Cultural security in the Pacific: Why it matters for regional security

By Anna Naupa 04 September 2023, 12:00PM

Last week, Pacific leaders and officials discussed the region’s ocean governance in Nadi, law enforcement in Koror, a potential Australia–Pacific COP31 in Suva, and Melanesian security, the climate crisis and human rights in Port Vila, while civil society groups have protested Japan’s commenced discharge of treated nuclear wastewater from Fukushima into our Pacific Ocean. These issues span critical human security concerns of Pacific Island peoples, and directly threaten the Pacific’s cultural future.

Protecting our cultural heritage is a key part of the security of our Blue Pacific continent. But with the heightened attention on regional geopolitics that has seen a flurry of bilateral security cooperation agreements in the last few years, cultural security is often overlooked. Yet the Pacific Islands region has steadfastly maintained that climate change, not conflict, is the single greatest threat to Pacific Island peoples. Safeguarding human security – the security of our people and our cultures – is the core concern of the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security.

Cultural security generally refers to protecting cultural identity and cohesion in the face of societal change. Global attention is often on trafficking of cultural artefacts and conflict zones. However, cultural security encompasses tangible and intangible cultural heritage, customary governance systems, traditional knowledge, social protection and cultural resilience and adaptation. The many facets of cultural security face a range of complex and evolving threats.

Forum leaders affirm that “Pacific peoples are custodians of the world’s largest, most peaceful and abundant ocean, its many islands and its rich diversity of cultures.” The high-level emphasis placed on culture in underpinning the Pacific’s sustainable resource management (of land and sea), social stability and resilience situates Pacific cultures as integral to the peace and security of our Blue Pacific region. The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent emphasises people-centred development and ensures that the diversity and heritage of Pacific Islands cultural values and traditional knowledge are to be honoured and protected.

The Pacific Regional Culture Strategy 2022–2032 defines culture as “the way of life of a particular group of people including their values and belief systems, worldviews, philosophies, and knowledge systems that are expressed through their language(s).” But what is cultural security and why does it matter?

Defining cultural security

There is no common international definition of cultural security, but there is shared recognition that culture is increasingly relevant to peace and security frameworks. A Pacific Islands-centric definition of cultural security frames the range of threats facing our cultural systems and guides policy responses.

Climate change, for example, compounds the environmental threats to cultural security. Changing environments impact traditional livelihoods and sustainable management practices. A worsening climate outlook directly threatens traditional knowledge systems, cultural heritage and access to ancestral land and resources. Pacific examples include the eroding coastal graveyards in Tuvalu and Kiribati, the drastically altered food security for the sinking Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea, and the cascading effects of cyclones on biodiversity that are resetting cultural food security.

Trafficking of cultural goods is often linked to organised crime, money laundering and terrorism. It causes irreparable damage to cultural heritage, including intangible cultural practices.

Climate-related disasters, displacement and mobility intensify socio-cultural pressures. Disaster-induced displacement removes communities from sites of ancestral and linguistic connection to new environments that may constrain traditional practices and intergenerational traditional knowledge transfer, and spark land-related conflict in a new “host” community. Clan-based resource rights are impacted by the changing environment, which can drive tensions over scarce resources. Customary governance systems are important safeguards for human security because they extend support to Pacific peoples, reaching communities underserved by national government services.

Beyond state borders, globalisation and digitisation facilitate vectors for trafficking of cultural property and create commercial threats to local cultures. Trafficking of cultural goods is often linked to organised crime, money laundering and terrorism. It causes irreparable damage to cultural heritage, including intangible cultural practices.

Inadequate protections for traditional knowledge and intellectual property threaten the cultural security and economic prosperity of Pacific creative industries. Piracy, legislative gaps and other issues relating to intellectual property infringement threaten cultural security. The emphasis of global IP systems on individual copyright challenges Pacific approaches for community-based copyright.

What Pacific countries can do

Across the existing national security strategies in the Pacific, many refer to security based on cultural values such as peace-making and equanimity. Tuvalu has embarked on an ambitious, innovative plan to safeguard its cultural security through digital means. Safeguarding cultural security encompasses both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. This includes protecting traditional knowledge systems and cultural property. But culture is not static, and cultural security must also draw on innovation and adaptation to underpin cultural resilience, as many high-level regional frameworks, including Pacific 2050, have intimated.

How should these regional security discussions explicitly address cultural security? Many Pacific countries have embedded culture in national constitutions, development plans and policies. But dedicated, funded strategies are limited, and as yet regional security dialogues do not engage deeply with cultural security, despite the Boe Declaration’s expanded definition of security. Securitising culture may offer additional impetus and targeted attention to safeguarding Pacific peoples’ cultural systems as we face our single greatest threat, climate change.

This article was first published by The Interpreter, which is part of the Lowy Institute. The Interpreter features daily commentary and analysis on international issues. 

By Anna Naupa 04 September 2023, 12:00PM
Samoa Observer

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