A need for awareness of Pacific neighbours
10 December 2012
Last month my University of Sydney colleagues un-discovered Sandy Island in the south-western Pacific, in the course of their work to get a better understanding of our regional sea-bed.
Their research vessel, the Southern Surveyor, sailed through where it was meant to be located, according to Google Earth and navigational charts dating to 1908. Another colleague, on leave in Mumbai, read about the vanished island halfway between Australia and New Caledonia, in his morning newspaper. News of the phantom island had gone viral. Nothing about the Pacific in recent years has attracted such national and global interest. The unreality of the Pacific dramatically triumphed over its reality.
The reason my geological colleagues were investigating the seabed was because it is so poorly explored. Mars and the moon are better known. The human landscape, too, is suffering the same fate. We simply know too little - and perhaps care too little - about this ever-changing and diverse region at our doorsteps. Sadly, the few news stories in recent months have almost exclusively focused on the latter-day ''Pacific solution'' utilising Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and Nauru.
Each year I give geography students a blank map of the Pacific and ask them to identify the islands. Each year the responses get worse. Bali and Thailand they place incorrectly in the South Pacific. Our South Pacific neighbours, too have fallen off world geopolitical maps - not just Sandy Island.
The Pacific is changing dramatically. To our north Bougainville will have a referendum in a couple of years to determine if it will choose independence from PNG; New Caledonia will contemplate a similar question on independence from France.
New governments have recently been elected in PNG and Vanuatu. What might that mean for Australia? Such considerations are important given that Australia provides half of all aid to PNG and the Pacific Island countries ($1.17 billion in 2012-13), in a region where China has recently become a significant donor. Poverty has become increasingly visible in the expanding urban areas of the Pacific - now housing about half the region's population, often in squatter settlements, where not long ago islanders were presumed to live in tranquil rural villages. Diabetes has reached epidemic proportions, straining and distorting health budgets. Stability, too, has posed problems in the Solomon Islands where Australian forces remain.
Just as mining is changing Australia so it is changing the face of the western Pacific. The massive ExxonMobil Hides liquefied natural gas project will come on line in the southern highlands of PNG next year. The future of Fiji remains uncertain - will democratic elections ever be held? Will Australia recognise the military government? Will it return to the Commonwealth? These are troubling questions for a country that houses the regional University of the South Pacific and many Pacific regional organisations. Its stability is crucial.
Meanwhile, smaller states face uncertain environmental futures. Tuvalu has long been regarded as the canary in the coalmine of climate change and sea level rises, but the rather larger Kiribati and the Marshall Islands face similar circumstances. Their more immediate problems are the fluctuations of El Nino/La Nina and their weak economies constrained by isolation and the limitations of idyllic yet unproductive atolls.
Migration has become one gradually more secure future for many islanders. More than half of all ethnic Samoans and Tongans live overseas. These migrants are anxious to participate in Australia's seasonal agricultural work programs, where workers come for up to seven months and return with a few thousand dollars - a massive boost to household economies. Two years ago on the tiny Vanuatu outer island of Aniwa I watched the World Cup, using a satellite dish that came from these earnings.
The single item that is sweeping through the Pacific and revolutionising change in the region is the mobile phone. Sixty percent of islanders have access to one. Almost a million are Facebook users. In PNG in April social media brought together thousands of people for a political protest. Islanders have become more literate, more familiar with market prices and their social worlds have expanded.
We can be excused for not knowing about Sandy Island, but we need to rediscover the Pacific's real islands.
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