Tropical Islands of the South Pacific Could Be Ripped Off
Life has changed little for thousands of years, in many hidden corners of the tropical islands of the South Pacific. Tradition and ancient culture has been the rule of the village, with the people living a simple day to day existence. However, these ancient indigenous communities are not protected from the abuse of International Property Rights, in the ever expanding and cut throat scene of global commerce.
The only way to prevent highway robbery is to look urgently and seriously to the educational needs of the next generation. Because of the islanders very simplistic way of life of they have preserved unique pockets of areas, untouched by modern civilization, which are a delight to the scientist and a unique experience for the tourist.
In the picturesque island of French Polynesia, an ambitious research program is underway, which will produce a library of genetic markers. These will be used as a unique resource for ecologists and evolutionary biologists around the world. It is a combined program between a French research institute and a United States Californian university. Once such projects turn into profit, there are usually very few benefits that find their way down to the islanders, whose lives have been violated. One has only to look at the large diamond fields of the world to ascertain this.
The book Pacific Genes and Life Patents, co-edited by Aroha Te Pareaka Mead, talks of a high profile situation where Carol Jenkins, a medical anthropologist, allegedly stole leukemia curing genes from the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Through its National Health Institute, the United States patented the DNA cells, without gaining the Hagahai peoples’ permission. This stole what rightly belongs to a unique group of people and their unborn generations. Neither the individuals, nor the communities, nor their government were informed of the project. The US government outright objected to the claims of the Hagahai people, stating them as being inconsequential.
The question as old as commerce itself, remains? Who should benefit from such finds? The company that spends time and money developing the valuable find, or the original owners of the raw material? History shows that these type of projects have not been kind to Pacific islanders.
Property is jointly owned by everyone in the group, in Pacific islands, Mead explains. For individuals who culturally own nothing, to begin to claim Intellectual Property Rights, is to deny what is owned communally. “They don’t own the myths and traditions they pass from generation, the music they sing, their mind, their bodies, the words they speak, or the dances they dance. All these form part of their ancient heritage. Any creativity, or gifts, become part of the next generation’s heritage“.
If money is owed to a nephew, the feels uncle he has the right to claim some of it. Let a Pacific islander borrow a shirt and it is usually not returned. Not because they are trying to steal the shirt, but because of their simplistic inherent belief that wealth is defined by what they can give away. Their ability to play host, to be generous and give to others is the measure of their riches.
The local villagers do not have the idea of amassing wealth, as practiced in developed countries. When the price of local grown commodities rise due to rising universal food prices, the local people produce less. Once they have earned enough money to pay for school fees, buy some simple staple supplies and clothing, what is the need to sell any more of their crop? Why should they bother to do extra work if they can earn the same amount for less effort? They have no lasting allegiance to a cash economy, though they do like to enjoy the limited benefits it gives them.
The majority of the people particularly in rural areas, are not able to recognize potential commercial opportunities within their culture and capitalize on them. If there were any commercial probability, from cultural expression to mineral rich volcanic ash, metaphysics to blood cells, unique flora or fauna, the Pacific islanders would unknowingly remain sitting on an untapped gold mine.
Education is an absolute necessity if the younger generation of island people, who stand as a link between the richness of their traditional culture and partaking of the benefits of the 21st century. Only through education will they come to an understanding of how to protect their custom rights and privileges, as well as maintain their island way of life, before their tropical island paradise is lost forever.
The message is clear for countries like the still underdeveloped tropical island nation of Vanuatu. The days of poorly educated politicians leaping on the Government gravy train and blundering their way through a few years of pocket-lining public office are over. There is a rising swell of opinion, demanding better education and health facilities, for all members of the community.
This article was written by Dr Wendy Stenberg-Tendys, Co-CEO of YouMe Support Foundation of Vanuatu.