This week I am in the Cook Islands at a meeting convened by the Pacific equivalent of CARICOM. Unlike elsewhere in Asia, everyone at this meeting knows the Caribbean, and indeed CARICOM. That is, the policy makers do. Most recently, Pacific states met in Barbados in a Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) meeting.
Raratonga (one of the Cook Islands) is Caribbean beautiful, though I suppose it could be said in the reverse. All depends on who is doing the comparison. Skies are crystalline, light is squinting bright, the sea, variations of blue – royal blue deep, light aquamarine, and the breezes are constant and cool.
I feel definitely a belonger in the environment, flora the same as home, green hills in the background. This could be Tobago, St.Kitts or Grenada. Except, a very small population of about 10,000. Yesterday, with no vehicles behind ours, one in front and two motor bikes to the side, the driver told me that when he wants peace and quiet, he goes to another island. Raratonga is too busy. I sighed, me the Bangkok transplant, living with people, traffic, noise, light, happenings.
While there is some sense that we are all SIDS people together in similar waters, in fact the Pacific SIDS are in a geography that challenges the reach of globalisation. Spread across the most vast of oceans, there are some 20,000 plus islands. Even nation states can be comprised of hundreds of islands, like the Bahamas, but dotted over a large expanse of ocean. There is no equivalent of our little LIAT which can and usually, reliably does (despite all the ungrateful hating we lump on it), impeding the kind of connectivity which we take so for granted. Pacific Islanders have to travel through hubs, New Zealand, or Australia, or Honolulu or Fiji to move within their region. What ought to be a 4 hour direct flight may take 20 hours and two connections. The expense of it all.
The Pacific is also facing climate change with rising sea levels threatening to submerge islands. With a small population, the region grapples with diseconomies of scale. Economic and social opportunities for young people are limited, the big countries attract and the brain drain goes on.
But Pacific Islanders are hopeful. They speak like many of us do, with a fervent passion and commitment to their space in the ocean and the world.
Yet the truth is, that to most people, Pacific islands are like Caribbean islands, too small to know or think about, low growth, donor dependent, indebted, food importers and questionably economically sustainable, at least in the neo-liberal market framework.
Ever so sensitive about those ignorant people who do not know where we are from, (who would not know the difference between Dominica and Dominican Republic????) we also do not know too much, if anything, about the Pacific.
At the conference I picked up a brochure on Wallis and Futuna. Could that be a product, like chocolates or an ice cream brand???? Maybe a finance firm or engineering company?
Too shame. Here is the Pacific Islands lesson of the day taken from Wikipedia:
Wallis and Futuna, officially the Territory of the Wallis and Futuna Islands(Uvea mo Futuna), is an island collectivity in the South Pacific . Its land area is 264 km2 (102 sq mi) with a population of about 15,000. Mata-Utu is the capital and biggest city. The territory is made up of three main volcanic tropical islands along with a number of tiny islets, and is split into two island groups that lie about 260 km (160 mi) apart, namely Wallis Islands (Uvea) in the northeast, and Hoorn Islands (also called the Futuna Islands) in the southwest, including Futuna Island proper and the mostly uninhabited Alofi Island. Since 2001 it has the status of a French overseas territory.
So can we say that gooseberries are to cherries what Wallis and Futuna is to Turks and Caicos .
Or that gooseberries are to cherries what Wallis and Futuna is to Martinique and Guadeloupe.