Engaged anthropology, the Vanuatu land rush and connecting Indigenous Australia and the Pacific

Dr Siobhan McDonnell
09 October 2018

Dr Siobhan McDonnell is a high-impact academic.

"My work has always been about trying to make a contribution and supporting indigenous people and indigenous communities with technical knowledge and technical expertise," she says.

"You need to be able to demonstrate that your work is of benefit to people in ways that they want."

Dr McDonnell is a legal anthropologist, lawyer and economist with two decades’ of experience providing policy and legal advice in Indigenous Australia and the Pacific. She completed her PhD thesis, "My Land My Life: Power, Property and Identity in Land Transformations in Vanuatu", with CHL in 2016, and won the 2017 Gender Institute PhD Prize and the 2017 Australian Anthropological Society PhD Thesis Prize for her work.

Her doctoral research unpacked a land rush that occurred in Vanuatu from 2000 onwards, when ten per cent of customary land was leased to foreign investors and subdivided for expatriate housing. The land rush caused deep divisions in ni-Vanuatu society and was linked to political and financial corruption.

"Most Australians think that Vanuatu is an idyllic beach paradise destination. But that land rush caused massive conflict and was driven by some pretty ugly geopolitical agendas," she explains.

Not content with only researching the issue, Dr McDonnell actively helped to resolve it. She served two terms as a legal advisor to the Vanuatu Minister for Lands, Mr Ralph Regenvanu.

"I rewrote all the land laws in the country and part of the constitution to try and stop the land rush and create a much better process for leasing land," she says.

Vanuatu remains a key focus of Dr McDonnell’s research. She is currently researching disaster-management practices in the country following Cyclone Pam in 2015 and continues to offer practical assistance where she can.

"I run legal cases in Vanuatu, I provide legal advice to the Vanuatu government, and I do a whole range of things to try and support people to address these issues that are a massive source of conflict in their lives."

Dr McDonnell is now a postdoctoral researcher on Professor Margaret Jolly’s Discovery Project "Engendering Climate Change, Reframing Future in Oceania" and a Research Fellow in the National Centre for Indigenous Studies. Her expertise and experience working across both Indigenous Australia and the Pacific has made her keen to develop closer connections between the two.

"So often in Indigenous Australia we look to the experience of other settler colonial countries like Canada, the US and New Zealand. But I think we don’t look often enough at the Pacific, where we have all these self-determining Indigenous countries on our doorstep," she explains.

While there remains a lot to be done in this area, Dr McDonnell believes that ANU has the potential to foster these conversations due to its status as a leading centre of research on both Indigenous Australia and the Pacific.

"Outside of Vanuatu, ANU probably one of the places in the world where I’m most accountable about my work," Dr McDonnell says. "I’m actually speaking to people in the audience who have lived and worked in Vanuatu, or are from Vanuatu, because we always have a cohort of ni-Vanuatu students here. That’s rare."

Dr McDonnell’s research on the Vanuatu land rush features in the latest issue of Contemporary Pacific, which she also co-edited. Read it here.

This story was first published on by ANU School of Culture, History and Langauge.


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team