Icelanders - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Iceland has always depended on trade. The growing season is too short for any crop but grass, cultivated as feed for cattle and sheep. Fishing and hunting have always supplemented livestock production. The relative place of each component in the economic system has changed over the centuries. Initially, livestock production was important both for domestic consumption and for production of woolen goods for trade with Europe for metal and wood products. Fishing provided additional food, and cod may have been traded commercially since medieval times. During the period of Danish colonial rule, livestock production predominated. As Danish rule weakened toward the end of the nineteenth century, and local capital accumulation became possible, fishing communities grew along the coast and merchants developed foreign markets for fisheries products. Modern Iceland has an industrial economy based on fishing, fish processing, and fish exporting. Icelanders enjoy a high standard of living with 508 cars, 525 telephones, 266 television sets, and 2 physicians per 1,000 inhabitants in 1983.

Industrial Arts. Iceland's fishing and fish processing industries are among the most innovative and modern in the world. From their trawlers to their line boats and freezing plants, they take advantage of the most modern technology and innovations in all fields from computer science to plastics. Hydroelectric plants provide electricity for an aluminum processing factory.

Trade. The nation exports fish and fish products and imports most of its consumer goods.

Division of Labor. Most Icelandic adults work, including most married women. As in other industrialized countries, the question is not so much one of division of labor as division of rewards such as wages and prestige. Icelandic women are generally paid less than their male counterparts. Women are usually assigned less desirable and less remunerative work in fish processing plants, for example. They are underrepresented on the faculty of the University of Iceland. This overall inequity may be in the process of changing, however. The economics and politics of gender equality have been issues in Icelandic politics for years, but during the 1980s the Women's List, a national political party, had some electoral success in parliamentary elections.

Land Tenure. In medieval Iceland land tenure depended on being able to appeal to sufficient force to prevent others from taking the land one claimed. Chieftains built coalitions of commoners and entered into alliances with other chieftains. Commoners joined chieftains to insure their land claims. One of the contradictions of the period was an economic system based on concepts of landownership and stratification with no state system of governance to enforce it. From the thirteenth century on many landless people worked for wages or rented from the few landowners. This system continued virtually until independence. In independent Iceland land tenure is less important than sea tenure. In 1975 Iceland led the way to the establishment of the international 200-mile (333-kilometer) offshore limit, which resulted in its cod wars with Great Britain. This limited the right to fish within these limits to Icelandic fishermen, thus reserving a rich fishing area for Icelandic use. This has been and remains one of the most important aspects of Icelandic foreign policy.

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