Wednesday, 8 July 2015

simplicity | complicity

People tell me that I must enjoy living in Bougainville, because "life must be so much simpler." I find this view interesting; so many people from ‘highly developed’ (I use this word with a full awareness of the shortfalls and assumptions that accompany the word developed) societies seem to romanticise the lives of those who live in subsistence-based societies. Our understanding of the wider Pacific region comes mainly from tourism brochures, in which happy brown people serve delicious food to tanned white people lying on a picture-perfect beach, or from the news, which only shows stories from the Pacific in times of natural disaster, such as Cyclone Pam, or political instability, as with Fiji and Bougainville. One could go so far as to say there is an element of paternalism and condescension in this view of Pacific Islanders as a simple people, with few cares in the world, who grow food and occasionally instigate coup d’etat which never affect our own lives in quiet New Zealand. And so, having grown up with disposable incomes in technology-saturated societies, being desperate to shed the complications of always being busy, always consuming, always communicating, we look at the wider Pacific region and think “life must be so much simpler”.

I do think that life in Bougainville can be simpler; people are laid back and friendly, time goes slowly and yes, if you have land, you can most likely live off it. There is nothing malicious in thinking such things. But to romanticise the lifestyle in places like Bougainville doesn't do justice to the resilience of its people. Bougainville has come out of a 10 year war with Papua New Guinea, fuelled by the clash between neoliberalism and customary traditions, a people born of the land and a mine that scarred the land. During this conflict, PNG blockaded Bougainville, denying Bougainvilleans access to any goods, services or freedom of movement. Women gave birth to children without access to maternal healthcare, children grew up in the bush without education, men fought and killed and died in the tens of thousands. New Zealand, in fact, was the country which successfully organised and hosted peace negotiations between all parties involved. But it took 10 years of horror before we did anything at all.

15 years on, many people living in rural areas still struggle to access education and healthcare of a high standard, and to attain employment opportunities outside of working their land or running a trade shop. Arawa, the second largest town in Bougainville, has not had access to power for the last four months. The river from which Arawa town sources its water runs thick with heavy metals leached from mining in the mountains and is dangerous to drink. Buka itself lacks any fresh water source apart from rain, and is a dry place. In the past month, I have had my water tank refilled with bore water, rendering my tap water unsafe to drink; a problem many people in Buka encounter and a likely source of gastrointestinal problems. A large proportion of Bougainvilleans don’t have access to radio coverage, mobile reception, or newspapers. Their knowledge of current affairs comes from market gossip and campaigning politicians, and local government structures often fail to give any of these people a voice in the political system. Women lack proper access to reproductive health services and men often die drinking potent home brew.

I do not want to paint a grim picture of Bougainville. It is truly one of the most beautiful, friendly, wonderful places I have ever visited. White sand beaches fringe the turquoise seas which teem with colourful and plentiful marine life, lush green palms and bananas contrast with the blue sky. Bougainvilleans will open their arms to you and gift you with the most wonderful relationships; this is a land of hope and determination and reconciliation. But I think it is important for people from New Zealand to think about their privilege, and their complicity in the political and economic structures that render New Zealand seventh and Papua New Guinea (including Bougainville) 157th on the HDI ( Human Development Index) scale (note: both Papua New Guinea and New Zealand are not included in the Inequality-adjusted HDI rankings from 2013). 

Bougainville’s war wasn’t an isolated event founded purely in ethnic differences. It was the product of a century of colonialism, land-swapping and land-grabbing between Germany, Britain, Japan and Australia. Its roots are deeply intertwined in the growth of neoliberalism and extractive industries during the era of PNG independence. Since independence, rapid urbanisation led to huge growth in Port Moresby, resulting in increased loss of village culture and an increase in crime. This accompanied a boom in extractive industries; 78% of PNG’s exports are derived from natural resources, oil and gas accounts for 23% of government revenue and GDP growth has been averaging about 7% annually. Despite living such wealthy soil, 75% of Papua New Guineans still live subsistence lifestyles and injustice and inequality are rife. 

While New Zealand doesn’t have a direct colonial history in Papua New Guinea, it is implicated in the growth of neoliberalism and consumption of non-renewable resources, and the local and global consequences of such ideologies. Many authors have argued for the link between neoliberalism and inequality, and consequently the link between inequality and violence. In the 1980s, under Labour, New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to leap eagerly forth and voluntarily impose neoliberal reforms in its domestic market under ‘Rogernomics’. The current National government is equally as eager to privatise education, healthcare and assets, and all the while, income inequality in New Zealand has risen to an all-time high. In recent weeks, the National government has released a climate change target for the (New Zealand’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC)) of of 11% emissions reduction below 1990 levels (30% below 2005 levels) by 2030. There were 17,000 submissions to the recent government consultation for New Zealand’s INDC. Of submitters who recommended a target, 99% recommended that it be either 40% below 1990 levels or higher, or zero carbon emissions by 2050. The National government has shown that it is unwilling to listen to New Zealanders and is unwilling to lead in taking real climate action. 

While New Zealand continues to pursue a neoliberal ideology of economic development and fails to take serious action on climate change and emissions reduction, how can PNG, a country that is highly dependent on bilateral aid, hope to decrease inequality and create a more sustainable economy? Aid is heavily political, and heavily influential. New Zealand, amongst others, is a major aid donor to PNG. In 2013, NZ gave a total of $35.8 million NZD to PNG. Along with this money comes advisors, requirements, evaluation and monitoring. PNG does not just spend aid money as it likes; it spends aid money in a very nuanced and diplomatic way, satisfying the political and economic motives of donor countries. In this way, through the way our government manages aid and bilateral relationships, New Zealanders are complicit in the politics and economics that affect places like Bougainville and conflicts such as that over the Panguna mine.

Within all this, we as New Zealanders have a political voice, we have the privilege of education and literacy, and we can hold our government accountable. We must remember that government decisions do not just affect New Zealand; they affect those that receive politically-laden aid money from the NZ Aid Programme. We must ask ourselves; what are they doing to contribute to making the world a more equitable and kind place? How are we working towards changing the systems of oppression and inequality that exist both in New Zealand and in Bougainville? Are we active in our local government processes? Do we live a life that is heavily dependent on non-renewable resources such as oil and gas? Do we buy products that are produced sustainably? I realise that a lot of these options can be a middle-class privilege, for example, buying fair trade products which cost more than the standard product. But there are many things we can do that are within our means; take the bus, become a member of a political party you truly believe will make a difference, lobby the government to implement more incentives to develop renewable energy sources. I know that when we ask ourselves what kind of difference we are making, it is often overwhelming. I am working in Bougainville, in the development sector, and more often than not I feel like I am not making much of a difference at all. But I think that whatever your path, it is incredibly important to live your life in a way that is self-aware and analytical of the choices you make, and the impact of these choices on other people and the environment.

So, yes, life can be simpler in Bougainville. This is true. Life can be plentiful and beautiful and fulfilling. But it can also be very hard and lack some of the most basic services. Be aware of your privilege and of what Bougainvilleans have spent the past 15 years working towards. We must ask ourselves; how do I as a New Zealander contribute to the political and social systems that so heavily impact people in other parts of the world, and how can I make that contribution a positive one?

A child in the South Bougainville mountain village of Singkondo. Singkondo is two and a half hours away from the closest urban centre, Arawa. It does not have access to power or radio coverage, but it does have mobile phone coverage.

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