Lessons from other Islanders

Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, continues her weekly exploration of islands and the ocean. She hopes to share appreciation for the land and the sea; and to foster awareness of our relationship as islanders with the ocean. This week, she compares lifestyle notes with a native of Papua New Guinea. This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday, September 29, 2016.
Follow Anjani Ganase on twitter: @AnjGanase

“Mom and I grew up in the same area as her ancestors, which she can trace back at least to when missionaries first arrived (and started to record history through birth and burial records) over 500 years ago. It’s now thought the earliest people in these islands came some 60,000 years ago.”

I was astonished when Terry mentioned this to me; very few people in Trinidad and Tobago can make this claim. Most of us in the Caribbean are either descendants of slaves, indentured labourers or immigrants who willingly moved to start anew in a different part of the world. And while there may be traces of Amerindian - Carib in my case - the traditions and practices of this culture are obviously not as present as the Afro- or Indian and Chinese or European customs of my upbringing. Many of us in the Caribbean have not inherited traditional cultures that were part of island living, yet we are all islanders of the Caribbean.
A Papua New Guinea childhood: spearing fish for the day's meal; running wild with other children, schooled by the sea. Terry (third from bottom of the further tree, wearing cap) and his friends climbing coconut trees at Isu Isu, Fife Bay. Photo by Ian Poole

Terry, on the other hand, knows his lineage and exactly where his heritage came from. He is half Australian, half Papua New Guinean and grew up in the country of his ancestors, whose history wasn’t rewritten by colonisation in the same way that the Caribbean islands’ were. As we spoke, it became clear who is the true islander with a much deeper connection to the islands and the ocean.

In 1971, Terry’s father, Ian, an Australian geologist, decided to escape his country to tropical Papua New Guinea (PNG) looking for gold. After stomping around the thick rain forests of the Owen Stanley mountain ranges he became ill and was admitted to hospital in the capital, Port Moresby. Here he met Terry’s Mom, Julie, who was a local nurse. They fell in love and returned to her village along the coast called Isu Isu, Fife Bay. They eventually married and raised their family on tiny Pearl Island, just off the mainland in Milne Bay.

Terry, the youngest of three, was home schooled by his Mom, while his Dad went to work on another island. She already had ten years experience teaching his older brother and sister, who both went on to further their education in Australia. His house lacked electricity, except for the few solar panels installed by his Dad, so there was no TV but all of the great outdoors – land and sea – for playing. It was a life without shoes or shirt, not necessary for a seven-year-old who had an island to himself to roam, imagine and explore. Childhood activities included spearing fish using parts from beach umbrellas. He learned to swim by falling in. Terry’s Mom was a master fisher but she never really looked under the water. Terry on the other hand couldn’t keep his head above the water and he spent his days snorkelling and free-diving to encounter the diverse marine life – dugongs, turtles, mantas and sharks – that resided in the bay. It was this curiosity that drove his decision to study marine biology in Australia. 

Disappearing islands? Milne Bay, Samarai Island in the foreground, Pearl Island in the background. Photo by Ian Poole

Over 600 islands are the landscape of Milne Bay Province (PNG) which is a deep-water harbour for marine life and boats. In the past, it was an ideal location for the allied forces (Australia and the USA) based there during World War 2, similar to the American base in Chaguaramas Bay, in the protected western peninsula of Trinidad. Milne bay is about a hundred times the area of Chaguaramas Bay. The ocean was an essential part of everyone’s lives. It was their source of food, trade, transportation and enjoyment. Terry’s father commuted daily to Samarai, the main island of commerce in the area, via his family banana boat. Many of the families living on these islands fished and farmed for sustenance. Along the cliffs one can see vertical gardens, called gana, a clever technique for trapping water and nutrients from the cliff face. Living without power meant that the fish was caught daily; only what was needed was caught so it was guaranteed to always be fresh.  There was no point in exporting fish, since it couldn’t be frozen; and no point in importing other food; might as well eat the fish. The daily demand for fresh caught fish for each household meant that the tools for fishing were kept simple. Men would use sharpened black palm as spears in the shallows or use the sap of a tree root, called tuha, to anesthetise the fish in rock pools created by the turning tide. Boats carved from tree trunks and fitted with outriggers allowed fishermen to venture far from shore, trawling their lines as they paddled out.

This is not a primitive life but one that was sustainable and manageable for generations under a stable climate. It was so stable that in the recent years when the Isu Isu fishermen observed that the fish were harder to catch, they imposed a five-year ban on fishing in Fife Bay. This meant that all the fishing would have to be done outside the bay. This decision was arrived at without outside pressure, scientific evaluation or government ruling; but rather through their own awareness and understanding their environment.

However, this traditional connection to the ocean has also left them exposed to the changing climate. Predictions that were made in the1990s - droughts and rising sea-level - are coming to pass and have left these communities vulnerable. Residents are abandoning existing homes closer to the beach and relocating to higher ground. More illegal poaching and fishing activities from outsiders aggravate the delicate situation. Never before had there been a need for long-term planning or assessment and re-arrangement of this lifestyle. The changes that need to be made now, mean a shift in a way of life that is thousands of years old.
Terry visiting the same coconut tree as an adult twenty years later. The coconut trees have become inundated by the rising sea level. Photo by Veronica Radice

Recent Caribbean islanders have a relatively modern history - less than 400 years. Perhaps there are ways that we and the ancient islanders of Papua New Guinea can learn from each other. Milne Bay residents of PNG need to adapt and think innovatively about dealing with the unprecedented problems of climate change; they have the advantage of thousands of years of tradition and observations. On the other hand, Caribbean nations - derived from displaced cultures - are the most adaptable people you will meet. In our short time living on these islands, we share histories of colonisation, migrations and struggles for independence. We have built thriving economies and fashioned crossover traditions and cultures.

The people of the Caribbean are the originators of calypso, reggae, steelpan music, and carnival. We are multi-cultural and tolerant. We have athletes, talented artists and literary minds. Nevertheless, we still need to understand the finite boundaries of our islands; how to preserve and sustain our islands and seas not just for a few years for centuries. Most importantly, we need to see the Caribbean Sea as connecting rather than dividing us. We must realise that what one island nation does in the Caribbean Sea affects all of us. Finally, we need to learn how to use our lands and seas to our benefit without destroying these resources. Surely, we can imagine our descendants in these same islands thousands of years from now, fishing, playing, exploring and enjoying the sea off Buccoo, or Lambeau, or Englishman’s Bay, Castara and Parlatuvier and Speyside. No other inheritance can be so meaningful to Tobagonians, or Trinidadians, than the conservation of the beauty created by being islands in the sea.


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