Wokbaot wetem kalja: culture and disaster management in Vanuatu
6 mins read

Wokbaot wetem kalja: culture and disaster management in Vanuatu

“Climate-related displacement is a defining feature of our future. We must prepare for it and prepare for it now,” Vanuatu’s Minister of Climate Change, Ralph Regenvanu, said when he took office in 2022.

The reality of any resettlement in Vanuatu is that it is primarily done in the context of custom (community culture), 97% of Vanuatu’s land is under customary tenure. The role of the state in managing disaster displacement is nuanced due to its overlap with customary institutions that perform a similar function. Cultural systems must therefore be effectively integrated for disaster risk management to be effective.

In Vanuatu, one of the countries most vulnerable to natural disasters, population displacement is increasing as tropical cyclones intensify and extreme rainfall increases. Volcanic eruptions also cause population displacement. For example, due to the eruptions of the Manaro volcano between 2017 and 2019, the entire population of the island of Ambae was evacuated twice. On the islands of Ambrym and Tanna, volcanic ashfall has forced communities to migrate to commercial centres or neighbouring islands.

Community responses to natural disasters have been developed over generations and are rooted in cultural knowledge and practices. However, this traditional environmental knowledge is now being challenged by the increasing severity and frequency of weather events. Chief Jean-Pierre Tom, Chief Executive Officer of the Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs (MNCC), notes:

There is an urgent need to document traditional knowledge in relation to disaster risk management. This also applies to issues of traditional architecture, food preservation techniques, food sharing between communities, temporary relocation sites based on family networks and anything that strengthens the resilience of communities in the event of disasters.

From 2021 to 2024, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in partnership with the MNCC and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, conducted an applied research project called Wokbaot Wetem Kalja (Moving with Culture) to help Vanuatu government stakeholders better understand culture-centred strategies in displacement management. Focusing on the experiences of the dual evacuations from Ambae Island, the project identified ways for government and humanitarian agencies to support and promote the role of customary institutions to foster culturally sensitive approaches that maintain social cohesion and traditional environmental knowledge even when communities are displaced far from their ancestral lands. This work builds on the 2018 project National Policy on Climate Change and Disaster Displacementwhich commits the Vanuatu government to promoting respect for traditional environmental customs and knowledge.

The project identified the following key strategic areas that enhance the positive use of culture and custom in disaster risk and displacement management strategies.

First, customary institutions must be empowered to lead cultural discussions and negotiations to accommodate displaced persons, including to support intergenerational recognition of customary authority attributed to new community members. In the Vanuatu context, while the state’s commitment to working with chiefs is welcomed and sustained, much more needs to be done to maintain public understanding of the role of customary institutions in disaster-related contexts, and thus to build intergenerational respect for these approaches to humanitarian response and peacemaking.

Second, greater public awareness and appreciation of traditional environmental knowledge and cultural systems is essential to address the wave of rapid cultural change. Integrating traditional environmental knowledge into the school curriculum maximizes exposure to traditional knowledge systems that underpin community resilience in the event of disaster or displacement.

Targeted socialization programs with key policy makers build a deeper and more comprehensive appreciation of the value of cultural systems for the implementation of state activities, where sensitive management and leadership enable cultural knowledge holders to work in tandem with state policy makers.

Third, the government must play a facilitating role in cultural mapping and encourage resettlement away from dangerous areas.

Cultural mapping underpins any role played by the State in population relocation, to ensure that responses are based, where possible, on existing cultural and family ties between islands and communities. To be sustainable and pragmatic, State interventions must take into account the socio-cultural dynamics of communities and not undermine social cohesion or cultural priorities and protocols when relocating communities.

This would include mapping safe relocation areas and then providing services in targeted relocation areas, in line with Vanuatu’s decentralisation policy. State support for services such as water and electricity can provide incentives for households to relocate away from unsafe areas.

The enduring presence of customary institutions in facilitating community resilience cannot be overemphasized. The international policy framework for displacement recognizes the importance of risk-informed decision-making that draws on traditional knowledge, through the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. The same goes for the Framework for resilient development in the Pacific which recognizes the importance of “integrating traditional coping mechanisms and local knowledge (to) strengthen individual and community resilience.” At the national level in Vanuatu, the Travel policy encourages the mapping of traditional environmental knowledge in relation to disasters, to inform government planning for future displacement scenarios.

What is clear from the research described here is that it is essential to work with customary systems and respect cultural knowledge and priorities in Vanuatu, reaffirming a key principle of the Pacific Regional Framework on Climate Mobility Regional leaders embraced this approach at the Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands last November. Pragmatic practices such as sharing information and lessons and creating “second homes” to provide emergency shelter and food gardens are as much about traditional environmental knowledge as they are about risk reduction strategies. Integrating this understanding into Pacific Island country systems will contribute to a more contextualized, culturally resilient and less disruptive way of building climate resilience while addressing the challenges of displacement and mobility.

The authors would like to thank Richard Shing for his contribution to this blog.

Download the PDF.


The Wokbaot Wetem Kalja project was funded by the International Organization for Migration Development Fund.