Recycled plastic to protect villagers

The smiles and joyful bouncing of 1200 tribal dancers on Tanna Island in Vanuatu conceal a devastating daily reality.


They’re chanting, clapping and stomping across the black volcanic sand and grass, creating a human drum beat that reverberates to the core.

It’s like being inside a human heart.

At its centre is Australian Nev Hyman who appears slightly overdressed in shorts and a shirt.

Tanna Island villagers, which bore the brunt of Cyclone Pam a year ago, are swirling around him, performing custom choreography and songs of their forebears.

Hyman, a former surfboard maker from the Gold Coast, is in his element copying the steps of a village chief.

The men and boys are naked, apart from decorative grass modesty sheaths, while the women and girls in the outer layers of the circle wear grass skirts and feathers in their hair.

When Pam hit in March last year, traditional huts made from wood and coconut leaves didn’t stand much chance in the winds that raged up to 320km/h.

Even more modern buildings lost tin roofing.

Families hopped from one shelter to the next as the island was flattened. Eleven people died.

More than a year on many of them are still living under tarps and kids are going to school in tents.

It could be five years before they can rebuild homes, because the leaves and trees need to grow back.

Hyman’s here with his surfing mate Ken McBryde, a Sydney architect, to hand over 14 specially-designed category-five-cyclone-proof buildings.

The Nev Houses, made out of recycled plastic, will go to 12 tribes on the island.

“They’re the happiest people on the planet and we want to protect them from cyclones,” Hyman told AAP.

McBryde has studied indigenous housing for years, especially Aboriginal tin camps in NSW.

“The key thing about the design, apart from being cyclone resistant, is that it has been carefully designed to connect nicely with village life, and it’s designed for the tropics,” he told AAP.

The verandah keeps the hot sun and driving rain off the walls and allows the windows to let the breeze through.

The buildings, which can be erected in five days, also have solar power.

When the next cyclone rolls in, the buildings in this project’s first phase will be able to protect 1000 people.

In the meantime they will be used as classrooms and a medical clinic.

The classroom buildings cost about $32,000.

McBryde’s next design is for family huts. Half the building will be cyclone proof and the remainder will be a verandah traditionally weaved out of coconut leaves.

The Vanuatu government has placed orders for the huts while there’s also interest from elsewhere including Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Fiji, East Timor as well as from authorities dealing with the refugee crisis in Germany.

There are plans to set up factories in Port Vila and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, import plastic waste and create jobs.

Vanuatu’s acting prime minister Joe Natuman told reporters he believes the technology will save lives.

Natuman grew up on Tanna and remembers the terrifying wait bunkering down with his family as a boy during cyclones.

* The writer travelled to Vanuatu courtesy of Nev House.