…because I am not an anthropologist. I’m sad to say I’ve never even taken an anthropology class or a class on anything I discuss below. That said, these are just my thoughts as I observe and think about my surroundings and imagine how it got the way it is, and where it’ll go from here.
I have been in Vila for 4 weeks now. FOUR! Being in the capital of Vanuatu has taught me a bit about what “development” in a “developing country” looks like. And really, it stinks. Literally.
What we often refer to as “developing countries” constitutes some of the most beautiful land in the world. At least that’s the case in Vanuatu. We’ve all heard that the developing world is many years or even decades behind the ‘developed’ world as far as technology and infrastructure go. At one point (and still in many rural places, like the village where we’re living now, but I’ll keep it in the past tense for the sake of clarity) this meant they didn’t have fancy (any) cell phones, hospitals/healthcare in general, computers/laptops, birth control, plumbing, paved roads and the cars to go with them, lawn mowers, paper currency, schools, washing machines, industrial equipment, etc. This temporal technological gap, as do most things, had what we might see as very negative aspects as well as very positive ones.
In these circumstances, people died of illnesses and injuries that were easily cured (if not avoided altogether) in other parts of the world; few to no one had access to an education and other doorways that would give them options in life; livelihoods were completely dependent on the weather and its predictability; diets could be pretty boring, sometimes resulting in malnutrition and related problems. Conversely, the absence of all these trinkets, conveniences, and infrastructure also meant that places with rainforest remained rainforest, various ecosystems (which are conducive to human life as well as millions of other kinds of life) remained healthy, human population was naturally regulated (though natural regulation is a much more sad picture than intentional population regulation), and the people had a close relationship with the land as they would live off of it, whether it nourished the animals they consumed or the gardens they planted (or both), and there was no such thing as monetary wealth, really.
Now, as these countries develop they’re building cities and schools and hospitals and roads. Gardening, hunting, and livestock raising is pushed to the periphery of the landscape and food is transported in, where people who now (hopefully) have jobs in the city buy it to feed their families. They get a window into the developed world and they want all the options and the conveniences they see–as I sit here typing on a nice new macbook pro, I can’t blame them! They want cars that relieve them of the chore of walking miles and miles every day. They want washing machines and lawn mowers and refrigerators that make life less laborious and arguably healthier (i.e. mowed grass=less mosquitoes=less mosquito-related illnesses; refrigerators allow vaccines, food preservation, etc.). They want health centers capable of helping their sick and injured friends and families. They want computers and internet that allow them to connect with the world outside their immediate surroundings, enabling them to take part in the international economy, apply for education abroad, bring knowledge and resources from all over the world into their homes and communities.
Unfortunately, most ‘developing’ places are still restricted to old technologies as well as little to no regulation. The packaged food without considering environmental health and garbage disposal results in non-decomposing garbage everywhere. Old vehicles with little to no emissions regulation means a trail of black stink behind the gazillion buses, trucks, and cars that drive around the clock throughout the city, burning one liter of benzine after another. Growing urban and suburban spaces mean trees cut down and forests disappearing. Growing condensed populations means heightened anonymity (and I have a whole theory about the problems that cause–from individual psychosis to the overall negative social effects), often without well-developed law-enforcement and/or safety and security measures. Unmaintained infrastructure results in dangerous roads, dirty water, and unsanitary waste (all kinds of waste) disposal, etc. Unsupported schools and health centers struggle and dwindle to sad inadequacy.
Ok, I’m getting off topic… I wanted to focus on the environmental repercussions. My point is, the places on this earth that are the most well-preserved are beginning to go through the same process that has done so much to destroy the eco-systems and environment in general in developed countries already. Meanwhile the technology is already out there to mitigate these negative effects of development. Yes, renewable energy absolutely needs to be more accessible in the United States and other developed countries that are burning unimaginable amounts of oil, contributing unfathomable amounts of garbage to our heaps of pollution every day— but if we really want to preserve our world, and the relatively few beautiful and healthy places left on this earth, shouldn’t the solutions to the mistakes we’ve already made be just as realistic to use in developing countries?
But, of course, they can’t afford it. They’re just stoked to have a way to have light at night, allowing for all kinds of possibilities, even if the only way they can get it is via a generator that burns fuel and pollutes the air. They’re SO excited to have a boat with an engine can tackle the swells of the ocean no matter how tired their arms are, perhaps carrying a sick person one step closer to adequate healthcare–they can’t even see what that motor is dumping in the saltwater as they putter along. They’re excited to have a bus–any bus that moves, no matter its emissions or mileage–relieving them from miles of walking and giving them a source of income for food, clothes and school fees, and relieving others of miles of walking.
Vanuatu is beautiful. Our island, Erromango, is a pure paradise–ocean, bush and all. This isolated, difficult to get to island fits the description I typed above in the past tense–no trucks, no roads, little to no healthcare, little electricity (they have a few generators), unsupported schools, basically zero healthcare, etc. Do they need growth and development? Well, I’m not one to determine anyone’s needs, but they certainly want it–and with good reason. They have seen and/or heard of what a good hospital can do. They can peak through the window to the developed world and see the conveniences, the opportunities, the growth–and they want in. But how can they acquire what we consider human rights (i.e. access to adequate healthcare and adequate education), how can we best treat them as equals in the human family by helping them, and meanwhile preserve what they have maintained as a beautifully preserved part of this earth?
I’ve had this conversation with various people in my village–and they get it. They love the idea of taking the advantage of being able to learn from countries like the USA, being able to grow without making the same mistakes…but how can you do it when you have little to no play in the national or international economy, let alone anything that buys them in to the latest and greatest (green) technologies?
We (Peter, our community, and I) are open to suggestions and help.
That probably could have been much more concise and made the point more effectively, but it WAS me who wrote it. Thanks for reading anyway.
In other news, I just discovered Macklemore (thank you Sydney!)…. Awesome! I highly recommend him.