Image by nextriptourism on google

Image by nextriptourism on google

Urban jungles

10 September 2015

Instead of urging settlers in Melanesia’s expanding townships to go back to their villages, governments and aid agencies should plan for the urban future, writes DANIEL EVANS.

Francis knows it will be another restless night. His worldly belongings, and those of his young family, have been rounded up and are haphazardly strewn on the dirt floor of their simple house, competing for space with a foam mattress where his two-year old son sleeps.

For the last two nights the family has been the target of a roaming gang of youth. Drunk on a potent homebrew named kwaso, they have been terrorising parts of the settlement community that Francis has called home for over five years.

Bored and with few social constraints, theft, violence and disorder have become not so much a way of life for these young men, but a surreptitious means of registering a protest against a system, a society, and a country that has failed them. Last night’s takings included a solar panel. Tonight the group won’t be so lucky and will have to be content with hurling drunken insults, and stones, at Francis’ home and those of his neighbours.

Situated on a small plot of leased land, Francis’ makeshift residence, comprised of corrugated iron sheet walls and a sago palm roof, sits amongst hundreds of similar dwellings in a community numbering around 3000. With no running water, power or sanitation, this could be a scene from the popularly labelled ‘slums’ of Cape Town or Mumbai. Instead, this is in Australia’s backyard.

The peri-urban fringes of Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands, are exploding. Across the Pacific, the worldwide phenomenon of urbanisation is seeing picture-postcard images of calm turquoise waters lapping at a golden beaches usurped by those of chocked roads, rubbish-infested shores and cheek-by-jowl poverty. 

Often portrayed as nations of rural villages where citizens lead peaceful subsistence lifestyles – existing largely in spite of government – the reality now facing our Melanesian neighbours and the wider Pacific is markedly different. Rural–urban migration and high fertility rates have driven rapid urban growth. Lured by the prospect of jobs, education and services, new Pacific urbanites are instead more likely to be met with exclusion, hardship and insecurity.

Population projections warn of scenarios that are difficult to grasp. Assuming that by 2050 the urban share of Solomon Islands’ population has caught up with the global average of 50 per cent, Honiara will likely be home to more than 600,000 people. 

These people would be squeezed into a mere 22 square kilometres. On today’s numbers, this would place a city on Australia’s doorstep in the top ten in the world for population density. Figures for other Melanesian cities such as Port Moresby, Suva, Port Vila and Lae are equally startling, each predicted to accommodate populations numbering in the millions, surpassing the current size of several Australian capitals.

The massive village-to-city migration is on, and with up to a third of urban residents in Melanesia already living in largely unregulated and unserviced ‘settlements’, there is little prospect of this occurring in a planned way.

If the devil is in the detail, then demographics provide the real kicker. Melanesia is extremely young. Those aged under 18 typically make up around half of the population. One of the first things visitors to Honiara notice is groups of young men milling around the dusty streets, seemingly with little to do and a lot of time in which to do it.

 Reliable data points to a youth unemployment rate for Solomon Islands of around 70 per cent – one of the highest in the world. This is not unique to Solomon Islands, with the Pacific being characterised by undereducated and underemployed cohorts of young urban residents. This raises a number of concerning issues, with widespread alcohol and drug use being high on the list.

An urban future is one that most Pacific leaders are yet to grasp. Both policy and popular responses to urbanisation across the region are perplexing in their oversimplification.

Portions of the public implore settlers to go ‘home’, based on a flawed assumption that there is a tranquil, welcoming village lifestyle waiting for them. Settlements in the city and on its fringes should therefore be vacated or their growth curtailed; likewise, informal markets. And investment in urban services and institutions is checked in favour of policies that promote rural advancement, in what can be described as a ‘build it and they will come’ approach to development.

But above all, urban problems are cast through a security lens, obscuring the need to invoke a variety of responses to what is a raft of complex and interconnected human needs that require long-term policy attention.     

If well managed, an urban future holds perhaps the single greatest hope of raising living standards in the Pacific and drawing large segments of the population out of poverty. Urbanisation can stimulate growth, being associated with increased employment, higher incomes, larger and diversified markets, and better service delivery. 

While the elixir of metamorphosis is difficult to bottle, nascent signs emerging from Port Moresby indicate that an incremental transition may be occurring there, driven by reformist leaders and newfound civic pride.

But if the realities of urbanisation are ignored, cities can just as easily become crucibles of despair. Attending this is a risk of social breakdown and ultimately violence. Last year, riots on Honiara’s streets saw hundreds of disillusioned youth engage in street battles with police, raining rocks on their popular adversary in a scene that has been witnessed many times before in the capital, and will undoubtedly be seen again.        

As dusk settles on the fringes of Honiara, darkness ushers in a state of heightened alertness. Francis puts out the fire that he has used to cook his family’s evening meal, hoping that the night will be incident-free. Strains of reggae music, interspersed with drunken shrieks and revelry, float up the valley. 

It will be another rowdy night. The bright lights have drawn Francis, who is in search of work and the prospect of a better future, as they will thousands more.

So far, all he has found is failed dreams.               

Daniel Evans is a Ph.D. candidate with the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia program at the Australian National University. 







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