Melanesia is a vast region of islands and seascapes that stretches across the South Pacific from Eastern Indonesia to Fiji and French Caledonia. There are few regions in the world with as much cultural and biological diversity as Melanesia. Aside from having the highest linguistic diversity in the world – more than 1000 distinct languages are spoken here – its biodiversity is so rich that it is still barely documented. The larger islands, particularly New Guinea, are especially diverse and range from lowland rainforests to montane forests, alpine grasslands to savannah, swamp ecosystems to lakes, and coastal ecosystems including huge areas of mangrove. Not surprisingly the communities who live across these ecosystems and islands have developed distinct agricultural, fishing, hunting and gathering economies, and trade across these groups is therefore important and elaborate. Melanesia is particularly rich in complex management systems through which the harvesting of fish, plants and animals, and the use of land, is highly regulated to ensure productivity and sustainability. It is also renowned for the vibrancy of cultural expression and the connection of this to place and biodiversity.
Our grantmaking strategy within Melanesia focuses on fortifying and reasserting local culturally-based economies in the face of growing extractive industries, land conversion and a steady devaluation of traditional practices. In response to global pressures driving communities into the ‘cash economy’, there are grassroots movements in the other direction, asserting the value and power of indigenous sovereignty, culture, and biodiverse landscapes as ways to make a better life and a solid foundation for national development. These movements, and the practical ideas they proffer, are where we direct our support. As noted in more detail below, grantmaking is currently focused on certain areas of Papua New Guinea, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, and the Vanuatu archepelago.
Primary Themes for Grantmaking
The independent nations at the heart of Melanesia in the Southwest Pacific are integrated landscape-seascapes where communities have historically achieved high population densities with comparatively little loss of diversity and ecosystem integrity. They have done this through some of the most complex resource management systems seen anywhere on the planet, grounded in customary law and values based upon an immense body of indigenous knowledge. Our grantee’s challenge is to facilitate a revaluation of traditional knowledge and economies, while making culture ‘cool’ again to engage the coming generations. To reach these goals we focus our grantmaking on two interrelated themes that are in practise tightly connected: (a) Customary Land Tenure, Food Sovereignty, and the Traditional Economy, and (b) Cultural Renewal.
Grantmaking is focused around backing the growth of understanding among Melanesians about alternative development paths, and in particular the merits and practical applicability of approaches rooted in Melanesian land-based values and biocultural diversity. To achieve these ends the Fund works almost exclusively with local organizations doing grounded work. Key areas strategies within these themes include the development and use of culturally-grounded and environmentally-informed curricula in schools and community education programs; support for the strengthening and diversification of civil society organizations articulating this vision; and the development of networks of people and organizations engaged in biocultural education, expression, and revitalization.
Priority Landscapes of Focus:
1. The Vanuatu Archipelago
The island state of Vanuatu comprises 83 inhabited islands. With a total population of only 250,000 and over 100 distinct indigenous languages on just 12,000 square kilometers of land, the archipelago has some of the highest linguistic diversity in the world. Traditional currencies, including pigs, mats, and special varieties of yam, taro, and banana, are still valued and used actively.
After scoring first place in the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index while being classified as a “poor country” in urgent need of development, the Vanuatu National Statistics Office, together with the Malvatumauri (Vanuatu National Council of Chiefs) and the Vanuatu National Cultural Council, is testing alternative indicators of well-being that can better guide development efforts. These new measure will provide an alternative to the measurement of gross domestic product (GDP), and reflect Melanesian values and measures of well-being, including access to land and natural resources, food and health, community vitality, family relationships, environmental wellbeing, and culture. Christensen is actively supporting this project, which clearly has international relevance, alongside support for national and island-based efforts to apply this thinking to local development (especially around food sovereignty) as well as the kinds of curriculum development and cultural celebration that can connect youth to a vision of the future that embraces both the traditional knowledge of their heritage and contemporary western thinking.
2. Bismarck Archipelago to Bismarck Range: Ocean to Mountain on the north coast of Papua New Guinea
This priority land and seascape includes the island ring around the Bismarck Sea and the unique rainforest trade route that runs from PNG’s north coast up to the region of the Eastern Highlands around its highest peak, Mt. Wilhelm (4509m). Current development policies are driving the expansion of mining, commercial fishing, logging, and palm oil plantations in this landscape which is possibly the most biodiverse on the planet, and undermining traditional livelihoods that are based on coastal and riverine fishing, agro-biodiverse agriculture and forest products. Our grantees are advancing alternative approaches by deepening awareness of the biocultural diversity and biodiversity of this region; by investing in traditional governance structures that work; by connecting local stewards with national, regional and international advocacy on key issues; and promoting traditional knowledge curricula.
The medium-sized island of Bougainville has a population approaching 200,000 and a variety of distinct cultures renowned for the central position of women. After a prolonged battle with extractive industries, Bougainville became an autonomous region that recognizes and explores the strength of the traditional economy as a foundation for sustainable and resilient local development. Bougainville is also renowned for the strength of its cultures, and, building on the festivals founded by the renowned late cultural activist William Takaku, Christensen’s grants are focused on mobilizing cultural energies and renewal to shaping the island’s development path. Grants also support the Polynesian peoples on the adjacent atolls to struggle with sea level rise and potential relocation to the mainland.