By Art Holbrook with grateful input by Jim Boutilier, PPP’s President Emeritus and Founder of SPPF
Seventy-five years ago in August 1945, the United States Air Force dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those bombs unleashed a race to build ever more destructive weapons. Several nations turned to the vast Pacific Ocean for these tests. However, vast as it is, the Pacific is far from uninhabited.
The United States began post-war tests starting in 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands of Micronesia with the residents of the atoll moved to Rongerik Atoll ahead of the first tests. They were left alone there for over a year before an anthropologist from the University of Hawaii found them starving on the barren landscape, and they were moved again. Even today, Marshall Islanders from islands near Bikini have elevated levels of many cancers; the female population has a cervical cancer mortality rate that has been reported to be 60 times higher than comparable mainland U.S. populations.[i] The people of the Marshall Islands have filed many lawsuits in an effort to compensate them for the desecration of their homelands and the damage to their health.
The United States was not alone in nuclear testing in the Pacific. The British, beginning in 1952, tested nuclear weapons in the Gilbert and Ellice Island archipelago which in 1976 became the independent nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu. Amid mounting protests from Pacific Island nations and anti-nuclear activists from many countries at the increasing evidence of nuclear fallout around the world, atmospheric and underwater testing was forbidden under the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Despite this ban, nuclear testing continued. The French conducted aerial nuclear tests on Mururoa and Fangataufa in the Tuamotu archipelago of French Polynesia starting in 1966 and underground tests up to 1996.
The remote and seemingly peaceful islands of Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia, the three regions that contain so many small island nations of the Pacific Ocean, have remained to this day part of the on-going great power struggle for dominance of the region. With the Japanese pushed out of the islands during World War II, the island nations soon became part of the Cold War as Russia attempted to build influence in Micronesia and later competition between the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China as they sought friends and allies in Oceania as each of those nations sought votes in the United Nations. Today, China is active in the region, principally in Polynesia and Melanesia, as they fund major building projects and seek to influence island state governments. Their activity, and their aggressive approach in the region, have generated increasing concern in western capitals.
What does this brief history have to do with the 45th anniversary of Pacific Peoples’ Partnership (PPP)? The Pacific Peoples’ Partnership, or the South Pacific Peoples’ Foundation (SPPF) as it was known from 1975 to 2000, was founded in Canada as an adjunct of a U.S.-based organization, the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific whose main goal was to protest the nuclear tests. The U.S. link brought suspicion on SPPF because of the American nuclear testing. Recognizing this challenge to SPPF’s identity and desiring more autonomy, the organization soon broke away from its U.S. parent and became an independent organization.
Even as social justice and environmental issues grew in importance in SPPF’s early years, the foundation remained responsive to military issues. It lobbied against Canadian military participation in naval exercises targeting a Hawaiian island sacred to the indigenous people there. It also became a partner with Pacific Islanders in the Pacific Campaign Against Sea-Launched Cruise Missiles. SPPF’s role in that campaign was to alert global peace committees that, while land-based cruise missiles were being curtailed in Europe, those missiles were making their way to Pacific testing sites.
But the early members of SPPF had a more ambitious agenda on their minds than just military testing. From the beginning SPPF’s vision was clear: to increase awareness among Canadians of development issues in the Pacific Islands, and to attempt to connect knowledge of input-and-response networks with the Pacific Islands. As well, the organization developed efforts to connect knowledge and cultural sharing among Indigenous peoples both in Canada and the Pacific with a goal of building solidarity. And, of course, we needed to develop a membership and funding base to support our activities both in Canada and in the Pacific.
In the early days, SPPF was fortunate to have substantial funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and took full advantage of those funds to carry out ambitious projects in the South Pacific. However, government funding is a double-edge sword. It gave us the wherewithal to carry out programs but we always had to be sure we were within the guidelines set out by the government of the day. Early boards and directors recognized this challenge and began diversifying PPP’s revenue sources, a fortunate piece of advance planning as CIDA funding dried up in the 1990’s. As Stuart Wulff, former PPP executive director from 1991-2000, said, “In a way, the lost CIDA funding liberated us to follow our vision. PPP is now more engaged directly on the ground.”
What has PPP accomplished in our forty-five years?
Andy Nystrom, PPP’s invaluable archivist and research assistant, has compiled a fascinating selection of 45 projects and events highlighted in back issues of Tok Blong Pasifik, the foundation’s news magazine. These initiatives, ranging from artist exchanges to cyclone relief to HIV/AIDS prevention to youth and programs to combat violence against women, demonstrate PPP’s wide-ranging activities and relevance in the South Pacific. Long-time PPP members may celebrate anew our organization’s rich history while new members can learn what a dynamic and richly-rewarding experience being part of PPP can be. We hope you enjoy these glimpses into our archives; it is our goal to make those archives even more accessible in the future. Here are a couple of samples of what you will find there:
Vanuatu, We Are With You! (2015)
On March 13, 2015, category 5 Cyclone Pam devastated the southern region of Vanuatu. By virtue of ties that run deep between Victoria, Canada and Vanuatu, the shock of this event quickly became very personal for Victoria, British Columbia residents that have family, friends or colleagues in the region. Reports from the country lent compelling urgency to mobilizing support focusing on this unprecedented natural disaster during which access to safe drinking water, food and housing became an immediate priority.
Vanuatu Member of Parliament, Ralph Regenvanu reported at the time, “The total population of Vanuatu is affected, as the cyclone travelled north to south, with the eye going over Shepherds, Efate, Erromango and Tanna. Cyclone Pam has damaged or destroyed 90 per cent of the infrastructure in Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital and largest town, and damage to the more remote islands and communities is equally devastating.”
In very short order, Pacific People’s Partnership (PPP) flew into action connecting with Canadian government officials, key organizations and individuals in Canada and in the South Pacific. A hallmark fund-raising event, “Vanuatu, We Are With You!”, did much to raise the disaster’s profile, bringing together PPP’s staunch supporters and many new friends of the organization to raise over $11,000. Half the funds were put towards a shipping container filled with much needed supplies for disaster relief and the remainder for rebuilding of schools and hospitals.
Enterprising West Papuan Women Initiative (2013-2015)
Enterprising West Papuan Women was funded through Development & Peace, LUSH Canada, and other donors between 2013 and 2015. It was facilitated in partnership with the Manokwari-based Institute for Research, Analysis, and Development of Legal Aid (LP3BH) to support livelihood opportunities for women in West Papua and promote gender equality. Under this program, PPP constructed several women’s cooperative centres within Arowi and Mansinam, both in the Bird’s Head Peninsula of West Papua. The centres function as small-scale, co-operative stalls for livelihood development and related skill-building activities such as financial management, strategic planning, proposal writing, and community organizing.
It has been no small feat for PPP just to stay alive for forty-five years … indeed, many NGOs don’t last that long. However, PPP has met many challenges to accomplish that feat. Even more, it has been an achievement to have produced so many significant programs and events for the people of the South Pacific and the Indigenous peoples of Canada in those forty-five years. We look back proudly at our past and with eager anticipation we look forward to what comes next.
I believe it can be said with confidence that PPP has demonstrated its resilience and enduring relevance over the years. We remain Canada’s only non-governmental organizational devoted to the people of the South Pacific and, as such, have a voice of authority that is acknowledged by out federal and provincial governments and by the people of many countries throughout the South Pacific region. In recent years PPP has sent First Nations youth to the islands as part of an expanded mandate that recognizes the historical parallels between Canada’s Indigenous peoples and the peoples of the South Pacific as they work to overcome the challenges of their colonial pasts. While the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed some new developments, we are on the cusp of new and exciting programs that will add more chapters to PPP’s legacy as we look to our 50th anniversary.
Prepared by Art Holbrook, PPP Board Member and Chair of the Communications Committee. Art has been a board member at PPP for the last three years. He has traveled to Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu and has developed an affinity for the people of the South Pacific island nations.