From Liz: “The Ernas Women’s Centre is a group of 66 displaced women from all over Vanuatu who have settled in the Erakor peninsula. They have no jobs to pay their children’s school fees so they sell food by the road side. They have a business co op that supports them in earning, saving and getting micro finance loans.
The region is reputedly the most disaster prone region in the world. It has active volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones. Vanuatu is one of the most politically stable countries in the pacific region and has had a boom from foreign investment. Being only a three hour flight from Australia many foreigners have purchased holiday houses on the islands and as it has a tax free status it encourages economic migration from New Zealanders and Australians minimising their tax liabilities. Eighty percent of the local population still live a subsistence lifestyle in traditional villages. With nearly 40% of the land now in foreign hands it will soon put Vanuatu’s reputation as the happiest place on earth in serious jeopardy. Through a close association with a local family in Port Vila we have learned that the obstacles that face any local landowner that wants to build a house are prohibitive in their economy. All businesses are geared towards western investors. Custom owners sell off huge tracts of waterfront in order to build themselves a poured concrete two bedroom house for $50,000. Bank loans are not available to people without income. Custom owners sell to foreign investors who develop and subdivide and make millions. It is sad to watch a nation forced to divest itself of its land in order to house their families and feed and educate their children. People who are living off fish and yams are forced to compete with foreign investors on an economic level and they always lose.
My husband and I realise that the only way that this can change is if the people of Vanuatu are given building methods that are affordable, sustainable and safe for their environment. To this end we have bought the Ernas women a block of land just 10 minutes drive from Port Vila. We have obtained permission from the municipal council to build with earthbags and rammed earth tires and any other experimental method we wish to try. We want to use this land to educate the local population about alternatives with building and to provide a workshop for people who wish to learn different methods. More than anything we would like to see the land development back in the hands of the traditional owners. These buildings will also provide valuable infrastructure that will serve two villages. As much of the building will be done by women the earthbag roundhouse is the choice for the first building.
We ordered roundhouse plans for a women’s centre in Vanuatu. The space will be used to teach sewing and cooking and sometimes for visiting community nurses to give talks and for meetings of the women’s centre. My husband and I are buying the land and helping with the building with our own money. We are sick of seeing the local Melanesian population sell their land because they can’t afford to build on it. We feel that earthbag building may be the way out of exploitation for the local population. The land will be something of a display village and training centre for earthbag home building, at the same time it will provide useful village infrastructure.
We helped them start a small solar import business last year to provide cheap solar to outlying communities and now the women want to start a construction company with earth bags. Since they established their group several members have attended UN cooking courses, bank run business courses and government run computer courses. I’m sure they will nail the building as well once they have the space.
When I first showed them your plans they couldn’t believe that they could actually build a safe shelter for their families for their own environment with their own labour. This is so liberating for indigenous communities. I feel that it will cause a mini revolution in the whole pacific. People will be less inclined to sell when they have the option to build. Many tourists would also prefer to stay in locally owned Eco housing than a western hotel. This will be the first opportunity that the locals have to really compete in the tourist accommodation market.
We have 2,700 square meters of land. Eventually we will buy plans for two visitor’s houses and a preschool. We wish to build a separate sanitary block with showers and toilets to serve the women’s centre and preschool. The houses will both need bathrooms. We are in the process of acquiring the land to build the women’s learning centre, a day care centre and two visitor’s huts. The transfer will be done on the 27th January and the title registration completed 4-5 weeks after that.
I would suggest to your readers that anywhere they go for holiday they should take a printout of one of your competition plans for the $300 earthbag house. Show it to, and explain it to a local. These indigenous communities don’t usually spend time surfing the net for life options but if you show them what’s available they can get to an Internet cafe and find some way to access the site and buy plans.
I think that tourism is very effective way to spread the earthbag message to small communities. It’s also a lot of fun to go on a holiday and leave people with something that’s useful and of real value instead of just leaving a carbon footprint behind us.”