Case Studies, Systems Thinking

Vanuatu 2030: Plotting a new path forward based on culture and natural wealth

In the Pacific Island country of Vanuatu, food, culture, and environment are deeply intertwined.

“A majority of us in Vanuatu live in rural areas where we grow most of our own food on customary land,” states a 2015 documentary about the country’s budding slow food movement. “This fact provides us with an economic health advantage over nearly every other part of the world. We are able to produce more than enough fresh, seasonal, organic foods for our families at no monetary cost.”

And yet, the importance of food, culture, and the land are not typically considered by policymakers. Vanuatu’s current national sustainable development plan, Vanuatu 2030, is the first step in redefining what sustainable development means within its own national context.

Vanuatu 2030 better recognizes the valuable role that culture, community, and natural wealth play in the well-being of Ni-Vanuatu citizens and the country at-large. Ni-Vanuatu are the country’s Indigenous Peoples, who make up 95% of the population.

Released in 2016 with cross-party support, Vanuatu 2030 is the country’s highest level policy framework, guiding its direction until the turn of the next decade. Deemed “the People’s Plan,” the policy was developed based on three years of consultation with nearly 1,500 Ni-Vanuatu from across the country’s 65 inhabited islands.

This engagement was key in creating a strategy that focuses on what Ni-Vanuatu identify as important for their own quality of life. At the same time, their involvement was also symbolic: communal meetings remain a key means of group decision-making in Ni-Vanuatu society.

Importantly, creation of the plan also involved village chiefs. Local chiefs are traditional leaders who continue to preside over customary laws, including the protection of community resources and culture.

Vanuatu 2030 devolves authority to local area councils that are chaired by these chiefs. The plan’s approach to empower local councils with inclusive representation is part of its strength and uniqueness.

Making progress by returning to tradition

Vanuatu 2030 is a significant departure from the government’s 2006-2015 plan, in which five of the seven priority areas focused on economic growth.

What that predecessor policy failed to recognize were the many non-material sources of abundance within Ni-Vanuatu society. Shaped by its community consultations, Vanuatu 2030 is structured around three key pillars: society, environment, and economy, with cultural heritage at its foundation. These focus areas are central to the health, well-being, and happiness of Ni-Vanuatu communities.

“The environment pillar seeks to ensure a pristine natural environment on land and at sea that continues to serve our food, cultural, economic, and ecological needs, and enhance resilience and adaptive capacity to climate change and natural disasters,” describes the plan’s preamble.

To achieve this vision, Vanuatu 2030 pledges to increase agricultural and fisheries food production using sustainable practices, reduce reliance on food imports by producing products domestically, and enhance traditional agricultural practices with a focus on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation (among other policy objectives).

Accomplishing these goals depend on embracing the ways in which Ni-Vanuatu have lived for generations. These communities recognize that land is more than an economic prospect and that protecting it is a key way to secure both sustainable food systems and a sense of identity.

“Our environment is very much a part of our food culture,” explains the slow food documentary. “We use leaves to keep our food clean and when baking with stones in earthen ovens. The forest also provides us with our cooking fuel, bamboo for roasting, tools for grating and preparing foods to be cooked, as well as many wild fruits, nuts, tubers, and ferns that supplement our daily diets.”

In respecting their surrounding environment, Ni-Vanuatu are able to produce enough food for household consumption as well as for use in customary exchanges and ceremonies. Not only that, but the predominant form of traditional agriculture in Vanuatu has always been ecological, protecting the environment from dangerous agrochemicals.

In order to respect and revert to these customary practices and traditional wisdom, the Vanuatu government is addressing land reform and governance issues. Customary land ownership has long been a contentious issue in Vanuatu, both during the period of British and French colonial rule and since the country gained independence in 1980.

By committing to return control of land to its customary (traditional) owners, the Vanuatu government is restoring the rights of villages to continue caring for and utilizing their land to secure food for nutrition, culture, and community building.

This progress and the Vanuatu 2030 plan demonstrate that holistic and inclusive policies can be created to improve food security, the economy, and the well-being of people and the planet.

Concludes a 2012 documentary produced about the well-being of Ni-Vanuatu: “Those of us that have access to customary lands and forest and marine resources. Those of us that have traditional knowledge and skills that make use of these resources and allow us to continue participating in our traditional ways of life. And those of us who live in strong communities that cooperate and support all members…we are happy.”