Vanuatu Combines Old And New Techniques For Disaster Prep

The death toll after Cyclone Pam hit the South Pacific nation was notably low thanks to new warning systems and ancient shelters. But saving the local economy may be harder than saving lives.

Life in Port Vila, Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam
Life in Port Vila, Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam
Claudine Wéry

PORT VILA — The property damage from the March 13 cyclone across the South Pacific archipelego of Vanuatu is huge, having hit some 80% of buildings and homes, and devastating farmlands and flattering the landscape.

But what may be most interesting in the aftermath of the destruction is the rather modest loss of human life. Initial reports of dozens killed was revised last week to a death toll of 11.

For this country of 83 islands that stretches across 12,200 square kilometers, (4,710 square miles) with a population of 267,000, issuing a complete review of the post-catastrophe situation in every village and town is an immense task. It's being tackled by the Vanuatu government in the capital of Port Vila with the help of international humanitarian missions.

With six active volcanoes and about 15 more that are dormant, as well as elevated risks for earthquakes, cyclones and tsunamis, Vanuatu is one of the most exposed places on the planet for natural disasters, as the 2014 World Risk Report noted.

Despite the force of Cyclone Pam, whose winds reached at 340 kilometers per hour (211 mph) through the night from March 13 to 14, the estimated number of killed and injured is far below similarly strong storms.

Even though Vanuatu remains an underdeveloped country, it has the capacity to confront natural cataclysms, frequent in this part of the world. Several days before Pam arrived, the island nation was already aware of the impending danger. A range of disaster prevention procedures were called upon, including a 24-hour warning center created in 2013.

Vanuatu includes a Ministry of Climate Change, which shares the same building with the national office of natural disasters as well as the meteorological department to facilitate communications during an emergency.

Natural safe havens

Sylvain Todman, a French geophysicist and engineer working for the governmental office of meteorology and geo-risks based in Port Vila, says the traditional know-how of the Melanesian communities also played a role in limiting casualties. Many found shelters in the nakamals, the local social meeting places assembled from natural materials and frequented by lovers of kava, a typical Pacific region beverage.

"The construction of the huts is embedded deeply in the ground," Todman explains. "The walls are low, and the interior is ventilated. All those features make nakamals resistant to cyclones."

Nevertheless, the destruction of subsistence farming, the main form of food production on the islands, risks triggering famine, warns Howard Waru, of Vanuatu's Agriculture Service Office. "It should be OK in the short-term, since people prepared food reserves and picked up whatever fell on the ground, but soon the situation may become critical."

On the main street of Mele, a village northeast of the capital, a big food market usually abundant in bananas, coconuts, yams, taro, sweet potatoes, grapefruit and tropical flowers has been empty since Pam tore through the island country.

A monthly sum of around 20,000 to 30,000 vatus ($185 to $277) was how much women made by selling their merchandise at the market. "I really don't know when they will be able to return," says Philemon Mansale, an eldery man who lives with his whole family in one of the numerous tin-roofed wooden sheds. "There's nothing left to sell."

His house shared the fate of many others and was left half-destroyed by the cyclone. Uprooted sticks and fruit rotting in puddles is all that's left of his garden.

"I'm almost certain that within a few months we will have to cope with famine in the country," says Runto Likiafu, an UN representative dealing with food and agriculture in Vanuatu. "We need to import food and supply the inhabitants with seeds."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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