Who is truly ‘developed’ and who has the skills to live sustainably?

This article was first published in the Solomon Star, Monday October 10, 2016

According to the United Nations, the Solomon Islands is a ‘least developed country’. The underlying assumption is of course that this is an undesirable state of affairs, and that every effort should be made to ‘develop’ by fostering economic growth, in much the same way as most other countries have done. One of the most frequently cited obstacles to economic growth is the perceived inadequacy of skills among people in the Solomon Islands. The World Bank tells us that ‘there is a serious skills deficit in the Solomon Islands, constraining its people from taking advantage of the economic opportunities.’

I recently went for a hike from Kakabona, across Guadalcanal, to Tangarare on the Weather Coast. Before the advent of the motorised ‘banana boats’ a decade or so ago, this was something of a highway. It was the only way in which people from the west side of the Weather Coast could reach Honiara. Today, hunters use the trails occasionally, but long stretches of the trail have practically vanished in the thick undergrowth.

It isn’t a hike for the faint hearted, and I carried about 15 kilograms worth of food and gear. I will not bore you with my packing list – the point is, even though I have some outdoor experience, I needed a lot of stuff to undertake a three-day journey through the jungle. Most importantly, I hiked with a friend and guide, Stanley Mapaniata, without whom I would undoubtedly have gotten lost within hours. It would not have been the first time a foreigner went missing in the dense tropical forests of Guadalcanal. So, you can picture me there, with a big backpack, good footwear, and outdoor clothing.

By contrast, the Solomon Islanders who venture into the forest typically carry little more than a bush knife. They don’t have to bring anything else, since they have a very special set of skills, sometimes described as ‘wilderness skills’ although I much prefer the Australian term ‘bush craft’. They need not carry water, since they know what vines they can cut to get a drink. They need not carry food, as they have the skills to catch fish in the rivers, and the knowledge to identify and harvest edible plants along the way. They need not carry a tent, since they can construct a shelter in less than 20 minutes, using nothing but materials from the forest. And they need no medical kits, as they know what plants can be used to treat cuts, bruises, headaches and diarrhoea. They don’t even need matches. In Kusumba, I met a man who made a friction fire with no tools faster than I could make it with my matches and prepared tinder – a fine display of bush craft skills.

 Governance & Justice Group 
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      Stanley Mapaniata cooking kasume, harvested from the forest, using bamboo as a cooking pot.

Stanley Mapaniata cooking kasume, harvested from the forest, using bamboo as a cooking pot.

This prompted me to start asking people around me about their bush craft skills. Very quickly I realised that many people in the Solomon Islands, especially those who grew up outside of Honiara (which is the vast majority), still have the skills, the knowledge, and the mindset to live in symbiosis with nature; to live as all human beings did for hundreds of thousands of years, right up to the industrial revolution. This way of life, and the skills it requires, may not generate much economic growth, but living off subsistence farming, small-scale fishing, and the occasional outing to harvest wildlife from the jungle, is clearly far more sustainable than the way in which people in my ‘highly developed’ country are living.

Put in a different way; it wasn’t the lifestyles of ‘unskilled’ and ‘least developed’ Solomon Islanders that caused global warming, polluted oceans, poisoned rivers, and destroyed ecosystems. Sure, we are seeing considerable environmental degradation in the Solomon Islands today, but that is a symptom of unregulated capitalism – not exactly an economic system that the people of this country chose for themselves. Ironically, the ongoing ecological destruction in the Solomon Islands is a direct consequence of the largely failed attempts to ‘develop’ and spur economic growth.

Earlier this year, the United Nations adopted the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) largely in response to the realisation that what so far has been considered ‘development’ (a term taken to be little more than a euphemism for ‘economic growth’) has caused social and environmental side effects so disastrous that a radical revision was needed. While the SDGs retain an emphasis on economic growth, they redefine sustainable development as being ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

To me, this all begs a fundamental question: who is truly ‘developed’? The people who live rather sustainably, with skills to live in harmony with nature, or people like me, who live totally unsustainably, estranged from nature, with only the ‘skills’ to fuel an economic system that has devastated our global environment to the extent that our entire existence on this planet is now threatened?

The Solomon Islands may be described as ‘least developed’ on account of its failure to generate economic growth, and its people may lack the skills needed to make the national economy grow. But if we apply the sustainability criterion, as the SDGs suggest we do, then we may find that the way in which most people in this country live is actually highly developed, in the sense that they indeed are trying ‘to meet the needs of the present’ using skills and knowledge that have been passed down through generations, ‘without compromising the ability of future generations’ to do the same.

As for those of us who pump out massive amounts of carbon dioxide by running air conditioners powered by diesel generators, driving our SUVs, flying around the world, consuming products transported half way around the globe, and generating mountains of waste in the process – perhaps we ought to show more respect for the rural people in this country who live quite sustainably and who have the skills to do so. Achieving sustainable development globally will probably require us to live a lot more like them, and not the other way around.

Marcus Baltzer