<< Front page Commentary April 9, 2004

Think one person can change the world? We do.

To the Editors:

I vividly remember unfolding that poster from my acceptance package many years ago, seeing the planet Earth, seeing those words circled around it, comparing that to the short acceptance letter from other schools and thinking...hmmm, this one might just be the place for me.

Four years of an Oberlin education, and a now close to a full two years of a term as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I find myself circling back to that poster, those words, this motto of ours (or whatever it is).

Seems like the phrase is directed more toward “prospies” than to Oberlin students themselves. Certainly the kind of critical thinking I picked up at Oberlin has shown me that you can never really think about one person completely independent of any context, cultural influence, societal norms, etc. We all act within and from an organization, a community, a society, all of which are inevitably tied, through the slowly growing links of globalization, to the world. Eventually we end up looking at a question more like: “Think we can change the world?” So do I.

That idea is partly what brought me, through Peace Corps, here. Here is Vanuatu, a small group of small islands in the S.W. Pacific. I live on the island of Santo, where James Michener wrote Tales of the South Pacific from the beach I can see the island of Ambae which Michener changed into “Bali Hai.”

Vanuatu is one of the most undeveloped countries in the world, consisting mostly of small villages, groups of four or five families living together, trying to live off their land. It’s a country of tropical, paradisiacal beauty.

The development issues are pretty unique and interesting. Vanuatu has not yet crossed the point where population has outgrown the capacity of the land to produce food. Indeed most families grow their own food on their own land, build their homes out of local renewable resources like bamboo and palm thatch and live pretty close to the earth, as it were, needing income only to send their children to school, to buy kerosene to light their homes at night and to buy the occasional kilo of rice.

However, since independence in 1980, the population here has started to grow rapidly. I see this every afternoon in the village, sitting under a mango tree with village chief and other leaders in the community, all of whom are grandparents and get swamped by their kids and their kids’ kids coming out of school.

Every family owns ground that’s been passed down through their families for generations, usually divided by one father among two or three sons. These days families are all already complaining about barely having enough ground to feed everyone.

The math is simple, and frightening. Five families from another village started my village in 1970 and there are now over 300 people here. In a generation or two there’ll probably be 1,000. These small islands simply can’t feed them all.

Eventually more and more people will move to one of the two towns in Vanuatu, where they have no land, resources or job: only misplaced hope. This is the same equation, a few decades delayed, that has led to riots, coups, starvation and suffering in other Melanesian countries like the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

What’s different here is that as development workers we have the lessons learned from what’s happening elsewhere in the world and we have time. Where most development work throughout the world is dealing with crises that are a result of overpopulation and urban drift, in Vanuatu we’re working to prevent and contain those issues from ever happening. This is, of course, very idealistic and it’s a serious race against time.

Some of the goals I’m working with are to help villagers build the capacity of their land through agro-forestry and green manure systems — to help them create new sources of income through utilizing the resources they already have and thus build the capacity of the village’s economy to support and sustain its people, and to raise awareness about environmental issues, population and reproductive health issues to help people protect their land and themselves from the dangers of encroaching external development.

Some of the work I’m doing includes starting up a rural training center to teach local youth skills they can use to utilize their natural resources to make marketable products (i.e. making furniture with bamboo, rattan, wood, carving jewelry with palm nuts, etc.); I’m working with the village chief and his council to start and run a business that raises chickens to lay eggs which we sell cheaply locally; I’m working with the village women’s group to start a dairy business, taming some of the many cows they already raise for export, for milk, butter and ice cream; I’m helping a villager start a coconut oil mill so that he can buy villager’s coconuts locally, which they currently grow for export and make oil which he can resell to them cheaply as a replacement for kerosene in their lanterns, diesel fuel in their trucks and cooking oil.

I’m also working with a local organization to start a rural butchery. Most villagers have two sources of income. They raise coconuts and cattle, which they pay too much money to transport into town and then sell them to exporters for not nearly enough money, which they then use to buy imported goods like canned meat and cooking oil.

They export some of the best beef in the world to earn money to buy the worst canned meat in the world. (They also export coconuts, which makes some of the best cooking oil, to buy cheap Australian vegetable oil.) Absurd. But there’s no electricity or refrigeration in the village so canned meat is the more reasonable option.

So when a community leader asked me to help them start a butchery I leaped at the chance for the same reason I’m trying to bring a coconut oil mill to the village, because it has great potential to create a more sustainable local economy. With the butchery we can buy villager’s cattle and sell them fresh meat cheaper than canned meat, all the while keeping revenue inside the village.

Instead of using an electric freezer running off a generator (it’s a nightmare of inefficiency, rusting mechanical parts, and unsustainability) we’ll convert an absorption-type freezer that runs on kerosene to run on coconut oil. These freezers, which through a small flame evaporate a fluid like ammonia, which condenses at room temperature and through that condensation creates coldness. However they work, they’re remarkably efficient, running on as little as a liter a day. At the end of the day we’ll have a butchery running on coconut oil and a coconut oil mill producing it; buy villager’s coconuts and cattle and sell them fresh meat and oil.

This is my idea of sustainability. So we’ve got all the pieces of the puzzle, it’s putting them together now. As with much development work, it comes down to funding.

For a variety of reasons, in funding this project, I decided to go through a source called Peace Corps Partnerships. Essentially a volunteer gets a project together and then Peace Corps publishes, makes it official, puts it online and people and companies back home can support the project.

Too often donations are impersonal events, with money often lost on its way to actually help people through red tape and organizational support costs. Partnerships have no costs, there’s no red tape; all donations go directly to the villagers through the volunteer. That’s me. That’s the butchery.

And I’ve come back to my original point, that one person can’t change the world. Only we can.

If you’re interested in supporting Khole village’s rural butchery go here to the following address: (http://www.peacecorps.gov index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.contribnow) and scroll down to Vanuatu.

If you’re not or you can’t but you’re interested in what I’m doing, what Vanuatu is all about, what Peace Corps is all about, feel free to e-mail lorend@wildmail.com

–Loren Halter
OC ’01


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