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close this bookThe Courier N° 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
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View the documentAcknowledgements

Vanuatu's cultural and historic sites survey

by Myfanwy van de Velde

It's not so often that a country sees its very distant past as of importance to its future. That is the case, though, in Vanuatu, where a small-scale project-the Vanuatu Cultural and Historic Sites Survey- has, over the past five years, made a tremendous achievement in recording the many facets of the country's heritage for future generations.

The VCHSS (or Rejista Thong Olgeta Olfala Ples Thong Vanuatu, as it is known in the vernacular) sets out to identify, record and map as many as possible of the Melanesian country's archaeological, cultural and historic sites. In examining known sites-and in many cases discovering new sites in the process-the project is unearthing and preserving for posterity a wealth of detail about Vanuatu's prehistory as well as about its more recent social and economic history.

The manner in which it is done demands a wide variety of skills. Vanuatu is not, of course, one neat island, every corner of which is easily accessible-few, if any, of the Pacific island countries are. In Vanuatu's case there are dozens of populated islands, and some 100 indigenous languages. (Most of the people of Vanuatu - the pi-Vanuatu - speak a newly emerged contact language, called Bislama, which is now the national language).

The Survey (which the EU has been part-funding since 1990) has employed the services of some 60 volunteer fieldworkers to visit sites and record their findings. In general village people and their chiefs welcome the volunteers, and demonstrate pride in 'their' site and satisfaction that government has sought to preserve it. Local knowledge about the myths surrounding the site and its original and later uses is noted (and often photographed) and this-together with its physical characteristics-is reported back to the government-run Cultural Centre in the capital, Port Vila. Here the findings are recorded not only in written form, but also electronically (with software designed specifically for the project), with site position data recorded on a geographical information system, Mapinfo.

The survey is not limited to physical evidence of the past, however: the volunteers often set out with cassette recorders and cameras to register traditional stories or songs and dances.

The work of the dedicated few (all ni-Vanautu) working on the VCHSS is well advanced, but there is no danger that the inventory that has been created will itself become history. A prime function of the Rejista is that it should serve as a tool in the appropriate planning of development projects, reducing-indeed preferably eliminating-the damage so often done to a country's cultural heritage through ignorance or disregard of sites of cultural or archaeological value. And things are looking good already: though the Survey is brand new, it is already a government requirement that it should be consulted before a development project is planned. Prehistory shaping future development: in Vanuatu, at least, that is felt to be right.