Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The only major town in Nias is Gunung Sitoli, which has regular maritime commercial links with Sumatra, and is the principal market for cash crops and the source of imported goods. There is a small tourist industry in the south. Coastal dwellers (mainly Muslim) practice fishing from outrigger canoes. The vast majority of the population is engaged in agriculture and pig farming. Sweet potatoes, cassava, and rice are the staple crops, cultivated in swiddens and gardens mostly by traditional methods (no plows, draft animals, or fertilizer are used). Wet-rice farming is restricted by hilly terrain and low technology. Little primary forest remains, and short swidden cycles (owing to pressure on land) have led to lower yields. Cash crops include coffee, raw rubber, cloves, patchouli oil, and copra. While all commodities are integrated in the market, traditional rates of exchange between pigs, gold, and rice are adhered to in some areas for customary transactions. In the center, where feasts of merit are still held and bride-wealth is extremely high, a traditional economy based on relations of prestige and reciprocity persists, despite modern influences. Hunting for wild pigs is practiced in many areas. Compared with Sumatra and most of Indonesia, Nias is very poor.
Industrial Arts. Niasans are highly skilled builders, producing some of the finest domestic architecture in Southeast Asia. Imported clothing long ago replaced locally produced bark cloth. Mats and baskets are still made in the villages.
Trade. Small weekly markets usually serving several villages are held all over Nias, providing an outlet for surplus crops and a living for small local traders, who obtain goods from town.
Division of Labor. Women perform domestic chores, tend gardens, weed fields, and prepare pig food. Men clear forest for swiddens, hunt, fish, and spend much time in customary transactions. Planting in many areas is done by teams, who receive payment in rice and pork.
Land Tenure. Great variation occurs, but there is usually a distinction between original tenants and recent settlers. The latter may not sell or transfer the land they work or plant coconut trees, which are signs of permanent ownership. In the south, communal village ownership of land with allocation of it by the chief has been reported. In the north and center, land belongs to the person who first cleared it, and to his descendants or lineage. Segments of the lineage or nuclear families work individual plots of lineage land. Forest land or land that has remained fallow for more than twenty years may be claimed by anyone.