Iban - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The primary activity of a majority of Iban is rice farming. In the hills, farmers practice swidden cultivation of fields averaging one hectare. Each family maintains its own seed bank of rice, and plants between one dozen and two dozen varieties in any year. At the center of its field they plant their sacred rice ( padi pun ), a gift of some spirit to an ancestor, which has been retained over generations to recall the origins of that family. Given the uncertainties of rice farming in the hills, dozens of ritual acts are performed to ensure a successful crop. At the end of April, the head of the house holds a meeting of all family heads to discuss farm sites and an approximate date for the first rites. The meeting ensures that all residents coordinate their activities and that the rice matures at about the same time. Simultaneous maturation is critical because it helps reduce the losses of any one family to insects, birds, and wild animals, who spread themselves over several fields rather than concentrate on just one. It also permits families to coordinate their harvest rituals. Auguries are taken in June, farms are cleared in June and July, and burned over in August or September. When the rice has ripened, it is informed through ritual that it is to be harvested and transported back to the longhouse. On the last day of harvest, farmers make an offering to the final stand of rice to ensure that the soul of the rice will return to the house with them, and not remain behind in the ground. In the plains, farmers practice farming of wet rice in permanent fields. Introduction of herbicides, pesticides, and commercial fertilizers has permitted Iban to remove vegetation, control weeds and insects, and increase the yields of their farms. With much greater control over the success of their efforts, farmers rely much less on ritual. In addition to rice, farmers plant gourds, pumpkins, cucumbers, maize, and cassava. Rice is complemented with a variety of jungle vegetables and fruits collected by men and women for consumption with the evening and morning meals. Fishing has provided the principal source of protein in the Iban diet, but logging and the consequent silting of many streams and rivers have greatly reduced the numbers of fish. Techniques of fishing are sophisticated and adjusted according to the conditions of the waters. Fish traps are placed in constricted streams, and large nets are inclined over larger streams. Fish are taken with a seine or with hooks. Hunting of wild pigs and deer, using dogs, traps, and nets, varies from community to community, according to the region, forest conditions, and animal population. Almost all families keep chickens and pigs, and every longhouse has dogs. Chickens, pigs, and water buffalo are used in sacrifices, and eggs are an essential ingredient of any offering.

The most important commercial activity for the largest number of Iban men has been the institutionalized bejalai, or journey to work for wages. In some longhouses almost all able-bodied men are away at any given time, working for a distant logging company or in the oilfields of northern Borneo. Wage earning enabled men to buy jars, gongs, and other valuables for their families. Rubber and pepper have provided an unstable source of income, as has cocoa, a recent introduction. The attraction of salaried jobs is one of the principal reasons for Iban urban migration. Iban are employed in every major occupational category in Sarawak's cities.

Industrial Arts. Iban women are superb weavers using the backstrap loom. Most men are skilled in the use of the piston bellows. In addition to weaving blankets and other cloths, women weave mats and baskets.

Trade. Iban collect bamboo and rattans for their own use or for sale. Natural rubber and the illipe ( Bassia sp., the Indian butter tree) nut, which is available about every fourth year, are other important collectibles. Ironwood, sawed as logs or cut as poles, is becoming increasingly scarce.

Division of Labor. Domestic chores, such as cooking and tending the bilik, are performed primarily by women. Both men and women collect wild foods for family consumption and, among Iban living near towns, for sale. Men fell trees and do the heavier farm work, fish, hunt, and take on contracts with logging and oil companies. In urban contexts, both men and women perform office jobs.

Land Tenure. Rights to land are established by clearing and farming it, or by occupying it. Rights to the use of farmland are vested in the bilik-family, and are held in perpetuity. These rights are maintained in the living memory of the residents of each longhouse. Boundaries are indicated by landforms or trees, or are marked by planting a row of bamboo. Except for the land overshadowed by the eaves of the longhouse, there is no land to which a community holds rights. With the introduction of surveys and titles to land in the early 1900s, Iban who lived closer to government centers obtained titles to their land, under which rights of individual familes to land could be verified. As a result of increased population and the commercialization of land, some Iban have bought land for investment and speculation.

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