World’s happiest country turns its back on cash

Islanders revive pig tusk economy
World’s happiest country turns its back on cash
From Nick Quires in Vanuatu
AS THE frenzy of Christmas consumerism sweeps much of the planet, a tiny nation in the South Pacific is stubbornly forging a path in the opposite direction.

Vanuatu – a former Anglo-French colony named the New Hebrides by Captain Cook – is spurning the cash economy and instead reviving ancient modes of payment, using pig tusks, woven grass mats and sea shells.

The government declared 2007 The Year Of The Traditional Economy (“kastom ekonomi” in Vanuatu’s pidgin English), and has now extended the campaign into 2008.

The initiative has been driven by concerns that capitalism could destroy Vanuatu’s centuries-old way of life, based on subsistence farming and complicated cultural exchanges.

There are fears that a growing emphasis on development will lure islanders to shanty towns on the outskirts of the capital, Port Vila, where most will encounter unemployment and poverty. In rural areas, by contrast, hunger and homelessness are unheard of.

“The mantra of the World Bank and similar organisations is to make as much cash as you can, as fast as you can,” said Ralph Regenvanu, an anthropologist from the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and a driving force behind the campaign.

“This is an alternative strategy for Vanuatu. The traditional economy has served us well for thousands of years. We’re trying to preserve our cultural heritage in the face of development and we want to bring the focus back to valuing the things that are already here.”

As part of the renaissance, schools and clinics are allowing villagers to pay fees in kind – for instance, with sacks of vegetables or bundles of kava, a peppery root which when mashed and mixed with water produces a narcotic drink.

Even the country’s best schools – a French language lycee and an English secondary college in Port Vila – have agreed to take payment in kind.

Two years ago the National Council of Chiefs decreed that cash could no longer be used as “bride price” for weddings and that young men wanting to get married should make payments in goods, such as woven mats, pigs and yams.

There is also a push to maintain the tradition of using traditional currency to pay tribal fines, in ceremonies and to resolve land disputes.

Among the most prized of Vanuatu’s traditional currencies are pigs with curly tusks – villagers knock out the animals’ upper teeth to let the tusks grow unimpeded. The objective is for the tusk to loop twice or, more rarely, three times.

Even more esteemed are hairless pigs from the southern island of Tanna and, in the north of the country, a rare breed of hermaphrodite pig – animals with both male and female sexual organs.

“The isle of Malo is the last remaining area where intersex pigs are still being raised, and these pigs are much sought after in other areas,” a 2005 Unesco report on traditional currencies said.

The study, by British anthropologist Kirk Huffman, called for “the revitalisation of the production of traditional wealth items. This project should not target only tusked pigs, but also woven and dyed money mats and shell money and beads.”

With the help of Unesco, authorities are setting up “banks” for traditional forms of wealth and studying ways of setting informal exchange rates with the national currency, the vatu.

Nearly 80% of Vanuatu’s 210,000 people are farmers, growing food in jungle “gardens” blessed with rich soil, high rainfall and plentiful sunshine.

“It’s easy to grow taro, sweet potato, banana and manioc,” said Toren Bong, a community leader on the island of Ambrym. “We use slingshots or bows and arrows to shoot flying foxes fruit bats and in the forest near the volcanoes we hunt wild pigs and wild cattle.”

The reliance on a modest but healthy subsistence diet was one reason why Vanuatu was nominated the world’s happiest country in a 2006 Happy Planet Index, compiled by the New Economics Foundation, an alternative think tank.

The index of 178 nations, which ranked the UK as 108th, was based on consumption levels, environmental footprint, life expectancy and all-round contentedness, rather than conventional wealth measurements such as gross domestic product or annual income.

“We’ve realised that money isn’t everything,” said Fred Toka, an authority on traditional customs from the island of Ambae, which was the inspiration for the mythical Bali Hai in James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Tales Of The South Pacific. “Why buy canned fish when you can go and catch fresh fish?”

It is not just in Vanuatu that traditional currencies are cherished. Neighbouring Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands also prize unique forms of wealth.

On the island of Malaita, in the Solomons, shell necklaces are used as payment for wives, canoes, land or pigs, and as compensation in disputes. Dolphin teeth are also highly prized.

But some traditional currencies are now considered too impractical to revive. On the island of Erromango, in Vanuatu, fossilised giant clam shells were once considered highly valuable. Most of them, however, were carted off to Western museums during the colonial period and few remain.

Traditionalists and anthropologists hope that other types of alternative wealth have a bright future.

“The challenge is to raise awareness among politicians, government departments and businesses in Port Vila, where the cash economy is based,” said Regenvanu. “We need to recognise that the traditional economy is the main reason we were voted the world’s happiest country.”

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Clare Swinney

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