Culture and connection to land

Jayden Scherrenberg

As an aspiring journalist in a foreign country, one of your first instincts is to try to let all your presumptions melt away.

You want to view and interact with those around you curiously and with no judgement.

Though this is often harder than it seems.

We are often subconsciously wired in the west to look down upon more traditional, or less advanced cultures (by our rules).

Even small things like categorising countries as developing or developed can instantly change how we view or interpret the country.

I got caught in this trap too often.

For example, we were visiting a remote village and I was talking to one of the instructors about how happy everyone seemed considering how “undeveloped” the town was.

At that moment I didn’t think twice about my choice of words but he instantly pulled me up on this and said, “be careful when using the word undeveloped… for all you know they’re miles ahead of us”.

And he was right.

Throughout my three weeks in Vanuatu, one of the quickest lessons I learned is how developed this culture is, but in different ways to the west.

Their connection to their country and to their land is fierce and strong.

Their deep knowledge of the environment carried even down to children was extraordinary.

I met some that were only 4 years old and going into the jungle to pick out certain nuts and fruits for lunch on their own.

You could feel that everyone had a certain sensitivity and ‘expertise’ of the environment.

When trying to find what story I wanted to tell about climate change in Vanuatu it quickly sunk in that it was this connection to land.

This photo essay explores this connection to the land, trying to emphasise its importance when discussing climate change at an international level.

A ni-Vanuatu man walking behind a group of tourists and visiting alone at Mt Yasur volcano, Tanna Island. A clear and deep connection to the land is present as the man stares into the face of the Volcano. In ni-Vanuatu culture, the rawest of Earth's treasures, volcanos, have a particular significance to the people and are often revered as sacred.
A chief dressed in a traditional costume, showing our group traditional customs and village practices, Efate. He talked about how knowledge is passed down through generations to help fortify the survival and prosperity of the people, particularly through adversities like cyclones. In an era where climate catastrophes are ever-increasing the importance of this passed-down knowledge from the top (chiefs) to the bottom (children) is integral.
A local village lady picking up rubbish from the beach. Pacific currents bring rubbish from Indonesia to Vanuatu. Vanuatu, despite its small population, is extremely advanced in climate action and environmentalism. Evidently, the country was the first in the world to ban single-use plastics. And as a developing nation, you often have a preconception of waste and lots of rubbish on the streets, though Vanuatu is quite the opposite. Clearly depicted in this picture is the people's pride and connection to their land. Even though they aren’t contributing to the waste ending on their shores they take pride in cleaning it up and giving others – including our group as tourists - the opportunity to experience the space in the best possible way. A lesson for the west to embody.
A local fisherman from Port Villa, Efate. He was photographed at the ‘fisherman's market’ selling his catch from the night before. Because of the price and availability of red meat in Vanuatu, most families eat seafood. The demand for fish is therefore very high, so fishermen can often sell 50+ kilograms of fish per day. Essentially, the fisherman will spend most of the day at the market selling food, then later in the afternoon and during the night (depending on how much has been caught) they will be out fishing. Often when sitting and looking out across the bay at Port Villa during the night you'd see a number of men pacing the shorelines with torches looking for crabs at the low tide, which are caught and kept alive then sold at the markets fresh.
There are a variety of types of fishermen using different traditional and non-traditional practices; this fisherman happened to specialise in deep-sea fishing. He uses a motorised boat, whereas many of the spear fishers or shallow water fishers will use traditional boats as depicted in the next image. The challenge for fishermen like this is the loss of reefs. Even deep-sea fishermen like this rely on healthy reefs to provide healthy fish stocks. As the reefs depreciate in quality so do the fish stocks. In this man’s experience – whether directly correlated to climate change – he has had to move out deeper and deeper from where he’d traditionally fish to catch for demand, hence the motorised boat that had previously not been needed.
Depicted is a row of traditional fishing boats looking out to the bay at Port Resolution, Tanna. In 1774, Captain cook docked in Port Resolution with his large, alienating sailing boat of 70+ crew members. Over 250 years later, the craftsmanship and utility of the traditional fishing boats haven’t wavered. In Port Resolution, fishing is less of a business venture and more of a way to provide for the family and community. Here you’d come down to the shoreline at night time and see all the boats out across the bay with small spotlights to help find reefs and schools of fish. Most of the fishermen here use cast nets or spears. One of the fishermen I spoke to has a spear gun which is rare. He told me he can hold his breath for up to 5 minutes with no formal training and will mostly spearfish during the night. Unlike the others who fish from the boats, he is in the water with his spear gun. He has a small flashlight attached to the end of the gun which he uses to see the fish underwater in the dark. He said he likes to fish in the dark because the fish are more active.
A teacher at the only school in Port Resolution. In her lifetime she said she has experienced many effects of climate change, most evidently the increase in cyclones. As a teacher, she talked about her gratitude for concrete-reinforced school buildings that withstand cyclonic weather. For many western countries, concrete or brick buildings are the norm, but in more regional communities of Vanuatu, many buildings are still traditionally built out of wood and leaves. In a cyclonic event, most houses will be destroyed and rebuilt entirely. In this recovery phase there can be increased stress on the community and family, therefore having a stable place like school, not only keeps the spirits of children up but alleviates pressure from families. The teachers at this school are making efforts to also teach children about climate change and how it is affecting their communities.
A panoramic view of the school in port resolution and its proximity to the cliff at the edge of the bay. In front of the school building is one of the school ovals where kids play during their break. Unfortunately, because of climate change and increased storm surges, there has been a dramatic increase in coastal erosion resulting in an increased drop off of land by the cliff's edge. When speaking to the school’s principal he said that only 3 years ago the whole right side of the image would have been a play area and that there used to be steps down to the beach below where the fisherman's boats (in the image above) are located. He fears that as storm surges continue there will be an immediate danger to the school and the children. As a result, he is trying to negotiate with the government to reinforce the cliffs and add a stable shoreline to prevent more damage to the grounds and the plants. By December next year, if there are no reinforcements, he is expecting the mature tree in the centre of the image to have fallen off the edge.
A picture of Kadisha, one of the previous students of the teacher photographed above. Her two brothers are currently being taught by the same teacher and her youngest sister will follow in the same footsteps. Having never seen a mirrorless camera she was very intrigued and wanted to know what she'd look like on the back of the screen, hence the portrait.
A young girl walks out of her classroom, in Port Resolution, after staying back to help stack the chairs on the tables and clean up any mess around the classroom. In Port Resolution and Tanna respectively, there is a strong culture around having a well-maintained, clean and beautiful space. When you walk through the village you often notice not only functional spaces but spaces dedicated to beauty. Most houses will have their own elaborate gardens that are extremely well maintained. An attitude of respecting your space and leaving it better for those who come after you is sown deep into the culture, explaining why Vanuatu is so progressive on an environmental front. An attitude clearly carried between young and old.
Three young children I had seen repeatedly in Port Resolution walking home along a jungle path they had created. The eldest, Kadisha, her portrait above, is seen looking back at me as this would be the last time, I’d see her before leaving Port Resolution. The picture resonated with me because it depicts moving towards the future and into the light looking back with fondness but letting go. A strong lesson for climate action.

This article was supported by DFAT New Colombo Plan Funding where the student attended the Climate Change Communication in the Pacific: Vanuatu Mobility Tour in 2022. This Mobility Tour offers Communication and Journalism students an opportunity to explore the Pacific region and develop skills and expertise to write and report on climate changes.

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