Trobriand Islands - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Trobrianders are yam growers par excellence. Through slash-and-burn technology, large yam harvests are produced once a year. Taro, sweet potatoes, bananas, sugarcane, leafy greens, beans, tapioca, squashes, coconuts, and areca palms are also grown. The pig population is small; pork is usually eaten only at special feasts. Few chickens are raised and fish provides the major protein source. There is almost no game, except for birds that are sometimes hunted; children catch and eat frogs, grubs, insect eggs, as well as mollusks they collect along the reefs. Since colonization, government attempts at developing cash crops have failed (except for a period of copra production) and only within the past few years has a local market run by women been installed on Kiriwina. Fishing provides many coastal men with cash incomes and a fishing cooperative has been successful on Vakuta Island. In the 1970s, weekend tourist charters resulted in increasing carving sales, but over the past decade tourism has declined dramatically. Ebony wood, once prized for fine carvings, is depleted and must be imported from other islands. A few Kiriwinans own successful trade stores; a guest lodge and two other trade stores are owned and run by expatriates. Today, remittances from children working elsewhere in the country provide villagers with their main source of cash. Women's bundles of dried banana leaves act as a limited currency when villagers buy trade-store foods, tobacco, kerosene, or cloth and sell such things to other villagers for payment in bundles. In this way, those without cash can purchase Western merchandise.

Industrial Arts. Most garden and other tools are metal. Canoes still are built in the traditional way, with their elaborately carved prows. Pandanus sleeping and floor mats, baskets, and armbands are woven; so are traditional women's skirts, which, although only worn on special occasions, are considered as wealth and are vital for mortuary exchanges. Bundles of dried banana leaves are also produced by women and as wealth are necessary for mortuary distributions. A few men still make arm shells for kula exchanges as well as decorations, such as Spondylus earrings and necklaces.

Trade. Stone axe blades are men's wealth; in the last century the stones were traded in from Muyua Island and polished in the Trobriands. Large cooking pots, also used in local exchanges, come from the Amphlett Islands. Canoes from Normanby and Goodenough islands arrive periodically with sacks of betel nuts that are sold at the Kiriwina wharf. Kula voyaging also enables partners to bring back exotic goods from other islands.

Division of Labor. Women and men work together in clearing new garden land. Men tend to planting yams and staking up the vines, as well as building garden fences and harvesting. Women produce other garden foods, although occasionally a woman decides to make her own yam garden. Men fish and butcher pigs. Women attend to the daily cooking, while men prepare pork and cook taro pudding for feasts. Men and women weave mats but only women make skirts and the banana-leaf bundles that are women's wealth.

Land Tenure. Provisionally, hamlet, garden, bush, and beach lands are owned by a founding matrilineage and are under the control of the lineage's chief or hamlet leader. Rights to residence and the use of land are given by these men to others, such as their sons, who are not members of the matrilineage. Land disputes are frequent and, because the court cases are public, they are fraught with tensions that sometimes lead to fighting. Knowledge of the history of the land from the time of the first ancestors legitimates a person's claim, but competing stories make the arbitrating chiefs' decisions difficult.

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