Friday, August 15, 2008

Vanuatu - Happiest place on earth

From BBC News Magazine...

What's so great about living in Vanuatu?
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu is the happiest place on earth, according to a new "happy planet index". Beside the palm trees and beaches, why is life so good there? Renowned psychologist Haim Ginott once said: "Happiness is not a destination." Well, it is now, so get down the travel agents and book a one-way ticket to Vanuatu. The archipelago of 83 islands in the western Pacific is the happiest place on the planet, according to a new "happy planet index" published by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). The UK languishes in 108th place, below Libya, Iran, and Palestine.

Ancient rite

Up until now Vanuatu's biggest claim to fame was the island of Tanna, where locals worship the Duke of Edinburgh as their divine leader. Why? Because local legend tells how their spiritual ancestor ended up in England and eventually married a queen.

It also invented bungee jumping. Naghol, or land diving, is an ancient rite of passage for boys, some as young as seven. But forget elastic ropes and safety helmets, this is done with vines and they jump off a 75-feet rickety wooden tower.

But surely happiness does not come down to Prince Philip and throwing yourself from a great height - so what makes it such a happy place?

It doesn't take a genius to work out what the island nation has going for it - the weather is good most of the year, it has paradise-style coastlines, unique rainforests and no income tax.

But it is far from paradise lost, with limited employment opportunities and poverty. Environmentally, climatic changes and rising sea levels threaten some islands, with many inhabitants already forced to move inland.

"It's not perfect, it is a third-world country," says Annica Parilongi, financial controller at the island nation's only telecoms company - Telecom Vanuatu Limited, based in the capital Port Vila.

Fertile land

"But if you don't have money in Vanuatu you can still live happily. Here you can grow everything you need to eat. If people have an opportunity to make money they will take it, but it is not their ultimate aim."

Norman Shackley, chair of the British Friends of Vanuatu and a former resident of the islands, agrees that while some people have little money, very few go hungry.

"However poor someone is in Vanuatu they always have food," he says. "The land is so fertile people can grow the food they need to survive or take it from the wild. It is not the grinding poverty of places like India where people are deprived of even the means to feed themselves."

The "happy planet index" works on a very particular definition of happiness, which - among other things - measures people's impact on the environment.

Land is very important to the indigenous ni-Vanuatus and a big part of their culture. This respect is a main factor in the country topping the index.

Life in harmony

"Land is in their blood," says Peter Robinson, a vet who recently returned from working as a volunteer in Vanuatu. "It is about closeness to their ancestors, the land is continuous spiritual contact and they have respect for it."

A long-running wrangle over ownership has also helped saved it from environmental damage. When the island nation gained independence from joint French and British control in 1980, all land was supposed to be returned to its original owners, but no one can agree who they are.

1. Vanuatu
2. Colombia
3. Costa Rica
4. Dominica
5. Panama
"This has prevented raping of the land, if just anyone could have bought the land it would probably be a very different place," says Mr Robinson. "As it is, there is an awful lot of land that is not being used."

But it is also the people that make Vanuatu such a happy place. Mrs Parilongi says history and culture link ni-Vanuatus, as well as a relaxed attitude to everyday life.

"Life is not lived at such a fast pace as places like the UK, things are done in the time they naturally take. We have 83 different islands, people speak many languages but we all live in harmony and feel a link to each other and our culture. Life is very peaceful."

Mr Shackley says he has travelled extensively and has never come across people quite like the ni-Vanuatus.

"They have a unique quality. There is no sloppy emotion, they are so genuine in welcoming you into their country, their lives and their homes. The country and the people really get under your skin, it is a magical place."

While living in Vanuatu, Mr Shackley was once stranded for three weeks on one of its most remote islands with his 10-year-old son, due to an airline dispute.

With no shops and nowhere to stay, they were looked after by local people. One day he came across a young local man who had just returned to the island after studying at Nottingham University.

"I asked him what he was going to do with his life now and he just pointed at his fishing rod and said 'this'. He could have been one of the top earners in Vanuatu if he wanted, but he was contented with his simple life and didn't want anything else.

"It was a real eye-opener for me and made me look at what life is really all about. It just sums up what the place is about."


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