The Island of Anuta in the Solomon Islands is densely populated per square kilometer – even though the population there is at 300. But the people have a fascinating culture and system of sustainability to teach us a thing or two.
Deep in the South Pacific lies a tiny island called Anuta. In just 1/6th of a square mile is packed a population density as high as Bangladesh.
Its 300 citizens are among the most self-sufficient people on the planet, and they need to be, as the next populated island is a whopping 70 miles away.
Life on the isolated island dates back a staggering 2,900 years, according to historian Patrick Kirch, but there have been uninhabited periods stretching as long as 500 years. The most recent populating occurred “15 generations ago” in tribal lore, or approximately 350 years.
A tiny part of the Solomon Islands, Anuta isn’t without compatriots, but the island is certainly extremely isolated.
With such distance from neighbors in a vast ocean famous for its cyclones, living a sustainable life isn’t a “choice” like for us. For them, sustainability and restraint are a matter of survival.
After all, around the same time that Anuta became repopulated, another island in the South Pacific was approaching the end of their civilization, thanks to life lived no respect to sustainability.
Elsewhere, A Cautionary Tale
On Easter Island sit statues we’ve all seen before. An iconic image, the Moai, in all their massive carved grandeur, look across the land, presumably watching over its people. Sadly, the making of these Moai was the unmaking of security for this civilization. Why? Because of all the trees brought down so the statues could be rolled from the cliffs they were extracted from over to chosen spots where they’d sit throughout their future.
It’s a classic story of greed and exploitation. We don’t really know why they had such drive to create these Moai, destroying the environment in the process, but anthropologists now point to Easter Island as an example of what happens to a society when they disregard the environment in a quest for wealth and status.
To look at Easter Island today is to see an island razed to the surface. Barely any trees remain and even the shape of the land itself has been transformed due to all the stone removed for statue-making. Instead of being razed, it should be covered with jungle. It should be packed with palm trees and amazing foliage and the weird wildlife found native to islands all over the Pacific. It ought to have massive colonies of seabirds, but like the wildlife and trees, the islanders brought them all to extinction.
So while Easter Island was dying, nearly 6,000 miles away on Anuta Island were some Tongans landing to start a new life, a new civilization.
When did you last walk half a mile? Well, that’s the diameter of Anuta Island. Just ½-a-mile wide. In that small space is crammed 300 people and everything they will need to survive. Solomon Islanders call it Te Fatu Sekeseke, “the slippery stone,” because it’s so small it’s a wonder life takes hold there.
Anutans have created a society that understands life’s delicate balance. While Easter Islanders were cutting down all the trees just to roll statues, the Anutans’ outrigger canoes have been treated like heirlooms for ages, because they know how rare the wood is. Some have had canoes in their family for 150 or more years, still putting them to frequent, if not daily, use.
They rotate crops and appreciate every bit of food their crops produce. They carefully store part of their harvest underground, knowing a single cyclone can wipe them out, but their food stores will save them. They hunt judiciously, knowing there’s a limited supply and that the birds, fish, and other wildlife must be respected if their colony is to thrive.
Does Aropa Mean Utopia?
Thriving is the goal, and to that end, the islanders have a concept they live by: “Aropa.” Under this belief, they prize collaboration, practice sharing, and think compassion towards others is critical. As part of this way of life, they life with what’s called a “gift economy.” This isn’t bartering; nothing is expected in repayment. Instead, think “what goes around comes around,” but in a good way.
No Anutan will ever go hungry if his neighbor has food. Those with successful crops share with those who’ve had failures, and they work together to make the next harvest better. Even those who earn money, like fishermen travelling to distant neighbor islands to sell their catch, essentially share those funds with others by way of purchasing manufactured goods that are to benefit all on Anuta. Those who catch food, kill game, or make useful tools are all too happy to share them with their fellow Anutans, without expecting anything in return. Instead, they live with the confidence of knowing anytime they are ever in need, their tribe has got their back.
And Then There’s Us
This tiny half-mile-wide island in the vast Pacific somehow has everything they need. Us, on the other hand, we fly in lamb from New Zealand, avocados from Mexico, pineapples from Hawaii, and clothes from China. Our world has no borders, not really.
Because we can travel the world, we do, and this “global economy” has transpired with little thought to all the miles, fuel, and pollution that’s born of our exotic purchasing choices. But like the Moai culture of Easter Island, our frequent-flyer ways are not sustainable, not anymore Climate is changing, economies are out of whack, and much of the West is scrambling to solve our inequities and the accompanying environmental strife.
If this little island can look at their immediate surroundings, all half-mile-wide of it, and say “Everything we need, we have,” then don’t you think we can look at this big old continent of ours and learn to live within its means?
Until we learn how to do that, we’ll see a continuing parade of sociologists and anthropologists visiting and studying this small, happy, giving society that somehow has managed to make paradise out of a little molehill in the giant Pacific.
If you’re interested in seeing more of these two lessons in sustainability, the BBC series South Pacific features them both in episode 1.