In the wake of disaster

April 10, 2007|By Michael D. Kerlin

The Solomon Islands, often called the Happy Isles, hardly need another hard knock. This usually pristine South Pacific archipelago of half a million people has witnessed violent ethnic conflict and political riots in the past dozen years, not to mention brutal fighting during World War II. Now an earthquake and subsequent tsunami have struck the islands, killed dozens of people and destroyed nearly 30 villages.

From the other side of the world, these ruined villages can easily appear anonymous to the people and government of the United States.

What have we done to help? Well, to the more than 5,400 displaced residents of these villages, the U.S. has contributed $250,000. That's $50 per displaced person, enough perhaps for a few weeks' sustenance - but far from enough for rebuilding or resettlement. To its credit, America gave 10 times more than Fiji's $25,000 gift, but our economy is almost 3,000 times the size of Fiji's. Fortunately, Taiwan and Australia have each promised about $1.5 million in relief aid. Perhaps a crisper picture of the stricken villages might inspire U.S. decision-makers to follow their more generous Pacific counterparts.

I spent a week last summer in a tiny village on Gizo Island, one of the Solomon Islands most affected by the earthquake and tsunami. By offering a snapshot of life in the village of Vori Vori, I hope that I can illuminate all that can be lost in tiny villages struck around the world each year by natural disasters large and small.

A struggling ecotourism program out of nearby Papua New Guinea helped me to find Vori Vori. Besides World War II history tours and a few small export industries, such ecotourism has provided the Solomon Islands with their best hope for prosperity in recent years - critical for a country where the average person lives on $2 a day.

Despite these tourism development efforts, Vori Vori village has seen only a handful of guests over the past decade. Just as the village built its first guesthouse, ethnic violence on Guadalcanal Island, where the archipelago's capital sits, crippled the country's economy and scared away tourists. Then, just as the Solomon Islands were stabilizing, a controversial election triggered rioting in the capital city. Again, tourism and trade collapsed.

So in Vori Vori, I expected to find despair and frustration. Instead, I found hopeful villagers who could live off the land and the sea and some market trade in nearby Gizo town. They had been doing this for years, I learned, as the village elders told me the story of Vori Vori and the unlikely survival of their once-powerful Ijo tribe.

Between stories, I joined villagers on possum hunting expeditions in the bush, spear fishing trips in dugout canoes, and a coconut picking effort in which local boys climbed the bare trunks of 50-foot trees. We also enjoyed yucca, fresh lettuce and other village crops by candlelight or kerosene lamp in Vori Vori's thatched huts.

Such a localized economy makes the tsunami all the more tragic. In affected seaside villages such as Vori Vori, the crops planted near the sea are gone, the coconut trees that supply dugout canoes for trips to market are uprooted, those very dugout canoes are swept out to sea, and, worst of all, the homes that Westerners might view as replaceable - but that Solomon Islanders imbue with months of meticulous planning and workmanship - are destroyed.

The destruction of Gizo town, the capital of Western Province, where the tsunami struck, means that displaced villagers cannot even seek shelter, hospital beds or emergency supplies. Without Gizo town's bustling market, even unaffected Western Province villages will have no place to sell their goods or buy cooking oil, kerosene and other basic supplies.

In the coming days, death-toll numbers and damage estimates will likely climb as Solomon Islanders and outside officials further assess the tragedy. To be sure, the Solomon Islands tsunami does not even begin to compare in scale or in loss of life and land to the tsunami that struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other countries surrounding the Indian Ocean in December 2004. What the Solomon Islands situation can offer is a microcosm of national disaster.

When catastrophe strikes poor places such as the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Sri Lanka or highland Pakistan (the site of a massive 2005 earthquake), there is often no outlet - no border to cross easily, no nearby capital to relocate to, and little land on which to live nearby.

Like disaster victims all over the world, including Hurricane Katrina's victims here, Solomon Islanders will recover from this tragedy. But more is irreplaceable than we might think. Vori Vori's villagers have lived off the same land for decades, and many displaced villagers have even longer histories tied to narrow coves, nearby fishing reefs and arable terrain. Right now I can't reach my friends from Vori Vori, but I worry more whether they can reach each other.

To put a price tag on true recovery in the Solomon Islands is impossible. Still, I hope that the U.S. government will remember that those who live off the land often lose more than those who only live on the land.

Michael D. Kerlin is a management consultant in Washington who writes about international affairs. His e-mail is mike_kerlin@yahoo.com.

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