Small Islands Voice Global Forum
What kind of viability?
“Keeping the best of the old while embracing the new is not a simple addition and subtraction exercise, rather it requires detailed understanding of connections between agriculture, biodiversity, religious beliefs, social practice, weather patterns and models of governance” writes Paul Roughan in this discussion about the viability of very small islands in the 21st century.
What sort of viability? This must certainly be part of the question. Tikopia in the southeast corner of the Solomon Islands has neither tourism nor communications (until 6 months ago), nor electricity. A ship arrives only every 4 months. At least 1100 people live on the 2 square miles of land (less if you subtract the brackish lake), and have for centuries. There are virtually no food imports, no exports and very little contact with the outside world. When Cyclone Zoe, with winds of more than 200 miles (350 km) per hour stayed over Tikopia for more than 24 hours, the expectation was of terrible loss of life. The island was stripped completely bare of vegetation, villages turned to clear white sand beaches, and the lake was penetrated by the sea. Instead, the total casualties were one old woman's broken leg.
In terms of the basics of life, traditional societies on small islands must certainly be among the most viable, in that they are capable of maintaining their own separate existence. If their social, economic and physical systems are maintained intact, then they are almost certainly able to provide life’s necessities for their island’s people. But social change and global contact alter the situation – so that one has to ask: What kind of viability? Three staple foods and no contact beyond your shores for the average person? Or occasional rice and corned beef and a visit to the capital every few years? Or satellite TV, cola and corn flakes on a daily basis and a trip to Honolulu/Brisbane/Auckland every Christmas?
While the rhetoric of "keeping the best of the old, while embracing the new" is attractive, doing it is another thing altogether. Knowing what is “the best of the old,” and what of the “new” that really can be “embraced”, requires knowing what we really want, who we really are (old, young, men, women?), and understanding how our island systems really work. Dropping a little of the old, or picking up a little of the new, is not a simple addition/subtraction exercise. The connections between systems of agriculture, biodiversity, religious beliefs, social practice, weather patterns and models of governance are just as complex as each of those individual systems is in itself. Understanding how they work is essential to making good decisions about how to change them. This is where Tutii Chilton's expression of the need for a think-tank on island-centred solutions is very important. Ownership needs to begin with the way problems are thought about, and the knowledge gained used to frame those problems, and not only at the programme or project levels. Such a body would do well to be initiated from within islands and organized by islanders themselves.
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