The human dimension of evacuation

Volcanic activity is raising the possibility of evacuation for an entire island's population

Kate Genevieve
Thursday 18 October 2018 22:21 BST

The evacuation of Hawaii’s Big Island after the dramatic eruption of the Kilauea volcano earlier this month made global headlines – but similar events have been unfolding as a result of a volcano 5,500 km away across the Pacific.

On Vanuatu, the activity of Manaro Vui, the volcano on the island of Ambae is raising the possibility of a wholesale evacuation of the island’s entire population from the island.

This is not only raising urgent questions of how these people could be re-located, housed and fed. It is also, the Independent has learned, raising the question of how the people of an island nation can preserve their culture when no longer living on the geographical area which for so long defined it.

Vanuatu is an island country where 280,000 people live and is made up of an archipelago of 83 islands. The Ambae residents number around 10,000. The activity of the Manaro volcano has produced thick ash and gas over the island, destroying crops and contaminating water supplies.

In the last nine months the population of the island has already endured two temporary evacuations. But all know the next evacuation would likely have to be permanent.

Faced with the continuing crisis, the council of Ministers of Vanuatu has been deliberating for weeks over the best way forward. The state’s National Disaster Management Office has released a planning document that shows if the situation continues to deteriorate many will have to abandon their homes – not to return.

The question is how can the dispossessed best be supported if such a permanent relocation does come to pass. The people’s Paramount Chief, Benuel Garae, the President of the Ambae Island Council of Chiefs, makes clear that a crucial part of the answer is to help ensure that his people do not lose their culture as well as their land.

“The people of Ambae believe that the documentation of our cultural heritage is of critical importance for our cultural continuity,” he warned. “This is our story. We are the land of Ambae and the land of Ambae is us. We want this story to continue to live on through future generations and for them to know what it means to be from Ambae.”

The arts and cultural exchange NGO Further Arts has stepped forward to take up this challenge. It is now working with the people of Ambae to provide support in documenting and helping them share their cultural history and knowledge.

Tom Dick, who founded the NGO 18 years ago said the organisation had no choice once Chief Benuel Garae wrote to them and asked that the community be supported to research the principles, the customs, and the ways of being that are specific to Ambae cultural identity.

He explained: “One of the missions of Further Arts is to enable the voices of local people to be heard. The story of their relationship with the exceptional landscape of Ambae, including the volcano and the caldera lake is truly their own story to tell.”

“There are many questions for communities within transition which have no clear answers: how will life be different if I am not on my homelands? How can I honour my ancestors when I am far away from their graves?”

“What we learn again and again is that it is not for organisations to come up with solutions to the emotional strains of the community, but rather to meaningfully support a space of communication, story sharing and mutual learning. Listening nurtures a true sense of resilience to grow.”

“We are emphatically in support of Chief Benuel Garae's request and have opened a funding campaign towards raising the resources to meet it. We understand the creative task we’ve been invited into is not to make an archive, but assist the creation of a living communication with the Ambae people.”

Further Arts first began to work with the Ambae community in September last year when the people underwent a temporary evacuation to the neighbouring island of Espiritu Santo.

Over the weeks of the displacement 52 temporary camps were established. Basic needs were met by government agencies who each day brought in rice, canned meat, sugar and toilet paper. The Red Cross worked hard to supply extra food, tents and tarpaulins.

The Further Arts team, however, with the support of the Ambae Council of Chiefs, the Penama provincial government as well as the National Disaster Management Office, worked to take testimony and help ease the discomfort and fears of the evacuees arriving at that time.

“What we found was that the spirit in the camps was strained and anxious” remembers Delly Roy Nalo, an indigenous woman of Vanuatu and of Kiribati descent who created Further Arts’ “Teks Unit” in 2011 to support cultural heritage transmission in the northern islands and share creative media skills.

”The heat and humidity were such that tents had to be abandoned by day and struggles and tensions were felt as those who had been evacuated were herded together regardless of their family connections. The Further Arts team worked with the disaster response personnel and every day we worked with a different family group, moving through the camps, listening to people and documenting their stories.”

In a crisis people can be reduced to numbers – the statistics of those who have been evacuated, the number of families to feed, the people who need medical care. The stories told by the media are often stories of victimization, the NGO says. Whilst international aid agencies meet a need for food, water and shelter in a disaster, it seeks to support the need for emotional wellbeing and cultural coherence.

The team therefore did much more than record: they translated, solved problems, worked out conflicts and contributed to establishing communication structures within the Camps.

“Communication is an art form nourished by closeness, trust and communication strategies that people know and feel at home with,” Mr Dick said. “We are really clear that this activity does not pretend to be neutral: it is one of deep listening in order to connect and record the concerns, worries and hopes of the evacuated; communicating on how to avoid potential clashes and working together to resolve the struggles that become apparent in this process.”

The islands of the Pacific are particularly vulnerable and now, with permanent evacuation a growing possibility, the predictions are that more upheavals can be expected. Further Arts show that meeting the difficulties of evacuation is helped not only by having the practicalities covered, but by the invisible glue that keeps a community together – kinship, respect and solidarity.

Giving real support to this can have a transformative effect that endures. Delly Roy Nalo emphasises that this transformation is born not from quick fixes, but from long-term support for the culture of local communities: “Standing with our brothers and sisters, we all rise to face the challenges. Together can find solutions to the damage.” The wider global community has something to learn here about what disaster relief can be.

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