Malekula - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Swidden horticulture provides the subsistence base, and either yams, taro, cassava, bananas, or sweet potatoes are usually eaten daily. Yams are probably the preferred form of carbohydrates, but they can be harvested only in the dry season. Yams store well for several months but the local supply is usually exhausted halfway through the rainy season. The traditional food remains the laplap or "pudding." This is made of one of the staple foods flavored with coconut cream and either protein or local greens. The protein supply is varied, including pork, fish, shellfish, turtle, chicken, or tinned meat or fish, but it is of limited quantity. Boiled rice is an increasingly common component of the diet. Cash crops include copra, cocoa, and a small coffee crop. There is little else in terms of commercial activity, but a local bakery operation and the sale of handicrafts to a cooperative in the capital city are two small enterprises that have endured.

Industrial Arts. Women weave mats and baskets of coconut and pandanus leaves. Nowadays men make canoes, but this is a new art. When the first missionary arrived, local People were still using rafts for ocean travel, but through mission influence they soon learned to carve outrigger canoes.

Trade. Trade among the three ethnic groups has rarely focused on essential items. In early colonial days, Mewun and Seniang people would hold "markets" to exchange yams with one another. Cultural artifacts, including special dances and unintelligible songs in foreign languages, are still traded within and between the groups.

Division of Labor. Traditionally—and still among the Laus—house building was a male task; however, in mission villages it is a cooperative task involving both sexes. So, too, yam gardens are now the exclusive province of men only in Laus; in Mewun and Seniang today, women work in yam gardens unless they are menstruating. Men and women share other agricultural tasks, and, while only men hunt, both men and women fish and gather shellfish. Although both sexes can be involved in cooking, ceremonial cooking for feasts, funerals, etc., is usually supervised by men.

Land Tenure. Land is inherited patrilineally. Married women retain usufruct rights to their brothers' coconut land and may gather the nuts without asking permission. In the past few decades, some men have found themselves with few heirs but much land. To prevent encroachment by Europeans, some men in this situation have given parcels of land to their sisters' sons. However, this new practice has led to a plethora of court cases, so men reportedly are moving away from this innovation in land inheritance. Although women do not usually hold or inherit land, there are instances where women are the sole heirs of a patrimony, and these women sometimes hold and control family land until their sons mature.

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