Vanuatu Daily News Digest | Kirk Huffman on Vanuatu’s Diabetes rating

Diabetes: the bad side of ‘Progress’ and ‘Development’

Kirk Huffman

The news that Vanuatu has the 6th highest rate of Diabetes type 2 ( sik blong suga) of any nation in the world (as in Vanuatu Daily Digest of 16.11.15, based on a report in the Independent of the 14th) should be another wake-up call to Vanuatu, to other Pacific nations, and to those foreign nations and organizations concerned with Pacific ‘development’. ‘Development’ is supposed to be good, not bad. Unfortunately for Pacific islanders, many foreign organization and nations – and certain Pacific nations themselves – are often following aspects of development models that are not only unsustainable and short-sighted but also often have, because of the ‘baggage’ that comes with them, certain results that are downright dangerous. Health is a case in point. In 2006, the late Jean-Marc Pambrun, then Director of the Museum of Tahiti and the Islands, in Tahiti, told me ‘Le developpement nous tue’ (‘Development is killing us’). He meant literally what he said. The extremely rapid and massive increase in Diabetes type 2 amongst the Polynesian population in Tahiti at that time was debilitating (and killing) significant numbers of his people and was closely linked with the rapid introduction (and promotion) of poor-quality ‘fast food’ and the promotion of an unhealthy ‘western’ lifestyle of the type also promoted as part of the ‘modern way to go’.

Developments seem to be leading to similar health results in Vanuatu and in many other areas of the Pacific. Unfortunately, although local and foreign governments, medical services, and aid agencies seem to periodically recognise these dangers, they also often seem to only pay lip service to the need for care and caution, and then seem to lapse into accepting and promoting the continuation of the same dangerous models of ‘progress.’ By doing so, they unfortunately are often, unknowingly, aiding and abetting what one might call a slow form of ‘benign genocide’….

Diabetes type 2 can be easily avoided if one lives a proper island lifestyle on a proper island diet. Pacific islanders have been told this many times (but not necessarily by those promoting the wrong development models). Here is an example from a 2005 Vanuatu/UNESCO publication:

"A Matter of Life and Death: Diabetes’. There is a practical health issue associated with all this (‘Development’). This project (the Traditional Economy/Kastom Ekonomi) aims to support aspects of the traditional life and value systems particularly in the outer islands of Vanuatu. A hopeful, beneficial, side-effect of this project is that it may help to minimize urban drift to the capital. An active, rural, lifestyle, on traditional foods, is a lot healthier than an office job in the capital. A rapidly increasing health risk for ni-Vanuatu is the much-feared ‘sik blong suga‘, Diabetes Mellitis. Medical studies done in the Pacific have indicated that Melanesians and Polynesians have a high ethnic susceptibility (Polynesians more so than Melanesians) to developing diabetes if they change from a traditional, active. lifestyle with a traditional diet to a western type inactive lifestyle and a western diet. Recent medical studies with urban and rural Melanesians in New Caledonia clearly point this out, and a 1996 (French) medical report (there) concludes ‘This finding confirms the deleterious (dangerous) effect of western life in the population subject to rapid modernization’.

Sipos yu wantem livem wan gudfala longfala laef, maet igud blong tingbaot blong lego Vila, gobak long aelan mo leftemap pig, mat, shel mani, yam, kava o wanem we yu gat blong yu save gat wan rij mo longfala laef! (If you want to live a good, long, life, if might be good to think about leaving Vila [the capital], going back to your island, and promoting pigs, mats, shell money, yams, kava and whatever else you may have so that you can live a rich and long life!)."

(Text taken from Huffman, K., Traditional Money Banks in Vanuatu, Port Vila (Vanuatu National Cultural Council and UNESCO), 2005, page 35).