Grim forebodings as discontent simmers

Dev Nadkarni/ Bangkok Diary

It takes me four hours to fly from Mumbai to Bangkok. Then five hours in a taxi from the Thai capital’s swishy Suvarnabhumi Airport to a hotel in the city – and that’s not even the hotel in which I am booked to stay for the next few days. It is impossible to reach that hotel today or even tomorrow, I gather from the taxi driver’s heavily Thai laced English emphasised by jerky gesticulations, which I seem to understand better than the words and sounds I hear.

We are ploughing our way through a citizens’ protest. Aerial pictures on the front pages of newspapers the next day show masses of people thronging the city centre’s Democracy Monument – the kind of picture of a sea of humanity we see at the funeral of a popular leader in the world’s more populous parts. The police say there are 150,000 people. The opposition says there are a million. Some media reports say half a million. Anyway, there are enough people to make a 40km drive from airport to city last five hours.

The protestors want Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Government to step down. They say the Government is actually run by proxy by her brother, controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They accuse it of corruption. The immediate reason for the protests, however, is outrage at a proposed new Amnesty Bill, which was passed by the ruling party on November 1, which the Senate turned down 11 days later.

The Constitutional Court ruled that the proposed constitutional amendment is illegal, which the Government rejected saying the court had no jurisdiction over it. It’s a classic case of the legislative and judicial arms of a democracy clashing. So far the executive has steered clear. But the protestors are about to force its hand, too. They are storming Government offices, cutting off power and water supply to them, blockading public access to administrative services – and as the latest reports say, they are asking the country’s armed forces to pick a side: either pro or anti Government.

When similar protests took place a few years ago, the country went into lockdown for weeks. The airport was blockaded for weeks with international tourists stranded for days, sleeping on the floors of concourses. My taxi inches past swarming crowds. They are all smiling and waving flags and plastic palms. Many are whistling intermittently. Whistling has become a signature of Bangkok protests through these past years.

Motorists and motorcyclists appear to have infinite patience. They wave enthusiastically at the pedestrian protestors, smiling all the while. They don’t seem to mind that they are being delayed in reaching their destinations because of the hordes of protestors. In all these four hours I hear no honking. Not a single honk or toot – just whistling and lots of smiling and waving. My cabbie seems to be full of sympathy for them. It comes as a bit of a surprise when I later read that some 50 people died in violence during the last protests. For now, I can’t imagine how such disarming chumminess between the blockers and the blocked could lead to violence.

I am here to attend the UNESCAP hosted Asia Pacific Business Forum, which was originally supposed to be held in Sydney but was shifted to the organisation’s headquarters in Bangkok. Among the reasons cited for the shift was the raging bushfires in New South Wales I remember reading in one of the emails. Access to the UN offices in Bangkok is blocked. So the venue is changed. Again. It is now in a hotel not far away from mine. But it’s a challenge even to get there.

On the morning of the first day of the meet, my hotel concierge says the new venue is out of bounds for any form of transport. A colleague who has got to the venue texts advising me it’s possible to get there only by motorcycle taxi. ‘Get your hotel to write down the address in Thai. The drivers don’t know English,’ his text says. I call for a motorcycle taxi. But I can’t sit astride the pillion, nursing as I am a painful meniscal tear in my knee and a brace between thigh and calf – and armed with a walking stick to boot! I give up.

But I am able to get to the venue on day 2, though what’s normally a 10 minute cab ride takes me 70. I walk into a presentation about productivity. I wonder how much of productivity this country is losing because of the protests.

I gather a Pacific Islands team has made an impactful presentation on day 1 of the forum, which is about putting the ‘P’ (Pacific) back in APBF. Though the forum is not new, the islands have tended to be glossed over in past years. This year, the islands are purposefully involved with the presence of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat’s trade arm Pacific Islands Trade & Invest’s Trade Commissioners from Australia, China and New Zealand. Representatives from Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Micronesia are also present and interact with business leaders and Government representatives from ASEAN countries.

Presentations at the meet outline both the opportunities and challenges that the Pacific Islands face while dealing with Pacific Rim countries and ASEAN members. While, it is great to see the emphasis put on island nations as being an important part of the larger Asia Pacific context, what becomes evident is how much of catching up the islands region has to do in order to do business seamlessly with Asian nations. For instance, the ASEAN will be a single market in 2015. While this presents great opportunities, it also puts forth administrative and logistical challenges.

In a globalised world, the importance of ICT and connectivity cannot possibly be overstated. That’s where great opportunities lie for the islands. Opportunities in back office support operations, call centres and other related services. This becomes evident at the presentations. Tongan Call Centre operator ProComm Services makes a compelling case for such business initiatives through its Managing Director Sisi Fine – showcasing Pacific Island capability both in terms of technology and human capacity.

The forum is great exposure for the islands. A calling card that spells possibilities is placed in the lair of the Asian Tigers. The trick will be to stay engaged with those countries and develop business and trade possibilities over the coming months and years. The possibilities are indeed tremendous and very real. It’s a matter of how well the region rises to the occasion.

As I leave the venue, my thoughts are on how long it will take me to get to the airport. It took me five hours the other day. I still have six before my flight. I ask a few people how long it will take me to get to the airport. I get differing replies – from 1 hour to 4 “depending on mob,” everyone says. I decide to play it safe and hop into a cab a full five hours ahead of my flight. I get to Suvarnabhumi in an amazing 45 minutes – leaving me four hours to scour the duty free shops in the comfort of my wheelchair.

Meanwhile, the unrest in Bangkok is simmering away, with all the signs of coming to a boil.

First appeared in December 2013 edition of Islands Business magazine

Man who turned the heat on global warming

Dev Nadkarni

Last month the steamy world of climate change heated up a couple of degrees: Just as a group of climate scientists hit the headlines saying there was new proof that ninety five per cent of global warming was because of human activity, the instant media got busy labeling a Kiribati man trying to get his visa extended in New Zealand as the world’s first ever climate refugee.

Ioane Teitiota, who faced deportation to his native Kiribati after his bid for refugee status in New Zealand following the expiry of his visa was rejected, launched a legal appeal to stay on in the country on the grounds that going back to Kiribati would put him and his family at grave risk because of the effects of climate change. His high court appeal detailed how king tides were causing erosion, breaching seawalls and how rising sea levels were causing crops to fail, flooding homes and polluting groundwater used for drinking.

The man’s appeal expectedly made delicious copy for the global media. Teitiota was catapulted into becoming the world’s first climate change refugee, with the mainstream commentariat and all manner of social media chatterati and twitterati sharply divided on whether the instance was a harbinger of a new class of refugee or a clever stunt surfing on the rising wave of climate change. Teitiota’s New Zealand lawyer told the media that the case potentially set a global precedent for people of countries threatened by climate change to claim refugee status in other countries.

But do the perceived deleterious effects of climate change such as rising sea levels hold enough water to legally deem an entire nation’s population as being at risk of mass destruction and therefore qualifying for mass refugee status in another country?

Not as things stand today. In fact the New Zealand High Court’s original decision ruled that the immigration authority was correct to refuse Teitiota refugee status, made on the claim that returning to Kiribati would pose a grave risk to him and his family fell short of the legal criteria, such as fear of persecution or direct threats to his life. This would be correct and in accordance with how a ‘refugee’ is legally defined today.

War, strife, despotism and terrorism over the decades since the formation of an organisation like the United Nations has restricted the world’s view of refugees as persons who have been singled out for persecution, physical violence and threats of death because of their political or religious persuasion, gender, physical disability, age and the institionalised or organised violation of basic human rights. A person can claim refugee status on the grounds of any of these violations. Threat to life because of climate change, however, has never figured in this list. Neither does there seem to be any concerted effort from any quarter to include it.

A question of human rights

Commenting on a global report on human rights in this column in April 2008, I had asked the question why the threat to food and water supply, shelter and livelihoods of the vast majority of the people of a country because of the cumulative, prolonged irresponsible actions of distant countries should not amount to a violation of human rights of the people of the suffering country.

To quote myself from that column: “Are human rights violations to be taken cognizance of solely through the political prism or from the rigid angle of governmental and administrative machinery of individual nations? Violation of human rights by abuse of the environment transcends political borders on both sides – the polluters and those affected by it. But that does not stop it from being a violation of human rights.”

Further in that column, I also quoted Dr Marshall Weisler, University of Queensland archaeologist and renowned expert on coral atolls. Here’s what I wrote: “Dr Weisler said rising sea levels from global warming would threaten the livelihoods and homes of more than 200,000 people who live on coral atolls in coming generations. In particular, he cited Kiribati, Tuvalu and Marshall Islands in our neck of the woods and Maldives in the Indian Ocean as being at most risk. ‘In Kiribati, where is the next generation going to live?’ he asked.”

Ioane Teitiota’s appeal last month has the ring of chickens coming home to roost.

Much talk, little action

The mega climate change jamborees held once every few years around the world have always been long on discussions but woefully short on commitments. Countries that have been identified as most at risk will tell you how hard it has been to access promised funds for mitigation and adaptation programmes. Leaders at the jamborees have nit picked about whether they should control emissions to “cap” warming by so-many-and-a-half degrees amid colourful protests from all sorts of people and groups and the hawkish gaze of carbon credit merchants – but the real issues have remained the proverbial hot potato.

For instance, the opportunity to discuss and begin forming some sort of potential consensus at the global level on what to do with climate change refugees when they become a reality – which, indeed, will be sooner rather than later as Teitiota’s case has so emphatically shown – has been completely wasted by sweeping it and other equally important issues that put hundreds of thousands of lives at stake under the carpet.

Teitiota’s case might well be seen as a clever ploy packaged in the attention arresting wrapping with death-by-climate-change written all over it, designed merely to help him stay put in New Zealand. But there is little doubt that it is the thin end of the wedge that threatens to force open the floodgates of a torrent of such claims in the not to distant future.

In fact, the other big news headline on the climate change front last month might well accelerate this process. After all, we now have it on the authority of the world’s top scientists that climate change is caused ninety five percent because of human activity. So climate change is by and large anthropogenic, they say.

This should be music to the ears of the legal fraternity. For it potentially opens whole new vistas to launch class action litigation on behalf of those threatened by climate change, particularly sea level rise, against the perpetrators – the developed western nations that, according to the scientists, have been ninety five per cent responsible for rising sea levels. What’s more, legal eagles and people threatened by sea level rise might as well fall back on Queen Elizabeth’s words at a public function in 2008 when she said that those who pollute the least suffer the most.

Ioane Teitiota may or may not go down history as the world’s first climate change refugee. But he will certainly be remembered for breaking the international community into a bit of a sweat while facing up to the rising heat of climate change.

First appeared in the November 2013 edition of Islands Business magazine   

Lip reading the doublespeak

Dev Nadkarni

Protocol and decorum all too often define dealings with people in power. There is an undercurrent of political correctness even in what is palmed off as candidness in freewheeling media interviews with politicians because consummate politicians know well that there is no such thing as an off the record comment.

It is therefore not very often that a scribe is witness to a remarkably no holds barred verbal sparring between an astute politician and an intelligent, well informed and articulate private individual where both parties let their hair down in a rare display of free and frank collegiality.

Recently, I was caught up in such an intellectual, articulate verbal crossfire between two very eminent gentlemen. In deference to the senior and sensitive positions that these gentlemen hold in their respective fields of work, I wouldn’t venture to even give so much as a clue to their identities let alone mention their names. Besides, it was an informal social outing and, as the two men began their verbal sparring, I had promised I wasn’t wearing my journalistic hat. (Even then they squinted at me from the corner of their eyes more than once during their conversation.)

But some of the very sensitive and controversial issues these men discussed and cogently argued about is something I thought would be well worth sharing with Islands Business readers, especially because of the enduring interest in this topic around the region and beyond for the past several years.

To set the context, however, I would need to give a brief background of the two men: one is a dual citizen of Fiji and one of the Anzac nations and the other is a lawmaker of one of these Anzac nations. This is not an exact, verbatim record of what each of the men said but it certainly is a faithful narration of how the largely collegial but sometimes heated conversation went (it must be remembered that the setting was informal and the two men had their wine glasses topped up twice during the powwow).

From what I recall, Mr Dual Citizen (Mr DC) started out accusing the Anzac nations of having lost the plot on Fiji soon after December 2006 and holding on to an ill advised, somewhat naïve isolationist position for far too long. Mr Law Maker (Mr LM) jumped to the defence of his own government and that of the Anzac brother nation, saying that was the only tenable position his country could hold based on the values the two countries were founded on.

Mr LM was at pains to explain that for the Anzac nations democracy was not negotiable under any circumstances and it would be impossible to justify any government formed by a group of people by force or by any undemocratic means or through fraudulent elections. He waxed eloquent about the tenets of democracy, freedom, liberty, rule of law, transparency and all that goes with it. The Anzac nations would find any government that wasn’t founded on democratic principles and did not guarantee these attributes difficult to deal with. It wasn’t Fiji alone, Mr LM assured.

It didn’t matter which party was in power in the Anzac nations, these principles are non negotiable and that was why the two nations were consistent in their response to the events in Fiji since December 2006, Mr LM soldiered on. He was speaking on behalf of his country, not reflecting the views of his political party, he pointedly said. There was no other recourse available and the two countries continued to hold that position.

Mr DC was unimpressed. He said he wondered if these principles had double standards that exposed the Anzac nations’ “hypocritical” position. He said, by the same “moral high ground” from which the Anzac nations arrived at their decision on Fiji in the years immediately following the December 2006 development, the Anzac nations shouldn’t be seen in the company of the likes of China and Pakistan.

Australia has a hugely successful commercial relationship with China while New Zealand bent backwards to sign a free trade agreement. It doesn’t seem to matter that democracy is a non existent concept in China, when it comes to business and commerce, Mr DC asked. He rubbed it in saying New Zealand even gave a red carpet welcome to then Pakistan dictator Pervez Musharraf, now jailed on a slew of charges, when he visited the country while he was nothing more than an undemocratically self appointed “strongman”.

Caught on the back foot, Mr LM mustered his typical parliamentary fobbing off techniques. Those situations were different, he said rather tamely. China was never a democracy, so the government there hadn’t been formed by force or military action overthrowing a democratic one, he said. It was always like that and it is like that now so the world has come to accept it, he added.

And how about the dictator of Pakistan? Mr DC needled. That’s a distant country, not in our Pacific backyard, Mr LM countered, realising full well that he was losing ground to his worthy opponent. So, these principles are inversely proportional to history and distance, Mr DC asked. It wasn’t as simple as that, Mr LM countered. There were many other factors to consider.

Such as what, asked Mr DC and continued without waiting for Mr LM to answer: was it one set of rules for a comparatively smaller, poorer, powerless neighbour and another for a bigger, richer, militarily more powerful trading partner and a distant dictatorial country that has been under the scanner for accusations of abetting global terrorism?

The parliamentarian’s body language and tone now became decidedly conciliatory. The Anzac nations had now changed their stance quite considerably, he said. Ever since the steps towards holding elections became credible, far fewer sanctions now remained. The erudite Mr DC wasn’t convinced this was the only reason. He asked if the United States had anything to do with the gradual but firm come down. Mr LM appeared surprised.

By way of explanation, Mr DC said the fact that the Anzac nations having had taken their backyard for granted, they had failed to seriously notice the growing Asian geopolitical clout in the world’s biggest untapped regions for natural resources. The United States is a natural Anzac ally and asked the two Anzac nations to pull up their socks and regain what they had lost in the Pacific to China. That was a bigger motivator in the come down, more than anything else, Mr DC said.

Mr LM shook his head dismissively saying now the conversation was heading into the realm of conspiracy theories and that he did not wish to be part of it. Mr DC asked Mr LM, what the Anzac nations’ approach to Fiji would have been if they were to start all over again. Mr LM was probably thankful for the master of ceremonies’ spoon clinking an empty wine glass to call everyone’s attention to the first of a series of long and boring speeches of that evening.

But that conversation for me was like lip reading political doublespeak.

Name and shame the plagiarists

Views from Auckland

Dev Nadkarni

This year, traditional Pacific art and design have hit the headlines in the media for good reasons and bad. While good is of course good, bad is good too – there’s no publicity that’s bad publicity; bad news is good news so long as you are in the news, as any astute politician will tell you.

Let’s start with the ‘good’ good news. Pacific art blazed into the world’s consciousness earlier this year with the brilliant new insignia on Fiji’s rebranded national airline. Bold, unconventional and distinctive, the dark brown traditional Masi motifs on the tails of the airline’s fleet stand out expressively among blue and red aircraft tails – conventional airline colours – at busy airports.

The airline has done its storytelling around the new designs rather well, too: it has explained every motif and its significance and focused on the traditional indigenous artist and her art. The new insignia have been well noticed, discussed and appreciated in branding circles even outside the aviation industry. It is undoubtedly a success story and a great one at that – not just for Fijian traditional art but also for that of the rest of the Pacific.

Now, for the ‘bad’ good news: last month international brands and fashion designers made global headlines for not acknowledging the source of some of their recent design themes as being inspired by the islands’ traditional indigenous art. It involved both Fijian and Samoan motifs.

In one instance, a New York fashion designer used iTaukei Masi or Tapa motifs on her dress and passed it off as being Aztec inspired. When Pacific art experts blew the whistle on her bluff, the designer acknowledged the motifs as being of Fijian origin and apologised on her website.

In another development, global footwear giant Nike had to acknowledge its boot was on the wrong leg. It was forced to pull a line of sportswear that was based on Samoan designs after an outcry that the designs were culturally insensitive. The women’s running tights, bodysuit, and sports bra in the Nike Pro Tattoo Tech line had a pattern based on Samoan tattoos called Pe’a, which are traditionally reserved for men. “It’s a pity they didn’t research it properly by making it for women. Bad move,” said Oceania Media publisher and Editor of Spasifik magazine, Innes Logan. “The Pacific community should be outraged when a global company attempts to profit from their art and motifs.”

This ‘bad’ news, however, has shone the spotlight on Pacific indigenous and traditional art ever so brightly, that the design world is bound to sit up and take notice – and more potential violations could well follow. What’s in the limelight is always copied. The success and high visibility of the new Fiji Airways insignia and such news items of controversies involving big brands and names adds tremendous value, though quite intangible, to a distinctive design motif that can be traced to an authentic source.

Designers are perpetually on the look out for new motifs and try to jump on a bandwagon as soon as they get the slightest whiff of its popularity. Last year’s global fear of an apocalypse created by the Mayan calendar which supposedly predicted the end of the world on December 21, brought the world’s attention on all things Mayan and much else that came from the Middle and South American region. Among the motifs that took off last year in the fashion world established a new trend in ‘Aztec’ designs – something that the New York designer tried to pass off Fijian Masi motifs as last month.

Hard legal slog

American Indian indigenous groups have protested against what they consider purloining of their traditional designs with neither acknowledgement nor a monetary benefit. But any legal action is mired in all sorts of difficulties ranging from proving ownership, putting a value to the art form, loopholes in the copyright laws (a certain number of changes from the original design can deem a new design ‘original’, even if it is reminiscent of a traditional style). Logan also points to the fact that “So many from that community (whether it be elders, chiefs, artists, groups) want the right to claim ownership with the possibility of financial compensation.”

“It stinks of cultural ignorance and arrogance. It suggests badly run business. These days there is no excuse for not researching the significance of any cultural motifs,” says Marilyn Kohlhase, New Zealand based Director of Akateretere Arts and cofounder of the former Okaioceanikart Gallery, the world’s first Pan-Pacific art gallery. She is unsparing in her criticism of the copyists, calling their acts “theft” of cultural treasures. She is all for the global media reporting the “crime.”

How could indigenous cultures respond? “Regional bodies could use more of our own indigenous experts to educate themselves and others of the sacred value of our cultures and their economic potential with respectful and lawful use of our motifs,” says Kohlhase. This is exactly what artist Florence Jankae, acknowledged champion of the traditional Bilum craft from Papua New Guinea told me during the third annual Maketi Ples event in Sydney earlier this year.

Though the Goroka Women Bilum Weavers Association collaborates with Australian fashion icon Alistair Trung to create a range of accessories with Bilum motifs that sell in Australia, Jankae is wary of going international without the safeguards in place. “The government needs to do more in protecting our copyright on traditional design,” she said. She is averse to exposing some of rare designs until such protection is put in place.

So is there anything that can be done to bring violators to book other than Julian Assange and Edward Snowden style whistleblowing? Not really. And even if avenues were to be explored, the sheer scale and international nature of the problems would put costs beyond the pale of most indigenous groups even if they were organised like corporates. Though the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Human Rights has clauses to protect indigenous arts and crafts, defending it would be eye wateringly expensive to most indigenous groups.

But in this day and age of a highly networked world, naming and shaming is the name of the game. And it is effective, as was seen in last month’s Fijian and Samoan examples.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is encouraging to note that the art is flourishing and evolving in PNG. In this time of greater mobility by air and land and sea, there is a new fusion of patterns, materials and techniques emerging in bilum work. As the art of bilum is being reinterpreted by a new generation of creators, materials such as wool and synthetic fibres have been introduced into the bilum making process.

Bilum artist and acknowledged champion of the traditional craft Florence Jankae from Papua New Guinea, Some of Ms Jankae’s art has now found its way into the collection of the Australian Museum in Sydney, which has a considerable body of traditional and indigenous Pacific art.

One of the significant outcomes of the show is Australian fashion icon Alistair Trung collaborating with the Goroka Women Bilum Weavers Association in Papua New Guinea to create a range of accessories with traditional and contemporary Bilum motifs that the fashion designer will sell through his shops across Australia.

According to the television station, the fashion giant issued a statement that read, “The Nike tattoo tech collection was inspired by tattoo graphics. We apologise to anyone who views this design as insensitive to any specific culture. No offense was intended.”

First appeared in Islands Business, September 2013

Polynesia will see demographic changes in mere decades

The smaller the country and more homogeneous the population, the sooner and stronger will be the perceived change. In the Pacific islands region, Polynesian countries like Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands will more probably perceive changes in their ethnic composition far sooner than other larger countries of the Pacific.

Dev Nadkarni

In a novel that is set one thousand years into the future, in AD 3001 to be precise, my favourite science fiction author, the late Arthur C Clarke, has an interesting character – a scientist who has Japanese first and last names but who is brown skinned, yet has Caucasian features, Afro hair and comes from Scandinavia!

Ever the master craftsman who had a ready, rationally credible explanation for every single detail in his fabulous storytelling, Clarke explained what seems to us an anomaly today as the norm a thousand years from now: because of large scale migration and interbreeding across forty generations, ethnicities as we know them today had become so mixed up that in the thirtieth century it was impossible to guess which geographical region a particular person came from merely based on their looks or their names.

Migration has existed ever since early humanoid bipeds ventured out of Africa’s Olduvai Gorge all those hundreds of millennia ago. Eventually they branched out into every continent, setting up civilisations wherever they went, flourishing and perishing, while also pushing their geographical range ever further. It is this migration and the intermingling of different strains of diverse humans across the ages that has produced the diversity of ethnicities that we know today.

Being bang in the middle of oceanic migratory routes, the Pacific islands region has been witness to several waves of migration down the centuries – more than many peoples from larger landlocked regions. Despite being isolated geographically, the human gene pool of some of the Pacific islands has a high degree of diversity because of this reason. In the past millennium or so, ethnicities from several parts of the world have made the islands their home and intermingled with people who came here generations before them, continually adding to the diversity.

The last major migration happened in comparatively recent historical times – the past two centuries. The region saw Europeans, Asians and Indians settle down in the islands, both preserving their separate identities by marrying within their own ethnicities and also intermingling with local populations producing newer diversities in succeeding generations. It is therefore quite common to come across people with greatly mixed heritage living in the islands.

Arthur Clarke’s AD 3001 phenomenon is not new. It has been happening since times immemorial. But in the past, however, this happened slowly, almost imperceptibly and comparatively infrequently. One would hardly notice it when one lives through the times. But if one were to somehow fast forward by every hundred or so years and stop to take a peek, one would see perceptible differences every three or four generations.

Faster, on a bigger scale

The scenario today is different. World statistics show that migration is taking place on an unprecedented scale in our times. And it is happening at a pace faster than at any time before in the history of humankind. More people are moving to countries far away from where they were born and raised to live and work semi permanently or even permanently. The runaway growth in remittances is testimony to that.

Interestingly, such high migration levels are taking place at a time when immigration regimes are becoming tougher with each passing year and governments are making it ever more difficult for people to migrate when compared to the rules of past decades. There is little doubt that the long held relationships between geographical areas and ethnicities are in an ever increasing state of flux. The world’s demographics are in the throes of a major realignment.

While in past centuries the drivers for migration were primarily the imperatives of survival and commerce, the drivers today are almost exclusively economic growth and its concomitant of the quest for better lives for individuals and their families; and geopolitical compulsions like political instability, terrorism and ethnic strife. Whatever the reason, migration led changes in ethnic composition of regions is happening in greater volumes and faster rates.

The smaller the country and more homogeneous the population, the sooner and stronger will be the perceived change. In the Pacific islands region, Polynesian countries like Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands will more probably perceive changes in their ethnic composition far sooner than other larger countries of the Pacific.

Geopolitical compulsions that have led to closer relationships with Asia, particularly China, have resulted in an ever increasing presence of people drawn from ethnic Asian stock in Tonga and Samoa. Anecdotal evidence and testimonies from regular visitors to the countries tend to point to the fact that as well as people, the Asian presence in commerce, retail and general economic activity such as trade and investment is increasing by leaps and bounds.

A BBC report last month outlined how Chinese presence is growing even on Tonga’s outer islands. The report told the story of a young Chinese businessman whose retail business is thriving on an outer island. Caught in a whirlpool of perpetually depressed economic circumstances and no prospects of any worthwhile growth, small Tongan and Samoan businesses obviously see merit in selling off to the first cash buyer that comes their way. And there is no dearth of Chinese businesspeople that will offer them a fair price in exchange for a chance to live and work in Tonga.

Shrinking populations, cultural compulsions and an absence of any prospects of economic growth make a country like Tonga as unattractive for native Tongans as it makes it attractive for globetrotting Chinese entrepreneurs who are on a mission to cast their business net as far and wide as they possibly can.

These businesspeople, having gained residency, will be a part of the local landscape in no time. Their numbers will multiply faster in relation to those of the natives and they are bound to be become more prosperous and eventually play a bigger role in the country’s commerce and politics.

Owing to their smaller size, comparatively lax immigration policies when it comes to geopolitically ambitious and big ticket donor nations like China, an eagerness to readily accept economic favours in exchange for poorly strategised concessions, the effect of demographic rebalancing will be far more palpable in Tonga, Samoa and Tuvalu over the next two decades than in other countries of the Pacific.

There is no doubt that before our very eyes, the demographic composition of Polynesia is changing and unlike such changes in the past, the present changes are discernible even within the space of our own lifetimes.

First appeared in Islands Business, August 2013

No hunger doesn’t mean no malnutrition

Pacific island kids might have a full plate – but is it wholesome?

Malnutrition is not necessarily the sole result of deprivation. By definition, malnutrition is the lack of proper nutrition, caused by not having enough to eat, not eating enough of the right things, or being unable to use the food that one does eat. NGOs tend to concentrate on the first part of this definition – lack of proper nutrition caused by not having enough to eat. They seldom focus on malnutrition caused by not eating the right things.

Dev Nadkarni

A recent report on global child malnutrition* trains the spotlight on the parlous state of affairs as regards the health of children and young mothers in most parts of the developing world.

While child malnutrition has been a subject of much study over several decades, the focus has generally been on health and wellbeing. New research as outlined in this report, however, shows its far-reaching consequences on a range of matters that go well beyond health to include the quality of human resources, the economic performance and the wealth of nations.

Consider these facts, for instance: malnourished children score seven per cent lower in math tests and are 19 per cent less likely to be able to read at the age of eight years; Poor health and education limit job prospects with childhood malnutrition cutting future earnings by at least 20 per cent. Children with good nourishment are 13% more likely to be in the correct grade at school, therefore boosting lifelong skills.

The report investigates in great depth the effect malnutrition has on cognitive development and education and the over all effect this in turn has on economic outcomes in the life of the child and its impact on national development. The study is exhaustive and multi disciplinary offering a number of perspectives on a global issue that has hitherto been largely seen as one related primarily to health and little beyond that.

According to estimates in this report that the global Non Government Organisation Save the Children has put together, current levels of childhood malnutrition could cost the global economy $125 billion when today’s children grow up. And the cost of fixing this gargantuan problem would be more than 100 times bigger than the funds and resources needed to provide good nutrition to all of the world’s malnourished children.

Once again, like most other problems that weigh down human development programmes around the world, the issue not necessarily one of funding but rather of priorities. For every dollar that the countries of the world spend on health, housing and education, they spend seven on acquiring weapons and flexing their muscles against neighbours and adversaries. And whatever meager funding is finally available for human development programmes, the manner in which this funding is disbursed and in which the projects are implemented deliver a far less than desirable result.

Ultimately, it is political will and efficient administration that determines the success of all human development programmes everywhere in the world. Child malnutrition is no exception. When it comes to the fast growing economies like India and many other South Asian and South East Asian nations, the report makes for grim reading. Their economic growth rates belie the reality of the state of affairs that critical human development issues like child malnutrition find themselves in.

No problems in the Pacific?

I am not surprised that the Pacific, more specifically the Pacific islands region, finds no mention in this report. The idea of malnutrition has for decades been purveyed by images of famished, rickety children, their rib cages prominently showing, often pictured with their siblings and mother in the squalor around their living spaces. Poverty and hunger are concomitant in such imagery. This report, like all others on the subject, tends to reinforce these images of deprivation related malnutrition.

Though economic poverty is rife in the Pacific islands region, it is quite different from the poverty that people in Sub Saharan Africa and the remote areas of Asia experience. For one, being blessed with abundant natural resources, hunger has never really been a concern in this region in recent memory. One is unlikely to associate those heartrending images of naked hungry children – which NGOs are so fond of purveying to drive home their point – with this region. But does that mean that child malnutrition does not exist in the Pacific islands region?

One would wish that were indeed the case. Though the report completely glosses over this region because of its preoccupation with malnutrition driven by deprivation as in the case of the poorer parts of Asia and Africa, it does not necessarily mean that malnutrition does not exist around the region. It may not be visually obvious as in the case of Africa and Asia, but health indicators around the region indicate that it is indeed rampant.

Malnutrition is not necessarily the sole result of deprivation. By definition, malnutrition is the lack of proper nutrition, caused by not having enough to eat, not eating enough of the right things, or being unable to use the food that one does eat. NGOs tend to concentrate on the first part of this definition – lack of proper nutrition caused by not having enough to eat. They seldom focus on malnutrition caused by not eating the right things.

This is exactly the Pacific’s problem: not eating the right things; moving away from the traditional wholesome diet and changing, largely sedentary lifestyles, with little scope for exercise. This is also why the region does not find mention in the report. The islands face a different kind of malnutrition – one caused not by the lack of food but by plenty of food with little or no useful nutritive value in it.

The singular fact that the Pacific islands comprise one of the world’s fattest regions is enough of a pointer that something is seriously wrong with this region’s nutritional priorities. And the fact that the incidence is growing means that youngsters are beginning on the wrong footing. Empty calories and high fatty content coming from highly processed and packaged imported food have all but replaced the traditional, nutritive diets of islanders – diets that helped them adapt to their environment across millennia.

Processed and packaged foods are virtually devoid of micronutrients that are extremely essential in early childhood development. Micronutrients like metals and other trace elements like zinc, iron and magnesium are essential in extremely tiny quantities for a range of human metabolic activity including the way the brain and cognitive functions work. This is a fact that is highlighted by new research backed by extensive scientific studies in this latest report.

So, though there is plenty of food in the Pacific and virtually no hunger, the wrong imported kind, high in sugars and fat, has gained precedence over traditional diets and that is causing almost the same sort of malnutrition problems as in African and Asian nations. Most Pacific island nations have embarked on nutrition awareness campaigns at the school level but more needs to be done. Some nations have rightly clamped down on imports of suspect high calorie, high fat processed foods but tighter controls are needed.

One hopes the study had included the Pacific islands region in assaying school performance and its relation to nutrition as a comparative study to what was done in Asia and Africa. The NGO obviously thought that hunger and deprivation driven malnutrition was more important than one that was caused by plenty of non-nutritious food.

* “Food for thought – tackling child malnutrition to unlock potential and boost prosperity”, Save the Children, 2013.

First appeared in Islands Business magazine, July 2013

 

Wooing PNG in right earnest

But it will be a while before big benefits begin to flow both ways

By Dev Nadkarni

Australia and New Zealand’s relationships with Pacific Island nations historically seem to have been divvied along the two main sub regions of Melanesia and Polynesia. The possible exception is Fiji, where both the Anzac nations have had more or less the same level of involvement. Perhaps it has to do with Fiji’s acknowledged status as the gateway to the region – the doorway to both Melanesia and Polynesia.

Geographically, too, Australia is closer to the Melanesian nations of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu while New Zealand’s proximity is to such Polynesian countries as Tonga, Samoa, Niue, Tuvalu and the Cook Islands besides others. These old historical and geographical relationships along sub regional lines have carried on into the modern era with political, business and people to people relationships having developed along these very lines.

Small wonder, then, that Auckland is known as the world’s largest Polynesian city, which also hosts the world’s largest Polynesian festival every year in February. Australia, though, does not have as representative a population of Melanesian people as Auckland does Polynesians but Australian engagement in business and investment terms in Melanesia greatly outstrips similar engagement of New Zealand in Polynesia.

But the sheer force and pace of development in some Melanesian nations is beginning to change that. The entire region appears to have realised that you ignore the rapid developments happening in countries like Papua New Guinea at your own risk. Australia has long jumped on the bandwagon and over the past two years New Zealand has taken tentative steps with at least half a dozen trade mission to the region’s fastest growing economy.

This desire to get a piece of the action in PNG is not restricted to just Australia and New Zealand in the region. The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) member nations have organised themselves to strengthen trade and investment ties and are meeting frequently with a view to grow into a common market in the not too distant future. (And it doesn’t end there: reports are doing the rounds that Polynesian countries like Samoa and Tonga have expressed desire to be a part of the newly conceived trade bloc in a suitable shape and form.)

Last month New Zealand businesses launched a substantial trade mission, reportedly the fifth in two years, to PNG. A team comprising some 30 delegates under the aegis of the New Zealand Papua New Guinea Business Council, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and the New Zealand Government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade toured the MSG flag bearer for a week.

New Zealand is rightly eyeing the big opportunities in the infrastructure sector that are becoming available around increased inward investment in core sector projects such as petrochemical and mineral prospecting. While Australia has concentrated within the core sector proper given its background and vast experience at home, New Zealand seems to be looking at infrastructural ancillaries – something which it has made a success of around the Pacific building ports, wharves, marinas, roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Michael Greenslade, Pacific Trade Commissioner for NZTE, who also did a stint a few years ago in Fiji said, “The challenge that PNG has is that its infrastructure is poor. The opportunity for New Zealand companies is to not only assist in the exploitation of natural resources, but also to build the infrastructure that is necessary for that exploitation.”

Identifying opportunities for Kiwi infrastructure and retail companies, Mr Greenslade added, “The professional classes are growing in Port Moresby, as is the for housing; the need for first-class hotels is growing, as is the need for better and more up-to-date supermarkets. You’ve got the opportunities around supply of water, the processing of waste water, and you’ve also got opportunities around the development of an energy grid.”

PNG has become a magnet for regional and international events. In 2015 it will host both the Pacific Games and the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit, bringing a host of opportunities for New Zealand companies to help with building infrastructure in what is widely acknowledged as being their forte.

The trade delegation engaged with several industries and businesses across the board to further opportunities for New Zealand businesses in the fast growing PNG economy.

But it will be while before there is any appreciable boost in exports from New Zealand into PNG. Though it is the Pacific island region’s biggest market both in terms of GDP and population, New Zealand does far more trade with Fiji than with PNG. As well as having been out of sight, out of mind for all these decades, political and business engagement between the two countries has not been anywhere at the level at which PNG’s relationship with Australia is. New Zealand’s annual assistance to PNG is NZ$35 million, relatively small beef in the bigger scheme of things that PNG is eyeing.

For instance, Australia already has a double tax avoidance treaty in place, which isn’t yet the case with New Zealand. Though such a treaty has been signed, it is yet to be implemented by Port Moresby at the PNG end of the deal. Diplomatic efforts are afoot to get on with matter as early as possible. The slow pace of implementation at the PNG end is perhaps symptomatic of the relatively low importance that PNG accords to New Zealand while being wooed relentlessly by global mining giants and its far closer and much bigger Asian neighbours. In the meantime, New Zealand companies find themselves at a disadvantage competing with Australian companies because of the double taxation.

Besides, New Zealand companies have a long way to go before getting acclimatised to PNG’s rather challenging realities such as seemingly ever widening wealth disparities, widespread bureaucratic graft, not to speak of the widely perceived issues of law and order that are ready grist for the mill in New Zealand’s domestic media.

But it is better late than never. Aligning itself more closely to countries of the emerging MSG trade bloc makes eminent sense for New Zealand in shoring up its diminishing footprint in the Pacific Islands region in recent years.

Climate science must listen to indigenous voices

By Dev Nadkarni

One of my most cherishable memories at the University of the South Pacific is that of a visit to the journalism students’ newsroom by a small group of quaintly dressed people, some of them wearing heavy furs and thick skintight leather jackets, rugged blankets and heavy boots. And it was a sweaty 36 degrees on a humid Suva summer day!

Sami leader at USP
Sami leader at USP

The group, which was visiting the university, joined in the celebrations that the students had hosted to welcome me into the journalism programme, and sang and danced and yodeled for the better part of an hour with great abandon. They even joined the students in a meke – all the time looking perfectly at home in their incongruous garb, while many of us were fanning ourselves with handkerchiefs.

We had heard that they were members of an indigenous people scattered across several countries that girdle the Arctic Circle in the farthest northern reaches of the globe, called the Sami people. But that’s about all that we knew about them. It was pre wifi and smartphone days and it was futile googling, what with the glacially paced half an MB internet connection that served the university.

The leader of the group, a tall fit man in his forties who spoke English quite eloquently, told us all about the Sami after the singing and dancing, over sandwiches and fruit juices. Many of us have known the Sami as Lapps from Lappland, terms they look upon as pejoratives and never use by themselves. Like all indigenous peoples they are ancient and the extent of their domain predates modern nations. Some 160,000 Sami people are spread across Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia today and are one of the few recognised indigenous people from Scandinavia.

He told us that they were on a goodwill tour of the world, visiting more than 35 countries meeting with other indigenous peoples, exchanging notes about their cultures, ways of life and how they were dealing with the challenges that the industrialised modern world presented. They told us how they hunted, fished, lived and led their lives the long days and nights of the Arctic Circle, the -40 degree winters and the stark whiteness of the icy fastness that surrounds them. (The yodeling was apparently part of communicating among themselves and with their reindeer.)

But why were they wearing their traditional garb in the tropical heat of Fiji? That’s the only thing they ever wore, he said. And his team was proud to wear it anywhere – even in the 50 degree heat of Death Valley. They did not feel the heat and the sweat didn’t sap their energy, the team members told us, proudly, as we wondered at their sheer resolve and the positivity they exuded. When I asked them what was the secret of their extreme tolerance, he said something that I still remember clearly as ever: “We adapt quickly and well,” he said.

Climate change then wasn’t the big beef that it is now. We didn’t quite discuss it during our brief meeting. But over the years, as the issue became more mainstream and especially relevant for the Pacific’s low lying atolls that are now known to be threatened by rising tidelines, I’ve now and again thought of the Sami people and how they might be coping with changes in their neck of the woods. And I’ve wondered how they might be adapting to this new unfolding challenge.

The Sami and a warming world

The Sami people were in the news again last month with the publicity around New Zealand geologist and filmmaker Simon Lamb’s film, Thin Ice – The Inside Story of Climate Science. The film, which took six years to make, features a number of indigenous peoples around the world including the Sami. Sami elders, according to the filmmaker, have a wealth of knowledge of climate change patterns that is valuable to scientists. “It struck me that people who live close to the environment are as good as long term temperature records at detecting climatic trends, and they are all saying the same thing,” Dr Lamb was quoted as saying in the media.

Indeed. I have always believed that indigenous people – some 400 million of them scattered across the planet – need to be involved far more closely in everything that has to do with climate change. Indigenous knowledge, as distinct from scientific knowledge, might not be documented and accumulated following the tenets of the scientific method but the fact remains that it is a combination of many observed and deduced factors that are vital for a people’s survival. These powers of observation, collation and deduction need to be respected, taken on board and corroborated with climate change phenomena measured with impersonal scientific instruments.

During conversations at the grassroots level with local people in climate change challenged countries like Kiribati, one gets to know how the problem is seen from their perspective. It is quite different from what one might find on online blogs and forums building hypotheses based on all sorts of information ranging from armchair research and opinion, quasi scientific studies to controversial, unproven theories. I have found it far more fulfilling to speak to locals about what changes they have observed and using that input as a starting point of investigations or using it to corroborate other theories.

In 2012, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) published a book, Weathering Uncertainty: Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Assessment and Adaptation*. It is an excellent, well researched tome that gives indigenous knowledge the respect and attention it deserves in evolving climate change adaptation measures and strategies. It is important to take on board local knowledge because if they have survived and thrived for millennia in the harshest of circumstances, they must know a thing or two about adaptation and therefore survival.

Indigenous peoples’ voices, however, have not received such attention and respect at climate change jamborees except as news bites passed off as sideshows and protests in between deliberation sessions outside the mega venues. Governments of climate change threatened nations, more particularly those that are deemed ‘vulnerable’, need to institutionalise the participation of indigenous people, especially elderly ones, in all climate change dialogue concerning their nations. Indeed, that is the most sensible thing to do rather than implementing ad hoc measures thought out by ‘experts’ who might never have even visited these environments.

Which brings back memories of the Sami group that visited Suva all those years ago. Their gleeful demeanour and infectious energy in 36 degree heat, while wearing furs and reindeer skins, is a powerful message about their willingness and capability to readily adapt, as their leader had told me. In this case, even if briefly, they had adapted to the warmer climes of Fiji, without even a whimper. They certainly ought to know a thing or two about survival. No two ways about it – climate science needs to listen to indigenous people a lot more.

*You can read the book at http://www.ipmpcc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Weathering-Uncertainty_FINAL_12-6-2012.pdf 

Sinking under a sea of humanity

Tarawa Diary

By Dev Nadkarni

Four and a half years ago, as I drive down the one single road that connects the line of thin, long atolls in Tarawa, Kiribati – a country that’s tipped to be consumed by the ocean because of rising sea levels – I can’t help but get that sinking feeling.

Last month, as I drive down that same single, much more potholed 30-km long road, that feeling of grim foreboding returns. But it’s not because of the rising waters of the calm, spectacularly blue-green Pacific Ocean. Rather, it’s because it looks as though the fragile atolls are sinking beneath the weight of the sea of humans that’s engulfing Tarawa faster than the increasingly frequent king tides.

Along with the far greater number of potholes and even more unmarked speed bumps that I can remember from my previous visit, the only change I notice is there are far more people, particularly young boys, girls and little children milling about on both sides of the long thin road that services what appears to be just one long unbroken, continuous settlement.

Migration from the outer atolls, erosion and encroachment by a rising tideline and the natural growth in population have conspired to make South Tarawa the densest place in not just the Pacific. Population density on Tarawa is more than twice that of Auckland or Sydney – almost equal to that of London. Paradoxically, it’s one of the world’s most isolated places, reachable only from Fiji, three hours’ flight away, just twice a week, barring a flight or two that turns up every other week from Nauru and Brisbane.

Kiribati has been the focus of dozens of TV shows in the past decade because it has been designated one of the most vulnerable islands to sea level rise caused by climate change. Tarawa’s highest point is just a few metres above sea level. Higher tidelines have caused erosion of the shoreline and flooded coconut groves, the increased salinity making any form of agriculture extremely difficult.

Changing weather patterns bring in irregular rainfall, the residents’ only source of freshwater other than meager groundwater reserves that are tending to taste increasingly salty with the rising tideline. Poor sewerage systems also cause seepage into the groundwater system making it unsafe for drinking without chemically purifying and boiling it. Most people store rainwater in tanks provided by aid agencies.

While the threat of climate change is real and the bulk of funds are targeted at mitigating its effects and adapting to it, the tiny nation’s other more pressing and perhaps far more serious problems are not receiving the attention they so urgently deserve.

Overpopulation and overcrowding are clearly the country’s number one problem. And that is the source of a range of other compounding problems that the country faces – but somehow, all these seem to play second fiddle to the climate change and rising sea levels frenzy that the global media has whipped up over recent years.

Ask the average i-Kiribati and they’ll tell you the problems of overpopulation, crowding, jobs, scarce food and water besides healthcare are far more serious and immediate than the prospect of becoming the first country to sink under the ocean because of rising sea levels.

The pressure on space is so great that ghettos reminiscent of Sao Paolo and Mumbai are beginning to form at many spots along the long thin road. Dwellings are starting to be built on stilts along the waterline in some places. There appears to be little planning if any at all and so sanitation, particularly around these burgeoning new dwellings are an obvious issue.

In an environment that has almost no infrastructure for industry or even a modest business other than retail, unemployment is sky high. One expatriate professional manager says it might be as high as 80 percent, though a government official puts it about 60. Of the 20 percent who are in the workforce, 80 percent are employed in government jobs.

Shipping connections are few and extremely unreliable, as in some other parts of the Pacific. A restaurant hand tells me that the country sometimes runs out of rice and other food supplies for four weeks at a time. Recently it ran out of cooking gas for several weeks. Occasionally, it also runs out of fuel. No wonder I find so many petrol stations – curiously, all of them unbranded – closed.

With no tourism industry – all tourism centers around the distant Kirtimati Islands, which attracts US nostalgia tourists interested in the island’s many intriguing WW-II relics – Tarawa has severely limited accommodation options. The only hotel, the state owned Otintaai, is in a pathetic state of disrepair but an Australian entrepreneur has apparently bid to partner with the government in restoring it back to health. No one I speak to is sure of the timelines though.

The only foreigners that descend on Tarawa and crowd out the overpriced, motel style accommodation are laptop, tablet and smartphone wielding aid agency types who stare at their screens and patter away at their keyboards in between morsels at the motel’s three-items-on-the-menu eatery. Not that smartphones work anywhere outside the accommodation areas. There is no mobile roaming in Tarawa, no television, no fancy places to hang out, no cinemas, no pharmacies (except at the hospital), not even a place to take a long walk except or some stretches of beach at low tide.

A visiting biologist tells me the potential health risks that the i-Kiribati face are extremely serious. With a mere semblance of a healthcare system, any serious outbreak of a serious contagious disease could large swathes of the population at great risk, he says. But the unrestricted imports of processed, canned foods laden with high salt, sugar and fat has already catapulted non-communicable diseases (NCDs) to endemic proportions. Obesity seems to be becoming the norm – particularly among young and middle aged women.

Food and water security are clearly the nation’s biggest issues followed by healthcare, early childhood and job creation. The country has a sizeable nest egg thanks to a fund created by proceeds of the sale of phosphate on the outer islands. But over the recent past, the government has had to dip into its principal for meeting its budgetary needs. It needs to watch out for fear of going its neighbour Nauru’s way.

Later this year, the United States plans to commemorate an anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa, when I believe it will help restore some of the rusting WW-II hardware on Betio at the southern end of Tarawa hopefully sparking some tourist interest.

As my plane takes off for Fiji, I can’t help but look at the receding line of atolls in the middle of the Pacific as a spectacular failure of aid and donor agencies around the world, most of whose efforts seem to have sunk like a stone to the bottom of the ocean while making their assortment of fancy consultants richer in both money wise and in terms of been there done that bragging rights.

Sydney’s ‘buried’ Pacific treasures

Sydney Diary

By Dev Nadkarni

When the coordinator of Maketi Ples, the annual show of Pacific island arts and crafts in Sydney, invites me to accompany about a dozen Pacific island artists to visit the Australian Museum I’m delighted. Because she tells me the museum has one of the biggest collections of Pacific artifacts – some of it dating back hundreds of years.

In my mind’s eye I begin to think of the collections at Te Papa displayed tastefully in Wellington and the Auckland Museum’s considerable collection showcased in the huge, high ceilinged halls of the splendid edifice, with excellent lighting and explanatory plaques. And of course the many interactive displays that are such an increasingly common feature of modern museums.

But I am decidedly underwhelmed when the group is ushered into one of the three basement like levels of the Australian Museum. I assume we’re being taken into the museum through a back entrance because we are a largish group. I am wrong. These three levels with rack upon storage rack haphazardly crammed with all sorts of artifacts and objets d’art is where we will be spending the next couple of hours, I gather.

This is where the Pacific collection of the Australian Museum lies like buried treasure. “Unfortunately, there isn’t room for displaying all this in the main galleries,” a museum staffer tells me. “They think not too many people are interested in looking at this sort of Pacific stuff,” says another, who later turns out to have a pretty intimate knowledge of all the Pacific stuff under her care and whence it came from – and a lot of passion, too. I wonder who “they” is. I decide not to ask.

Indeed, the main galleries, as I later discover, are full of dinosaur reconsturctions and other natural history stuff along with glimpses of Australia’s geological and paleontological phenomena and records. The three levels of storage that house all the Pacific artifacts are loosely divided into Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. A lot of the stuff is ancient and fragile. We are allowed to touch them albeit with gloved palms. OK to take pictures, we’re told and the artists go about the narrow aisles wide eyed, cameras at the ready, looking for objects of interest.

A lion’s share of the collection comes from Papua New Guinea, classified province-wise: there are weapons, armours, headgear, pots and pans, masks, objects of rituals, textiles, fabrics – everything. It is indeed a rich, varied collection and undoubtedly invaluable. Unfortunately, all tagged with an alphanumeric museum code and no description or date, though some have approximate dates of when a specific object came into the collection.

Then there are things from Vanuatu, Micronesia, Kiribati, the Solomon Islands as well as Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands. I discover that some of the toughest ancient reed armours were made in Kiribati. I’d never known they were a warlike people that were sought after around the region for their fighting skills.

Suddenly there’s a delightful moment in the somber, night-at-the-museum type environment when one of the accompanying artists discovers her own work of art in the labyrinthine racks of the collection and is clearly pleased to bits. She is all over it with child like glee and poses endearingly as her colleagues’ cameras go pop, pop, pop, capturing this memorable slice of life.

The museum has acquired some of the Pacific artists’ work over the past couple of years, I am told. Simple and unassuming, it scarcely bothers them that their works of art are stacked in a musty, dark backroom that nobody visits.

How does one access the collection? I ask. Upon request and a payment of A$150 a pop, one can have access. But happily, for indigenous visitors, the fee is waived and natives of Pacific island countries who want to their forebears’ creative works, they can hope to view them for free.

I also discover that Fiji is classified under Polynesia among the collection racks. How so, I ask. “Yes, a bit politically sensitive, eh?” says an accompanying museum staffer. “But we’d better leave it at that.” I notice that there is no Fijian artist in the group – there were meant to be, but not unexpectedly, they had visa problems.

As I pore over this yellowed but rather well preserved 88-year-old issue of the Fiji Times dated April 25, 1925, I wonder if the editorial staff that put it together could ever have had an inkling of the shape of things to come.

Global warming on hold, top expert admits

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) head honcho R.K. Pachauri is in the country (in Melbourne) on a day’s whistle-stop visit speaking on climate change, as he continually increases his carbon footprint while jetting across the world.

Rising temperatures have actually been on hold, he admits, alluding to increasing scientific evidence that global temperatures have not risen in nearly two decades. Studies show they won’t rise at least until 2017. Dr Pachauri tells an audience at Deakin University that people have the right to question the science no matter what their motives are.

But, says the scientist, that doesn’t mean global temperatures are not rising – they have over the past 50 years and they will. He now gives more credit to natural factors for causing warming rather than stressing on anthropogenic causes, contrary to Al Gore’s populist-alarmist messages.

Reports of the most recent northern winter seeing record accumulation of ice in the polar region hasn’t received as much press as reports of the record melts of last northern summer. It is increasingly becoming clear that natural factors play a huge role in climate change though their effects might well be exacerbated by human factors. But by no means does anyone believe anymore that humans are the exclusive cause of the so-called global warming.

In his address in Melbourne, IPCC’s high profile chief also said his organisation was yet to finalise estimates of sea level rise owing to melting ice sheets. With such unpredictability, it is unlikely that we will get a definitive answer to these continuing questions. None of which should detract us humans from doing whatever bit we can do for the planet in no matter how small a manner.