Monday, October 25, 2010

What does “standard of living” mean in paradise?

by Geoffrey Heard

Today we took a break from Paradise 1 (Vunakabi in the Rabaul heights, Papua New Guinea) and visited what turned out to be Paradise 3, Karavia village on the nambis (shore) at Blue Lagoon just outside Rabaul’s glorious harbour. (You’ll remember we’ve already identified another seaside location, Takubar, as Paradise 2.)

The tide was well on towards high but still coming in, which promised cooling dips on a hot sunny morning, when our little party comprising my putative grand-daughter, her husband, their two kids, a toddler and a babe in arms, and me hopped off the bus at about 11 o’clock.

Karavia is the grandson-in-law’s home village; we went visiting to show off the babe to various relatives, acquaint the toddler with the sea, and generally to flop around in the salt water and have a good old chin-wag during the preparations for and subsequent demolition of a picnic lunch on the foreshore.

The food we had was pretty standard -- singapo (dryland taro) roasted on the fire (a touch of butter and pepper and salt, it’s just delicious), and a chicken and greens stew with rice, sweet potatoes and plantains (extendable food is the go; by the time we left, about a dozen people had turned up to eat). But this picnic was not about special food, it was about people and place.

And what a place! A bunch of children gambol in the sea against the backdrop of Rabaul’s volcanoes reaching towards a handful of fluffy white clouds which, in turn, give way to a mighty arch of blue sky. Coconut palms lean gracefully seawards as though tutored on picturesque poses from first sprouting. A mango tree promises sweet dessert. I splash into the sea and dive into sun-warmed water leavened by surprise runnels of coolness raised from the depths by the incoming tide.

Introducing the toddler to the sea is a delight. This child who daily objects to being bathed can’t get enough of it. He grins and shouts as the wavelets splash into his little body. He staggers and wobbles forward for more. Rescuing him is a full time job. Half an hour later, as we rinse him (and ourselves) with fresh water dipped from a little well (fresh floats on salt, so don’t dip too deeply), a woman appears with a bundle of washing.

I’ve missed the fact that this is also the village clothes washing facility with a galvanised iron-covered bench of good working height, the well with its long-handled dipper, and a rescued small fibreglass tank our host has just added to it so whoever is doing their washing can dip up however much water they want for the whole job before they start. Handy. There’s a long line between two trees for drying.

We head for lunch leaving the lady to do her laundry with a bit of bar soap and lots of vigour.

After lunch, we’re lounging about chewing betelnut and smoking, and the grandson-in-law asks the big question he’s been pondering, he says, for some time; he has read that Papua New Guinea rates low on standard of living compared with Australia and other places -- what does that really mean?

I open my mouth and that is about as far as I get. If I chewed betelnut myself this would be the time to clear my mouth, call for a new nut, dig deeply into my basket for the accoutrements, fail to find my knife to open the nut and set up a search for that….

In the absence of the habit as a procrastination tool, and having quit smoking a quarter of a century ago, after a longish pause (people here are happy to allow you to think) I have to say that the question has a lot more to it than appears on the surface.

On the face of it, the standard of living of Papua New Guinean villagers is so far behind that of your average Australian, even your poor Australian, that they’re hardly within sight of each other. That’s looking at the matter the easy way -- using developed nations’ measures which have a lot to do with money and goods, and things you can buy and count.

It’s a standard, but is it living?

Here I am sitting in the shade of a mango tree (yes, we finished lunch with a taste of its bounty) on a tropical beach with my belly full, the afternoon sun slanting down, cooled by a bosky breeze, looking out at one of the most beautiful scenes in the world (a couple of fishing boats heading out of the harbour now add an accent to the volcanoes, sea and sky) in congenial company enjoying diverting conversation. The lady’s washing is flapping gaily in the breeze.

This is the stuff of legend -- the dream of a generation of Australian superannuants, most of whom (like their fellows in other industrialized societies) will never see anything like it. After 40 years on the treadmill they’ll find they’re in some sort of financial trap that leaves them struggling in the end to do much more than pay for their own funeral. And while they are myopically searching for pounds (as the currency was when they started saving) and picking up pennies with their arthritic fingers, they’re being demonized as a burden on the community who should keep pounding away on the treadmill until they drop.

Here in paradise, millions of Papua New Guineans live in this dream. They don’t need so-called “labour saving” devices like a washing machine and a drier -- they can wash in the shade and dry in the sun and tropical breeze. They don’t need a range of designer suits and a flash car to go to work -- in fact, generally speaking, going to work in the regular corporate job sense, is a choice rather than an obligation. They eat pretty well from their gardens supplemented by a little hunting or fishing and trading of surplus produce, they can house themselves using bush materials (most people do), and they can lounge around on the beach with family and friends when they feel like it.

True, I know it is really more complex than this, but I would argue that it is not nearly as complex as the big end of town (local or foreign) likes to make out, especially when they are working up some specious argument to defraud the Paradiseans of their birthright -- the land they own by tradition.

Our host family lives in a couple of rooms in a bush materials hut, they cook in three battered pots over a fire in a little lean-to, own half a dozen simple garments each, wash themselves and their clothes on the foreshore, and if they want to go to town, pay K1.50 (about 60¢) for a seat on the local mini-bus. And they garden and fish. They live in and are of the land. They are subsistence farmers who earn a little cash by providing childcare daily for a neighbour who is a doctor (but still lives in a pretty humble dwelling in the village -- who wants more?), and selling a few coconuts and betelnuts, and a little excess garden produce.

They are largely independent of the world’s economy and that drives the world’s financial elite to distraction. The rich make money by manipulating “investment”, by moving money from place to place to exploit the poorest in each land and the world, by looting every corner of the globe for its riches, by sinking the poor into unnecessary debt.

One of their big lies is to pretend that subsistence farming is worthless, that it holds back individuals from personal progress, and makes no contribution to a nation’s well-being. Another is to pretend that the only way a nation can “develop” is to commodify land so it can be bought and sold. The third is a big one -- that national development must be carried out with international “investment” and loans.

All three are the exact opposite of the truth, of course.

About 90 percent of Papua New Guineans are subsistence farmers and feed and house themselves from their land. Hence while this lovely country is high on the list of “poor” nations the vast majority can eat pretty adequately. They aren’t starving. The country’s so-called poverty level is a failure of the measure -- the industrialized nations’ Gross Domestic Product, which measures only cash flows, not work and production.

Commodify land? Why? Buying and selling land doesn’t create wealth it just creates money movement and allows land to become the plaything of the rich. It is productive use of the land that is important. Like sustainably growing the food you eat. You want to build a factory? Okay, lease land. And limit silly and unproductive trading games with the lease.

As for foreign investment -- again, this is largely unnecessary provided local funds are appropriately invested and spent. And most of all, "development" is appropriate. Is a mine that employs no local people, provides virtually no benefits for the host nation, and will be exhausted in 20 years leaving behind massive land damage and water pollution really development? Nope, not for the people of Papua New Guinea.

The strength of subsistence farming in paradise as a way of living in the modern world has been tested and shown to be the best. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, these people I am living among, the Tolais, were awash with cash, making big money producing the best cocoa in the world. Then disease swept through the cacao trees; in a few years, the halcyon days of the cocoa industry were a memory.

Just about everybody lost something, those who had invested heavily in cocoa suffered serious losses, but ... nobody starved, nobody went on welfare (there isn't any anyway, doesn't need to be), and most importantly of all, nobody thought for even a moment that a short walk off a high cliff was the way go.

Why not? Because underneath it all, they had the super safety net of their traditionally owned lands, subsistence farming, and a mindset. In reality, the cocoa, for all its financial glamour, was just an extra they had grafted on to their traditional life. When it collapsed, they were able to lower their sights, clear away the (literally) fruitless cacao trees, plant more food crops, singapo (dryland taro -- 'bun bilong Tolai'), sweet potatoes, corn, and greens, and by and large return to the relaxed life of their ancestors while preparing for the next opportunity.

That’s quality of life, I reckon. That’s what living in paradise is really about.

In Australia, as drought-driven debt piled up in recent years, farmers began suiciding at an alarming rate. They have no comparable safety net in land, alternative lifestyle and mindset.

Yes, there are couple of the standard of living indicators which ought to be improved in Papua New Guinea, education and health are two which could be improved dramatically at very low cost.

However, the solutions the west and Pacific powers such as China offer (apart from publicly slamming corruption which they assiduously feed) involve the total destruction of the Paradisean way of life and the transformation of these hard working, energetic, enterprising people into land-less low-wage slaves and poverty stricken peons working for the (rich and often foreign) man.

That, it seems, is the cost of a high standard of … what? Existence?

Honestly, how does 40 years on a production line or staring at a blank office wall, driven to work overtime by the "lifestyle" demands of your society (you really must have a giant gas BBQ), stack up as “living” compared with the Karavia nambis?

Am I getting a bit radical in my old age or is this wisdom? ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010. The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

1 comment:

  1. This is great took me on a nice wee journey!
    Billy (yes that one!)