For too long, development partners in the Pacific have viewed customary systems as a barrier when they should view them as the key to success, write Apisalome Movono and Regina Scheyvens.
During the pandemic, there were extraordinary signs of resilience in the Pacific island states. This despite the economic difficulties caused by more than two years of border closures in some countries.
Most of the employees in Fiji’s largest industry, tourism, lost their jobs and struggled for months without any form of wage subsidy. It was a similar story to Samoa, Vanuatu and some other tourism dependent countries. Yet we have not heard of mass starvation or widespread civic unrest in the face of such challenges. Why is this?
A major reason is the fact that Pacific communities have been able to turn to traditional culture and customary systems to support livelihoods and well-being during the pandemic. Despite this success, the benefits of these practices and traditions for Pacific development are not widely appreciated.
For example, habitual land ownership has long been seen as a constraint on economic development that undermines investment. However, customary land ownership allows Pacific communities to allocate, manage, and develop land as they see fit and in accordance with their spiritual and customary beliefs.
Many partners and development groups have attempted to abolish these systems, as they believe they place constraints on what they see as the best use of land. However, in the face of the expropriation caused by the pandemic, the usual mandate was literally a lifesaver. It has proven to be the basis for survival, in terms of food supply.
In the interviews we have conducted over the past two years, nearly every individual has talked about the “return to land and sea” as a source of livelihood. As one individual in Samoa explained, “for some things, I had to relearn skills that hadn’t been used in years, planting skills and especially fishing skills.”
“I am very happy with the mixed crop plantation I have now and am confident it will do well in these uncertain times,” they added.
Contrary to popular belief, the customary land has also been the basis for new forms of entrepreneurship. Many Pacific peoples have used their land to start businesses related to selling income crops or surplus produce, as well as adding value through the sale of cooked foods. Therefore, customary tenure, which ensures that many Pacific peoples have access to land on which to grow food, is a very useful tool for locally driven economic development.
It is often argued that the collective nature of Pacific Island cultures does not favor the individualism required to be a successful entrepreneur. Indeed, much of the innovation and entrepreneurship that was shown during the pandemic is based on customary systems and cultural connections. Many, for example, have asked cultural and community relations to create online trading and fundraising systems.
There were also signs of a cultural resurgence during the pandemic, which saw people reconnect with their extended families or clans, their traditions and their land.
This revival has had significant benefits for social and mental well-being. A waiter, who lost his job at a crowded resort, remarked: “We spent a lot more time together. It’s nice to be outside and get dirty … the stillness on the plantation allows us to relax while we work. [There is] less stress and this feels natural.
Passing on cultural knowledge during the pandemic – such as uncles teaching grandchildren to fish and women practicing traditional crafts – has also helped support people’s well-being.
Despite all the odds, many people expressed an incredible sense of resilience to the great economic loss they were experiencing. This was, in part, thanks to cultural and family support systems.
“When the pandemic hit and I lost my job at the hotel, my family supported me with money. Now I have opened my own little canteen, sell food and put on barbecues every Friday, “said an interviewee from Fiji.
“I we think it’s good because we know our family is there to help us, but we can also find new ways to make money, like small side businesses. “
Pacific leaders, who have worked hard to protect customary possession in the face of external pressure from development banks that don’t appreciate its value, should be applauded. On the contrary, development partners must act humbly and ensure that an appreciation of culture and customary systems is central to their support for Pacific countries after the pandemic.
In the face of growing uncertainty, development must integrate the Pacific way and elevate the mana of the peoples of the Pacific – do not try to replace it.