Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Vanuatu: The Historical-Social Context of Migration to Port Vila and the Moderating Effect of Kastom on Problems of Urbanisation.

Greg Watt

Introduction: Ni-Vanuatu People.

Vanuatu is a collection of around 80 islands located in the southern part of the elongated arm of Melanesian islands stretching from Papua New Guinea in the north, extending southward to New Caledonia to the south. Melanesian peoples migrated down and across from Asian regions, settling in extensive, but loosely related networks of tribal villages over many of the more sizeable islands. Before the arrival of Europeans, Melanesians travelled between islands for barter and trade, and as a consequence, strong home-island identities developed. However, unlike Polynesian peoples who developed island-wide, and even region-wide ruling systems, Melanesian peoples inhabit small independent kin-related villages. Villages are tribally based and collectivised through their common kastom beliefs and language with each village governed by their local chief.  Within Vanuatu, around 130 distinct languages can be found, with no geographic extremes or barriers present to explain the manifested localisation. Epitomising this, Tanna Island possesses seven well-defined languages with four used extensively, despite the island having a relatively gentle topography and a well-developed network of kastom walking trails.

Over 70% of Ni-Vanuatu are located rurally, depend on subsistence living and lead collectivised lives in small villages of 30-40 people.

The Cultural Importance of Wantok Communities.

The Melanesian term wantok arose during the 1800’s out of the need for indigenous peoples to define themselves in the face of interaction with, and domination by, European colonists. While a recent term, its “moral and spirit are integral parts of Melanesian societies since time immemorial” (Nanau G., 2011):

“Wantok is a term used to express patterns of relationships and networks that link people in families and regional localities and is it also a reference to provincial, national and sub-regional identities. It is an identity concept at the macro level and a social capital concept at the micro and family levels particularly in rural areas.”

People that consider themselves to be wantok’s may be bound by a combination of commonality including:

  • Language.
  • Kinship group.
  • Geographical area of origin.
  • Social associations and/or religions.
  • Belief in the principle of reciprocity amongst each other.

The notion of shared social experiences have particular importance for Ni-Vanuatu, and shared responses to natural events are equally important. Melanesia is separated from Polynesia by the Andesite seismic fault line which roughly parallels the arc of the islands and impacts significant parts of Vanuatu with frequent seismic and volcanic activity. Further, climatic conditions in the region are conducive to cyclonic activity with cyclones strengthening as they track southwards from the Solomon Islands. The regular occurrence of extreme physical events has had a lasting effect on Ni-Vanuatu culture, reinforcing its spirituality and underpinning its social fabric. During natural disasters, whole communities (Abbott, 2007), remain isolated for extended periods and island peoples have learned to rely on their collective actions to survive.

Vanuatu has one of the highest likelihoods of being subjected to tropical cyclones in the South Pacific, and also sustains extensive seismic and volcanic activity.

A Rural Majority Living with Subsistence Affluence.

The 2016 Mini Census (VNSO, 2017) shows that 75% of Ni-Vanuatu live in rural locations. Scheyvens and Russell (2013) reference rural Vanuatu as being conflicted, by “subsistence affluence” on the one hand, and a “poverty of opportunity” on the other (Cox M. et al., 2007).  Rural peoples live in traditional communities that still maintain a fairly strict “kastom” way of life, maintaining their livelihood by subsistence agriculture, where monetisation affects only select aspects such as school fees.

The manifestation of “subsistence affluence” is illustrated by the Mini Census (VNSO, 2017) which reveals that 97% of rural Ni-Vanuatu engage in selected vegetable crop production, and 74% produce cash crops, no doubt for sale within local and regional markets. Along with this, 86% of rural peoples also engage in livestock production. Rural peoples are not only able to survive, but can lead full lives provided continuing access to communally held land is assured (Scheyvens R. & Russell M., 2013). Conversely, the “poverty of opportunity” is illustrated by the lack of many essential services, and an absence of national and provincial support, and governance. There is often a lack of access to health, water supply, transport, communications, education and income-earning opportunities that would enable them to improve their standard of living (Cox M. et al., 2007).

Local Ni-Vanuatu spending time in their village gardens, usually from sunrise through to early-mid afternoon.

The Effect of Monetisation and Consequent Economic Migration.

Traditional livelihoods in rural Vanuatu have been based on barter, trade or reciprocity and avoided any formal cash exchange. However, now goods must be paid with hard cash, which in turn, must either be earned, or obtained through the sale of surpluses goods. Opportunities to get employment on outlying islands is scant and generally occurs through agricultural schemes or within the tourism sector. For most, there is little prospect for work without higher levels of education or TVET training (unavailable on outlying islands).  The sale of subsistence goods now takes place in centralised markets and requires vendors to pay to transport their items to market, where they compete with the rest of the island population.  Conversely, essential goods and services have increasingly become monetised, with school fees and books, medical facilities, transport and communication all fuelling the necessity for families to derive a cash income. The inability of communities to earn money coupled with the inescapable need to pay for the most basic of services has marginalised island peoples and placed pressure on them to migrate to urban centres  (Abbott, 2007):

“Can the poor afford to pay? Where incomes are lowest and/or opportunities for employment or other income generation are limited there will be a tendency to migrate where opportunities are perceived to be greater. If this leads to rural depopulation, increasing dependency and a reduction in rural production or productivity, the situation becomes a self-feeding spiral.”

Poor Ni-Vanuatu live within the informal economy and have little means to earn income for essential goods and services.

Vanuatu’s Formal and Informal Economies.

A dual economy exists where, the majority, consisting of at least 70% of Ni-Vanuatu live in a predominantly rural situation, within a traditional cultural environment, and contribute mainly to the informal economy. In contrast, the minority, constituting at most 30%, but more likely closer to 15% of the population work in the formal economy, reside in urban areas, and live their lives in a cultural flux, balancing their traditional way of life with that associated with a “modern” European way of life.

Port Vila is the nucleus of the formal economy, and most economic activity occurs there. The Mini-Census shows that 61% of people living within urban areas are employed, compared to only 19% in rural areas. While rural Ni-Vanuatu look to Port Vila with aspirations to obtain a better life, mostly, motivations are short term where they can have some means to earn money. However, employment opportunities are often impermanent, and for many Ni-Vanuatu living in Port Vila, any thoughts concerning their future are illusionary. The Mini Census highlights the casual and transient nature of employment and reinforces the natural preponderance of uncertainty amongst Ni-Vanuatu (VNSO, 2017).  The greatest obstacle most Ni-Vanuatu face, is the prospect of a future change, one where they have little voice (Cox M. et al., 2007).

Migration from Rural to Urban.

While rural-urban migration was severely controlled during governance by the Anglo-French Condominium between 1906-1980, substantial infrastructure construction carried out by the American presence during the second world war, accorded a cross-section of Ni-Vanuatu with experiences of urban living  (Petrou & Connell, 2017). The abnormally rapid urbanisation at that time had a lasting impact on Ni-Vanuatu. Culturally, the manifestation of the western monetisation system, along with the unbelievable display of wealth of the Americans projected a utopian image of urban living. With improved access to inter-island transportation, sustained migration of outer island peoples has occurred since.

After the second world war, the centralisation of government services, major education institutions, healthcare and most of the country’s infrastructure incentivised migration of Ni-Vanuatu in search for better livelihoods.  Since independence in 1980, neo-liberal economic strategies have been actively encouraged by international development agencies and the majority of tourism infrastructure has been constructed in and around Port Vila, with an increased need for construction and hospitality workers. As a consequence, Port Vila has grown at an extraordinary rate with its population tripling in size in the two decades since 1980 (Chung & Hill, 2002) Throughout the 1990’s urban population growth occurred at an average of 4.0% , around twice that of the rural growth and has continued apace since (Keen & Connell, 2019).

Increased Accessibility to ferry transport amongst Vanuatu’s Islands has hastened inter-island migration.

Creation of Informal Settlements.

Most urban population growth has occurred in the peri-urban fringes around the Port Vila Municipality, consisting of both formal and informal settlements (Komugabe-Dixson, de Ville, Trundle, & McEvoy, 2019). Formal settlements have land tenure, generally cater for tribal affiliates, have embedded chiefly organisational structures and are provided with a variety of resources and infrastructure. Conversely, informal settlements are located on land that is disputed and possesses little or no resources or infrastructure. Having no land tenure rights, or any possibility of obtaining them, migrants are mostly restricted to the informal settlement areas. Keen & Connell (2019, p. 326) observe this as “a growing urbanisation of poverty” where:

“An increasing number of urban residents are marginalised, unemployed and living in informal settlements. Most settlements have inadequate basic services such as water, sanitation, electricity, waste collection, drainage and roads. Public and recreational spaces are rare. Unemployment remains high, especially among youth, which has bred tensions and resentment, with socio-economic inequalities and uneven development becoming more evident. ”

Migrants arriving with little education or skills to offer are often restricted to work within the informal economy unless they are lucky enough to obtain gardening or cleaning positions with hospitality, or domestic work for expatriates or elite Ni-Vanuatu. In any case such work is usually tenuous at best and most livelihoods lie just above or below the poverty line.

Informal Settlements occur in the peri-urban regions around Port Vila and are constructed out of corrugated iron and makeshift materials.

The Moderating Effect of Siloed Communities within Port Vila.

The wantok structure is particularly relevant in Port Vila where a number of the peri-urban settlements are made up of enclaves of groupings from other Vanuatu Islands (Storey, 2003).  Most groupings will possess elements of kinship through their island of origin, which is often demarcated by language. While Bislama, one of the national languages (along with French and English) is understood by most Ni-Vanuatu, quite often home Languages are spoken in preference within siloed communities. Individuals identify strongly with their home islands and will proudly declare that they are Man-Santo, Man-Ambrym as the case may be. Migrants, being separated by their homelands, can hold onto their sense of identity through their strong bonding with wantoks (Nanau G., 2011).  It is not unusual for offspring of migrants, who were born on Efate Island, to follow staunch kastom practices prevalent in their home island, even though they may have never been there.

Given the fragility of income and lifestyle in Port Vila, the provision of support networks (or welfare) in times of hardship is a vital attribute of the wantok system, and the principle of giving or reciprocity is so inbuilt within Ni-Vanuatu that it is sacrosanct. The social and economic support provided is manifested both as an internal process within informal settlements, and an external process between kin and their relatives on their home islands:

  • Internal Process. Support of kin within informal settlements becomes extended from close kin obligations to a wider village level, homeland region or even home-island obligations. If migrant numbers are sufficient within a peri-urban settlement, it is not uncommon for the home island to arrange for an island chief to be sent to the settlement. This enables kastom norms to be reinforced, order and dispute resolution to occur in an organised fashion, and importantly, financial and social support to those experiencing hardship to be ordained.  Ratuva (2014, p. 46)  comments that kinship:

“…. it provides the basis for collective support for the community’s social, economic and psychological needs in times of crisis. It provides a cultural reservoir for what Bourdieu refers to as ‘cultural capital’ (knowledge and skills) that people readily utilise to redress social and economic risks. Response to people’s needs in the form of distribution of goods and services is through kinship obligation and ties.”

  • External Process. Support of kin back home is an important feature of kastom, and in certain circumstances, kin on a home island will support families or family members living in Port Vila under kastom obligations. Ratuva (2014, p. 45) notes:

“Even those who work in urban areas still maintain their links to their land, traditional culture and identity. When the pressure of the market economy increases, people readily fall back on their cultural systems of support to cushion the effects.”

However, increasingly, the need to have support has also flowed in reverse, as in situations when outer islands have been struck by extreme volcanic or cyclonic events necessitating monetary contributions back home. Further, with the increased accessibility of ferry services between home islands and Port Vila, connections with kin provide economic benefits in both directions. Agricultural products such as kava, mainly grown on outer islands, has a ready market in Port Vila and kin connected trade systems provide trusted networks for its transport and sale, with those in both locations benefiting. 

Island communities socialise and provide support networks within siloed peri-urban villages around Port Vila.


The migration of peoples from outer islands to more central urbanised regions is a common occurrence for Pacific nations. For Vanuatu, population movement commenced after the second world war and has accelerated since the country’s independence in 1980. Western societal organisation, and in particular monetary systems along with governance centralisation, have hastened the demise of a mainly decentralised informal rural economy. Planning, resources and the will to cater to the influx of peoples into Port Vila has been inadequate, resulting in most migrants struggling to survive in an urbanisation of poverty. To date, impacts have been moderated by the continued belief and adherence to kastom norms and support from wantok networks. However, should the safety net provided by wantok support systems break-down, substantial social dishevel, accelerated marginalisation, and increased poverty may result.

More articles from Greg Watt

By Greg Watt avid traveller and author of travel websites and blogs. Always with an opinion, you can keep up to date and share Greg’s articles on Vanuatu, authentic tourism, social initiatives and human developments’s thorny issues at Watt | follow our footsteps or with Greg himself on his Linkedin Page.


Abbott, D. F. (2007). Poverty and Pro-poor Policies for Pacific Island Countries. Asia-Pacific Population Journal, 22(3), 59-74.

Chung, M., & Hill, D. (2002). Urban informal settlements in Vanuatu: Challenge for equitable development: Pacific Island Forum Secretariat, UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Keen, M., & Connell, J. (2019). Regionalism and Resilience? Meeting Urban Challenges in Pacific Island States (Vol. 37, pp. 324-337).

Komugabe-Dixson, A. F., de Ville, N. S. E., Trundle, A., & McEvoy, D. (2019). Environmental change, urbanisation, and socio-ecological resilience in the Pacific: Community narratives from Port Vila, Vanuatu. Ecosystem Services, 39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoser.2019.100973

Nanau G. (2011). The Wantok System as a Socio-Economic and Political Network in Melanesia. OMNES : The  Journal  of  Multicultural  Society, 2(1), 31-55. https://doi.org/10.15685

Petrou, K., & Connell, J. (2017). Rural-urban migrants, translocal communities and the myth of return migration in Vanuatu: the case of Paama. Journal de la Societe des Oceanistes.(144-145), 51-62.

Ratuva, S. (2014). ‘Failed’ or resilient subaltern communities? Pacific indigenous social protection systems in a neoliberal world. Pacific Journalism Review, 20(2), 40-58.

Scheyvens, R., & Russell, M. (2013). Sharing the Riches of tourism in Vanuatu: School of People, Environment & Planning. Massey University.

Storey, D. (2003). The peri-urban Pacific: From exclusive to inclusive cities. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 44(3), 259-279. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8373.2003.00214.x

VNSO. (2017). Vanuatu-2016 Post TC Pam Mini-Census- Basic Tables. Port Vila, Vanuatu: Vanuatu National Statistics Office, Ministry of Finance and Economic Management,.


  • gregwatttraveller

    Greg Watt is an advocate for authenticity in tourism and travel. Greg has previously lived in Papua New Guinea, has had an involvement with tourism in Vanuatu for the past thirteen years and presently has a close association with a community-based tourism project on Tanna Island (seven years). Greg is a doctoral candidate at Auckland University of Technology, and his Master’s thesis was titled “A Pro-Poor Tourism Case Study: Efate Island, Vanuatu” which looks at ways that poor Ni-Vanuatu can benefit through tourism. For a more detailed look at Greg’s involvement within development and tourism have a look at his blog articles which can be found at https://watt.nz.

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