At least they can only mess up a small island

10 June 2006

Update: 25 May 2007
I today received a threat of legal action from a 'Mark Bowness', claiming that comments under this entry were libellous and that he had been in touch with a solicitor, noting that he will be "forced to take matters further" if nothing happened. (He also referred to an earlier communication that I did not receive.)

However, Bowness did not specify any statements in those comments as being libellous, only claiming that some of them were. I do not believe that any were but, given the way that UK libel operates and that Bowness seems unable to indicate what actually offends him, I have taken the precaution of temporarily removing all comments, which includes those from 'Mark James', the name under which Bowness operated at Tribewanted until recently and under which he commented to this blog. I do not believe that any of the comments that raised concerns about the organisation of Tribewanted are in fact libellous. But I shall wait to see what Mark Bowness has to say.

Update: 27 May 2007
'Mark James Bowness' (rather than plain old Mark Bowness) replied in Friday, but I've only just had time to deal with this having had to deal with both a dead ADSL router and a laptop suffering from infant-mortality syndrome in quick succession.

The upshot was that Bowness didn't like two comments that appeared under this post. One of those comments referred to Bowness' selective use of his name in connection with Tribewanted (in correspondence, one day he's Mark James, less than a year on he's Mark Bowness, and then, on being challenged over the discrepancy a few hours later, Mark James Bowness). However, the way that comment was worded means that it was factually incorrect, if you chose a narrow interpretation of its meaning.

Why was Bowness worried about that? He replied:

"My name is Mark James Bowness, I never changed my name I simply dropped my surname rightly or wrongly as I was concerned that with my previous association with Christian work tribewanted would be labelled as a Christian operation, which is isnt.

"The reason that I have contact you now is because we have spent a lot of time building integrity and credibility with tribewanted, which we have, it is going well. The reason that I am contacting you now is because I am developing other projects and your post comes up in google which states that I changed my name which is untrue. As far as I am concerned we have worked hard on tribewanted and people still ask me questions about changing my name, which I havent and I explain this at the level that it happened and it makes sense to people."

I had a quick look at Tribewanted.com to see that Bowness has had his entry changed there to reflect his full name (Mark James Bowness) rather than the truncated version (Mark James) under which he, until recently, publicised his activity there.

I should point out that when the company was founded, he used the name Mark James Bowness to register as a director at Companies House. But, when the site started, and for a good long while after, he wanted to be known as Mark James and admits he had reasons for doing so. You can see that in the Wayback Machine. (Internet caches are a bitch aren't they, Mark?) However, he takes issue with a comment, based on a narrower interpretation of what was written than the commenter probably intended, that pointed this out and then uses threats of legal action to try to change his Internet footprint.

The other comment asked whether 'Mark' had been writing blogs and comments under the name 'George'. Based on the IP addresses of comments here and writing style, there is no evidence I can find they were written by the same person.

If you've waded through that lot, the original post on Tribewanted is below.

My initial reaction to seeing the coverage of Tribewanted's plan to build a "sustainable eco-community" on a tiny Pacific island was: "Oh look, Lord of the Flies for grown-ups." Then I worked it out: it's NGO Fantasy Island. Perhaps misled by the apparent ability of the characters in Lost to live on an island for close to 50 days on the contents of the aircraft bar and the odd fish and bit of fruit, about 700 people out of the 5000 needed have signed up to claim their bit of part-time community construction.

For the lords of obscure business models, Bubblegeneration, the plan to have people organise a part-time community on a remote island has everything: "blurring the boundaries, plasticity, microchunking and preference-trading in a micro-market...you know the score". No, I'm afraid I don't know the score. I'm not even sure that Bubblegeneration co-writer Mahashunyam does, given that the link is to a piece that appears under MSNBC's "What were they thinking?" column. The more I look at Bubblegeneration, the more I think it's a revival of the thinking that gave us the business model of "carrying on an undertaking of great importance, but nobody to know what it is" from another, much earlier South Sea-related endeavour.

I'm no expert on Pacific island soil chemistry, but I'm willing to bet that Tribewanted's plan will have as much to do with sustainability as a long lost-weekend in Goa. Lots of people talking warmly at each other about saving the planet but happy to chow down on stuff trucked in from miles around after being responsible for lobbing several tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the back of a 777.

The island the Tribewanted organisers intend to settle is, apparently, about 80 hectares in area. That's about the size of the main bit of Clapham Common. Yes, it's tiny. On that, 100 people will be there at any one time, staying for anything up to three weeks during a year. Now, 100 people on a chunk of land like Clapham Common does not sound like it's going to be crowded. But, to feed and water them? The organisers put the emphasis on sustainability, but I doubt very much if the island could feed more than a fraction of that number without importing most of its food or bunging high-nitrogen fertilisers into the soil.

Vaclav Smil did the calculations in the mid-1990s on how much land you need. Before the introduction of artificial fertilisers, you could only get about five people to a hectare of farmland. Not any old land, but proper productive farmland. And it assumes you are diligent in recycling your mates' waste. Nice. If you look at photos of the island it quickly becomes clear that most of what land there is comprises rocky, forested hills. Good luck ploughing that lot.

It is worth looking at what happened to Pitcairn after Fletcher Christian and his Bounty mutineers fetched up in a bid to avoid being found by the British Navy. This island is much larger than Vorovoro - or Adventure Island at Tribewanted would have it - at about 450 hectares. Unfortunately, not that much of the island can be farmed easily. There's an ex-volcano in the middle of it, so the soil is fertile, but it's difficult to farm. Only about a tenth of the total land mass is used for growing food, and the island can sustain about 50 people. In the 19th Century, the population grew to 200, but many had to leave because they were starving.

The annoying thing about this is that there are sustainable communities already in place. They are not part-time affairs and none of them are on a purty little island in a scenario that sounds uncannily like an Alex Garland novel. (If Garland wants to make amends for the pretentious mess that was The Tesseract, however, there looks to be plenty of source material here.)

An small island is about the last place you want to build one of these communities, unless you enjoy starving to death. There's probably a reason why very few people live on this particular island - it's too small for it to make for sense for many more. In fact, reading between the lines of the existing coverage, it's not clear that anyone really lives on Vorovoro rather than the nearby, and considerably larger island of Mali. The 'native' population seems to be about four or five.

Working sustainable communities tend to be in less sexy places like Wales, where some of them have had to fight off property developers to stay where they are. If there was a plan to take a smaller rolling population to somewhere modelled on one of these communities, then the Tribewanted plan might make more sense. The organisers are very keen to promote the idea that the 5000 members decide the rules. That has parallels in what sociologists call intentional communities - they differ widely in the rules they use but they rely largely on consensus among peers. But, with this setup, you have 5000 armchair generals setting rules before they get anywhere near the island. Look at the site and see all the ideas the members have already got for the island based on a map with no scale and scanty information on the resources there. It's like a thought experiment of what several hundred World Banks would come up with, if they spent more time in Aya Napa than Washington offices.

Luckily, unlike World Bank development plans, the people on the ground running the project are likely to take control of what really gets done. So, an experiment in sustainable development groupthink will amount to an opportunity to cough up several hundred quid for the privilege of being told to dig a latrine or chop down some trees. It will be instructive to see how quickly the Wisdom of Crowds takes effect on this lot and they realise what needs to be done to sustain a rolling population of 100 in such a small place. One thing I'm pretty sure of is that sustainability principles will get jettisoned quite early.

5 Comments

You make some interesting comments. I would like to stress that we have a team of experts on board, we are supported by the Fijian government, the native land tourist board. I would like to mention the benefits of this project both to the local community bringing in jobs and money into this area. I would like to stress the work that we will be doing with the people of Mali, both offering finances and also giving time, effort and energy to build their schools, help teach and help them with their huge list of needs. The people of Mali are happy about this project. Finally, it would be worth me mentioning that the 200 acre Island only has four people on it because the Chief of Mali 'Tui Mali', lives on the Island as it is his priveledge. He realised that he was sitting on much needed finances on the Island and had a multi-million pound offer for a hotel resort (suggesting that it would be fine for more that 100 people to live on) nevertheless he did not want to destroy the beauty of the Island and so we offered to help them out. Yes, we are learning along the way but some of the world's top experts are approaching us to help out.

Many thanks,

Mark James
Concept Creator

Mark, thanks for the comment - that was a real quick response with points that I had missed.

I appreciate the benefits that tourism can bring to an island chain like Fiji - I think that it runs close to 20 per cent of GDP. It's the issue of sustainability that lies at the heart of the project as it is described today that I question. A hotel on that size island could easily support more than 100 people - but everything would need to be shipped in, probably including drinking water.

The trouble I think you have is that, as soon as you introduce the s-word, you introduce a tier of constraints that may simply be impossible to satisfy without disrupting the island's existing eco-system. The hotel could mean more transport-related carbon dioxide emissions but leave more of the island intact.

If, as you say, the intent is more about development - building schools etc - than sustainability, then I would just drop the eco-angle. At the moment, it looks like an eco-scheme that can't work in practice. OK, it's even more like NGO Fantasy Island (if the bit about the community deciding everything remains in place), but I don't think you can promise everything in this project.

I hear your points and they are good, as an on-looker. I think you have to bear in mind that we have not 'promised' anything in this project - we have asked 5000 people to come together, we are talking to skilled environmentalists, we have universities working with us and those who have previous built eco-tourist places and we are working hard to build an eco-island.

We will likely be building traditional Fijian bures, using wood from the local saw mill in Labasa. The goverment are currently digging for water on the Island, as they have done with all the island and we are undertaking an evironmental impact assesment in order to asses what areas not to fish in etc. Of course we will need to bring some food in but this is nothing like bringing concerete and cement onto the island. Fijian bures will be able to be taken down afterwards.

As a person that hails near Mali the reason not many people stay on the island is that it is a special place where only the chiefs of Mali were allowed to stay. That is the main reason they has not been a resort their. Vorovoro is one of the most beautiful islands of Fiji.

Reality is this can work and it will be good for the community surrounding Mali. I really hope that the negative posts that seem to propping up realise that the mud being slung does not only effect the tribepeople that have already invested their money but potential benefits to the locals surrounding vorovoro.

What is probably going to have to happen now is word of mouth stories from people visiting in september to offset all the negative posts.

As founder of Tribewanted, alongside Mark, I feel frustrated about what is continually being written about Mark online as my experience of working with him does not fit with the accusations that appear here and on other blogs.

In 'Tribewanted' Mark has developed a concept that is now being built both online and in reality Fiji. It is inspiring people and making a difference to their lives on a daily basis (both local Fijians and tribe members). It is a good thing.

We're all exceptionally lucky to be part of this and the bottom line is that without Mark Tribewanted would never have happened.

When you go into business with someone you have to trust them implicitly. This trust was never compromised by Mark. He was commited, honest and passionate from day one.

Mark was clear and frank with me from the start about his past and my judgement was that here was a guy with great ideas who was learning (aren't we all?). Aside from his creative overdrive the reason I went for this with Mark was because I beleived he was a good person who wanted to do this for the right reasons. That belief has not changed in my mind.

Mark continues to be actively involved in promoting Tribewanted and is an excellent support to me and the team.

Those who continue to have doubts make sure you tune into the BBC this autumn when a detailed observational documentary on Tribewanted will tell the full story.

If you have any further questions about Tribewanted or Mark please get in touch.

Hope to see you on Vorovoro
moce,
Ben