“One ocean, one people” – Interview with Teresia Teaiwa on self-determination struggles in the Pacific

Teresia Teaiwa speaks at Capitalism: Not Our Future (photograph by Bronwen Beechey).

Teresia Teaiwa speaks at Capitalism: Not Our Future (photograph by Bronwen Beechey).

Teresia Teaiwa is a poet and founding academic of Pacific Studies in Aotearoa/NZ, who spoke on the gender panel at Fightback’s 2014 public conference Capitalism: Not Our Future. Teresia recently attended an international workshop on self-determination in Papua New Guinea. Ian Anderson interviewed her for Fightback.

You recently attended a workshop in Papua New Guinea. What was this all about?
The Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), Social Empowerment Education Program (Fiji) and the Bismarck Ramu Group (Papua New Guinea) collaborated to organize this event called the “Madang Wansolwara Dance 2014” [Wansolwara means “one ocean, one people”]. The gathering brought community-based organisations, activists, artists, academics and theologians together in order to re-ignite a movement of solidarity across the Pacific. Close to 200 participants from Hawai’i, Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Fiji, Vanuatu, Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand and Papua New Guinea (PNG) explored issues of grassroots sustainability and national self-determination in the face of the relentless assaults of extractive industries, militarization, consumerism and colonialism. A crucial dimension of the gathering was a commitment to putting artistic and creative practice at the centre of our activism—the genres of art we focused on were visual art, poetry, music, and dance. The gathering was described as a dance rather than as a conference, because its structure and philosophy was not at all that of a conventional conference. Three of us went from Wellington: myself, my son Mānoa who is studying dance at Whitireia, and one of our Pacific Studies Honours graduates, Tekura Moeka‘a, who is a Cook Islands dancer and choreographer. A contingent of slam poets came from Hawai’i; visual artists came from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji; there were musicians from the University of Goroka in PNG; yam farmers from PNG and Vanuatu; forestry workers from PNG; social workers from FSM and West Papua; landowners from Fiji and Aotearoa and tribal chiefs from PNG and Vanuatu; theologians from West Papua, Australia, Fiji and Te Ao Ma‘ohi (French Polynesia)—it was quite an amazing gathering of people, perspectives and skills!

What are some of the ongoing struggles in Papua New Guinea?
It’s important to remember that PNG occupies roughly one half of the second largest island in the world. PNG is also the Pacific Island region’s most populous country at 7 million; it is the most linguistically diverse with over 1000 distinct languages at a recent count, and it is also the most rich in natural resources. The “Madang Wansolwara Dance 2014” was held in a province of PNG (Madang) that harbors mining industry, logging, tuna fisheries and a cannery. Over the six days we were there, we learned that ongoing struggles include a) preventing the rampant exploitation of the country’s vast resources; b) ensuring the equitable re-distribution of wealth generated from both foreign investment and local industry; c) developing strong governance systems that allow for robust civic participation and state and corporate accountability. It’s hard for us in this part of the Pacific to imagine how much wealth is being extracted out of PNG, I mean they’ve just delivered on an 18+billion dollar liquefied national gas project with BP! So it should have one of the highest per capita incomes in our region, it should be able to sustain a high quality infrastructure and provide decent medical services and education to all its citizens, but it can’t because the wealth that isn’t going off-shore is held in the hands of politicians and other local elites, and that ‘wealth’ is based on the destruction of the environment. One of the newspaper headlines that greeted us when we landed in Port Moresby was that the Fly River, the second longest river in the country, was dead. This was a consequence of untreated waste from the Ok Tedi open pit copper and gold mines being discharged into the Fly and Ok Tedi rivers.

What was the main message you took away from the discussion of struggles in Papua New Guinea?
Before going to Madang, it was easy to be influenced by the foreign media’s preoccupation with violence and security issues in the country. The main message that I took away from our gathering was that things are a lot more complex there, and while it seems logical to work to eliminate things like inter-tribal warfare, raskol attacks and gender-based violence from everyday life in PNG, we need to be vigilant about the way that ‘security’, ‘peace’ and even women’s rights can effectively be coopted into the agendas of government and large corporations—that aren’t really about security or peace or women’s rights, but about making it easier to extract natural resources. It’s heart-breaking to think that the cost of what is perceived to be ‘peace’ might have to be national, cultural, political, economic and environmental sovereignty.

What’s the connection between the movement in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in the Pacific, particularly Aotearoa/NZ?
The main connection is that we are facing similar types of economic logics, and the same type of corporate and state collusions around extractive industries. Our demographics are rather different, though. PNG’s population of 7 million has an indigenous majority. Aotearoa New Zealand does not have an indigenous majority—Māori are 15% of the population at the latest census. While Māori understand their need to be actively involved in decisions around mining, Pasifika people as a migrant group constituting 7% of the population and largely urban-based, may not be as alert to the implications of extractive industries for them. Also, with mining being a mainly terrestrial activity in the Pacific in the last century, the centre of gravity was mainly in Melanesia, so Melanesians have a longer history and familiarity with these industries, while the Polynesians who have been migrating to New Zealand haven’t really had to think too much about it. In the 21st century, however, with the advent of deep sea mining technology, countries with small land areas but huge marine territories granted to them under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention are now being encouraged to exploit their sea beds. The Cook Islands is one of those countries. With over 61,000 Cook Islanders living in New Zealand and less than 15,000 back in the islands, this means that Cook Islanders in New Zealand will need to educate themselves pretty quickly about the costs and benefits of proposed sea bed mining in their homeland. Hopefully, they’ll be able to learn some valuable lessons from their cousins in Aotearoa New Zealand as well as in Melanesia.

You brought copies of the Fightback magazine as a gift. How were these recieved?
Yes, I did. I took copies of the Fightback magazine as well as copies of Kassie Hartendorp’s booklet on Women, Class and Revolution over to Madang as gifts. Some I presented to individuals who I thought would especially appreciate them, and others I left on a gift table, and they all got snapped up! One PNG participant used the Fightback magazine as a kind of memento book that he asked everyone to sign and write notes of encouragement or their email addresses on. That was really cool!

What opportunities can you see for deepening the connection between self-determination movements in this region?
I think this Wansolwara [“one ocean, one people”] movement is very promising, and really fills a gap that was left when the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement fell into inertia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Our next meeting is in Vanuatu in 2016, and there is a Youngsolwara (youth) meeting planned for Suva in 2015. Right now, I think it’s really important that the movement grows strong roots and branches in the Pacific Islands. As far as the Wansolwara movement in Wellington is concerned, when Mānoa, Tekura and I returned from Madang, we organized an evening session where we invited friends from the university and wider community to hear about our experiences and join the movement. Our focus in Wellington since we returned from Madang has been on building awareness about West Papua’s struggle for independence. We’ve been promoting the #WeBleedBlackandRed campaign that was started by PCC and PANG in Fiji to build regional awareness about West Papua, and we’ve also done a few actions around media freedom in West Papua. We’re also slowly building up a second stream around seabed mining, and Tekura and I made a joint written submission to Vanuatu’s first national consultation on deep sea mining earlier this month (October). We’re keen to work in solidarity with groups like Peace Movement Aotearoa and the Green Party, who have been the most consistent in reminding New Zealanders of their obligations to West Papua. I think we have a lot to learn from the dialogues and debates and formulations of a socialist position that go on in Fightback Aotearoa, too. But it’s crucial for us to develop our own ideological standpoint and a solid and autonomous constituency amongst Pasifika students and youth in this country.

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