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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 July 2007, 23:52 GMT 00:52 UK
Paying in pig tusks in Vanuatu

By Andrew Harding
BBC News, Vanuatu

It is a regular bank in almost every respect. It has accounts, reserves, cheque books and tight security. It also pays a handsome 15% interest and offers mortgages and easy credit.

The bank and its manager, Chief Viraleo
The Tari Bunia Bank accepts unusual deposits

But the 14 branches of the Tari Bunia Bank, spread around the lush forests of Vanuatu's remote Pentecost Island, deal in a very special sort of currency.

"I have come to make a deposit," said Vira Sanialo, clutching a hand woven mat and a small pig's tusk.

The manager, Chief Viraleo Boborenvanua, leaned across his desk and peered carefully at the tusk.

He would need to weigh it, he explained, but the two items would be credited promptly to Vira Sanialo's 10-year savings account.

For centuries, Pacific islanders have used tusks, mats, shells and even giant rocks as currency for trading and ceremonial purposes.

But the Tari Bunia Bank is now taking that custom to a new level of sophistication - and helping to protect Vanuatu's isolated traditional communities from the harsher imperatives of modern capitalism.

Using the land

Chief Viraleo dealt with his last customer then walked through the wooden hut to the bank's vault.

Thousands of pig tusks hung from the walls, tied up with string salvaged from the rocky coastline below the village of Lavatmagemu.

"The system works," he explained, "from the natural resources we have - the products of the land and the sea. All are valued and converted into our currency. Our aim is to make sure there is no poverty in our communities."

The local currency here is called the Livatu. Chief Viraleo and his colleagues have valued it at approximately one Livatu to $180 (89). By that reckoning, the bank has almost $1bn in its reserves.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Vanuatu's government has yet to agree to an official exchange rate. But it has taken one important step towards it.

Pig skulls with horns
Islanders can now pay for school fees with animal skulls and the like

Just up the hill from the bank, a small queue was forming outside the Atavtabanga state primary school.

An elderly man stood patiently, clutching a pig's skull and tusks. In front of him, Virangiri was handing over an elaborately woven "money mat" to the school treasurer. It was, he explained, payment for his 12-year-old daughter Jenila's fees.

State education is not free in Vanuatu. Neither are local clinics. But many traditional communities simply do not earn the hard cash needed to pay for these services.

Shanty towns have begun to emerge around the capital, Port Vila, as families move from the islands in search of access to the modern economy. Hunger and unemployment - unheard of in traditional communities - are growing.

But at the Atavtabanga school, up to 50 parents now pay their children's fees in traditional money.

"It has made a big difference," said the headmaster, George Leo. "In the past we had problems with fees, but now it's easier for kids to finish school."

Tackling poverty

For years, campaigners have urged the government to pay more attention to Vanuatu's traditional economy. Official statistics show the country is one of the world's poorest and least developed.

But Selwyn Garu, secretary of the National Council of Chiefs, said those figures fail to take account of "80% of the population who live under another system. The government is focusing on the Western capitalist system. But we feel that is not justice."

A child in Vanuatu
A survey last year found Vanuatu was the world's happiest country

In response, Vanuatu's government has now declared 2007 the "year of the traditional economy".

The move has been welcomed by many people here who are keen to ensure that Western notions of "progress" are not imposed on the country's stable and sophisticated traditional communities.

As foreign developers rush to buy up the coastline around Port Vila, some are not convinced.

"In my heart this is still paradise," said Ricky Taleo, 29, watching builders carve up the shoreline in front of his village for a new resort.

"But the happiness is fading away slowly. And I guess in a couple of years it's going to turn into a dump."

But on the more remote Pentecost Island, the outside world is still being kept at arms length.

Before heading to the village hall for a lunch of yams cooked in a stone oven, and fresh seaweed, Chief Viraleo closed and bolted the doors to the bank.

So far there have been no robberies. All the branches, he explained with a chuckle, were guarded by spirits and snakes.

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