Among the many experiences listed in the best-selling adventure travel guide 100 Things to Do Before You Die, few are more spectacular than witnessing nagol, the traditional harvest ritual of “land diving” practiced in Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean. The precursor to the extreme sport of bungee jumping, nagol sees men climb flimsy wooden towers and dive 30 m to the ground with nothing to break their fall but vines tied to their ankles. “The first time you do it you feel a bit nervous,” says 44-year-old diver Fidael Beaf. “But after two or three times, it becomes normal like rugby or boxing or any sport.”
Land diving was banned by missionaries in the late 19th century but experienced a revival after World War II as a symbol of Vanuatu’s nascent independence movement. French anthropologist Marc Tabani also attributes its resurrection to the drastic spike in the monetary economy during that period. “Many reckoned it was a good thing to be able to get money by following kastom [custom] by turning this rite into a profitable spectacle for tourists,” Tabani writes in The Carnival of Custom, his authoritative paper on Melanesian rituals in the modern age.
Today, however, the villagers of Pentecost Island are eyeing a new and potentially larger income stream in the form of royalties from AJ Hackett, a worldwide group of bungee-jumping companies with operations across Europe, China and the Pacific worth an estimated $80 million to $100 million. “In the beginning, we did not think badly about bungee. We were happy nagol was all over the world,” Silas Buli, the vice chair of the South Pentecost Tourism Association, tells TIME. But he says that with Vanuatu adopting international laws on copyright and patents, after becoming a member state of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) last year, “the people here are thinking AJ Hackett copied the idea of nagol and made big money from this.”
Adds Buli: “I especially would like to meet this AJ Hackett. I would help him to understand the people of Pentecost’s feelings — that we know he copied something of ours and made it better.”
There has been recurrent conflict between the people of Pentecost and others in Vanuatu over who owns the intellectual property rights to nagol. In 1992, the courts were used to block an attempt to introduce land diving on the island of Espiritu Santo. In 1998, the scenario was repeated when an attempt was made to stage land diving regularly in the capital, Port Vila. The question of whether AJ Hackett owes South Pentecost royalties was also raised in Parliament 1996 and again in 2011 prior to the country’s ascension to the World Trade Organization (WTO). “One of the benefits that I think we should have from joining the WTO is to ask some of the countries who have copied our practices to have paid us some money,” opposition leader Ham Lini told the Pacific Islands News Association at the time. “In saying this, I refer to the land diving on Pentecost, when it was taken by somebody from New Zealand and then they decided to put up this bungee jump.”
Modern bungee jumping dates back to 1979, when members of the U.K.-based Dangerous Sports Club leaped off the historic Clifton Suspension Bridge near Bristol. Yet the sport remained obscure until 1987, when a young New Zealander called Alan John Hackett made an illegal bungee jump off the Eiffel Tower with a super-springy Lycra shock cord. After registering a number of trademarks and patents, Hackett and his partner Henry Van Asch launched the world’s first commercial bungee jump in New Zealand, based at Auckland’s Greenhithe Bridge (now known as Upper Harbour Bridge). The AJ Hackett group that evolved from their venture makes no secret of the fact the business was inspired by land divers on Pentecost, with photographs, videos and stories on nagol featured on the company’s website.
But do the people of Pentecost have a case? Not according to Lynell Huria, senior associate with New Zealand’s largest intellectual-property firm, AJ Park. “Unfortunately, the legal mechanisms available to the land divers of Vanuatu are limited because no legal protection is afforded to traditional rituals of this kind within or outside of Vanuatu,” Huria says. While WIPO has been working toward an international treaty to recognize indigenous communities’ rights in the areas of traditional knowledge and ritual, these remain some way from completion. Efforts center on the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which provides “the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over … traditional cultural expressions.”
Some countries have acted unilaterally to protect their time-honored intellectual property. In India, a searchable database has been created to defend traditional ayurvedic medicine by providing examiners evidence of prior art when assessing patent applications. In 1996, it was used to revoke a U.S. patent granted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center for the “Use of Turmeric in Wound Healing” on the basis that Indians had known of turmeric’s benefits for hundreds of years. Panama has established a similar registration system to protect its folklore from ethno-piracy, while the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute has used trademarks to identify authentic indigenous art. In South Africa, an amendment to the country’s intellectual-property act was passed last year to prevent European distributors from exploiting rooibos, an indigenous red bush with leaves that can be used to make a tea high in antioxidants and free from caffeine.
Back in Vanuatu, Lands and Resource Minister Ralph Regenvanu says talks with AJ Hackett are the answer. “I think the best way forward is for us to negotiate directly with AJ Hackett,” he says. “I think he would be happy to recognize our contribution to bungee and make a contribution to us.”
Alan John Hackett has remained off-grid since 2007, when he appeared in a New Zealand episode of the hit television retrospective This is Your Life. Repeated efforts to contact him failed, though TIME did speak to Van Asch. “AJ and I both visited Pentecost a long time ago, back in 1992,” he says. “We had a good look around and had good discussions on how to form stronger links between our gravity-defying activities and theirs.” Van Asch says the company has made “some contributions” to Pentecost over the years, including donations of clothes and cash as well as airfares for three locals to visit the AJ Hackett bunjee-jump center in Cairns, Australia. “It was nothing much,” he concedes. “But AJ and I are very aware of their aspirations and their endeavors to generate revenue from both their efforts and our efforts.”
When I mention the South Pentecost Tourism Association’s invitation to revisit the island and discuss the issue of royalties, Van Asch says he will talk it over it with his partners and get back to me. True to his word, a week later I receive an e-mail saying: “[AJ Hackett] Bungy New Zealand would be interested in a direct approach from the people of Pentecost.” In other words, an honorable resolution looks entirely possible. Granted, it’s early days, but it’s always a good sign when two sides are willing to meet without conditions. Call it a leap of faith.