to attack the sender’s kin with bows and arrows, knives, and homemade guns. In the ensuing fight, two people were killed, several were injured, and a number of houses were burned.

The armed struggles of New Guinea can provoke serious gender disputes. Women often complain that pervasive warfare makes it difficult for them to feed their children. According to a November 2008 report in the Daily Mail, the women of two villages in the eastern highlands decided to end the local cycle of violence in a drastic manner: over a ten-year period, they killed all male babies. “It’s because of the terrible fights that have brought death and destruction to our villages for the past 20 years that all the womenfolk have agreed to have all new-born male babies killed,” reported one local women. Women were able do so – if the reports are true – because they lead relatively sex-segregated lives; men control men’s houses, while women control their own. According to the Daily Mail article, promising efforts were being made by a local pastor of the Salvation Army to mediate between the warriors and the mothers of their children.

A few tribal wars in New Guinea have global repercussions, prompting occasional reports in the global media. The southern highlands have vast natural gas deposits – according to some reports, the largest underdeveloped fields outside of Qatar. Plans to exploit the gas have been in place for some time, but tribal violence has delayed implementation. In 2006, the PNG government declared a state of emergency in the Southern Highlands, imposing a curfew and sending in soldiers, so that development plans could proceed.

In December 2009, ExxonMobil and several partners determined that conditions were stable enough to proceed with a $15 billion liquefied natural gas project. This would be the largest foreign investment in Papua New Guinea’s history, potentially tripling its exports. On February 11, 2010, however,Radio New Zealand Internationalreported that the project was inciting tribal warfare, even among groups that had previously had peaceful relations. As a result, Exxon had to suspend operations in several areas. As Dame Carol Kidu, Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Community Development stated, “suddenly with this LNG project and all of the tensions and jealousies over the land ownership and all these things, it blew up into a tribal war, a village war; inter-village war.”

Papua New Guinea has had its share of trouble since independence in 1975. Its most serious insurgency had been on the mineral-rich island of Bougainville, physically located in the Solomon Island chain. The Bougainville rebellion was largely defused with an autonomy agreement in 1997. Meanwhile, security deteriorated in the highlands. In December 2004, a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argued that Papua New Guinea was heading downhill and even risked becoming a failed state. In 2009, widespread anti-Chinese rioting and looting further damaged the country’s economy.

Will the development of its natural gas fields give Papua New Guinea the money that it needs to genuinely develop? Or will it form a “resource curse” that will enrich a few, further impoverish others, and provoke more tribal warfare? Either scenario is possible.

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The Republic of Hau Pakumoto?


The globe-spanning European empires of the 1800s were essentially dismantled in the decades following World War II, with one important exception. In the maritime realm, empire lingers in the form of continuing colonial control over small oceanic islands, some inhabited, others not. If one includes the 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zones that sovereign states control around their island holdings, such oceanic “empires” cover a substantial portion of the earth’s surface. As the map reproduced above shows, France’s maritime sphere is vast and far-flung, giving France a truly global reach.

France governs its various insular and oceanic territories in different ways. Some of its islands (Reunion, Guadeloupe, and Martinique) are integral units of the country, as much parts of France as Hawaii is part of the United States. Most others are organized as “overseas collectivities,” ruled in a more colonial manner. The sizable and resource-rich island of New Caledonia, however, is classified as a “sui generis collectivity”; its ties to France are structured in a unique and particularly complex manner.

While France undoubtedly exploited its colonial domains, today its vestiges of empire are more consistently subsidized. Such revenue flows, however, do not prevent chafing against the existing regime. Independence movements and other organized forms of resistance are found in most of the inhabited islands ruled by France, even Corsica. In February 2009, protests in Guadeloupe and Martinique turned deadly, forcing Paris to send in police reinforcements. Focused mostly at the high cost of living, the protests also targeted the domination of local economies by metropolitan elements.

French Polynesia, a vast oceanic expanse containing some 264,000 inhabitants, has also given France major headaches in recent years. Since 2004, this “overseas collectivity” has experienced nine changes in government, prompting Nicholas Sarkozy to describe the situation as “comical.” Pro-independence and pro-France local politicians struggle against each other, but then often join forces to direct subsidies to their own islands. Denunciations of Chinese merchants, followed by denunciations of such denunciations, are another stable feature of French Polynesian politics. As instability has increased, Paris has looked for possible reforms. In January 2010, Sarkozy proposed revamping the colony’s electoral system, but received little local support.

As is true in the French Caribbean, much of the popular discontent in French Polynesia stems from the high cost of living. Such tensions reached a climax on January 19, 2010, when opposition leaders on the island of Moorea – a favored tourist destination – publically seceded from France and French Polynesia, declaring that henceforth Moorea should be regarded as the independent republic of Hau Pakumoto. Although the announcement appears to have been largely a publicity stunt, French officials took it seriously, seizing funds and illegally issued identity cards. According to the Vancouver Sun, the minister of international affairs of the new “republic” claimed that more then 50,000 people support independence, a suspiciously high number considering the fact that Moorea’s population is only about 16,000.

 

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