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Panel 5: Natural disasters in Oceania


Chris Ballard, Maëlle Calandra, Siobhan McDonnell, Benedicta Rousseau

Session presentation

Natural disasters are, notoriously, also human productions; that is, they are both mediated through the effects of human agency (social inequality, population distribution etc), and produced by humans as a category of event, requiring a particular explanation and response. In the unfolding context of climate change at a global level, with profound implications for the frequency and intensity of natural disasters at a local level in Oceania, how do such events – including earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption, landslide, cyclone, flood and drought – and the variability of responses to them depart from or contribute to global understandings of disaster? How can we break down presuppositions regarding structure and scale in both experiences of and responses to disaster? With particular reference to recent disasters, we invite contributions that consider the ways in which natural disasters are prepared for, experienced, managed, and documented in Oceania, with reference to individuals, local communities, states, and global and regional agencies. How is disaster assistance anticipated, negotiated and delivered across the widest range of actors; and how do the perspectives and demands of these positions intersect and compete with or elide one another? How are disasters then reconceptualised and morally configured?

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Ambrym, 1913. A case study on the asymmetrical perception of catastrophes

Yoann Moreau (Centre de recherche sur les Risques et les Crises (Mines ParisTech); Centre Edgar Morin (Iiac-Ehess/Cnrs))

On an anthropological level, the notions of environment and milieu, as well as those of risk and vulnerability are understood in a sense that sometimes differs widely from their ordinary usages and their meanings in other disciplines. The reason for this divergence is simple. The definitions of these terms used from an anthropological perspective must be in a position to convey realities that sometimes vary so much as to be asymmetrical. As we will see, what is perceived as risk by some individuals can be considered a stroke of good luck by others, what is seen as a catastrophe by one community of people can transpire to be a desired strategy for another group. By means of a case studies, we will study the cultural variation in perceptions of and methods of handling major hazards.

The case study, which concerns one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the twentieth century (at Ambrym in 1913), will allow us to illustrate one of the linchpins for an anthropological understanding of the relations between human societies and factors that threaten their existences. There is no catastrophe, that is to say disorder, but what is relative to a cosmology, that is to say relative to a historically established order. In other words, human societies evaluate the risks and dangers that could happen to them by the light of their own world view. For reasons of simplicity, our approach will only take account of two major anthropological schemes: on the one hand, so-called “modern” societies that believe that their principle of general organization arises mainly from phusis (the laws of matter) and on the other hand, so-called “traditional”, societies that believe that their principle of order arises above all from nomos (social rules).

The End is nigh: Solidarity and self-preservation while waiting for cyclone Zoe.

Thorgeir Kolshus (University of Oslo)

Zoe, the most powerful cyclone ever measured in the South Pacific, with wind gusts exceeding 350 kph, struck the islands of Tikopia and Anuta during the week after Christmas 2002. 200 km southwest of Tikopia, people on Mota island in North Vanuatu were informed through national radio of an imminent disaster. In this paper, I give an account of the various responses and strategies people chose during this state of emergency. As is common in a time of crisis, people were forced to choose between conflicting moral values - such as the social emphasis on being a good neighbour while looking out for one’s ‘own’ on an island where reliable shelter is in short supply. The paper will also address some methodological issues concerning the role of the researcher, and the conditions for research, within the context of a sudden crisis.

Winds of My Fury: Entangled Aetiologies of Disaster and Morality

John Taylor (La Trobe University)

On March 13, 2015, after making first landfall and wrecking catastrophic damage on its capital and seat of government, Port Vila, category 5 Tropical Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu’s central and southern islands. As people made sense of the disaster in the months that followed, including what was widely interpreted as a relatively low number of fatalities relative to infrastructural damage, two very different narrative interpretations of moral agency emerged: First, an internationally ‘loud’ narrative generated by foreign aid and development commentators and communicated via the international press and social media focusing around climate change and essentialised perceptions of indigenous ‘resilience’ based on ‘centuries old’ traditional knowledge and technologies. As one development commentator put it, “Simply put, Vanuatu is paying the penalty for the sins of the developed world” ( Even so, as the same source argued in a previous article, “the Ni Vanuatu people have had 3000 years to prepare”, and so “traditional knowledge and experience joined with information technology in saving lives.” Second, and by contrast unreported in print or digital media, for many ni-Vanuatu the cyclone and low death toll was interpreted as an expression of God’s will, one that spared human life even as it wrecked devastation on a nation and government increasingly marred by sin and corruption. Simultaneously converging and diverging in teleological and moral orientation, this example demonstrates the ambivalent entanglement of indigenous and exogenous interpretations, orientations and strategies around ‘development,’ as well as of the complex relations of power that entwine them, that may be generated in the context of catastrophic events such as natural disasters. This paper explores these entanglements for what they say about notions of agency, faith and development in Vanuatu.

Exploring the politics of distribution and the search for ‘white gold’

Siobhan McDonnell (Australian National University)

Models of disaster management structures in place across the Pacific establish that in the period post-disaster resources such as cash money, food, water, shelter and clothing are distributed via the nation state, international NGOs and others to the ‘community’. In these models the community remains a homogenous unit, its population undifferentiated.
This paper uses ethnographic research conducted in Vanuatu after Tropical Cyclone Pam to consider the contestations over resources that occur at the scale of the ‘community’. In the Vanuatu disaster management structure local ‘communities’ are represented by Community Disaster Committees established by International NGOs to aid both in the management of disasters and the distribution of resources post-disaster. This paper will focus on the operation of Community Disaster Committees in managing the distribution of resources in two villages on Efate Island. It will argue that attempts to control post-disaster distribution resources created contested claims to authority and status amongst certain male leaders as people became embroiled in the politics of distribution.
Facilitating access to networks of resources represented claims to status amongst local villagers. In this context, relationships with expatriates based both inside and outside Vanuatu were viewed as kind of ‘white gold’ valuable, in part, for the pathways they provided to much needed cash money and material resources for local village groups.

Public benefit, precarity and urban beautification in the wake of Cyclone Pam

Benedicta Rousseau (University of Waikato)

In a presentation to the State of the Pacific conference in September 2015, MP for Port Vila Ralph Regenvanu reflected on the many devastating effects of Tropical Cyclone Pam. He also made the perhaps surprising comment that the cyclone had been “a good thing” for the town. Contextualising his contention, he explained that the town had now changed in positive ways: it’s cleaner than it was, all the rubbish has gone, people are growing vegetables in their yards.
These changes have coincided with an increased policy emphasis in Vanuatu on the provision of green spaces and upgrading of public spaces in Port Vila. In addition to official initiatives such as the redevelopment of the Seafront area and Fatumaru Bay, some Vila communities also have undertaken informal “beautification” initiatives.
This paper considers how urban planning is inflected by the disaster recovery process. Are Vila’s urban recovery efforts an iteration of the common post-disaster encouragement to “build back better”? The paper describes some of these initiatives and examines the ways in which ideas of public benefit are being balanced with precarity engendered by the experience of disaster. This discussion is used as an opportunity to consider too how engagement with infrastructural redevelopment in the wake of Cyclone Pam may be representative of increasing suburban identity for residents of Port Vila.

Unhealthy Aid: Food security programming and disaster responses to Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu

Chelsea Wentworth (High Point University )

This research examines the disconnect between government and NGO responses to Cyclone Pam, and previous healthy food initiatives in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Decades of nutrition education programs have urged families to limit their consumption of canned meat and imported food in favor of locally grown fruits and vegetables. Many ni-Vanuatu needed food aid initially after the cyclone, and NGOs envision disaster relief as a short-term intervention. However, the cyclone exacerbated inequality across Port Vila, magnifying socioeconomic disparities and associated food insecurity that existed before the cyclone, forcing many families to reluctantly rely on unhealthy food aid. Drawing on research conducted over several fieldwork trips from 2010-16, I discuss food security and nutrition programs in Vanuatu, how Cyclone Pam impacted nutrition programming, and how individuals evaluated information on the severity of the Cyclone to prepare for its arrival. I argue that disaster preparedness has not accounted for the values promoted in nutrition education programs, the health needs of the community, or food preferences. I conclude with recommendations for developing culturally appropriate responses to natural disaster relief efforts to utilize the influx of personnel and financial resources to promote sustainable food security measures.

Disasta: rethinking the notion of disaster in the wake of cyclone Pam

Maëlle Calandra (EHESS - Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)

Tongoa was one of the worst-hit islands in Vanuatu when it was struck on 13 March 2015 by Cyclone Pam, the strongest event recorded in the South Pacific for several decades. Torrential rains, rough seas and sustained winds devastated the landscape and livelihoods; the shore was covered with a thick layer of eroded soil, the vegetation was stripped of its leaves, the gardens were wiped out, and most houses were damaged. However exceptional this cyclone might have been, such disruptive events are frequent and widespread on Tongoa Island: landslides, volcanic eruptions, cyclones, droughts, etc., all contribute to shaping the universe of its inhabitants. “Disaster” is a subjective term, varying with circumstances, the impact of the phenomenon and the cultural and social identity of the group affected. This paper seeks to understand the category of disasta and how it is constituted in the context of Tongoa Island, where there is no vernacular word to express the concept of catastrophe. Is there a threshold with which to measure and define disasters? These reflections from the perspective of an anthropology of nature and an anthropology of disaster reveal how considerations around the notion of catastrophe are closely intertwined with the relationships between people and their environment.

Cultural Risk and Opportunity in the Context of Natural Disasters

Meredith Wilson (Universite de la polynesie francaise)

Culture, by its very nature, is always at risk – whether through transformation, destruction or redefinition. So how might culture be said to be at risk in the context of natural disasters, and how are disasters “naturalised” under the terms of different cultural regimes? Through the recent event of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in 2015, and the case study of the World Heritage site of Chief Roi Mata’s Domain, we explore the ways in which repetitive natural disasters have shaped culture in the region. An earlier focus on the impacts to built or tangible heritage is increasingly being balanced by a concern for the transformations wrought by disasters in the intangible heritage of communities. We focus in particular on the issue of cultural transmission and the vulnerability to disaster of the critical link between grandparents and grandchildren. Risk also carries with it the prospect of opportunity, and our paper seeks to understand how that opportunity is variably exploited in post-disaster reworkings of culture.

Are bush fires “natural disasters”? Naturalization of politics and politicization of nature in New Caledonia

Marie Toussaint (EHESS - Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)

Based on a long-term doctoral fieldwork on bush fires in New Caledonia, this communication aims to explore the double assumption that bush fires were shaped as a public issue through specific categorization of human and natural elements and that this work resulted in negative outcomes as far as environment is concerned. This presentation will address the question of mediation between human agency (colonial history, population distribution and development choices) and the production of “bush fires” as a category of event and as a “public problem” calling for a policy solution. More specifically it will address the validity of the qualification of bush fires as a “disaster”. While this phenomenon is both a “mind creation” rooted in colonial imagination and a denied strategy used by administrators and settlers to control land and dominate indigenous people, its growing importance is related to the emergence of environmental concerns. However one must not forget other issues “hidden” beyond bush fires, namely a declining cattle farming and its environmental impacts on drought and biodiversity loss. Addressing this issue leads us to question more generally the manner in which policy-makers, naturalists and environmentalists conceptualize and morally address natural phenomenon through time in a colonial/postcolonial setting.

In the Time of Frost: El Niño and Multi-scalar Responses in Papua New Guinea

Jerry Keith Jacka (University of Colorado Boulder)

The system of weather known as El Niño brings extreme climatic anomalies to the Papua New Guinea highlands. Prolonged droughts accompanied by night-time frosts devastate subsistence gardens. In response, people migrate to lower altitude areas where kin and friends provide sustenance and social support. However, with increasing economic development and the demise of collective kin endeavors in the region, long-distance migration networks no longer offer people respite from food insecurity. In this paper, I examine the changes in social responses to El Niño-caused food shortages at varying scales – from subsistence farmers to international aid agencies – over the past 50 years. The paper explores the limits of resilience when customary social-ecological systems of adaptation intersect with international development efforts.

Humanitarian responses to the 2015-16 El Niño frost and drought in Papua New Guinea

Brendan Jinks

Much of Papua New Guinea (PNG) was severely impacted by El Niño frosts and droughts in 2015-16, as it had been as a result of earlier El Nino events in 1997-98, 1982-83, 1972-73, 1941-42, 1914-15 and beyond. Many communities suffered severe food and water shortages during these severe El Niño events due to poor water supply, destruction of food crops and lack of cash income with which to purchase food. With particular reference to the most recent of these events, this paper explores how governments, UN agencies, international NGOs, church groups and other actors responded to events in PNG. It uncovers how organisations collaborated through coordination mechanisms such as the Disaster Management Team (DMT) meetings co-chaired by the PNG National Disaster Centre (NDC) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Food Security Cluster (FSC) meetings co-chaired by the PNG Department of Agriculture and Livestock (DAL) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN. It will also identify how information on local conditions flows to decision-making arenas in Port Moresby and beyond, and how knowledge from regional offices and Port Moresby reaches (or does not reach) local organisations and communities in rural PNG. This paper is based on work undertaken on the drought response in PNG in 2016, and assessments conducted in affected communities both during and after the El Niño.

Beyond the sciences of volcanology disaster and vulnerability? Some Mengen histories of volcanic events in New Britain, PNG.

Michael Wood (James Cook University)

This paper reviews local and scientific descriptions of volcanic events in New Britain. I argue that local magical and religious orientations to volcanic events as generative of food do not easily fit into the scientifically regulated notions of disaster and vulnerability that also circulate around volcanic eruptions. Both approaches have persisted partly because the various knowledge claims linked to the magic of gardening remain significantly segregated from other forms of knowledge about volcanoes. The full implications of the different claims rarely become practically entangled with each other. As a result state, NGO and scientific workers currently tend to link eruptions to natural histories and cultures of hazard, danger and vulnerability, while some locals continue to produce natural histories and cultures of fertile collaborations with volcanic activity.

Moralizing the rupture: Treaty partnership and ethical practice in the recovery of Christchurch, NZ

Steven Kensinger (University of Minnesota)

This paper seeks to reorient analyses of natural disaster away from a focus on the material dimensions of disaster to an account of the moral implications of disaster. When a 6.8 earthquake struck the city of Christchurch on 22 February 2011, the New Zealand government responded by passing the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery (CER) Act which set the terms for what came to be known as the “Rebuild”- a series of urban redevelopment projects intended to build back better after the devastation of the earthquake. The terms of the CER Act mandated the inclusion of Ngai Tahu, the local Māori tribe, as a strategic partner in managing the rebuild. This move was interpreted by some within the tribal leadership as a renewal of the partnership between Ngai Tahu and the state first promised by the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. One consequence of this legislative partnership was that it framed the Rebuild as a moral problem of the status of the Treaty and the relationship of Māori forms of social organization to the New Zealand state. While disaster studies often focus on the role of capital and neoliberal economic policies in shaping disaster response and recovery, much less attention has been paid to the role of history and culture. This paper argues that the 2011 earthquake did more than just rupture the ground; it ruptured the moral stability of the New Zealand nation by highlighting the ambiguity of the value of Māori racial and cultural difference in relation to the state.

Disaster, Resilience, Repentance and Divine Judgement: Contemporary Christian Interpretations of Climate Change in Fiji

John Cox (La Trobe University)

This paper takes recent Fijian Christian interpretations of Tropical Cyclone Winston as a key site where contested ideologies of Paradise are being reworked. As the idyll of island harmony is disrupted by disaster, Christians have seen Winston as an act of divine judgement and punishment on a sinful people. This paper analyses how narratives of a sinful nation intersect with contemporary formulations of climate change, disaster, politics and human agency.

“Cyclone Winston in Fiji: natural disaster as a challenge to local institutions for marine conservation.”

Tina Andersson (University of Cambridge)

The establishment and use of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) groups is now the established route towards conservation in large parts of the Pacific, especially in Fiji. One of the main strengths of CBNRM often mentioned is its adaptability to different contexts and to changing objectives among stakeholders, an aspect that events such as natural disasters thoroughly test. This paper is based on ten months of fieldwork in Kubulau in Fiji before, during and after Cyclone Winston. It provides an ethnographic account of how this natural disaster affected a community and the local CBNRM group. It looks at how this event was experienced and managed by the group, and how the group’s involvement in disaster assistance shifted its role both within and outside of the community, as well as changing its future agenda during the months following. We can see in the aftermath of disaster a shift within the group away from the original focus on conservation and towards community development. The paper provides an account of how the disaster seemingly strengthened the group and the community in terms of organization, knowledge and motivation, but also how it challenged previous norms and exposed weaknesses – weaknesses arguably inherent within CBNRM itself. The lessons learned can inform our knowledge of the institutional resilience of CBNRM groups in the Pacific and their possible responses to the challenges of future natural disasters.