Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Melanesian (about 105 languages), Bislama, French, English
Main religions: Christianity (various), animism
The great majority of the population is Melanesian (known as ni-Vanuatu). Other smaller groups of indigenous peoples include Wallisians and Futunans and i-Kiribati, and there are also Chinese, European and Vietnamese minorities.
For its population size, it has a greater linguistic diversity than any other country in the world. The Constitution declares the national language to be Bislama (a pidgin English), with the official languages also including English and French. Diversity is manifest in geographical, cultural and linguistic divisions.
There are some recent migrant populations from other Pacific island states. During the condominium years, Wallisians and Futunans migrated to Vanuatu to take up plantation employment and their population was around 1,000 at the time of independence. Since then the number has declined because of the difficulty of obtaining work permits. From the early 1960s there was also migration of Gilbertese (i-Kiribati) and there were several hundred there in the 1980s. Like Wallisians and Futunans, they have experienced considerable difficulty in obtaining work permits and Vanuatu citizenship, despite having renounced Kiribati citizenship and having been in Vanuatu for several decades. In both cases however there are no longer distinct communities.
The majority of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture and some fishing, but tourism has become significant. As most of its exports are agricultural Vanuatu’s income is susceptible to price fluctuations, exacerbated by high transport costs and the threat of cyclone damage due to its location in a disaster-prone region of the Pacific, meaning it continues to rely heavily on aid assistance. Vanuatu’s status as a tax haven is also an important source of revenue despite external pressures for change. There is some prospect of future mineral-extraction, including manganese; deep-sea mining remains a controversial topic.
Updated November 2017
Indigenous peoples’ land rights have long been an issue in Vanuatu since independence, with leases frequently signed off by authorities without the consent of communities – a problem that new legislation in 2014, amending the Constitution, has sought to address. The new laws include recognition of customary institutions and establish an advisory role for the Malvatumauri (National Council of Chiefs) to influence parliamentary decisions on land law and increase communal control over land. While the reforms have encountered some difficulties – for example, it was reported it 2016 that the Land Ombudsman responsible for investigating complaints by customs owners or other indigenous citizens of irregularities or undue procedures surrounding land registrations – the reforms have provided a greater role for indigenous representatives over their lands. In June 2016, for instance, the Council of Ministers declared the remaining half of an area called Freshwater Field as a ‘community space’, with the Ministry of Lands drafting a MOA with the Port Vila Municipal Council and the Freshwater Indigenous Council of Chiefs to ensure its proper management. The other half of the land was allocated to the construction of a football stadium.
As a low-lying island in one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to extreme weather, Vanuatu remains vulnerable to natural disasters. In March 2015 Vanuatu was devastated by Cyclone Pam, one of the worst disasters in its history, with 75,000 people left in need of emergency assistance in its wake and widespread destruction of its food crops. However, given its magnitude, the death toll was relatively low – a total of 24 fatalities – due in large part to the resilient design of the traditional huts, known as ‘nakamals’, found across the island. Nevertheless, as a result of its environmental vulnerability, the potential implications of climate change are particularly severe for Vanuatu, and it has already been subjected to drought, flooding, coral bleaching and reduced fish stocks. Vanuatu has participated actively in the discussions around the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and at the first conference session of the signatories in Marrakech, Morocco in November 2016, it raised the issue of traditional knowledge and called for more funding to be allocated towards it.
Updated November 2017
Contemporary political divisions were shaped during the colonial years, when there were two separate colonial administrations, British and French, governing the condominium (sometimes locally referred to as ‘pandemonium’) alongside mission-provided education.
Gaining independence was unusually complicated as the British wished to leave but France sought to stay. There was a secessionist, anti-independence movement centred on Santo in the northern group of islands that declared an independent state of Vemarana in 1980; the rebellion was ended by troops from Papua New Guinea.
Friction between the police force and the Vanuatu Mobile Force has brought intermittent local violence, but Vanuatu has been more stable than its Melanesian neighbours. Corruption remains a major political problem, however: in October 2015, for instance, deputy prime minister Moana Carcasses and 13 other MPs, amounting to over half of the government, were found guilty of bribery. As a result, the opposition, led by Ham Lini, were left in control of the majority of the remaining seats, prompting President Baldwin Lonsdale to dissolve the parliament. A snap election in January 2016 resulted in an even greater fragmentation of the political landscape, with 17 separate political parties occupying the new 52-seat parliament, none of them with a parliamentary majority – a situation that is likely to lead to continued political uncertainty in the years to come.
In 2007, Vanuatu signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which it then ratified on 23 April 2008 becoming the first country in the region to do so. Vanuatu has yet to ratify the Optional Protocol to the CRPD.
Vanuatu was the only country in Oceania that did not achieve independence peacefully. This has resulted in some friction between different regions and although there has been no resurgence of secessionist movements since independence, there are regional religious and political differences, especially between Francophone and Anglophone areas.
Political parties have reflected both the colonial divisions between France and Britain and also religious and linguistic divisions. Although the Vanua’aku Pati, which led the country to independence, had a coherent nationalist policy in the 1980s and made Vanuatu the only Pacific country to join the Non-Aligned Movement, the party has split repeatedly since 1991. Today, parties have no link to political philosophy, hence governments tend to be made up of rapidly fluctuating coalitions without long term goals. There is a 52-seat parliament, and also an elected president.
The government discourages immigration and expatriates have been deported on several occasions, often for arbitrary reasons. The various minority populations of Vanuatu have thus declined in number since independence.
Women continue to be marginalized from decision-making platforms: for example, only 16 percent of Vanuatu’s water committees have women representatives, although amendments in 2016 to Water Resource Management Act now stipulate a minimum quota of 40 per cent of female representation in water committees. Gender quotas for political roles at the municipal level have also been introduced to address their under-representation. In May 2016, following national elections where not a single one of the nine female candidates running for parliament was elected, the government announced plans for a constitutional amendment to ensure reserved seats for women in parliament.
Prime Minister Charlot Salwai launched ‘Vanuatu 2030’ in January 2017, outlining a 15-year programme for the country to achieve greater economic, social and environmental sustainability. An important element in this holistic programme is the prominent role of culture and kastom in these policies: this presents an opportunity for indigenous traditions to be mainstreamed into developing solutions to pressing issues such as climate change adaption and disaster resilience.
An ongoing source of contention between Vanuatu and France is the ownership of the southern Matthew and Hunter Islands, sharpened by the potentially large reserves of minerals and fossil fuels surrounding them. The dispute includes cultural dimensions as in ni-Vanuatu tradition, Matthew Island is regarded as the ‘House of the Gods’, populated by the spirits of the deceased.
Updated November 2017