Ajië - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Inland settlements cultivated several varieties of bananas, yams, and taro using elaborate irrigation methods. Yams were, and still are, considered "noble" and were used in ceremonial exchanges in the past. It was the yam's annual cycle that established the rhythm of the Kanak year. Fishing was a regular activity for settlements by the sea and on riverbanks. In the forest Kanaks gathered fruit, nuts, and palm-tree buds. Captain Cook introduced pigs and dogs to the islands and other Europeans introduced a variety of plant and animal species including deer, which the Ajië now hunt in the forest. Colonization affected Kanak agriculture dramatically. Lands were confiscated by settlers, gardens were ravaged by marauding cattle, and irrigation networks were destroyed by miners. The fallow period was shortened, which led to erosion and a diminished productive capacity. Subsistence crops gave way to cash crops such as coffee, which the Ajië began producing as early as 1900 and which remains an important source of income. Yams are the only crop that has offered some resistance to the overall regression of Kanak subsistence agriculture. A powerful mining and metallurgical industry coexists with agriculture in New Caledonia. In addition, tertiary activities have expanded quickly in keeping with the territory's highly developed private and public sectors. One of the major nickel and cobalt centers on the east coast was opened near the Ajië's territory in 1901, and although agriculture, fishing, and forestry are still the major employers, mining is a close second, followed by public service.

Industrial Arts. Kanaks manufactured various tools, weapons, and ceremonial objects out of serpentine, which was collected at the base of mountains and in riverbeds by men. Ceremonial axes were the most important, measuring as much as 30 centimeters in diameter. These items were produced for ceremonial exchange in Houaïlou up until 1908. Women produced fiber skirts, capes, baskets, mats, and shell jewelry. There is evidence to support the idea that the women had their own circuit of exchange.

Trade. Traditionally, each local community was integrated into a larger political and geographical system of alliance and exchange. In addition to ceremonial exchanges, trade occurred between villages on the coast and those in the interior mountain chain. Seafood (including fresh, salted, and smoked fish) was traded in a ritualized fashion for tubers (taro and yams) and wild plants from the mountains.

Division of Labor. The nuclear and extended families were the basic production unit with neighbors and allies being called in to help according to the size of the task. The division of labor occurred according to gender and age, and work was organized according to a ritual, seasonal calendar overseen by clan elders. Both men and women hunted seafood individually and collectively using spears, fishing lines, and nets. Men hunted what little game there was—birds, bats, and rats—with spears, built huts and boats, and looked after yam production, irrigation works, and heavy agricultural duties. The women collected wood and water, looked after children, and did the repetitive agricultural chores such as weeding. Men worked with stone and wood, constructing tools and weapons, and women worked with clay and plant fibers, making pots, mats, baskets, and fiber skirts. Today, families continue to cooperate in agriculture.

Land Tenure. In traditional times Kanaks maintained individual rights to land. They were of four types:

  1. First occupation rights—land belonged to the family that first cleared and occupied the land.
  2. Inheritance rights—a man inherited land from his father and through his father the right to cultivate land in any of the successive sites occupied by his paternal ancestors. Succession was usually masculine. However, if a woman was the last in her line, she inherited access to her family's land until her son (who then took the name of his maternal grandfather) was old enough to inherit it.
  3. Acquired rights—through marriage a man established a relationship with his brothers-in-law who could then give him some of their land. A man could also give land to his allies if he was unable to give a sister or daughter in marriage exchange.
  4. Ceded rights—even though the first cultivators of the soil always had rights over that land, they could welcome newcomers or harbor refugees on that land and give them the right to settle there on a temporary or permanent basis. Land claims have been a central issue in the independence struggle and the French government has set up a series of land development agencies to deal with the problem but the population pressure in the Kanak reserves continues to mount. Although the Ajië are approximately 80 percent of the population in the commune of Houaïlou, the native reserves cover only 20 percent of the land.
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