First Global Congress on Community Networking
Barcelona, November 2-4, 2000

Track 1: Global Community Issues
Strengthening regional voices in the global dialogue:
a new geography

 

The Recolonisation of Indigenous Oceania
by Ross Himona, Aotearoa New Zealand
28th October 2000

 

This paper looks at some isuues facing the indigenous peoples of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. It highlights the danger of new technologies being used to re-colonise indigenous peoples, to re-impose the newer colonial geographies upon the ancient sovereign geographies, despite the ongoing process of political decolonisation.

 

To understand the region one must move beyond a continental preoccupation with landmass, and learn to see it as a single oceanic region, inhabited by island-dwelling but ocean-going peoples for whom the oceans are as much a part of the landscape as the islands, for whom the ocean is the food basket, and also an infrastructure, a network of pathways.

In western terms the ocean is "owned" by these peoples, and is an integral part of their many homelands. We are seafaring peoples, having traversed these waters for 17,000 years or more, and the seas are as much our homelands as the relatively tiny landforms.

The West would confine us to our islands and treat us as insignificant indivdual island nations, rather than as sovereign inhabitants of an enormous and ancient oceanic kin-based nation of nations.

 

The region includes indigenous peoples who are minorities in their own lands, such as the Maori of Aotearoa New Zealand, and the indigenous Hawai'ians. It includes nations that have regained their independence from the colonising powers such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa and others, and it includes some, such as American Samoa and French Polynesia that are still subject to government by colonial powers.

The region is still going through the long decolonisation process.

However, regardless of the degree of autonomy exercised by individual nations, the region, and its individual nations, continues to be dominated by the USA, France, Australia, New Zealand, Chile (Rapanui / Easter Island), and the European Union. This domination takes the form of political and economic domination in the case of those nations still governed from abroad, and economic domination in the form of aid. Invariably economic aid is used as a lever to implant the political objectives of the donor nations.

And this very weekend the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand are attempting to convert the Pacific Forum from an organisation of 16 Pacific nations which operates according to the politically tolerant "Pacific Way", into an organisation which will operate according to the foreign values of non-indigenous Australians and New Zealanders.

 

Unfortunately the new communications technologies serve only to reinforce this continuing push to dominate the Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian peoples, regardless of their individual progress towards political decolonisation and sovereignty.

 

Prior to the introduction of the Internet to the island nations, communications and information were dominated by expatriate interests, with most print and broadcast media owned and operated by non-indigenous people, and the telecommunications infrastructure often operated by foreign interests. The stories and news of the indigenous majority have been shown to the world through a non-indigenous filter, and for the most part it has been a distorting filter that supresses news and views based on indigenous concepts and values.

As with the rest of the world, when newsworthy events unfold, journalists parachute en masse into the region with their instant media technologies, impose their instant interpretations on events, and present those distorted interpretations to the world.

The recent coverage of the coups in Fiji and Solomon Islands has shown that in the Pacific the internet also tends to serve the ends of this foreign intrusion, and further excludes the indigenous peoples.

 

In Aotearoa New Zealand indigenous Maori have long struggled to gain a Maori owned and operated media presence. Presently there are a few regional Maori newspapers, two national coverage magazines, a network of government-funded tribal and regional radio stations, and very little coverage of Maori issues on TV. We still battle to make our voices heard.

In 1995 when I first connected to the internet there were virtually no Maori voices in Cyberspace. However there were a large number of non-Maori commentators telling the world their version of our stories and our perceptions. A few of us decided to put a stop to that, and we started to build our own websites, and to challenge the non-Maori voices in all the online fora where they were active. Over the last four or five years we have succeeded in re-appropriating our voice, and we have an increasingly active Maori presence.

The Maori Internet Society is leading the way with many initiatives aimed at staking a claim to our slice of Cyberspace. We recently started to build a Maori Communications Forum which will include Maori journalists and publishers, radio and TV broadcasters, librarians and the Maori Internet Society. We have made a foray into the world of UNESCO, and aim within three years to have the Maori Communications Forum accredited as a contributing organisation to UNESCO's New Zealand National Commission. And our voice is becoming heard within the global Community Networking movement.

At flaxroots level we have a remarkable measure of internet penetration. There are about 600 Maori language nests (mainly pre-school level) with internet access. Each of these organisations is the centre of a small family-based learning community, and they are located all over the country, in both urban and rural areas. Maori medium schools, and schools within concentrations of Maori population, are presently being connected to the Internet and to a video-conferencing network. Maori health providers as well, are becoming more numerous, and connected.

There are many other small-scale community projects and initiatives.

We are presently discovering the uses of the Internet to help coordinate and propagate indigenous political activism, at home and abroad. You will all be aware, at one end of the activism spectrum, of the Zapatista Flood Tide which was the development of "denial of service" activism in support of the indigenous struggle in Mexico.

In Aotearoa New Zealand at the moment there is much conference and consulting activity around the digital divide, e-commerce and e-government. The government is responsible for much of this activity, and appears to be taking an interest in the issues. However communities, including Maori communities, are still struggling to be heard in national and regional fora.

But, given that we have only been online for four or five years, we Maori are doing quite well, compared to the rest of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia.

 

The indigenous Hawai'ans were probably the first among us to adopt the new technology, and the new media. Their sovereignty movement has been very active and they have a number of quality websites and online publications. They have also been to the forefront in networking the many indigenous peoples of the Pacific, and beyond.

 

In Australia, where the indigenous Aboriginal people have lived for more than 50,000 years, they too have an active and growing presence on the Net, but remain far behind mainstream Australia.

 

Throughout the remaining Pacific island nations, the internet has made very little impact on the lives of indigenous peoples, and the so-called Digital Divide is wide indeed. Where it is available in the larger towns and cities it is prohibitively expensive for most people.

It is likely to remain so, given that the island nations are economically poor, that telecommunications within and between the islands are rudimentary and non-digital, and that broadband connections are mainly reliant on expensive satellite communications.

A browse through the Pacific Islands web directory at New Zealand's National Library shows that most sites about indigenous Oceania are non-indigenous, in a region where the indigenous peoples are the majority.

The University of the South Pacific electronically links twelve countries but that network is badly underfunded, and rudimentary.

 

The two coups in Fiji and Solomon Islands earlier this year highlighted the problem.

In the case of Fiji there was no indigenous Fijian presence on the Web, in addition to few or no indigenous media outlets. Consequently the regional debate was dominated by Australian and New Zealand politicians and media, and the voices of Indo-Fijians predominated over the voices of Indigenous Fijians, in Fiji and abroad. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the various participants in the whole affair, the debate was grossly one-sided.

Early in the process I built my Fiji Coup Supplement website to help present an indigenous viewpoint, and for three or four long months it was just about the only alternative internet information source, world-wide.

And in the discussion groups and chatrooms the Indo-Fijian voice drowned out the Indigenous Fijian voice.

At the moment there is still no alternative indigenous internet presence, other than the Ministry of Information of the Interim Government of Fiji, which began an internet campaign as mine wound down.

The situation during the coup in the Solomon Islands was even more parlous, with the only indigenous voices coming from the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (after I prompted them to post their twice daily bulletins to the Web), and from a public servant who had access to the Net.

 

My point is that whilst the new technology can and should be a liberating influence in the hands of the indigenous peoples of the region, it can and is being used to reinforce the old hegemonies of the old colonial powers, and their cultures, concepts and values.

 

My dream is a project to link all the indigneous peoples of the region via affordable broadband connections, to provide for their voices to be heard above those of the non-indigenous interpreters of voice, opinion, and culture. Agencies such as the World Bank and UNESCO will be involved, as will commercial providers, but it will be designed by indigenous people, and driven by indigenous needs.

 

Map of the region
Brief overview of the region
Population statistics around the Pacific, and Asia
The journey to Aotearoa New Zealand