Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

A Pacific Future: The Perspective of a Beche-de-mer Entrepreneur

Pacific Future beche-de-mer

Lucas Watt

The Pacific futures research agenda is currently tied to a discursive project that tries to form consensus around and leverage a Pacific way directed towards addressing the unique challenges the Pacific will face in the future. This discursive project has translated into the production of multiple regional frameworks that guide the actions of Pacific nation states and organizational bodies. This article argues however that nation states and institutions do not hold a monopoly on futures orientated projects. Often overlooked, Pacific citizens participate in crafting forward looking responses. Such citizenry futures visions do not necessarily align with the dominant discursive Pacific futures projects. This article details an alternative Pacific future detailed by a beche-de-mer entrepreneur that contrasts with the dominant Pacific futures discourse. By revealing disjuncture between dominate and alternate visions this article asserts that a new inclusive futures paradigm needs to be devised that incorporates the grounded perspectives of citizens.

A Pacific Future

“Oceania is vast, Oceania is expanding, Oceania is hospitable and generous, Oceania is humanity rising from the depths of brine and regions of fire deeper still, Oceania is us. We are the sea, we are the ocean, we must wake up to this ancient truth and together use it to overturn all hegemonic views that aim ultimately to confine us again, physically, and psychologically, in the tiny spaces that we have resisted accepting as our sole appointed places, and from which we have recently liberated ourselves. We must not allow anyone to belittle us again and take away our freedom.” (Hau’Ofa, 1994)

There is perhaps no more influential work from Oceania than Epeli Hau’Ofa’s “Our Sea of Islands”. It reconceptualized a region in the social imaginary from one constrained by colonial processes and logics to one of post-colonial liberation. He did this by articulating that the region has inherent Pacific values, often devalued in international policy, that can guide the region through post-colonial domination. He argues that the oceanic world Pacific ancestors engaged with and imagined was not confined and divided in the way external powers and policy makers perceived it. They traversed and engaged with the ocean unincumbered from the presence of invisible boundaries and international protocols that have come to define the ocean. He argues however that the experiences and character of those original ancestors are embedded and immortalized in the natural geography of the region. Their experience and character held in oceanic geography could be drawn upon by current generations to break free of the narrow post-colonial policies and perceptions of the region.

Hau’ofa’s message is a uniting one. The character that Hau’ofa speaks of is held by all Pacific citizens as their ancestors have a shared common heritage. From Papua New Guinea in the west, to the Polynesian Islands in the east, to Hawaii in the north, there is a shared multi generation spanning experience of ocean from which the same overarching character can be drawn from. It’s an inspiring message. The fight for autonomy and justice against an oppressive external force is an enduring story which can be rallied behind. It’s a forward-looking message. As much as Hau’ofa’s essay is situated in a context of neoliberal policies that perpetuated old colonial forms of domination in the 1990s, the message also seeks to contest new impositions of dominance and dependence. Hau’ofa seeks to form a new Pacific Way of governing. Hau’ofa’s essay does not set out to be a piece of analysis. It sets out to present a vision for Oceania. It’s not a prediction of what will be but what should be. It provides a powerful and convincing ideological core for how the region should be governed while addressing current and future challenges.

Hau’ofa’s vision has been omnipresent in subsequent academic work within Pacific studies as a message to inspire a decolonization mission from within. Historical and geographical research has added additional empirics to the notion of a shared oceanic heritage and interconnection that is directed in support of Hau’ofa’s message (Jolly, 2007; D’Arcy, 2006; Matsuda, 2012). There are also various multi author edited books dedicated to the topic of Pacific Futures (Powles, 2006; Rollason, 2014; Anderson et al, 2019). These books implicitly channel such humanities-based research into offering recommendations on how to align contemporary policy with the emergent message.

Institutional driven projects that are designed to straddle research and policy, such as Australia National University’s (ANU) various edited book series applied to the Pacific context, more explicitly link vision and policy. International political bodies such as the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), follow through on the bridging of vision and policy through the production of many regional frameworks including the Framework for Pacific Regionalism that tries to produce collective action on regional action on issues such as economic development, migration, and conservation. Such frameworks drawing upon substantiated rhetoric made tangible from works that bridge vision and policy, unites Pacific nations together towards collectively solving pertinent regional challenges projecting into the future (Leslie & Wild, 2008).

From vision to policy implementation, this movement has undoubtedly been a successful discursive project. Hau’ofa’s essay changed how the region was perceived leading to widespread cross disciplinary investigation that has led to coherent collective action. However, anti-hegemonic movements coalesce into an opposing dominant discourse of resistance that can marginalize other forms of resistance. The institutionalization of a vision has an unintended side effect of crowding out alternate visions and variations. It reifies and legitimizes a specific interpretation of a vision to the extent that it is perpetually self-supporting.

Anthropologists should be attentive to where subaltern perspectives fit within or contest overarching vision. However, they are increasingly brought into the institutional contexts and agendas that are conceptually enthralled by the Hau’ofa inspired vision. Anthropologists generally use Hau’ofa’s work as a guiding template which their data subsequently tries to substantiate or contribute to. I use it here as a starting point which questions where alternative visions and applications exist and how they are articulated. This article is not directed towards discrediting the vision or contesting the transformative work that has emerged out of the Hau’ofa inspired vision. This article is directed towards arguing that vision for a Pacific future is not singular and encapsulated in dominant institutional interpretations. In this article I explore the raw visions of a Pacific future held by a beche-de-mer entrepreneur in Fiji called Inoke.

Why an Entrepreneur?

In popular culture entrepreneurial figures do not engender a relatable or sympathetic vision of society. Entrepreneurs typically represent a set of values and attitudes such as competitiveness, efficiency, resourcefulness, flexibility, and creativity, embraced within the broader neoliberal paradigm.  Entrepreneurs who embody these values are often considered according to “the great man theory”. They are considered aspirational, if not mythical figures who can bend society to their will. This set of values is associated with an avarice that places the entrepreneur out of touch with everyday society. For most, these versions of the entrepreneur are not reflective of society in general. However, not all entrepreneurs conform to such a set of values or levels of success assumed.

Entrepreneurs of the global south operate in a vastly different context than those in popular imaginary. Global south entrepreneurs often find opportunities in established markets for marginal gains to make a humble livelihood. They also embody a range of socio-cultural values based on personal experience and history that go beyond the narrowly defined set of values linked to the neoliberal paradigm. Far from figures disconnected from society at large, entrepreneurs in the global south are deeply connected to markets in personal ways. This gives them reasonable insight into how rural communities, governments, international markets, and political economy all interact.

Humanizing the entrepreneurial figure in such a way has not been the commonly used approach to take entrepreneurs seriously in social research. Social theorists have rather defined entrepreneurialism as a form of practice as opposed to a set of values. Reichman (2013) in his article analyzing the beche-de-mer trade defines entrepreneurialism “as a form of practice characterized by the ability to identify and respond to systematic tensions in a market before other participants in that system”. By focusing solely on entrepreneurialism as a form of practice removes the set of stereotypical neoliberal values associated with them that has previously tainted analysis. It supposedly allows for an impartial analysis of what entrepreneurs “do” such as exploiting these systematic tensions in a market commonly. By taking this functionalist approach, entrepreneurialism can supposedly be analyzed objectively across a diverse array of contexts.

However, this approach that removes unfair generalized values from the entrepreneur in favor of practice to find a definitive practice of entrepreneurialism also entails removing all other sets of values, experiences, and contexts that drive entrepreneurial action. I believe accounting for different values, experiences, and contexts of entrepreneurial activity reveals alternative and area specific definitions. Humanizing and grounding entrepreneurialism contests the notion that it can be framed according to a standardized definition. More than a theoretical definitional point, by taking a humanized approach to entrepreneurialism in the Pacific, as opposed to either a mythical or depersonalized perspective of the enterprising subject, also reveals alternative future visions from an insightful but often discounted sector of society.


I went to Fiji in 2021-2022 to research the trading practices of beche-de-mer harvesters and traders. Beche-de-mer are marine animals with an elongated tubular body that live on the ocean floor feeding on decaying organic material. Beche-de-mer are a culinary delicacy that once cooked and dried are a valuable commodity in China and Southeast Asia. During my fieldwork I first made connections with Pacific beche-de-mer traders using my fieldwork connections that I established in informal settlements across Suva during my PhD fieldwork in 2016-2017. It is through having conversations with informal settlement residents that I was able to be introduced to relatives or friends that were involved in beche-de-mer harvesting in a village in Tailevu Province north of Suva. This first led to an introduction to a rural harvester\trader. I visited the rural community in Tailevu province multiple times. Through contacts I made in Tailevu province, I was introduced to urban beche-de-mer traders back in Suva. This article relies upon research conducted with one beche-de-mer trader, Inoke (psudeunym).

I was told narratives and anecdotes during multiple trips with Inoke who purchased the product in transport vans and trucks emanating out from Suva along the coast of the main island of Fiji, Viti Levu. Within these stories were moral underpinnings of how Fijian society should relate internally and to the outside world where an alternate vision of a Pacific future could be identified. Stories were often told when on-the-move. They often were partially told, and then stopped to make a purchase of beche-de-mer, and then started again afterwards. The stories often spontaneously emerged in response to something that happened during purchasing journeys making these stories difficult to record. To record these stories, I took notes of conversations during these journeys. At the end of each journey, I would write down each of these stories referring to my notes. I would also have conversations with Inoke in more controlled interview settings in the following days to clarify certain elements of the stories told earlier. Overall, what resulted were fractured stories composed of my own notes, observation, recorded interview, and mobile communication. I thematically compiled my qualitative data and pieced together an interpretation of Inoke’s vision for the future of the Pacific.

The remainder of the article is into sections that address Inoke’s Pacific future vision regarding 1) business 2) migration and 3) inshore marine conservation. In each section I detail how the future has been historically perceived regarding each of these three categories, how this future has been re-framed according to a Pacific Way, and finally how Inoke alternatively framed this future. Based on Inoke’s alternate Pacific future I conclude by asking what we should make of futures type discourses. What are the implications of seriously considering alternate futures? How can we include future visions like his into a new futures paradigm?

An Alternative Pacific Future

1) The Future of Pacific Business

Europeans on arrival in the Pacific saw that economic activity was premised on the idea of reciprocity and obligation. It was observed that one was required to give something that was requested in return for an equal future gift. While there were many different formats for such reciprocal exchanges that varied in ritualization; the specific practice of asking kin for goods and services in times of need or shortfall is known as kerekere (Fiji), bubuti (Kiribati), kolo (Tonga), fua kavenga (Samoa) and fakamolemole (Tuvalu). This exchange practice is associated with kastom in the Melanesian context (Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands) (Farrelly & Vudiniabola, 2013).

During the late colonial era leading into the independence era, the European outlook on business and commerce led by indigenous Pacific Islanders was pessimistic based on the presence of these traditional exchange practices. This is because an economic system where economic surpluses are redistributed to those in need is not conducive to the accumulation and reinvestment of wealth that defines a capitalist type of economy. Communal forms of land ownership as opposed to individual land ownership also disincentivized capital reinvestment as subsequent profits would not be acquired individually but shared among many despite who did the work.

The economic success of Indians and Chinese migrants in the Pacific who were not burdened by these exchange and land ownership practices seemingly confirmed the negative effect these practices had on the prospective Pacific business and commerce. For this reason, western countries have through direct or soft power progressively sought to create a more neo-liberal Pacific economic future. This reached its pinnacle in the 1990s where many Pacific Island nation states went through periods of neoliberal “structural readjustment”. Such economic principles have permeated into how business operate in the Pacific that either crowd out indigenous business activity or force it to conform to such principles (although some successful traditional business models have emerged).

In 2007, Ralph Regenvanu as the director the Vanuatu National Cultural Council penned a newspaper article “Kastom Ekonomi, What is it?” in which he argued for embracing more traditional exchange and land tenure practices in national economic policy (Rousseau & Taylor, 2012). He recognized that the exposure of Vanuatu to large economic shocks caused by their integration in the global economy was exposing Ni-van people to greater economic uncertainty and insecurity. He argued that traditional exchange and land tenure practices ensured that the benefits of economic activity stabilized the local economy and equitably distributed to the benefit of Ni-van communities. Despite the recognition and pursuit of ideas within kastom ekonomi it has never been seriously pursued as it requires a fundamental restructuring and reconceptualization of how the economy operates.

A palatable version of this argument has been pursued in an emerging resilience literature that advocates reinvigorating social systems that protect those affected by external economic shocks and distribute resources to those in need. This resilience literature, however, does not necessarily advocate for a restructuring of Pacific economies but wants to build resilience into their preexisting economy. This idea of resilience is increasingly embedded in governmental and financial institutional frameworks applied to the Pacific. This strand of literature has become the dominant discursive counterpoint that borrows from but does not go as far as the ideas of Ralph Regenvanu.

For Inoke, neither a neoliberal nor resilient economic future is particularly enticing. He talked about this at length in his vehicle during one of his many trips buying beche-de-mer from rural villages up and down the coral coast. In particular, he talked about his past career as a telecommunication marketing executive at Digicel during a period of intense telecommunication competition brought about by the entrance of the Irish owned company into Fiji in 2008. During his time with Digicel he secured a telecommunications contract to the Fijian military. Despite his success he decided to leave his telecommunications company several years later. One sour point was that he described his salary as pittance compared to the high value of the contracts he was securing. From this experience, he decided to be a marine resource trader instead. He started out buying fish from rural villages and selling it to a German run shark diving company. This relationship also eventually soured because the owner of the company treated Inoke like an employee and not an independent and autonomous supplier.

From these experiences, Inoke framed Pacific business driven by foreign companies and economic principles as highly exploitative and degrading. In particular, he believed that they employed methods of financial discipline to keep him in place and pacified, while also excluding him from an equitable share of profits. This led him to pursue his own marine trading activities with Chinese buyers that did not try to own or exploit him in the same way. Progressively, he was able to pursue entrepreneurial activities according to his own principles that were emblematic of his desired Pacific future of business and commerce.

For Inoke these principles embodied the forms of respect inherent in traditional ways of being. In relation to the beche-de-mer trade, respect meant being on time. In one instance we arrived at a rural village ready at a prearranged time to purchase beche-de-mer. Upon arriving in the village Inoke could see that the person who he was supposed to meet was not there. Realizing this, he turned his van around and drove away at high speed. When I asked him why we turned around he told me that he was conditioning them in business and commerce that aligned with Pacific forms of respect and loyalty. He told me that rural villages’ attitudes to business and commerce embodied a disrespectful handout mentality that he equated with kerekere. This attitude meant that they have an expectation of him to help them at their convenience, rather than being equal partners taking advantage of a business transaction. By turning his van around he was conditioning them that this attitude was disrespectful of his time. Soon after we left, we got a phone call from the person he had arranged to meet. Inoke told him that he would be back in a couple of hours. The delay was to let them experience the frustration of waiting so that next time they would be on time.

This did not mean he was unwilling to invest his own time into relationships with rural villagers. When we stopped for lunch at a roadside stall, we met a young man also buying his lunch. He told us that he had a stock of beche-de-mer at his home that he wanted to sell to Inoke. After lunch we drove to the man’s house which was a long way from the main road. On arriving there he showed us a freezer full of frozen sea cucumber. Despite frozen products having a lower quality than fresh products, Inoke bought the man’s product at market price. After the transaction was complete, Inoke told me that the time it took to get to the man’s house and the quality of product was not worth the time from a financial standpoint, but the time he invested was about building respect and trust. He told me the next time the man wanted to sell him product of potentially higher value, their relationship of trust and respect would already be established. In addition to this investment of time, Inoke also did not want this man’s efforts to go to waste. A common response across my research is that government regulations that prohibit the harvest of certain species of beche-de-mer, or buyers who offer low prices, do not respect the time and effort it takes for rural villagers to dive and catch them. Inoke believed it is disrespectful not to recognize effort by refusing purchase. 

By talking about and observing Inoke’s business practices I was able to see that it very clearly did not align with the future of business and commerce prevalent in academic or policy discourse. He did not subscribe to western business ways of doing things or the forms of social protection that resilient economic perspectives advocate for. I viewed our time together as a manifesto of sorts as the ways in which he operated was the way things should operate across Pacific business and commerce. This was that first and foremost that the economy should function on traditional forms of respect that lubricates the personal flow of resources across relationships. In his perspective this was something missing in the current economic system in Fiji and across the Pacific.

2) The Future of Pacific Migration

Pacific peoples are historically known for their heritage as successful navigators. Long before European arrival in the region, Pacific peoples journeyed across the great expanse of the ocean to reach and settle in the most remote parts of the world. For long journeys they traveled in special vessels called drua (Fiji), Kalia (Tonga), ‘Alia (Samoa) and navigated based on knowledge of the stars (D’Arcy, 2006). These vessels were used for both warfare and trade. The arrival of Europeans in the Pacific led to the demise of long-distance inter-island mobility of Pacific peoples. As groups of islands became colonial territories owned by different states, the movement of peoples between them was increasingly controlled and restricted (D’Arcy, 2006).

Such restrictions were not limited to inter island travel either. In Fiji for instance there were policies that incentivized remaining in rural villages. Additional taxes were levied against those who opted to live in cities or towns away from rural villages (MacNaught, 2016). These rural-urban movement restrictions have since been abolished and there has been a wave of rural-urban wave of migration across the Pacific starting in the 1960s. This wave has not been uniform in terms of starting date or scale across the Pacific however many island nations such as Fiji, New Caledonia, Kiribati, the Cook Islands, and French Polynesia have more than half their populations living in cities. More island nations will reach this threshold in the not-so-distant future as urban population growth rates in the region drastically outpace national growth rates (Jones, 2016).

There is a high demand to expand migration internationally for Pacific populations to gain skills and education that they are unable to obtain in their home countries. Migration to developed countries on the Pacific rim, however, has remained restricted. Polynesian countries historically have had held some migration opportunities, in comparison to Melanesian and Micronesian countries which generally have been less able to secure many stable international migratory pathways. The outlook on Pacific mobility by the governments of developed nations has been one of ambivalent pessimism. There is a recognition that a lack of opportunity has highly negative effects on Pacific Island nations yet there is little imperative to alleviate these issues by adjusting migration policy. Notoriously, Australian politicians have been recorded joking about temporary workers from the Pacific in degrading ways. Its only since Pacific Island nations have acquired some collective political leverage in the US\China competition for influence in the Pacific that more labor migration opportunities have been provided as part of Australia’s “Pacific Step-up” program.

As part of a vision for a Pacific future Hau’ofa advocates for a return to the mobility of pre-European contact to address some of the current challenges that Oceania faces. Hau’ofa believes that free movement between Oceanic countries including New Zealand and Australia will allow Oceanic peoples to gain access to education, skills, and opportunities, the benefits of which they can bring home to their communities (Hau’ofa, 1994). Harnessing the historical mobility of Oceanic peoples to solve contemporary issues will ensure that contemporary Pacific problems are solved in distinctly Oceanic ways that are empowering (Bedford, 2016).

Inoke vehemently disagrees with both the ambivalent pessimism and romantic idealism visions of future Pacific mobility. Firstly, he believes the veneer of pessimism that has been painted by western politics has infiltrated into the minds of Pacific Island peoples. Yet, it is a pessimism that is completely unwarranted as he believed there were plenty of opportunities present within Fiji. Inoke told me a story that further detailed why he became a marine resource trader. He told me after he quit his job at Digicel he spent long periods of time at his home with little to do. He would sit in an armchair and the waves of pessimism would enter his mind. However, one day he observed a trail of ants taking crumbs of his left-over lunch away. Rather than clean up, he observed the ants for a long period of time and pondered their condition. Where had the ants come from and how did they know to come to get his lunch at this moment? For him the life of the ant was about finding opportunity when it unpredictably but surely arose. Based on this moment he decided he too would become an ant, finding opportunities when they arose.

For Inoke these opportunities were gaps in the market in the trade marine species. These gaps in the market would appear during brief moments of time as market conditions changed. Sometimes restrictions on the harvest of certain marine species would be removed. Sometimes there would be a swell in demand for a particular species from an emerging market. At other times there would be a population boom of a particular species. Inoke was always ready such opportunities to come, and he was consistently able to sustain a middle-class life in Fiji by taking advantage of such opportunities.

Despite opportunities like these continually arising he observed that many Fijians were committed to finding opportunities outside of Fiji. This outward looking trend was not only spurred by the foreign pessimism imposed upon the Pacific, but also the romantic idealism of a migratory future. For Inoke, the migration of peoples away from Pacific Islands to developed states provides few benefits and presents more serious social problems. He believed that the outflux of peoples on temporary workers schemes was creating strife among Fijian families. The time spent away from family was increasing the prevalence of extramarital affairs, and subsequently causing family units to break up. This contrasts heavily with the romantic vision that temporary worker schemes benefit families by allowing workers to gain skills overseas and send back large sums of money in the form of remittances. Inoke believed that the skills and income earned were often less than hoped for. To compound this issue, the difference between income expected by families left in Fiji and the reality, also added the burden of disappointment that could lead to further tensions in the household upon their return. For Inoke, the romantic idealism regarding pacific mobility was a highly flawed perspective that detracted from the real opportunities that can be found locally.

Contrasting with the two dominant perspectives of ambivalent pessimism and romantic idealism regarding the future of Pacific migration; Inoke envisioned a future where Pacific Islanders focused on work and family at home. He believed that there is a highly desirable middle ground to be found if it is searched for. Just as in the future of Pacific business, this requires marrying both the cultural and economic components of Pacific life together to make a viable future.

3) The Future of Pacific Inshore Marine Conservation

Johannes (1978) popularized the notion that Pacific Island societies prior to European arrival instituted a marine tenure practice known as taboo to conserve marine resources. The idea that conservation predated the arrival of European scientific logic in the Pacific was a revolutionary claim. It was a link that also seemed logical as taboos were set by a chief that prohibit fishing in a designated area of water for a defined amount of time. Taboos would be instituted by chiefs before a big ritual event that required large amounts of food to ensure that a big harvest would be guaranteed. To Johannes (1978) this would seem to demonstrate knowledge of declining and replenishing of marine species stock numbers, and therefore an awareness of conservation as a practice.

Subsequent anthropologists have argued that it is more likely that taboos were instituted to create an artificial scarcity of certain delicacies such as sea cucumbers, turtles, and some varieties of fish. Such delicacies were then harvested for certain people such as chiefs or big men, and at certain times for rituals and ceremonies. Therefore, when these resources were harvested, given, and eaten, they were elevated in importance and thus became an integral component of defining social and cultural relationships and forms of prestige (Foale et al, 2011). This latter perspective believes that taboos were not instituted to conserve resources. From a pool of limitless marine resources, a taboo was the only way in which their consumption could be restricted and therefore elevated in importance.

Despite this correction, one articulated future of Pacific inshore marine conservation revolves around combining the socio-cultural practice of taboo with a conservation ethic irrespective of the true intent of why taboos were originally instituted. Those who believe that taboos were initially instituted by Pacific chiefs to conserve marine resources point to the practice as a culturally continuous way of conserving marine resources in future. Other more western practitioners trained in formal scientific methods of conservation also draw from this rhetoric, however, it is often transparently clear that they first and foremost see the potential for taboos to be utilized as a way of ensuring that there is community buy-in for local conservation initiatives. These perspectives that link supposed socio-cultural conservation and more western scientific conservation ethics have combined to create an uneasy alliance that has become part of the Pacific Way of conserving inshore marine resources.

This can be seen most prominently in institutions such as the Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA) networks that operate across multiple Pacific Island nations. These networks link rural Pacific communities together with conservation practitioners, government agencies, academic institutions, to pursue a joint socio-cultural and conservation agenda with taboos being the most used tool (Govan et al, 2009). LMMA networks are organized at national levels but are aimed to formulate a collective regional approach across the Pacific. The desired outcome of this future is that Pacific socio-cultural practices can continue to exist while also securing the future prosperity of marine resources, even if this future is premised on an embellished history.  

Alongside the development of this relatively grounded and pragmatic vision of inshore marine conservation, has been the more grandiose development of the “blue economy” paradigm. The concept of the “blue economy” was first articulated at the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012. The concept was initially devised by delegates of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) who advocated that the natural capital of the sea should be protected as the basis of food security as well as economic well being derived from small-scale fisheries. This required an integrated economic and conservation vision of inshore fisheries to ensure sustainable exploitation of marine resources (Voyer et al., 2018).

This initial vision of the blue economy concept has subsequently dissipated. Silver et al (2015) details how the blue economy concept was appropriated by participating ocean stakeholders during Rio+20. They argue that many conference participants, armed with the initial concept by the SIDS delegates, realigned the concept with the separate idea that the ocean is a basis for global economic wealth, as well as a domain of technological innovation. Since Rio+20 these derivations of the blue economy have become further tied to the concept of “blue growth” which defines the ocean as a frontier of economic opportunity that can be untapped by the private sector applying innovative solutions to extract ocean resources (Barbesgaard, 2018). The blue economy paradigm has been most discussed regarding deep ocean resources such as tuna and seabed minerals which hold an immense amount of economic value. Less discussed in this paradigm are inshore marine resources such as beche-de-mer, seaweed, and trochus as they hold less but still a considerable amount of economic value. These inshore resources are subject to the blue economy vision that tries to balance the economic and conservation goals.

The contradictions within both the socio-cultural Pacific and blue economy visions for the future of Pacific Inshore conservation were apparent to Inoke. Firstly, he saw right through the strategy to align socio-cultural values with conservation ethics. He saw this as an attempt to Trojan horse western conservation ethics into local communities. This was a problem for him as it undermined the traditional authority of local communities to manage their own resources, which to him was a much larger concern. He believed that this misappropriation of socio-cultural practice was depriving local communities of taking advantage of the very few opportunities they had to earn income. Secondly, he thought that the conservation element of the blue economy was used to sanitize the exploitation of resources. Inoke referenced government releases on the health of the beche-de-mer fishery. They often stated that the fishery was healthy and could sustain longer harvesting periods. He would always ask why they never released the data. It was always issued as a standalone media release. He even questioned whether the data was indeed being collected.

Based on my experience in Fiji, the logic of inshore marine policy did seem arbitrary and unsubstantiated by reliable data. In Fiji for instance there was a moratorium on the harvest of beche-de-mer between 2017-2022. The moratorium on the harvest of beche-de-mer was lifted on the 1st of July 2022 and was to remain open until the 31st of August 2022. This later was extended to the 2nd of December 2022, and then to the 2nd of February 2023. Each of these impromptu extensions was accompanied by statements on the health of the fishery with a lack of publicly available scientific data.

A discussion with a fishery officer who oversaw the collection of data on the harvest and trade of beche-de-mer heightened my concerns. The fishery officer told me that the Fijian Ministry of Fisheries had implemented a system whereby licensed agents who go out and collect beche-de-mer from rural villagers at government sanctioned sale points are supposed to fill out a form that specifies who they bought their product from and what village the beche-de-mer came from. They were then supposed to give these forms to fisheries officers when they sold their product to exporters in urban locations. The problem was that these forms were seldom filled out by licensed agents. These forms were often filled out retrospectively by these licensed agents when arriving at exporters’ premises. It was therefore almost impossible to truthfully trace where beche-de-mer came from. Discrepancies like this make me agree with Inoke that decisions on the exploitation and conservation of inshore marine resources were not based on data considering how flawed it was likely to be.

It should also be noted that Inoke was not a licensed beche-de-mer agent. Rather he bought and sold beche-de-mer from rural villages as an unlicensed vendor and sold it to entities unknown to me. Inoke was also certainly not the only one involved in this practice. On many of the trips that I accompanied Inoke on buying and selling beche-de-mer, we saw other private vehicles picking up beche-mer. While I could not confirm whether they were licensed agents or not, everyone we asked who sold their product to them could not confirm if they were licensed agents, and what exporter they were associated with. The data for these trades would of course not be recorded in official statistics by the Fijian Ministry of Fisheries. Similar concerns about data collection and how data is utilized in making decisions on inshore marine governance has been raised across the Pacific. Perhaps a larger point to make here though however is that Inoke was forced to become an unlicensed beche-de-mer agent because there was no opportunity to set up his own formal legal beche-de-mer business. Most export licenses were given to minority ethnic groups with ties to the Asian market. I was not aware of any export licenses given to indigenous Fijians. He was also not going to be an employee of one of these licensed exporters based on his own business experience where he felt he was exploited by foreign entities.

For Inoke the future of inshore marine conservation was a rather hopeless affair. He thought that Pacific governments were being duped by foreign interests that appropriated or did not represent local interests. At the heart of the problem was that he thought government officials were being corrupted by foreign capital to frame inshore marine policy and to conform to their methods of legitimization even if these methods were fraudulent. He thought government officials were willing to do this as they were getting funding from conservation groups to say they were following conservation guidelines, while also simultaneously getting kick back profits from foreign beche-de-mer exporters/importers from China.

Inoke’s own role in undermining conservation efforts was not lost on him, but he thought that there was no point sacrificing his own economic well being when the system at the top was so obviously flawed to begin with. He thought that before any doctrine for inshore marine policy could even start to be devised, corruption in government should be investigated. For him, any vision for the future on inshore marine governance was not legitimate in the current state of foreign interference.

An Inclusive Futures Paradigm

Hau’ofa’s essay “Our Sea of Islands” was a pivotal work that contested how the future of the Pacific is seen. It has created an anti-hegemonic vision of how the Pacific should be governed according to Pacific principles derived from an expansive and collective history of the region. This vision has had such an immense impact on the discourse surrounding the region that it has been institutionalized to the extent that it has led to tangible changes in policy that better reflect Pacific socio-cultural perspectives. However, it has had such an encompassing effect that it is crowding out all other alternate visions of how the Pacific is governed. It is almost obligatory to base any article regarding Pacific governance around the vision Hau’ofa has laid out.

What is lost in the process is the diversity of perspectives of a region that spans an ocean of 155 million square kilometers, is home to 41 million people who live in 14 different countries of varying geographies, and who speak over 1400 languages. I believe it is important for anthropologists to interrogate this anti-hegemonic vision despite the positive impact it undoubtedly has had. It is important to assess if this vision is representative of the perspectives of the Pacific peoples for whom it encompasses.

My time with Inoke demonstrated that the perspectives of Pacific peoples can both reject both the foreign historically imposed perspectives on the Pacific originating in the colonial period, as well as the anti-hegemonic discourse designed to offset it. Regarding the future of Pacific business, Inoke rejected both the neoliberal approach and the more Pacific centric socio-cultural resilient approach. Regarding the future of Pacific migration, Inoke rejected the idea that those staying in the Pacific would continue to suffer from a lack of opportunity. He similarly argued that migrating away to developed countries to gain opportunities and skills was not the answer to the supposed lack of local opportunity. Regarding the future of inshore marine conservation, Inoke dismissed the idea that historical socio-cultural practices could be the legitimate basis of a future conservation regime. He alsoquestioned how genuine the blue economy approach to marine conservation was.

As a beche-de-mer entrepreneur, Inoke is grounded in both western business and education as well as socio-cultural values. I believed the perspective that he had on the future of the Pacific was based on this balance. He believed that there is strength in socio-cultural relations and histories, yet the Pacific perspectives been pushed were too romantisised. Rather he adopted a pragmatic and grounded perspective without going so far to undermine the value inherent in socio-cultural relations. Specifically, he saw an alternate and desired Pacific future where;

  • Pacific peoples make productive business relations with each other based on socio-cultural ties of trust and reciprocity.
  • Pacific peoples stay in their home countries with their families to take advantage of the many opportunities that the islands possess.
  • Pacific societies deal with governmental corruption and foreign political influence to ensure decisions on issues such as marine conservation can truly be representative of local interest.

This alternative future does present a challenge to an anti-hegemonic Pacific-centric discourse. Detailing fractures in the anti-hegemonic discourse undermines the impetus to change policies to more Pacific centered policies. This is because it is hard to determine what exactly is representative of Pacific perspectives. The tendency for alternate voices to undermine a generally positive movement may lead to an argument that we should discard alternate future visions for the greater good. I think this would be a very lazy conclusion. Are we not capable of sifting through nuance to come to informed decisions concerning the future of a region?

I am an advocate for academics to adopt the emergence of an inclusive futures paradigm that pushes for the inclusion of alternative future visions grounded in perspectives from ordinary citizens. This can only strengthen and further legitimize future vision which need not be so inflexible and singular. This requires collecting and articulating a variety of alternate visions through qualitative research. For such a diversity of perspectives to be maintained, we must also think about how these perspectives become institutionalized in ways that crowd out alternate voices. We must ask what are the processes in which we avoid the binary framing of an entire region’s future. In this sense this is not only a research focused paradigm but one to extends to redirecting institutional governance. We don’t want a collection of new uncovered voices to become the next vision that surpasses all others. This would undermines the whole premise of this initiative. Lastly, we must also track how perspectives change over time so that policy can change alongside them. Perspectives on the future are not static but change according to context and events.

My time with Inoke made me question what the future of the Pacific should look like. The more we listen to alternative voices, the more we can appreciate the nuances and diversity of perspectives on the futures, and therefore tailor policy accordingly.  

Banner Image by Dusan Reljic

TransOcean is a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant project 

Pacific Future

The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 802223


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  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

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