Vanuatu, officially the Republic of Vanuatu, is a Pacific island country located in the South Pacific Ocean. The archipelago, which is of volcanic origin, is 1,750 kilometres east of northern Australia, 540 kilometres northeast of New Caledonia, east of New Guinea, southeast of the Solomon Islands, and west of Fiji.
Despite its tropical forests, Vanuatu has a limited number of plant and animal species. It has an indigenous flying fox, Pteropus anetianus. Flying foxes are important rainforest and timber regenerators. They pollinate and seed disperse a wide variety of native trees. Their diet is nectar, pollen and fruit and they are commonly called “fruit bats”. They are in decline across their South Pacific range. However, governments are increasingly aware of the economic and ecological value of flying foxes and there are calls to increase their protection. There are no indigenous large mammals. The nineteen species of native reptiles include the flowerpot snake, found only on Efate. The Fiji banded iguana (Brachylophus fasciatus) was introduced as a feral animal in the 1960s. There are eleven species of bats (three unique to Vanuatu) and sixty-one species of land and water birds. While the small Polynesian rat is thought to be indigenous, the large species arrived with Europeans, as did domesticated hogs, dogs, and cattle. The ant species of some of the islands of Vanuatu were catalogued by E. O. Wilson.
The region is rich in sea life, with more than 4,000 species of marine molluscs and a large diversity of marine fishes. Cone snails and stonefish carry poison fatal to humans. The Giant East African land snail arrived only in the 1970s, but already has spread from the Port-Vila region to Luganville.
There are three or possibly four adult saltwater crocodiles living in Vanuatu’s mangroves and no current breeding population.It is said the crocodiles reached the northern part of the islands after cyclones, given the island chain’s proximity to the Solomon Islands and New Guinea where crocodiles are very common.
The climate is tropical, with about nine months of warm to hot rainy weather and the possibility of cyclones and three to four months of cooler, drier weather characterised by winds from the southeast. The water temperature ranges from 22 °C in winter to 28 °C in the summer. Cool between April and September, the days become hotter and more humid starting in October. The daily temperature ranges from 20–32 °C. Southeasterly trade winds occur from May to October.
Vanuatu has a long rainy season, with significant rainfall almost every month. The wettest and hottest months are December through April, which also constitutes the cyclone season. The driest months are June through November. Rainfall averages about 2,360 millimetres per year but can be as high as 4,000 millimetres in the northern islands. In 2015, the United Nations University gave Vanuatu the highest natural disaster risk of all the countries it measured.
In March 2015, Cyclone Pam impacted much of Vanuatu as a Category 5 severe tropical cyclone, causing extensive damage to all the islands and deaths. As of 17 March 2015 the United Nations said the official death toll was 11 (six from Efate and five from Tanna), and 30 were reported injured; these numbers are expected to rise as more remote islands are reached.
Cyclone Pam is possibly the worst natural disaster in Vanuatu’s history. Vanuatu lands minister, Ralph Regenvanu said, “This is the worst disaster to affect Vanuatu ever as far as we know.”
Vanuatu is a Y-shaped archipelago consisting of about 82 relatively small, geologically newer islands of volcanic origin (65 of them inhabited), with about 1,300 kilometres between the most northern and southern islands.
Two of these islands (Matthew and Hunter) are also claimed and controlled by France as part of the French collectivity of New Caledonia.
The fourteen of Vanuatu’s islands that have surface areas of more than 100 square kilometres are, from largest to smallest: Espiritu Santo, Malakula, Efate, Erromango, Ambrym, Tanna, Pentecost, Epi, Ambae or Aoba, Gaua, Vanua Lava, Maewo, Malo and Aneityum or Anatom. The nation’s largest towns are the capital Port Vila, on Efate, and Luganville on Espiritu Santo.
The highest point in Vanuatu is Mount Tabwemasana, at 1,879 metres on the island of Espiritu Santo.
Vanuatu’s total area is roughly 12,274 square kilometres, of which its land surface is very limited (roughly 4,700 square kilometres. Most of the islands are steep, with unstable soils and little permanent fresh water. One estimate, made in 2005, is that only 9% of land is used for agriculture (7% with permanent crops, plus 2% considered arable). The shoreline is mostly rocky with fringing reefs and no continental shelf, dropping rapidly into the ocean depths.
There are several active volcanoes in Vanuatu, including Lopevi, Mount Yasur and several underwater volcanoes. Volcanic activity is common, with an ever-present danger of a major eruption; a nearby undersea eruption of 6.4 magnitude occurred in November 2008 with no casualties, and an eruption occurred in 1945. Vanuatu is recognised as a distinct terrestrial ecoregion, which is known as the Vanuatu rain forests. It is part of the Australasia ecozone, which includes New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand.
Vanuatu’s population (estimated in 2008 as growing 2.4% annually) is placing increasing pressure on land and resources for agriculture, grazing, hunting, and fishing. 90% of Vanuatu households fish and consume fish, which has caused intense fishing pressure near villages and the depletion of near-shore fish species. While well-vegetated, most islands show signs of deforestation. The islands have been logged, particularly of high-value timber, subjected to wide-scale slash-and-burn agriculture, and converted to coconut plantations and cattle ranches, and now show evidence of increased soil erosion and landslides.
Many upland watersheds are being deforested and degraded, and fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce. Proper waste disposal, as well as water and air pollution, are becoming troublesome issues around urban areas and large villages. Additionally, the lack of employment opportunities in industry and inaccessibility to markets have combined to lock rural families into a subsistence or self-reliance mode, putting tremendous pressure on local ecosystems.
Vanuatu has relatively frequent earthquakes. Of the 58 M7 or greater events that occurred between 1909 and 2001, few were studied.
Vanuatu has been divided into six provinces since 1994. The names in English of all provinces are derived from the initial letters of their constituent islands:
Malampa (Malakula, Ambrym, Paama)
Penama (Pentecost, Ambae, Maewo – in French: Pénama)
Sanma (Santo, Malo)
Shefa (Shepherds group, Efate – in French: Shéfa)
Tafea (Tanna, Aniwa, Futuna, Erromango, Aneityum – in French: Taféa)
Torba (Torres Islands, Banks Islands)
Provinces are autonomous units with their own popularly elected local parliaments known officially as provincial councils. They collect local taxes and make by-laws in local matters like tourism, the provincial budget or the provision of some basic services. They are headed by a chairman elected from among the members of the local parliaments and assisted by a secretary appointed by the Public Service Commission.
Their executive arm consists of a provincial government headed by an executive officer who is appointed by the Prime Minister with the advice of the minister of local government. The provincial government is usually formed by the party that has the majority in the provincial council and, like the national government, is advised in Ni-Vanuatu culture and language by the local council of chiefs. The provincial president is constitutionally a member of the electoral college that elects the President of Vanuatu.
The provinces are in turn divided into municipalities (usually consisting of an individual island) headed by a council and a mayor elected from among the members of the council.’
According to the 2009 census, Vanuatu has a population of 243,304.
The inhabitants of Vanuatu are called ni-Vanuatu in English, using a recent coinage. The ni-Vanuatu are primarily (98.5%) of Melanesian descent, with the remainder made up of a mix of Europeans, Asians and other Pacific islanders.
The national language of the Republic of Vanuatu is Bislama. The official languages are Bislama, English and French. The principal languages of education are English and French. The use of English or French as the formal language is split along political lines.
Bislama is a pidgin language, and now a creole in urban areas. Essentially combining a typically Melanesian grammar with a mostly English vocabulary, Bislama is now the lingua franca of the entire archipelago of Vanuatu, used by the majority of the population as a second language.
In addition, 113 indigenous languages, all of which are Southern Oceanic languages except for three outlier Polynesian languages, are still actively spoken in Vanuatu. The density of languages, per capita, is the highest of any nation in the world, with an average of only 2,000 speakers per language. All vernacular languages of Vanuatu (i.e., excluding Bislama) belong to the Oceanic branch of the Austronesian family.
In recent years, the use of Bislama as a first language has considerably encroached on indigenous languages, whose use in the population has receded from 73.1 to 63.2 percent between 1999 and 2009.
Vanuatu’s name derives from the word vanua (“land” or “home”), which occurs in several Austronesian languages, and the word tu (“stand”). Together the two words indicated the independent status of the new country.
Vanuatu was first inhabited by Melanesian people. The first Europeans to visit the islands were a Spanish expedition led by Portuguese navigator Fernandes de Queirós, who arrived on the largest island, Espíritu Santo, in 1606. Since the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies had been unified under the king of Spain in 1580 (following the vacancy of the Portuguese throne, which lasted for sixty years, until 1640, when the Portuguese monarchy was restored), Queirós claimed the archipelago for Spain, as part of the colonial Spanish East Indies, and named it La Austrialia del Espíritu Santo.
In the 1880s, France and the United Kingdom claimed parts of the archipelago, and in 1906, they agreed on a framework for jointly managing the archipelago as the New Hebrides through an Anglo–French condominium. An independence movement arose in the 1970s, and the Republic of Vanuatu was founded in 1980. Since independence, the country has become a member of the United Nations, Commonwealth of Nations, Organisation internationale de la Francophonie and the Pacific Islands Forum.
The prehistory of Vanuatu is obscure; archaeological evidence supports the theory that people speaking Austronesian languages first came to the islands about 3,300 years ago. Pottery fragments have been found dating to 1300–1100 BC.
The Vanuatu group of islands first had contact with Europeans in 1606, when the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, sailing for the Spanish Crown, arrived on the largest island and called the group of islands La Austrialia del Espíritu Santo or “The Southern Land of the Holy Spirit”, believing he had arrived in Terra Australis (Australia). The Spanish established a short-lived settlement at Big Bay on the north side of the island. Espiritu Santo remains the name of the largest island.
Europeans did not return until 1768, when Louis Antoine de Bougainville rediscovered the islands on 22 May, naming them the Great Cyclades. In 1774, Captain Cook named the islands the New Hebrides, a name that lasted until independence in 1980.
Whaling vessels were among the first regular visitors to this group of islands. The first recorded visit was by the whaler Rose in February 1804. The last known whaling visitor was an American vessel the John & Winthrop in 1887.
In 1825, the trader Peter Dillon’s discovery of sandalwood on the island of Erromango began a rush of immigrants that ended in 1830 after a clash between immigrant Polynesian workers and indigenous Melanesians. During the 1860s, planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoa Islands, in need of labourers, encouraged a long-term indentured labour trade called “blackbirding”. At the height of the labour trade, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the islands worked abroad. Fragmentary evidence indicates that the current population of Vanuatu is greatly reduced compared to pre-contact times.
In the 19th century, missionaries, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, arrived on the islands. Settlers also came, looking for land for cotton plantations. When international cotton prices collapsed, they switched to coffee, cocoa, bananas, and, most successfully, coconuts. Initially, British subjects from Australia made up the majority, but the establishment of the Caledonian Company of the New Hebrides in 1882 soon tipped the balance in favour of French subjects. By around the start of the 20th century, the French outnumbered the British by two to one.
The jumbling of French and British interests in the islands brought petitions for one or another of the two powers to annex the territory. The Convention of 16 October 1887 established a joint naval commission for the sole purpose of protecting French and British citizens, with no claim to jurisdiction over internal native affairs. In 1906, however, France and the United Kingdom agreed to administer the islands jointly. Called the British-French Condominium, it was a unique form of government, with separate governmental systems that came together only in a joint court. The condominium’s authority was extended in the Anglo-French Protocol of 1914, although this was not formally ratified until 1922. Melanesians were barred from acquiring the citizenship of either power, and were officially stateless.
In the 1920s, indentured workers from French Annam (now part of Vietnam) came to work in the plantations in the New Hebrides. They were 437 in 1923, 5,413 in 1930, then after the crisis[clarification needed] 1,630 in 1937. There was some social and political unrest among them in 1947.
Challenges to the Condominium government began in the early 1940s. The arrival of Americans during the Second World War, with their informal habits and relative wealth, contributed to the rise of nationalism in the islands. The belief in a mythical messianic figure named John Frum was the basis for an indigenous cargo cult (a movement attempting to obtain industrial goods through magic) promising Melanesian deliverance. Today, John Frum is both a religion and a political party with a member in Parliament.
The first political party, established in the early 1970s, was called the New Hebrides National Party. One of the founders was Father Walter Lini, who later became Prime Minister. Renamed the Vanua’aku Pati in 1974, the party pushed for independence, which was gained amidst the brief Coconut War.
The independent Republic of Vanuatu was established in 1980.
During the 1990s, Vanuatu experienced a period of political instability that led to a more decentralised government. The Vanuatu Mobile Force, a paramilitary group, attempted a coup in 1996 because of a pay dispute. There were allegations of corruption in the government of Maxime Carlot Korman. New elections have been held several times since 1997, most recently in 2016.
Vanuatu culture retains a strong diversity through local regional variations and through foreign influence. Vanuatu may be divided into three major cultural regions. In the north, wealth is established by how much one can give away, through a grade-taking system. Pigs, particularly those with rounded tusks, are considered a symbol of wealth throughout Vanuatu. In the centre, more traditional Melanesian cultural systems dominate. In the south, a system involving grants of title with associated privileges has developed.
Young men undergo various coming-of-age ceremonies and rituals to initiate them into manhood, usually including circumcision.
Most villages have a nakamal or village clubhouse, which serves as a meeting point for men and a place to drink kava. Villages also have male- and female-only sections. These sections are situated all over the villages; in nakamals, special spaces are provided for females when they are in their menstruation period.
There are few prominent ni-Vanuatu authors. Women’s rights activist Grace Mera Molisa, who died in 2002, achieved international notability as a descriptive poet.
The traditional music of Vanuatu is still thriving in the rural areas of Vanuatu. Musical instruments consist mostly of idiophones: drums of various shape and size, slit gongs, stamping tubes, as well as rattles, among others. Another musical genre that has become widely popular during the 20th century in all areas of Vanuatu, is known as string band music. It combines guitars, ukulele, and popular songs.
More recently the music of Vanuatu, as an industry, grew rapidly in the 1990s and several bands have forged a distinctive ni-Vanuatu identity. Popular genres of modern commercial music, which are currently being played in the urban areas include zouk music and reggaeton. Reggaeton, a variation of Dancehall Reggae spoken in the Spanish language, played alongside its own distinctive beat, is especially played in the local nightclubs of Port Vila with, mostly, an audience of Westerners and tourists.
The island of Pentecost is known for its tradition of land diving, locally known as gol. The ritual consists for men to land dive off a 98-foot-high wooden tower with their ankles tied to vines, as part of the annual yam harvest festival. This local tradition is often compared to the modern practice of bungee jumping, which developed in New Zealand in the 1980s.
The cuisine of Vanuatu (aelan kakae) incorporates fish, root vegetables such as taro and yams, fruits, and vegetables. Most island families grow food in their gardens, and food shortages are rare. Papayas, pineapples, mangoes, plantains, and sweet potatoes are abundant through much of the year. Coconut milk and coconut cream are used to flavour many dishes. Most food is cooked using hot stones or through boiling and steaming; very little food is fried.
The national dish of Vanuatu is the laplap.