- While living on a rural island in the Southwest Pacific country of Vanuatu one would not expect to find a plastics manufacturing plant or the remnants of the industry in a region of the world where customs and traditional beliefs are strongly observed. Finding plastic products in the vast reaches of the bush is either an oddity, or just a sign of the times.
Plastics probably arrived in Vanuatu during World War II, or when ``John Frum America'' stepped onto the shores of Vanuatu, unloaded his wares, and founded by accident what is now known as the Cargo Cult.
Regardless of how plastics ended up here, it is here to stay and is playing an important role in preserving culture, providing a healthier lifestyle, and making life easier.
The earliest beginnings of the use of plastics manufacturing and engineering in Southeast Malekula can be traced to around the late 1970s, when Enrel Bolmassing found a high density polyethylene purging from an injection molding machine floating off the coast of Southeast Malekula, where he resides.
An experienced mechanic and machinist who helped U.S. troops during World War II in Luganville on the island of Santo, Bolmassing used the scrap purging to manufacture bush-knife handles and repair plastic buckets.
Now plastics can be found throughout the 83 islands that make up Vanuatu, as products are imported from China and Australia to Port Vila and are distributed to the outer islands from vendors and wholesalers. Recycling happens as a matter of necessity, as the average income per family is less than US$2,000. Rather than seeing curbside collection of plastics, juice containers become water bottles, and broken water buckets either are welded or sewn up with local materials and used as decorative planters for flowers. Even scraps of plastic are reheated, molded, and machined into durable handles for bush knives.
On the Maskelyne Islands in Vanuatu, a plant that makes fiberglass outrigger canoes was started by Australian yachtsman Trevor Naylor. While cruising through the southern islands of Malekula in 2000 he was approached by the chiefs of three villages to help them either find more trees to make their traditional dugout outrigger canoes, or build one from fiberglass. He recognized that if they did not resolve this issue their deforestation practices would cause some valuable food trees to become extinct.
Having felt the burden of the people, he decided to come out of retirement from custom yacht manufacturing and engineer a fiberglass outrigger canoe that is culturally appropriate and more efficient than traditional dugout outrigger canoes. On Jan. 7, the South Malekula Development Association launched and sold its first fiberglass outrigger canoe. After a week of testing by local villagers, a few minor modifications were made before the product was shipped to a village for transportation of people and food to and from the mainland.
Recognizing another need, SMDA also manufactures 650- and 1,300-gallon fiberglass rainwater tanks.
They decided to make molds and produce the water tanks because most of the well water is polluted, and the tanks in use now are open concrete pits that attract mosquitoes. The fiberglass rainwater tanks capture water in an enclosed container that helps to prevent mosquito reproduction.
Issues of management, health and environmental risks, and sustainability challenge many community-based ventures of this nature.
However, overwhelming support from the community, province and the Vanuatu government has diminished risks. Eight Ni-Vanuatu men from the island have been selected to work in the factory to learn practical skills in fiberglass mold making, maintenance and manufacturing techniques.
With current staff being all male, gender equality is the next challenge SMDA will need to tackle. Most Ni-Vanuatu people have only a sixth-grade education, live off the food from their gardens and shell copra to pay for school fees and other miscellaneous goods. Rural training centers were created to provide practical skills in trades such as agriculture, carpentry, home care, health and business management.
Recently, SMDA created a partnership with the Uluveu Rural Training Center to create a comprehensive management program.
SMDA hopes to provide employment to a couple of the women currently enrolled in a sales and management program.
The linkage between SMDA and the Uluveu center is a good partnership because SMDA needs trained workers, while students need to find employment after graduation.
Now that the plastics industry has arrived on the small rural island community of Maskelyne Island at the request of the Ni-Vanuatu people, it will be interesting to see if they will continue to use and reuse plastics in their current innovative fashion, and restore the damage done to the environment from deforestation.
Drefahl is a Peace Corps volunteer on Vanuatu's Maskelyne Island. He develops training modules for the Regional Training Centers, and provides training in sales, marketing, management and finance. Prior to joining the Peace Corps, he sold resin for WestChem Inc. and Ashland Distribution Co.