Interviews with TCP Authors

Published since 1989, The Contemporary Pacific has featured hundreds of authors from across disciplines and incorporated a wide range of genres, including peer-reviewed research articles, political reviews, resource essays, and dialogues covering issues of profound concern to the region and the world, as well as book reviews, art features, and even the occasional poem. All of these pieces have moved through a robust editorial process and reflect the authors' unique experiences in communicating their expertise and creative and critical scholarship to a broad audience. Launched in January 2020, this new section of our website features interviews, one per month, with the scholars and artists who have published in our pages.

Also check out our innaugural 2020 author interview with Margaret MutuMarch 2020 interview with Greg Dvorak; April 2020 interview with ku'ualoha ho'omanawanui; May 2020 interview with Brij Lal; September 2020 interview with Lisa Uperesa; November 2020 inteview with Jacques Vernaudon, and our December 2020 interview with April Henderson.



MILILANI GANIVET (MG): The Australian National University, where you earned your PhD, is known as a major epicenter for the development of Pacific History as a discipline in its own right. We wonder if your training there influenced your teaching at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, where you taught for ten years, or at the University of Hawai‘i, where you are now?

JOSEPH FOUKONA (JF): I actually did my educational training in Solomon Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Vanuatu, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and Australia.   I did my high school education in the Solomons, where the student dropout rate from the formal schooling system was quite high because of national exams in grades 6, 9, 12, and 13. Students worked really hard to pass these exams. During this period, I learned about the history of the world wars, was introduced to novels such as Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and was taught how to write different types of essays. Although this learning experience prepared me for university studies, I was better equipped with the skill of how to pass exams. I went to the University of the South Pacific (USP), initially to Laucala Campus in Fiji (Suva), and then to Emalus Campus in Vanuatu (Port Vila), to do my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. USP is owned by twelve South Pacific countries that follow English, American, and French legal traditions. At USP, I did Pacific-focused courses and doctrinal law courses covering the twelve island countries’ jurisdictions. I attended classes that were comprised of students from a dozen backgrounds from various Pacific Island countries. This experience exposed me to learning and discussing Pacific legal hybridities and historiography. It also allowed me to engage in presentations and library research and encouraged me to find my voice in writing and speaking.

As part of my undergraduate experience, I did a one-year student exchange program at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). The classes at UPNG focused more on Melanesian jurisprudence and PNG law and history and commonly had students from numerous cultural and linguistic backgrounds across the country. I then did a postgraduate degree at Victoria University in Wellington, where I was engaged in doctrinal legal research methodology and was introduced to New Zealand Māori and Pasifika scholarship that explored Indigenous research methods, such as the “talanoa” approach. This helped me transition from a more doctrinal methodological approach to a socio-legal and historical research focus, for which I incorporated archival research and fieldwork as part of my PhD training at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. At ANU, I was immersed in historiographical discussions of the Pacific Islands,following a genealogy running from the James Wightman Davidson school of Pacific history to present-day discussions about past and contemporary issues in Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. This enhanced my professional development because it provided me with opportunities to engage in conversations with a community of academics who work in the Pacific and elsewhere, and to gain access to information and informants, all of whom have contributed to my academic journey in law and history. My educational training in the different countries made it possible for me to carry out my research in multiple geographical and resource sites, including archives and libraries and ethnographic work. These training interactions and lived experiences influenced my teaching at USP and continue to do so at the University of Hawai’i. 

MG: You have done a tremendous amount of research on land issues in Solomon Islands. Can you share with us how you got interested in these fields and areas of study? I wonder what you think about the intersections of law, land tenure, and history in Pacific scholarship and how a journal like The Contemporary Pacific should be addressing them.

JF: I developed an interest in areas relating to land because of personal and professional reasons. First, as a Solomon Islander, I know land is central to identity, history, custom, security, livelihood, and economic development. Land is one of the important issues confronting people in Solomon Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific because of climate-change issues and population increase. Second, I taught Pacific land tenure and property law at the University of the South Pacific for a decade. During this period, I was involved in research projects funded by international institutions such as the World Bank, donor agencies such as the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), and the Solomon Islands government. I also engaged with nongovernmental organizations, local actors, and landowners to run workshops and awareness programs on land issues. Through these engagements, I became aware that a comprehensive understanding of land issues requires a high degree of accuracy and a clarity in definitions and analysis that is more than just a simple dualism of colonial past and postcolonial present. Hence, the intersection between land, law, and history is vital in Pacific scholarship. It provides an understanding of the historical trajectory of how law was used in the Pacific to change customary spaces to alienated places for purposes of capitalist development and settlement establishments during the colonial and postcolonial era. In my mind, a journal like TCP could address these issues by facilitating a forum for multidisciplinary interaction and publication.

MG: Resource extraction poses a real challenge in Oceania. Some years ago, TCP dedicated a special issue to the topic, ‘‘Melanesian Mining Modernities: Past, Present, and Future’’ (TCP 2006; 18-2). You have covered some of these issues brilliantly in your political reviews about Solomon Islands. Can you share your research process in covering these sensitive issues? And do you think our scholarly approach to them has changed since the early 2000s?

JF: Melanesia’s natural resource extraction issues are complex and contentious, involving customary landowners, national governments, middlemen or brokers, and investors. To understand the historical trajectory of these issues, I began by going through historical archival records, making contacts with locals I knew from potential case study field sites and informing these contacts about my research. I also contacted local church leaders to link with people on the ground because churches are among the most robust networks in Melanesia. I was conscious of cultural protocols and careful in approaching people from urban and rural areas because of the sensitivity around land and natural resource issues. Rather than portraying myself as a researcher going out to the field to find information, I waited for information. I had to build trust with people from field sites, with whom I engaged as part of my research using “tok stori”—a Solomons Pijin expression for a flexible and informal conversation. Through tok stori, I would invite people to talk about their place and their experiences concerning their land and development. Part of tok stori involved talking about why I was visiting their place, which then linked into a discussion about my research and other issues they wanted to discuss. Woven into the tok stori was the space for chewing betel nut, making context-specific jokes, and sharing island food with people. In this way, people felt comfortable talking. Together, we created an environment for an ongoing conversation on land and natural resource extraction issues. If I wanted to ask them a specific question relating to my research, I would seek their approval during our tok stori or ask whether it was agreeable to do a follow-up interview. Since the early 2000s, I think there has been a gradual shift in scholarly approaches to these natural resource extraction issues as researchers continue to be exposed to discourses and debates about Indigenous research methodologies. 

MG: TCP has been at the intersection of numerous scholarly avenues in which crisscrossing conversations led to thoughtful interdisciplinary engagement and reflection. In his 2014 article “Oceanic Historicities,” Chris Ballard attempts to build on the works of luminaries like Greg Dening and Marshall Sahlins to explore Indigenous communities’ relationships to their pasts. We wonder if Ballard’s approach has resonated with you as a lawyer and historian working within your home communities?  

JF: Yes, I have known Professor Ballard for a very long time. He was the chair of my PhD committee, providing personal and academic support before and during my PhD candidature. He has not just been a supervisor but also a mentor, colleague, and friend—someone that I have learned a lot from in my personal and professional development. Professor Ballard draws on ethnographic and archival research in his work. So yes, his approach resonates with me as a lawyer and historian working within my community and elsewhere in the Pacific.

For example, Professor Ballard lived with the Huli people in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea and conducted fieldwork. He also worked on the land biography of places such as the Chief Roi Mata Domain, a World Heritage Site in Vanuatu. His work provided an essential reference point that inspired and informed my sense of how I engage with land and natural resources issues. What this means in practice is that understanding how various stakeholders perceive land and natural resources and exploring how meanings, beliefs, and traditions are transfused require recognizing the nuances, entanglements and relationships that shape how Pacific people connect with their land and sea. . In Solomon Islands, where I come from, and even in other places like Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu or elsewhere in Oceania, if you alienate indigenous people from their lands, you alienate them from their histories, cultures, identities, and source of livelihood. Land and natural resource issues are complex and not just a simple binary of land and history or law and development. As a lawyer and historian, the intersections between land, law, and history contribute to shaping my research interests and projects. To explore this intersection, I draw on doctrinal legal texts, archival records, and ethnographic fieldwork. I have sought to adopt an interpretivist scholarly approach based on the ontological conviction that the enactment and application of laws, actions, and practices are shaped by human interactions and their conceptual frames of the world. In my mind, how humans interpret reality is central to the historical trajectory of the transplanting and translation of Western ideas, institutions, and laws into Oceania, which has a profound impact on Pacific landscapes, cultures, and societies.

MG: We are struck by the challenges and opportunities we imagine you navigate as a scholar positioned between law, the social sciences, and the humanities. Could you share with us some of the challenges you have encountered? How do you see your legal, social, and historical sensitivities feed into your political reviews for The Contemporary Pacific (TCP)?

 JF: Navigating between law, the social sciences, and the humanities is made possible due to my access to education training and  professional and personal networks. Although this provides an opportunity to engage in a multidisciplinary way with a wide range of different actors at both theoretical and practical levels, making the connections pragmatically is not straightforward because of differences in approach and methodology. As a result, I employ various research approaches and methods that can be challenging but conceptually rewarding. One of the challenges I have encountered when moving between the different disciplinary domains is demonstrating how the knowledge I generate from my research continues to have relevance and usefulness in the Pacific to bridge the gap between academia, policy, and practical reality. The other challenge I have encountered is in terms of deciding on the type of methodology to be used in researching and writing on the Pacific colonial past and present, while at the same time being cautious of the biases that exist in dominant written texts in law, the social sciences, and the humanities. The Pacific colonial legacy is complex because of ongoing entanglement in issues, discourses, and debates concerning race and civilization, alienation and displacement, legal pluralism and development, universalism and relativism, and sociocultural and political hegemony. These discourses, issues, and debates contribute to shaping the Pacific region’s political landscape. This is where my legal, social, and historical sensitivities matter, because I can recognize the nuances and complexities of the Pacific’s lived realities and capture them in my political reviews for TCP.  

MG: Finally, we wonder if you might discuss some of the critical issues that you think most require our attention today in order to advance the rights and agency of the people who inhabit the region and who are committed to its well-being.

JF: I think one of the critical issues in the Pacific that requires attention is climate change and displacement. International frameworks such as the Guiding Principles and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Operational Guidelines on the Protection of Persons in Situations of Natural Disasters provide standards and guidelines concerning prevention of displacement; protection during evacuation and throughout displacement; and durable solutions. How countries in the Pacific could accommodate these standards and guidelines as part of their domestic policy and laws and apply them effectively by following a rights-based approach remains an ongoing challenge. Most Pacific Island countries rely on disaster management plans to address the protection of internally displaced persons during evacuation and displacement. These plans are neither specific nor explicit in addressing and managing peculiar threats to land, livelihood, and cultures created by climate change. As a result, there is no direct and explicit guidance in law and policy at the domestic level in most Pacific Island countries that proactively address the prevention of displacement and durable solutions. It seems there is more emphasis by many Pacific Island countries on disaster relief and recovery, and less attention is paid to the prevention of displacement and durable solutions. Although there are essential international standards and guidelines relating to preventing displacement and protecting internally displaced persons due to climate changeinduced disasters, their translation through operational policy documents and legal frameworks is limited in the Pacific. 

References: Achebe, Chinua. 1958. Things Fall Apart. New Hampshire, UK: William Heinemann Ltd; Ballard, Chris. 2014. Oceanic Historicities. The Contemporary Pacific 26 (1): 95–154.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Joseph D. Foukona has an LLB, LLM, PDLP and GDTT from the University of the South Pacific and an LLM from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He completed a PhD at the Australian National University focusing on land, law and history. He taught previously at the University of the South Pacific as a Senior Lecturer, and is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His areas of research interest are customary land tenure, climate change displacement, land reform, pacific legal history and systems, urbanization, constitutional and governances’ issues in the Pacific. His has recently contributed chapters in two recently published books: “Customary Land in Pacific Island countries: laws and threats.” In Environmental Law and Governance in the Pacific: Climate Change, Biodiversity and Community, edited by Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh and Evan Hamman. London: Routledge, 2020; “Solomon Islands: Flooding, displacement, and durable solutions: The April 2014 flood in Honiara.” In Climate Change, Disasters, and Internal Displacement in Asia and the Pacific: A Human Rights-Based Approach, edited by Matthew Scott and Albert Salamanca. London: Routledge, 2020. His current research is on urbanization and displacement, legal pluralism and normative orders, and history of land alienation processes.

An MA candidate in Pacific Islands Studies at UHM's Center for Pacific Islands Studies, Mililani Ganivet has served as an editorial intern with The Contemporary Pacific since spring 2019. Sustained by the Pacific Ocean and hailing from Taravao, Tahiti in French Polynesia, Mililani's research interests include the histories and legacies of nuclear tests in French Polynesia and in wider Oceania. Mililani proposed the idea of this interview series to the TCP Board and was instrumental in seeing it launched.