Rossel Island - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Basic subsistence is by swidden horticulture, gardens being used for two or more plantings and left fallow or, near the coast, being often used for small coconut plantations. Crops are tubers such as taro, yams, sweet potatoes, and cassava, as well as bananas and sugarcane. Sago flour is prepared from the pith of the sago palm. Tree crops are coconuts and breadfruit. Wild nuts and fruits are collected, as well as shellfish. Feral pigs and opossums are hunted and fish are caught by line, spear, or net or by means of dams. A plant poison is also sometimes used for fishing. Cooking methods include boiling with cream of coconut, roasting in embers, and baking in hot stones. Commercial crops are mainly coconut (for copra) and some coffee. Other important sources of cash income are the manufacture of shell necklaces and labor migration.

Industrial Arts. Rossel is well known for its high-quality red-shell necklaces made from the mollusk Chama, which is common in the lagoon along the western half of the island. This traditional craft was expanded and managed by the Traders in the early decades of this century. Imported grinding blocks are now used. The necklaces are of the type that move in the kula ring. The islanders build their own houses, canoes, and dinghies. A few larger boats have been built during recent years. Basketwork, made by women, is of high quality.

Trade. The dominant trade store is run by the Catholic mission but small stores are found in many hamlets. Otherwise there is no market on Rossel. Through a traditional visiting trade with Sudest Rossel exported shell necklaces and Imported clay pots, pigs, and stone axes. This trade connection is now much weakened. Internal noncommercial exchanges by means of a complex system of shell valuables—the famous "Rossel Island money"—are important and include payments for pigs, houses, canoes, garden crops, and some forms of labor service. There are two kinds of shell money. Ndap are flat pieces of Spondylus, kö are sets of 10 disks of Chama on a string. Both are ranked into many classes. Higher-ranking ndap are rare treasures believed to have been made by deities and, like kula shells, individually named. They are now out of open circulation and change ownership through inheritance. Kö and low-ranking ndap still circulate and are still made. Women own shell money and participate in exchange but they rarely sponsor payments. Exchange rules are very complex. Wallace Armstrong, who first described this monetary system, explained it by supposing lending at compound interest. This interpretation was based on misunderstandings of the operation of the system. Other valuables are ceremonial stone axes and shell necklaces. Cash now enters into some payments.

Division of Labor. The main division of labor is by sex. Men fell large trees for gardens, build houses and canoes, hunt, and fish; women collect most shellfish and dominate in domestic tasks, such as cooking and child care. Both sexes plant, weed, and harvest crops. They combine work in sago preparation.

Land Tenure. With a fairly small population land pressure is slight. The tenure practices are flexible and disputes over land infrequent. Areas of land are associated with matrilineal subclans, but stewards of land often belong to different clans. Use rights are frequently based on descent from bilateral grandparents. Mortuary payments of traditional valuables from the deceased's spouse's relatives to the deceased's relatives confirm such land rights.

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