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John Roughan: Villager Or Farmer!

Villager Or Farmer!

John Roughan in Honiara
13 March 2006

Last Friday (10 March), the Iron Bottom Hotel was the scene of a major meeting hosted by World Bank, European Union and AusAID. It was called the Agriculture and Rural Development Strategy workshop and was attended by many important persons. Moreover, the meeting organizers had the good sense to invite more than 20 rural Melanesians.

On the surface things looked good. Solomon Island agricultural staff were strongly represented and the day previous had held a preparatory meeting. A good group of farmers were in attendance although not a single woman was among them. Most of the others hailed from different government ministries but the majority of participants were overseas people: World Bank, European Union and AusAID. It was only after the coffee/tea break during the 'breakout' groups sessions, however, that fundamental differences in outlook began to surface.

Leonard Maenu, former senior Public Servant, made things abundantly clear. Farmers are foremost VILLAGERS. Yes, of course they are farmers but they are also fishers, house builders, community leaders, family persons, hunters, gatherers. etc. etc. As one of them said: we might be jacks of all trades but we are the masters of our lives.

During Leonard Maenu's eloquent plea for proper villager recognition one could almost hear a pin drop . . . the audience's respectful silence, rapt attention and stirring applause after his heartfelt plea told it all. At that moment, for a brief period of time, perhaps for once in urban people's lives the deep chasm between where 80% of Solomons people live their lives on an everyday basis and those of us who come from other worlds became visible.

Maenu's highlighting of Villager rather than farmer was not simply a change in words. It was not another way of saying the same thing. What he meant went to the very heart of what all at the meeting were there for: to understand, work with and support a people who's lives and very existence depends on how well the life of the village continues.

In modern day Solomons, village life is not simply a way station, a temporary stopping place, which, in time, will slowly wither away once the nation becomes 'developed'. Melanesians' space creation, it is their genius, is to live atop of this resource base. My resource base like most of those who come from afar, on the other hand, is the local bank, Westpac, ANZ, etc. I visit it weekly, sometimes more in fact, to withdraw money to buy life's necessities: food, drink, medicine, pay for power, communication, water and in fact all of my life's needs. Villagers, on the other hand, live right on top of their 'bank': garden for food, rivers for water, fire wood for power, medicine from trees, bushes and herbs, building material from the bush, etc. etc.

But the most important thing about village life is not the food, drink, power, medicine, housing material, etc. the material goods of life but the interconnectedness of one person to another. The strong social fabric that village life represents is a people's life line, a safety net in times of stress, danger, uncertainty, restlessness, etc. During the 1999 period of severe dislocation of 20,000 Malaitans and others who were forced to flee from Guale, they did not stay around Honiara where all the police were heaped up. No, as fast as they could, they made a bee line to their home villages where they knew they would be safe, cared for and protected.

With this understanding--that villagers see the world differently than those using urban lenses--in mind, then, true rural development can never be slow enough for the villager not only to experience but to absorb and own. So many projects disempower! Does the surge of money into village life enhance or undermine a people's ability to cope with change. Gold Ridge, SIPL, Taiyo, logging, etc. brought great riches to a certain few but misery and disempowerment to many others.

Honiara has an over strong influence driving the national agenda . . . what is good for Honiara must be good for the rest of the nation. Big Men's quick, easy money schemes over the past few years have tainted village life greatly. Many a villager, especially the men folk, are confused. Should he plant teak, grow vanilla, allow logging people in or stick with the tried and true but slow: garden food, copra, cocoa? The first promises great riches (rarely delivers, however) but the second way guarantees food security, a certain amount of peace and order but more importantly these are the least disruptive of village life. Villagers are risk takers but refuse to put their village life in danger!


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