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Focus on Vanuatu



Vanuatu is a young democracy facing numerous challenges as an emerging state. Over 80% of the population live in small village communities and rely on subsistence agriculture and small-scale cash-cropping. This nation is part of the ethno-geographic region of Melanesia. It has very high linguistic diversity and a wide range of traditional social and governance systems. This is a complicating factor in establishing cohesion within a modern nation state.

Vanuatu is made up of many islands with extreme, isolated topography, extreme climates and high vulnerability to natural disasters. This has greatly limited transport and communication systems.


Melanesia is characterised as having dual systems of economy and governance. The modern or national systems of government have been overlaid onto many complex traditional (kastom) systems. The knowledge and linking of villagers to the national system is severely limited.

Impacts of the modern system are increasing at the village level, through large-scale natural resource projects (mining, logging) tourism, penetration of the cash economy and other external factors like alcohol, HIV/AIDS and processed foods. The villager has little to help with understanding and dealing with these. This is eroding the resilience of the kastom system.

Lack of an historical sense of national identity exacerbates the problems of limited functioning and relevance of national governance systems at village level. Many villagers perceive the state as removed from their daily reality and have little feeling of ownership or inclusion.

Port Vila graffiti IMG_2433

The majority of national income is derived from agriculture, tourism and financial services.  These industries are noted for corruption, unequal distribution of income and environmental damage that can lead to increased conflict locally or between the local and state levels. Substantial income generated is repatriated outside the country.

Vanuatu shows increasing indicators of vulnerability to conflict and breakdown of governance, such as a youth bulge, rapid urban drift, high unemployment and unequal economic distribution. It is necessary to reduce drivers of conflict including corruption and disputes over land and natural resources.

Literacy levels are very low in both countries. The oral tradition remains strong, and the concept of “voice” and “story” are strong cultural methods of governance through communal discourse and consensual decision-making. There is also a strong regard and respect for authority that can hamper people speaking out directly against leaders.

Vanuatu, an ex-Anglo-French condominium, became a republic with elements of both colonial systems, with a constitutional role for the traditional chiefly system.  Its economy relies on tourism, agriculture and liberal financial laws, making it a premier tax haven of the Pacific region. While this has led to some positive economic growth, it has also created serious disparities of wealth, disenfranchisement from traditional land through an expatriate property boom, and lack of rural employment opportunities. These inequities are serving to foster major discontent among some groups, especially young people. However, there are some positive community governance structures that this project seeks to build on. These are a regionally and internationally recognised cultural institutional framework and the strength of certain traditional mechanisms, enshrined in the constitution through the Vanuatu Council of Chiefs.


“The state of Pacific media freedom is fragile in the wake of  serious setbacks, notably in Fiji, with sustained pressure from a military backed regime, and in Vanuatu where blatant intimidation has continued with near impunity.” Pacific media freedom 2011: A status report; in PACIFIC JOURNALISM REVIEW 17 (2) 2011

Rural ni-Vanuatu have little media access. Several small circulation newspapers barely penetrate outside the capital. There is a statutory national radio broadcasting service, two commercial FM stations and a Christian FM station. FM stations have coverage limited to the capital and one or two provincial centres. National radio services have decayed over recent years. There is a lack of decentralised production facilities and quality local content.


The community broadcasting sector is in its infancy in the region, and several ad hoc stations are operating. This program seeks to provide a focus for interested stakeholders and citizens to come together to provide cohesion before the situation becomes disorganised, politicised or commercialised. It is important that open and equitable access becomes a guiding principle for community media in the region.

Television is in its infancy and again is limited to the capital city. With satellite broadcasting, there is some limited access to regional and international TV but cost is a prohibitive barrier with the impact of much imported content questionable.

Portable recorded media such as DVDs, music CDs and MP3 players are popular and have attained a reasonable degree of penetration (eg village film nights with generator or solar powered video player, music recording and swapping).


Apart from locally recorded music, there is a shortage of locally produced informative and educational content. Some NGO’s produce ad hoc radio and video shows, but only one organisation (Wan Smol Bag in Vanuatu) specialises in content production. There is a need to develop production capability at the local and provincial level.


Melanesia is the major region of the Pacific Islands in terms of land mass and population, around 10 million people. It consists of the independent nations of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji, and the non-independent territories of West Papua (Indonesia) and New Caledonia (France). Its cultural uniqueness in the world is profound, but largely unrecognised. This uniqueness stems from its topography of thousands of islands, ranging from the large mountainous island of New Guinea to tiny coral atolls. This has given rise to an incredible diversity of cultures that although linked by common heritages and exchange relationships, are distinct and unique each in their own right. Melanesia’s isolation, climate and topography has made it also uniquely resilient as indigenous cultures – over 80% of people still live in small village groups practicing traditional sustainable agriculture. It is arguably the largest group of indigenous people that remains to a great degree intact from severe external influences exploitative pressures.


Melanesia has over one thousand separate languages. This represents one quarter of the worlds languages. Every language is a distinct culture, with its own repertoire of songs, dances, rhythms and art. Music and dance performance are not just a corollary to everyday life in Melanesia – they are intrinsically woven into it, as ceremony, seasonal markers, and in non-literate societies, as mnemonic devices for recording history and heritage. Thus Melanesians are natural musicians and singers and dancers, with a rich, broad and deep reservoir of traditional heritage to draw upon.

Translation of these strengths into the contemporary music realm however is somewhat problematic. Talent and willingness is not the issue. The homegrown amateur recording industry is remarkably thriving, given barriers such as income, access to technology and associated skills. There are hundreds of small studios producing recordings for local consumption. This is extremely small-scale, with no distribution network per se, and ultimately makes very little profit. It is done for the love of it. Young people consistently rate music and dance as a major interest and motivation in life, many are naturally talented, and there are innumerable bands that come and go. There is a growing commercial music sector, and a regional market dominated by a small number of record labels. Recordings are sold across borders as they are often recorded in the regional mutually -understood lingua franca, but also there is a demand to hear songs in other regional languages, if the music is attractive.


Quantified data is difficult to come by for the sector, due to the nascent nature of modern institutions and the low importance placed on cultural and creative sectors by governments, and communication and transport barriers. However the FNA through the APC Festival Network project, has commenced the task of mapping and quantifying the actors and facilities.

Musical production in the Melanesian region is so dense that it should be able to increase awareness of these regions and promote their cultural diversity. Its richness, originality and vitality could become a major cultural and economic asset for each of the countries. The sector’s economy remains fragile and still too dependent on international markets with the perverse effect of “standardising” and “westernising” styles to meet these market demands. This undermines the value and diversity of the indigenous artistic heritage. The economic and social environment in which these sectors are developing is characterised by an informal economy. The practices, equipment and levels of professionalization need to be strengthened and supported through association, networking, and advocacy for supportive policy frameworks developed with the full participation of artists and professionals, both at the regional and national levels. The development of the regional indigenous music market and networks of cultural exchange is essential.