I enjoyed a rare treat today, an opportunity to talk to a group of 30 Fordham students about the islands. The students were graduate students in Henry Schwalbenberg?s IPED program. The acronym stands for International Political Economy and Development. The students are largely people who have stars in their eyes (in the best sense) and have hopes of changing the world. One of them is shown in the photo above?Gabe Rossi, a former Jesuit Volunteer who just finished two years at Xavier High School (he?s the one on the left). The program director, Henry Schwalbenberg, might be unrecognizable to those of you who knew him when he worked with MicSem in Chuuk 30 years ago doing political education at the time that the island nations were still pondering their political future. He?s put on a few pounds since then, as you can see from the photo (he?s the bearded man in the center).
What did we discuss? I called it ?Dilemmas of Development,? and started with the usual apology for presuming to address graduate students who had become better trained in economics than I would ever hope to be. But I?ve always considered myself a ?jack of all trades… and master of none,? and had the chance to put this in practice once again.
What is land? I asked them. To the banks and others interested in rapid development, it?s something that might be used to lure investors into island nations that badly need an industry or two to get the economy going. How are Chinese or Japanese going to build hotels or tuna loining plants or anything else unless they have land available, after all? To economists land is one of the three building blocks of a modern economy (the others are capital?ie, money?and labor).
But to islanders?at least once upon a time?land meant something quite different. It was the one source of wealth people had, the one resource necessary for survival. But it wasn?t just the food that land produced that made it important. Land was the source of identity and the symbol of the family. Just as people sprang from the land, they returned to it at their death.
Most of you know all this, of course. And so did some of the students at the talk. So they asked whether the old attitudes toward land have changed over the years. Yes, they had but not completely, I replied. Then they asked how could land be used for development without threatening some of the most central cultural values. I had no answer to this question, I have to admit. Change is inevitable, I suppose, but it should always respect the deepest part of the cultural life of island people.
The final question to me was ?How does this kind of cultural-economic talk fit into your role as a priest?? That question I could answer. Pope Francis has continually been prompting us that talk about salvation after death is just empty words unless we?re prepared to help them in their struggle here and now. That?s why the early missionaries started schools and handed out medicine to the sick and drove pregnant women to the hospital. It?s also why some of us give talks on land and social change.
(No need for you readers to get to church on Sunday; this will do.)