Every year, as Vanuatu’s wild monsoon season comes to an end, Chief Luke Fargo instructs the boys of his village to build a 30-metre tower using branches cut from a nearby forest.
When the structure stretches to the sky, the boys prepare for the next stage — to jump from the highest platform, with only a vine wrapped around their ankles to catch their fall.
In some videos capturing the stomach-turning leap, you can hear the land diver scrape the ground.
The 69-year-old chief, who has performed the ritual himself many times, invites people from around the world to watch these land diving ceremonies, called Nagol, from his home on the southern tip of Pentecost Island.
But he was saddened when he found out the event had inspired the creation of bungee jumping, a global sport he believes was stolen from his people.
“We were shocked because they told us they made a lot of money out of that,” Mr Fargo said.
“I would like to send a message to all the people who use the bungee jump, [that it] was taken from the Pentecost regional land dive.”
Mr Fargo says he and other Indigenous chiefs from Vanuatu have called for compensation from bungee jump operators to be funnelled into their communities — but they’re pessimistic about actually receiving royalties.
“I think if they pay a small [amount of] money to us on the island, it would be better,” Mr Fargo said.
The issue now has now been inscribed into Vanuatu’s laws, with a bill to protect Vanuatu’s traditional knowledge passed last month.
The bill explicitly mentions the Nagol jump of south Pentecost, and its “resemblance” to bungee jumping.
“The enactment of such legislation will ensure the proper monitoring and regulation of Vanuatu’s traditional knowledge and expressions of culture, for commercial use and to ensure that the traditional owners have given their prior informed consent,” the bill states.
“An example being the bungee jump which gets a resemblance of Nagol jump of South Pentecost.
“A person who uses that traditional knowledge without the prior informed consent of the traditional owners commits an offence under this Act.”
Origins of the jump
The people of Pentecost island have practised land diving for centuries as a way to celebrate the season’s yam harvest.
The elaborate ceremony includes traditional dancing where participants men wear nambas, or penis sheaths, and the women wear grass skirts.
According to some reports, the ritual grew out of a legend involving a woman running away from her marriage.
She fled into the jungle, but, pursued by her husband, scrambled up a tree, tied a vine to her ankle and jumped, managing to land safely.
Her husband, failing to affix the vital vine, fell to his death.
But Chief Fargo said the ritual now symbolises an initiation for young men and boys — a rite of passage to prove their strength.
For decades now, the three-month-long event has drawn in numerous tourists, who pay a $150 fee to watch the young men hurtle toward the ground.
Even Queen Elizabeth II was treated to the spectacle during a visit in 1974, but with fatal consequences: because the land diving was held in the wrong season, the vines lacked elasticity and snapped, leading to a death of one of the divers.
In 1979, the Vanuatu spectacle inspired Oxford University’s Dangerous Sports Club, who decided to recreate it over the Clifton Suspension Bridge in the United Kingdom.
New Zealand entrepreneur AJ Hackett then took the idea to found AJ Hackett Bungy in 1988, the oldest commercial bungee jumping operator in the world.
Mr Hackett had pioneered an elastic bungee jumping cord in the mid-1980s and shot to global notoriety after bungee jumping off of the Eiffel Tower in 1987.
He was immediately arrested, but released after five minutes, according to the company’s website.
When asked to respond on Indigenous groups calling for recognition, AJ Hackett Bungy said they didn’t have anyone available for comment. But the company acknowledges on their website that bungee jumping’s origins hail from Vanuatu.
Ending exploitation of traditional knowledge
John Huri, from Vanuatu’s Intellectual Property Office, helped draft the bill.
Though he thinks the legislation will not retrospectively help chiefs like Luke Fargo gain royalties from bungee jumpers, he says it will help prevent any future exploitation of Vanuatu’s traditional customs.
“The issue of Nagol [is one] where the local people stand aside and see people coming in and getting their knowledge and commercialising it … without properly acknowledging and asking the people whether they give their consent to it,” Mr Huri said.
Mr Huri said the Vanuatu Government is also working with UNESCO and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) to change international policies and sign treaties to better recognise the rights of Indigenous intellectual property.
He hopes such policies would mean the appropriation of Indigenous customs — like current the tension between bungee jumping and Nagol ceremonies — will not happen again.
“[Bungee jumping] is a creation of here, of Vanuatu,” Mr Huri said.
“So we have to come up with this bill so that we can put in place mechanisms where any future case like this will be handled.”
Protecting Indigenous intellectual property
There is a growing push from Indigenous groups worldwide for better regulation of the use of traditional knowledge to ensure Indigenous communities are respected by companies that seek to use their cultural knowledge.
In December last year, Christian Dior reached a secret deal with New Caledonia’s Indigenous Kanak people, after the French fashion company was criticised for patenting native plant extracts for its commercial cosmetics research.
In Australia, there have been calls for legislation to stamp out fake Indigenous art appropriating Aboriginal culture, while controversy continues to swirl about the copyright of the Aboriginal flag, after a non-Indigenous company secured exclusive clothing rights to the flag.
A recent trademark bid for the exclusive rights to the words “Gumby Gumby”, which means “woman woman medicine” in the Ghungalu language belonging to an Aboriginal people of central Queensland, also sparked anger and calls for reform about who can claim intellectual property rights to Indigenous knowledge.
Terri Janke, the founder of an Indigenous law firm based in Sydney, works with Aboriginal and Pacific communities on issues of intellectual property.
She says thatthe current legal systems in Australia and other countries are ill-equipped to protect traditional and customary knowledge.
“A lot of times the problem is that the legal system doesn’t give any rights to Indigenous people,” Dr Janke said.
So it’s not like running a normal case saying it’s patent infringement or trademark infringement — [those Indigenous] rights sit out of it.”
For Chief Fargo in South Pentecost, the move to protect Vanuatu’s ancient customs from foreign appropriation is vital.
“Nagol must be kept always in our traditional customs,” he said.