Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Today irrigated rice agriculture is the dominant food-producing activity in Dusun communities. The rice is grown for use as a meal several times a day. The irrigated rice crop is set out initially as seedlings in nursery plots, then hand transplanted into small plots, less than a hectare in size, that are prepared by both women and men. Field preparation involves repair of the low earthen dikes used to retain the water that flows across the fields, as well as the repair of the irrigation systems employed by Dusun to bring water from nearby streams and rivers. The irrigation systems often involve transporting water across ravines through bamboo or wooden conduits and call for considerable practical knowledge of hydrodynamics, especially in leading water to fields located at a distance from a stream. Dusun wet-rice agriculture traditionally involves breaking the soil with a hoe and plowing the field with a flat-board harrow that has wooden teeth attached to the underside, pulled by a water buffalo wearing a woven rattan harness. The rice crop is harvested by hand and initially winnowed in fields on woven, split-bamboo mats. Further winnowing of the rice crop may occur near grain storehouses where any surplus is held until required for food or trade. The irrigated rice cycle is divided into eleven named phases, each associated with a specific kind of work activity and associated with ritual and ceremonial activities, including a communitywide harvest celebration. Dusun families also plant and tend small gardens near their houses, where they may grow some twenty-five types of foodstuff, including the sweet potato, greater yam, manioc, bottle gourd, various types of bean, squashes, chilies, and a wide variety of other garden crops. The borders of garden areas are used to cultivate trees and shrubs bearing coconuts, bananas, breadfruit, mango, papaya, durian, limes, and other fruits that supplement the daily rice diet. A half-dozen plants also are cultivated near Dusun houses or garden plots for use in manufacturing tools, shelter, and clothing. These plants include bamboo, kapok, betel palms, indigo, and derris. Dusun also eat the shoots of bamboo plants. A variety of domestic animals provide food, power, and raw materials for the Dusun. Chickens and ducks are common fowl, and geese are sometimes kept. Pigs and water buffalo both are used by Dusun as food; the buffalo is employed as a power source in rice agriculture. Pigs and water buffalo also play an important role in ritual activities that are a vital part of Dusun life. Dogs and cats are kept as domestic animals in most households, the dogs serving as hunting companions and the cats reducing the rat population in houses and rice-storage structures.
Industrial Arts. Dusun communities usually have parttime and seasonal male and female specialists expert in the making and repair of tools and implements used in agriculture and hunting and foraging activities. They also make and repair buffalo harnesses and plows and weave rattan fish traps and split-bamboo baskets of various kinds, rice-sifting trays, and other implements used in everyday storage and the carrying of foodstuffs. Metal tools, ceramic containers, and cloth traditionally have been obtained by Dusun from Chinese traders or merchants.
Trade. The Dusun have depended for centuries upon these traders for manufactured goods. In addition, weekly markets exist in most Dusun areas of Sabah. Here Dusun women bring local produce for sale or barter. Such markets are also places for buying various manufactured goods.
Division of Labor. Traditional household tasks are assigned to Dusun females, although males are expected to undertake household work if their wives are ill, in the late stages of pregnancy, or absent from the community for a time. Dusun men perform the heavy labor associated with house and storehouse building and getting wood and bamboo supplies for this purpose. Men and women work together in most swidden rice agricultural tasks, including field repair, planting, harvesting, and weeding. Men undertake the clearing and firing of fields in the preparation of swidden rice cultivation because these activities are considered too dangerous for women. The construction and repair of irrigation channels used in wet-rice agriculture tend to be the task of men, although women often participate. Men are expected to participate in infant and child care. Dusun women do not hunt, are not skilled in the weapons used in the hunt, and have little knowledge of hunting lore. The weaving of split-bamboo mats, field hats, and sifting trays are the exclusive domain of women; males have scant knowledge or skill in such work.
Land Tenure. Irrigated wet-rice agriculture is based on a set of cultural beliefs concerning the use and inheritance of land. Individual ownership and the inheritance of irrigated fields by descendants of landowners form the cornerstones of this system of land tenure. A steadily increasing population has placed significant pressure on the ownership and inheritance of irrigated rice lands and has resulted recently in the growth of a group of young Dusun unable to own land. This has caused migration of many young people to the towns and cities of Sabah to seek wage-labor incomes. Thus Kota Kinabalu, the Sabah state capital, grew from 21,719 persons in 1960 to 108,725 persons in 1980.