Vanuatu is the Happy Planet Index’s sole representative of the Pacific Islands, other nation states that are severely at risk due to the effects of climate change i.e. rising sea levels and climate-related natural disasters.
This tropical archipelago in the South Pacific is rich in natural resources and is home to a multitude of cultural groups—there are over 100 spoken languages among a population of just 300,000 distributed across 83 islands. Despite a GDP per capita that is 15 times smaller than neighbouring Australia, the island nation has been consistently democratic and peaceful since its independence in 1980 and has a vibrant traditional economy supporting the indigenous supermajority.
Tight-knit kinship and community networks support members with everything from farming food crops to childcare in Vanuatu. Communities meet regularly to discuss common issues, plan for events, and settle conflicts peacefully. A recent survey by the Vanuatu National Statistics Office cites participation in community meetings as a contributing factor to wellbeing, particularly in rural parts of the country, where 75% of the population resides.
Access and control over indigenous resources, and the traditional knowledge to be productive with those resources, is of critical importance to the wellbeing of the people of Vanuatu. More than 85% of the population have free access to indigenous lands, and more than half of all households in the country possess the knowledge to transform accessible natural resources into housing, medicines, and food.
Vanuatu’s relatively low Ecological Footprint isn’t a surprise. The country began banning single use plastic bags, utensils, straws, containers, and disposable diapers in 2018, and is well placed to reach 100% renewable energy consumption by 2030, with hydropower, wind, solar, and coconut biofuel abundant. In 2019, 65% of households in Vanuatu used renewable solar energy as their main source of lighting.
Vanuatu is not a country without challenges. Vanuatu has the lowest life expectancy of all countries in the top ten Happy Planet Index rankings. This is unsurprising given the increased import and consumption of heavily processed and nutritionally devoid foods that have led to deadly spikes in non-communicable diseases in the country, such as diabetes and hypertension.
In recent years, Vanuatu’s status as a tax haven, coupled with its lucrative and controversial citizenship by investment programme, has also damaged the country’s reputation and made the financial sector dependent on the sale of passports.
Vanuatu has been consistently listed as the country most at risk and vulnerable to natural disasters, as recently as 2020. Recent serious volcanic activity in 2018 prompted an emergency evacuation of roughly 11,000 people from the island of Ambae, leaving whole communities displaced. A destructive direct hit from category 5 Tropical Cyclone Harold in April 2020 left over 80,000 people displaced.
The resilience of Vanuatu communities and families in the face of such disasters is a testament to their spirit—and helps explain why strong social networks and cultural identity, along with an understanding of the interdependence with the environment are keys to thriving in this Small Island Developing State.
We've built a personal Happy Planet Index test to help you reflect on how you can create your own "good life that doesn't cost the earth".Take the test