Island Connections to the Pacific

From her University of Queensland base in Brisbane Australia, Anjani Ganase, marine scientist, visits islands in the South Pacific and finds familiar island traits with her Caribbean home.

Just off the east coast of Australia, lies Vanuatu, 83 islands in the south western Pacific with a culture vastly different from that of Australian neighbours. There, I found similarities with Caribbean culture and ecosystem that resonated with me. Their island culture is also well-blended with indigenous and colonial influences and has become its own identity.

The islands of Vanuatu occupy about 680,000 sq-km of the south-western Pacific region. Their official languages include English and French, but there are over a hundred languages spoken across different islands and communities and the dominant creole language throughout the islands is Bislama. A blend of English and indigenous languages of Vanuatu, Bislama has morphed grammatically into a distinctive form. This language permits communication across villages and with foreigners, mainly Australians.  It is almost too familiar to the Caribbean ear, having a similar colonial root. A term like ‘pikinini’, reminds me of “pickney’; both mean child and both are reflective of the harsh colonial history. Other similarities between the Caribbean and Vanuatu include the local music, where local songs have reggae feel or even a groovy soca vibe made solely from the twangs of the guitar; and of course having a Digicel top up sign on every corner! The similarities between Vanuatu and the Caribbean do not stop here.

People of Tanna in the South Pacific Vanuatu island chain: displaying the uses of local plants in their traditional way of life. Photo by Anjani Ganase

Tanna Island, Vanuatu
Tanna is one of the southern islands of Vanuatu. This island has minimal permanent infrastructure: a few resorts, the main town, the central market and the road connecting them that runs along the western side of the island. The rest of the island is left to nature; roads that cross over the middle of the island are paved in ash and black sand. Fog, rain and the lush forest can close in on you and prevent you from venturing on your own. Trees and bush quickly bar roadways and paths where traffic wanes. During the hurricane season when visitors are few, we felt as if we were discovering untouched rainforest areas, secret landscapes hidden behind the forest canopy. Mount Yasur, the island’s resident volcano, and a guiding beacon for sailors in the southwest Pacific shapes Tanna’s natural landscape and culture. At night, we are guided by the ever-present glow of the volcano, which orients the locals living in the dark. There is no need for streetlights or neon lit signs. Instead, there are stars for entertainment, and story telling and silence, with perhaps the faint blare of music from a passing bus. Tanna homes are simple. Beautiful bungalows are woven from bamboo and palm leaves, often nestled under giant banyan trees and surrounded by ornate gardens beautifully laid out with ginger lilies and bougainvillea. On our day of exploration, we were shown, by the people of Tanna, how the forest, the rocks and the earth are all integrated in the their way of life. Leaves of one tree stacked one on top the other can be used to lift the weight of an injured person; while the roots of another tree (kava) is used in rituals and social gatherings, where the effects are relaxing and soothing.
A snorkeler swims through a gap in the reef flat that is teeming with corals. Photo by Anjani Ganase

Taking a peek underwater at Tanna’s coral reefs, I was also surprised to see a few reefs still rich in coral life, considering that in recent years there were a series of disturbances. In March 2015, Vanuatu was hit by a category five cyclone Pam, which passed less than 20 km off the west coast of Tanna, where their more sheltered reefs are located. In the summer of 2015-2016, an ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) event on top of an already warming climate triggered what turned out to be part of the third global mass-bleaching event: many Pacific islands, including Vanuatu were put on coral bleaching alert for persistent periods of higher than average sea surface temperatures  ( Coral bleaching in the region was reported in several areas, including the Great Barrier Reef and American Samoa. It was clear that these reefs of Tanna were not affected as badly as the other reefs may have been. Although the reefs were not pristine, mass death from bleaching did not stand out. In fact, what was reflected were two years of recovery after cyclone damage, with coral recovery seen in many smaller colonies of branching communities, growing on the reef flat and crest, while the larger boulder colonies appeared to be little affected. Unfortunately, I couldn’t ignore another similarity with the Caribbean, Tanna reefs are also heavily overfished. Considering that cyclone Pam destroyed much of Tanna’s already delicate infrastructure, it was comforting to see resilience both above and below the water.

Small-island nations like Vanuatu in the Pacific and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean will be the first to experience the effects of climate change, which will indeed spark necessary future changes. I wonder whether the decisions we make will be similar, and I hope that they will be for the better.
In the shadow of the volcano: a young boy plays in the sand at the base of Mount Yasur, Tanna Island, Vanuatu. Photo by Anjani Ganase
Branching corals grow in sheltered pools on the reef flat on Tanna Island, Vanuatu. Photo by Anjani Ganase


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