CITY OF NON-EQUIVALENTS: Making, Maintaining and Disrupting Customary Attachments to Land in Port Vila, Vanuatu


In this article I describe how a permanent underclass is being inadvertently created in a South Pacific city. I use Descola’s idea of equivalence in human relations to explain urban tenure and evictions in the postcolonial South Pacific city of Port Vila. Vanuatu is a nation of 82 islands. Its archipelagic geography segregates most people’s autochthonous lands, preventing ready access to the national capital. Port Vila, then, is a city of non-citizens of the urban space: by accident of birth, a small number of people now control the land where virtually all poor migrants to the capital will live. This article describes how two non-equivalent relations—production and protection—feature prominently in the ways that people talk about tenure insecurity. In sum, these non-equivalent relations form the basis of how people relate to each other in terms of urban land occupancy. The pervasiveness of non-equivalence indicates a fundamental difference between denizens of Pacific cities, whose urban policies will need to adapt to account for its presence. A right to the city may look different in places where non-equivalence is at the very stamba (foundation) of how the city is made.