Malaita - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In bush areas of Malaita, taro was the primary subsistence crop, grown in a continuous cycle in forest swiddens. Yams were a secondary subsistence crop, but because they were grown in an annual cycle, they were accorded ritual importance. Plantains and a range of other cultigens and forest products augmented these starchy staples. (The taro plants were devastated by viral and fungal blights after World War II, and sweet potatoes—culturally disvalued but convenient—have become the dominant staple.) Animal protein came from fish, grubs, birds, cuscus, opossums, and other game, as well as domestic pigs. The latter (and their theft and defense) were a focus of cultural attention; the pigs were used mainly in sacrifices, mortuary feasts, bride-wealth, and compensation payments. Strung shell beads and dolphin teeth served as mediums of Exchange, used in bride-wealth, homicide payments, compensation, and mortuary feasts. Red-shell discs produced in Langalanga (especially the ten-stringed tafuli'ae of northern Malaita) were widely used, but Kwaio produce their own white-shell beads, which in standard lengths and combinations (denominations) serve as an all-purpose medium of Exchange. For 120 years, Malaitans have been locked into a System of circulating male plantation labor (originally to Queensland, Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia, and, in this century, to internal plantations). In the last 20 years, this adaptation has increasingly given way (except for the diehard pagans) to peasant production of copra, cocoa, and livestock, to petty entrepreneurship, and to wage labor in urban settings. Today, Malaitans occupy every rung of a developing class system, ranging from prosperous businesspeople and parliamentarians to a marginalized and violently predatory urban underclass.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally, chipped chert adzes were the primary felling and cutting tools. Other elements of early Malaita technology included pouches and bags woven from bush fibers, river fish and bird nets, intricate fishhooks, and large composite seagoing canoes with caulked planks and high prow and stern. In contrast to the relative elaborateness of their weaponry and some aspects of their maritime technology, Malaita bush peoples specialized in a kind of throwaway tool technology: crudely chipped chert adze blades were used in place of older ground basalt blades; giant bamboo was used for water, cooking, and construction; today, digging sticks are not even fire-hardened (at least among the Kwaio). With highly uneven access to education and Westernization on Malaita during the last forty years, Malaitans now span a technological range from engineers, doctors, and pilots to subsistence cultivators using magic and digging sticks.

Trade. Precolonial trade systems included the far-flung Langalanga networks, through which shell valuables were traded for pigs, produce, and other items, and the well-organized markets (especially on the northeastern coast) where Lau bartered fish and marine products for taro, yams, Canarium almonds, and forest products with interior populations (Baegu, Baelelea, Fataleka, To'aba'ita). Chert for adze blades and other scarce materials seem also to have been traded.

Division of Labor. Men and women had complementary roles in the division of labor, with women doing the bulk of everyday garden work, foraging, domestic labor, and child care and men felling trees, fencing land, fishing, and fighting.

Land Tenure. Primary rights to land are obtained through tracing patrifiliation, but secondary rights are also granted to those with maternal links to ancestors.

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