Kosrae - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Aboriginally, subsistence was based on breadfruit, coconuts, bananas, taro, yams, and sugarcane. Breadfruit was the staple when in season. It was preserved in leaf-lined pits for times of scarcity. Each settlement included at least one earth oven, used for cooking. Soft taro was made into a feast food called fahfah by men trained in the elaborate skills needed to prepare it properly. Coconuts were reserved for the noble class. Another important crop was kava, a drink made from the roots of a plant that grew in the mountains. It was prepared for and served to members of the nobility by specialists. Fish were harvested mainly from the lagoon using nets. A medium of exchange made of shells existed, but little is known of its specific uses. In modern times, daily food for most families is a mixture of imported rice, tinned meats and fish, and locally produced fish and tree and root crops. Fahfah and pork are mainly feast foods.

Industrial Arts. Like other Micronesians, Kosraens in precontact times were especially skilled in the construction of canoes. In prehistoric times, at least, they also possessed the knowledge needed to mine and transport the basalt used to build the impressive stone walls enclosing chiefly compounds on Lelu Island. Skills needed to work with modern tools developed during the Japanese mandate, and today many Islanders are electricians, carpenters, and heavy-equipment operators.

Trade. Old Kosrae was visited by neighboring atoll dwellers for purposes of trade, although evidence suggests that Kosraens themselves rarely ventured far beyond the shores of their lush homeland. German traders had firmly established the exchange of copra for imported Western articles by 1890. The sale of copra remained the major source of cash income into the 1960s. During World War II, Kosraen fields provided food crops taken to the Japanese garrison stationed in the Marshalls. Today about one in four Kosraens of appropriate age has a job, trading labor for cash used almost entirely to purchase goods imported from Japan, Australia, and the United States. Privately owned stores have sprung up to supply the new demand.

Division of Labor. Even in aboriginal times, there were crafts specialists, including cooks, fahfah makers, kava makers and servers, nannies, canoe builders, and fishers. Most or all of these specialists were attached to and provided their services for chiefs. Gender also determined the allocation of tasks: women were weavers of mats, nets, baskets, belts, and clothing, while men were cultivators, builders, cooks, and makers of earth ovens. Both sexes fished. The titled nobility did little or no farming, construction, or other forms of manual labor.

Land Tenure. Before the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the principal chief controlled the allocation of all the land on the island. He allocated control over particular districts, with their natural resources and commoner residents, to other members of the noble class. Commoners, and in theory other members of the nobility, used the land only by his leave. In return, commoners were obliged to supply regular tribute and labor services to the chief to whom their district was assigned. Today ownership is in the hands of individuals, although a group of siblings will occasionally maintain Control over plots.

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