The chief fighting for an indigenous Vanuatu nation

As the Turaga Nation leader awaits trial, his life-long self-determination and economic movement is now floundering.

The activist fighting for an indigenous Vanuatu economy
Chief Viraleo Boborenvanua is photographed in Port Vila where he is on bail awaiting trial [Edward Cavanough/Al Jazeera]

Pentecost Island, Vanuatu – In the slums of Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila, Chief Viraleo Boborenvanua awaits trial on bail.

The middle-aged chief spends his days processing kava root, an intoxicant experiencing an international boom, tending to a small taro plantation and dreaming of a triumphant return to his village of Lavatmengamu – the de-facto capital of the Turaga Nation of which he is the leader.

“All of Vanuatu will turn out to greet me,” he laughs, prompting smiles from his supporters who have gathered in front of his temporary residence in Port Vila. 

In December 2015, police arrested Chief Viraleo and nine other men in Lavatmengamu – a small and isolated settlement located on Vanuatu‘s Pentecost Island – and brought them to the capital to stand trial on charges including burning property in a neighbouring village.

A few days before their arrest, fishermen from that village entered Lavatmangamu’s coastal territory to harvest sea cucumber from the reef, invoking the chief’s ire.

“I summoned them to a meeting and gave them three options: they could either pay a fine to make amends … or they could leave, and be banished from the community. If not, I’d be forced to take actions,” Viraleo says.

Eyewitnesses told Al Jazeera how villagers, including children and pregnant women, ran into the jungle while their homes burned. Violence of this kind is unusual on the island. 

Turaga Nation’s coat of arms on display in Lavatmengamu; the pig’s tusk features prominently [Edward Cavanough/Al Jazeera]

Viraleo doesn’t deny the allegations. He simply says his response to the territorial encroachment was legal under “kustom” law – a traditional form of governance dictated by chiefs, and recognised in Vanuatu’s constitution.

He believes the charges are politically motivated and designed to halt his controversial movement – a multifaceted lifelong project that has seen him devise an alternative currency – the Tuvatu– which is pegged to traditionally valued pigs tusks, invent a script for his native Raga language, and declare his corner of Pentecost the “Turaga Nation”. But with the removal of Viraleo from its base in Pentecost, his movement, which emerged in 1983 as a response to generations of French and British colonial influence, is now floundering.

The kustom economy: a distant revolution

Northern Pentecost is rarely visited by outsiders. Its one outlet to the world is a grass landing strip visited by two light aircraft each week – if the weather holds. 

The south receives more visitors, particularly seasonal day-trippers who come to see its famous land-diving ceremony – a traditional form of bungee jumping.

Lavatmengamu, in the northeast, is particularly remote. Hours from the airstrip, only the sturdiest of vehicles can descend the mud track to the village. Despite being a coastal settlement, accessing Lavatmengamu by boat is challenging, with the shore blocked by reefs and only a handful of entry points.

A small village on the mud track to Lavatmengamu in northeast Pentecost is seen by drone [Edward Cavanough/Al Jazeera]
A small village on the mud track to Lavatmengamu in northeast Pentecost is seen by drone [Edward Cavanough/Al Jazeera]

It is here that Chief Viraleo has pursued a project that aims to harness Pentecost’s traditional economy with the objective of ultimately enabling his people to prosper.

Viraleo’s Tuvatu currency – which has not yet been printed – is pegged to the value of pigs’ tusks and intends to be a paper representation of Pentecost’s traditional economy. It is designed to be exchanged with recognised currencies in Vanuatu and elsewhere in the world.

In Pentecost, and across Vanuatu, the pig’s tusk is a traditional symbol of wealth, still widely used as a means of kustom exchange throughout rural communities. Tusks can take 10 years to grow and are recognised to be worth at least 18,000 Vatu (about $150). While many commodities, such as food and clothing, are grown and produced within local communities, tusks are still regularly used to pay for property, school fees, debts, and celebrations, such as weddings. Viraleo’s hope is that Pentecost Islanders will one day use Tuvatu to buy necessities, such as medicine and basic building materials, from formal economies.

Much of Vanuatu retains a subsistence agricultural lifestyle that generates little recognised wealth. For the hard-working but income-poor citizens of Vanuatu, the Western economic system brought by foreign powers simply doesn’t deliver. For many, Viraleo’s idea of a currency that values a traditional means of exchange in a way that Vanuatu’s official currency, the Vatu, cannot, has found fertile ground.

A chief in northern Pentecost proudly displays his collection of pigs' tusks, which are used as a means of commerce across the island [Edward Cavanough/Al Jazeera]
A chief in northern Pentecost proudly displays his collection of pigs’ tusks, which are used as a means of commerce across the island [Edward Cavanough/Al Jazeera]

READ MORE: Life for Brazil’s Krenak after Fundao dam collapse

Birth of a dissident

In 2001, in a United Nations indigenous peoples conference in New York, Viraleo first declared his homeland Turaga Nation, catching the attention of Vanuatu’s government.

“Ever since I went to New York … the government have been keeping tabs on me, seeing me as almost a dissident,” Viraleo says.

Viraleo’s agenda has caused some authorities in Port Vila to be nervous. The Reserve Bank of Vanuatu has gone so far as to announce possible legal action against Viraleo, should he begin trading with his currency. His movement bears the hallmarks of a genuine separatist push by promoting its own currency, education system, language and legal framework as a means to fill a perceived governance vacuum across rural Vanuatu.

“The government here in Vila only really takes care of 20 percent of the population. It takes care of the 20 percent who are living in town and have jobs, but the 80 percent living in rural areas … they have their local chiefs, but there [is] no central government to take care of them,” Viraleo argues.

Hilaire Bule, the spokesman for Prime Minister Charlot Salwai, says Viraleo has little support on Pentecost. If he is acquitted “only his village will celebrate his return”, Bule says.

While the Constitution recognises kustom law and commerce within Vanuatu, Viraleo’s Tuvatu has “no legitimacy as a genuine form of currency”, he says.

A Pentecost Islander whose property was destroyed in the fire, who did not want to give their name for fear of retribution, says some neighbouring villagers fear the chief’s return and are critical of the “slave-like” devotion he demands of others.

Some of Viraleo’s co-accused have pleaded guilty and in their defence said they have felt influenced and threatened by the chief, reported Vanuatu’s Daily Post.

Even so, support for Viraleo is apparent.

Hilda Lini, Vanuatu’s first female MP and former health minister, is a long-time supporter of Viraleo and the Turaga Nation, and has provided accommodation and legal counsel for his legal struggle. In north Pentecost, Viraleo has inspired devotion. Norris, 18, a student from Laone, a village in Pentecost’s far northwest, walked eight hours each day to Lavatmengamu to learn from Viraleo.

Tony Wilson, editor of the Vanuatu Independent weekly newsmagazine, believes Viraleo “has polarised” the local Vanuatu community, highlighting an old fissure between those who advocate for kustom law verses those who are in favour of the Western system of governance.

WATCH: Hope for Australia’s indigenous (25:00)

The Tuvatu currency on display in Lavatmengamu [Edward Cavanough/Al Jazeera]
The Tuvatu currency on display in Lavatmengamu [Edward Cavanough/Al Jazeera]

Lavatmengamu falls quiet

With its leader indefinitely awaiting trial in Port Vila, Lavatmengamu’s activity has ground to a halt, and the village feels almost abandoned.

Its population, once in the hundreds, now only numbers a few dozen. My guide in Levatmangamu says most inhabitants deserted the village after Viraleo and his men were arrested.

Before the incident, scholars from all over Vanuatu came to train at the kustom school and learn from the chief.

Today, Viraleo’s classroom is empty. On the chalkboard, notes from the last lesson are fading. A kustom bank, reportedly housing billions of Vatu worth of pigs tusks, is closed so long as the chief’s handcrafted timber throne sits empty. And the Tuvatu remains just a dream, rather than the beating heart of a kustom economy.

A poster in Chief Viraleo's Lavatmengamu classroom demonstrates a grammar lesson in his invented script [Edward Cavanough/Al Jazeera]
A poster in Chief Viraleo’s Lavatmengamu classroom demonstrates a grammar lesson in his invented script [Edward Cavanough/Al Jazeera]

The chief concedes his movement has lost all momentum as he fights to clear his name. He says since his arrest, “all the work that I have been doing in Lavatmengamu has stopped.”

Viraleo tells Al Jazeera he will defend himself in court, and is optimistic his acquittal will come soon. But his prosecution seems certain from the government’s perspective.

“You cannot take revenge … you cannot take national law or kustom law into your own hands. That is what Viraleo was doing,” Bule says.

As Viraleo’s future remains in question, so too does the future of his kustom movement, the Turaga Nation – and his dream of Vanuatu prospering off the back of its traditions. 

Source: Al Jazeera