“We cannot continue to rely on others because autonomy is not gained through dependence.”
— Epeli Hau’ofa, We Are The Ocean, 2008
During my first trip to Tarawa in 2010, my colleague and friend Sue Taei at Conservation International's Pacific Islands Program loaned me a book and suggested I read a chapter. The book was We are the Ocean Selected Works by Epeli Hau’ofa and the chapter was The Glorious Pacific Way. Epeli Hau’ofa is Tongan, raised in Papua New Guinea, educated in Australia and Canada, and is the Founder and Director of the Oceania Center for Arts and Culture at the University of the South Pacific.
I read the chapter and to be honest, thought it was very depressing. It was a satire on the culture of aid in the Pacific. My colleague responded to my reaction by assuring me it was supposed to be funny. However, I could not see it that way. What it said was that rather than the global community funding what the Pacific Island countries felt was important or worthwhile, the outside world was imposing from the outside where and when, and for how long, a project would be supported, creating a culture of dependence on foreign aid.
The Pacific is not made up of "small island" nations. It is made up of Huge Oceanic countries.
Sailing vessel, Tarawa, Kiribati. Photo by Regen Jamieson
I went home from that trip and bought the book for myself, and have only now in 2012 for this latest trip back to Tarawa picked it up again to read, starting this time from the beginning. And the first several chapters are much more uplifting. Hau’ofa offers a view of developing Pacific Island countries that is optimistic, a growing change in the mindset of Pacific Island nations and how they view themselves as the phase out of colonialist and into a state of independence. (For Kiribati Independence came in 1979, so still a relatively young country). There is now a transformation of thinking of Pacific countries from tiny nations, in terms of land — the "European" way of looking at these countries — towards viewing these nations as large oceanic countries, the traditional way that Polynesians, Micronesians and Melanesian peoples truly saw themselves for thousands of years before colonization. The ocean was, and is, their home as much as the land.
Getting around, Tarawa, Kiribati. Photo by Regen Jamieson
This reemerging way of Pacific countries like Kiribati is the foundation on which the Phoenix Islands Protected Area is built. Kiribati is a huge ocean nation with 3.5 million square kilometers of mostly ocean as their territory. As an ocean nation, they see themselves as caretakers of this vital resource. As Hau’ofa originally wrote in 1993, “No people on Earth are more suitable to be the custodians of the oceans than those for whom the sea is home.”PIPA is Kiribati’s gift to humanity. They are now aiding us in a very profound way. We all need the oceans to live — for climate regulation, as a source of food and protein, for spiritual and aesthetic purposes. And, in my mind, each and every one of us owes Kiribati for keeping this vast ocean area intact for future generations to come.