Having spent six years travelling and exploring the many regions of the idylicized South Pacific, Andre Vltchek reveals in his latest book, “Oceania,” that it is a region endangered by its encounters with external actions and ideas. While all is not lost yet, and some smaller areas still retain their indigenous subsistent inhabitation of the water and lands, all the islands, atolls, and reefs are highly stressed by many factors, factors that in the confined spaces of an island or atoll, suddenly seem magnified in significance as compared to a larger continental land mass.
Vltchek wanders across the entire region - slowly as it were - using the highly constrained and schedules and authoritarian rules of the few airlines that service the area. The airlines are predominantly foreign controlled, and that foreign control is what leads to the majority of the problems in the region. Most of the island groups are nominally independent countries, yet have become ‘re-colonized’ through a variety of modern connivances and rules and regulations imposed from outside, often supported by elites and their cronies within. The themes and ideas covered in the book are familiar to anyone following current world events, but in an area where so much is focused on such a small land base, the litany of negative events and actions appear almost overwhelming.
Paradise lost (almost)
As I made notes reading through this book, they quickly veered from straight line sequenced notes to a web of interactions wherein one event or rule or regulation affected not only one small area, but interacted with other events and rules creating a spider web of reinforcing - and controlling - intentions. Those intentions, in their simplest expression, is to control the resources of the area (fishing, mining, agriculture), to control the geopolitical access and rights of the region (the political machinations of the China/Taiwan game, UN voting preferences on international issues, western countries that support various elite groups), and to control information concerning the region and the subjugation it suffers from these foreign and elitist groups.
Generally I place all current events under three very general headings, all of which are necessarily related and intertwined with each other: the environment, the economy, and the military /political.
The environment in the region is generally known as an idyllic tropical get-away, with some concern about the rising ocean waters that affect Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and Kiribati, with the former receiving the most media attention. As if losing three nations and their distinct indigenous cultures is not enough, environmental concerns arise in all of the islands for similar and other reasons.
Vltchek discusses logging on the larger islands and the resulting chemical contamination of fresh and salt waters. That necessarily ties over into the economy as the logs are exported, leaving the concerned area with a devastated forest, little in the way of economic development as the earnings go to the elites but mostly to the overseas corporations that operate in the area. The economy then has an impact on the human economy as crime, prostitution, disease, tend to become norms in an area in which the indigenous culture no longer offers a valid means in which to maintain a living.
Another environmental/economic factor stemming from the above is that of agriculture. This broad topic covers everything from rising obesity, diabetes, illnesses, pollution from garbage dumps, to insecticides and herbicides used in palm oil plantations. Land ownership becomes an issue as the corporations run rampant over areas that may have formerly been communal but now are claimed by the elites and their cronies who then profit from their use for other than subsistence agricultural purposes.
The military/political scene
Since the Second World War, the island groups have suffered from constant political and military interference. The open air atomic/nuclear testing damaged several U.S. and French controlled islets/atolls, with the local population being removed from their native homes without significant compensation for the loss of a way of life and the loss of a healthy life. Other military issues rise with current occupation forces as in Guam, or externally trained local forces as in Fiji used to keep the local population under control, to keep some group or other in power, and to garner favour with the overlords as they serve as mercenaries in Africa and the Middle East.
The military is also an important item for the areas economies. The remittances from this military service provide a good boost to the local economy as remittances from pay, combined with remittances from expats in several countries provide a large chunk of the GDP. Thus it quickly becomes obvious that my three subsections of environment, economy and politics are heavily intertwined and interdependent - co-dependent - in the narrow confines of the relatively small population (ten million) and small land base that is Oceania.
More problems than desired
There are a multitude of problems rising from the foreign control exerted by the large resource corporations and by the various governments interested in controlling the region. Some island have them all rolled into one area; some islands suffer apparently only a few of the complaints; but generally Vltchek reiterates from island to island the many seemingly repetitive crimes against humanity, against the indigenous people of the region, by outside governments, corporations, and local tribal/feudal landlords.
Other problems include the necessity of having imported processed food,
- of living on remittances from over seas émigrés,
- the violence associated with the poverty and lack of much incentive to anything, - the lack of education and the subsequent brain drain for those that do make it further,
- the lack of democracy where much of it is only nominal and semi-feudal and religious (mainly imported Christian sects) control,
- the reliance on foreign aid, which carries the significance of buying foreign policy control and the UN vote, of corruption, waste, and dependency,
- problems with health, life expectancy, overpopulation, and migration.
Vltchek does not despair of the future. He recognizes the vitality of the local art culture, the dance, the carvings, and the writers and poets who try to protect their heritage. He still sees areas where the problems seem minimal, becoming marginally threatened from activity at the centres of population and economic activity.
At the same time, he says
“This is where Oceania stands today: at a crossroads. It is too late to go back, but it is widely recognized that continuing on the same path as before will ensure the disappearance of entire cultures, entire islands, and further subordination.”
“Oceania is bleeding but it is alive….This part of the world needs open discussion, a painful intellectual journey, questioning and challenging its ‘new identity’ - religion, consumerism, and dependency on former and present colonial masters, which is so much at odds with its traditional values.”
Oceania becomes a valuable read, a strong addition to any library concerned about current events, about corporations and economic colonization of formerly independent and culturally rich areas. Clearly written, supported by a heavy itinerary of independent travel and observation, and anecdotal recording of indigenous ideas and culture, Oceania places itself within the range of works that give a strong background for anyone researching or reviewing themes related to the area.
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles' work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.