We Took Part In An Australian Aid Program. It Was More About Helping Your Country Than Ours

By Aminio David and Anita Tenkon, published in New Matilda

Advocates for traditional landowners in Vanuatu, Aminio David and Anita Tenkon were left disillusioned by an Australian aid program. Here, they explain why.

Australia has long held an ideological opposition to the way of life of my people in Vanuatu. Customary land, our traditions, our ‘subsistence’ culture and ‘informal’ economy are seen as inherent impediments to development. Our perspective and values are not taken into consideration because countries like Australia see only the need for economic growth.

We recently had the chance to take part in a course funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) entitled, ‘Valuing Culture and Nature for Sustainable Resource Management’ which was held in conjunction with Griffith University. This type of course takes place regularly, and people like us are brought in from other countries to learn. Australia is offered as the best practice model for ‘sustainable’ mining, environmental protection, and respectful engagement with indigenous peoples.

We had our reservations about what Australia could teach us about valuing culture and nature but welcomed the opportunity to further our ability to protect what is important to us.

Throughout the three-week course it became clear that this was part of a sustained effort through the use of the Australian aid program to place a monetary value on our culture, our land, and our traditions. Where we understood the reference to value as inherent and often immeasurable importance we quickly saw that DFAT meant the term to indicate a monetary figure.

This distinction is not just discursive. It is at the heart of a more fundamental disagreement about priorities.

We undertook role plays based on scenarios of large scale development projects – factories, mines, dams – we were to respond to these hypothetical developments as we would if they were to happen in our own community. An easy exercise. Here in Vanuatu, we would say no. We have seen what has happened to our Melanesian brothers and sisters in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands, West Papua and Fiji.

We know how important it is for us to protect our land and traditional livelihoods because it is all too easy to follow the Western aim of economic growth like PNG, where they achieved that end but experienced some of the worst development standards in the region. Indeed, indicators have become worse, yet the aim of economic growth using the same failed methods continues unquestioned.

Unfortunately for us, the purpose of the role-play was intended to encourage us to consider how much money we could make in the short-term if we conceded and allowed these developments to take place. We were not able to give the response that came naturally to us. Our desire to protect our land and culture is belittled as uneducated or misinformed which is hard to swallow when Australia and Australian companies are set to directly benefit should we follow their advice.

In Vanuatu, we already have the evidence of what happens when people are roped into the allure of money by foreigners.

On the island of Efate, nearly 90 per cent of our coastline has been bought by foreigners, with fences now running right down to the beach. Most of the plots sit unused, though we are not able to access the land and water which once was ours.

Many people have registered and leased away their land far below market value only for foreigners to benefit from subdividing land and selling plots of at enormous profit. And where does this leave the traditional owners? Facing poverty in the nation’s capital – something that doesn’t have a place in our culture in which everyone has access to land. How can people understand the idea of permanently relinquishing land, when the idea of private ownership has no precedent in our understanding of relation with land?

A marketplace in Port Vila. Image: Maarten Danial/Flickr.

At best, this isn’t considered. At worst, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the amount that can be gained by privatising the land at the expense of our right to it – enshrined in our constitution.

More concerning than the overt encouragement to be open to monetising our land and culture was what we now understand as a gravely lopsided view on already existing policies in other parts of the region.

A presentation was conducted on the controversial Bougainville mining laws. They were presented to us as an example of best practice, portraying the laws as largely welcomed by the people of Bougainville. I know Bougainville well having been there myself and am well aware of the push from Australia and the Australian mining company to re-open the profitable mine, despite its bloody history and the subsequent civil war. It struck me that the Melanesian course had no-one from PNG in attendance. A session which misconstrued the reality in Bougainville would have been impossible with Papua New Guineans in attendance.

A similar session was held extolling the virtues of the REDD+ program – a controversial ‘environmental’ initiative – and showcasing a desire to bring it to Melanesia. What wasn’t said was that this program had failed in Indonesia and AusAID had pulled the program as a result.

We can see what the policy of DFAT is and what that will mean for us in Vanuatu. While the Australian aid funded Mama Graon program has shifted away from pushing the titling of land – the first step towards land privitisation – this agenda is still being pursued by Australia.

The partnership between DFAT and Australian banks is especially worrying for us as we have already seen what has come from their financialisation policies.

In the village of Pango, families who have been encouraged to register and sell their land have done so and are now destitute and attempting to fight their way to justice in our courts. An Australian bank assisted people to access very large loans without them understanding the implications of this and what was at stake. The money received from selling swathes of land was spent within a single week by the community. Exorbitant interest was charged on loans and ultimately their inability to repay them meant their land was seized. We have seen this too often and it must stop.

These policies are being pursued by DFAT and Australian NGOs alike. They are funded by Australian taxpayers and it is important that people in Australia are aware of the true nature of the Australian aid program. We have seen the Campaign for Australian Aid that is funded by Australian NGOs that claims Australian aid saves lives. Please listen to our stories. Aid from Australia has led to troubling outcomes in our region and our voices must not be silenced.

Aid is not a benevolent gesture of charity, as these Australian NGOs would have you believe. Australia disproportionately benefits from carving out a space for its own companies to benefit, its markets to benefit and for you – the people of Australia.

The assumption that was at the heart of this course is that those who have studied us from outside are somehow more knowledgeable about who we are and what we need that we could ever be. We were surprised to see that there are foreigners who consider themselves ‘experts’ on our culture and wondered why it was that they didn’t just seek out our ideas and opinions. The paternalism of this view is at the heart of the idea of development and it is hard not to see it as racist.

The Australian Government thinks that policies which preference economic growth over social, cultural, and environmental protection will be the silver bullet solution for development and poverty. There is no evidence to support this position. Yet under the guise of this, they are presenting the problem as the solution.

Further involvement of the private sector is not going to help us. Aiming for economic growth in the absence of considering the impacts of the policies on people and the environment will only damage us. Australia must be held accountable for the impacts of the policies it encourages through Trojan horse courses like this. We hope that this contributes to pulling back the curtain.

This article was written with assistance from Thulsi Narayanasamy, from War on Want, and previous Director of AID/WATCH.