Tuvalu - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The most important cultigens are coconut palms (used for the collection of kaleve "toddy" as well as for the nuts), pandanus, bananas, breadfruit, and pulaka (swamp taro). The latter is grown in large pits dug into the top layer of a freshwater lens. Its great value stems from its ability to withstand both drought and flooding by seawater. Fish, mollusks, and birds were traditionally the main sources of dietary protein. It is not clear whether pigs, like chickens, were a postcontact introduction. As a major component of ceremonial meals, they are the principal focus of animal husbandry.

Industrial Arts. The main traditional craft activity of women is the weaving of pandanus mats, which are important items in gift exchange (for example, at weddings). Women also sew clothes, usually with imported machines and using imported materials. Men's crafts include canoe and house building, tackle making, and wood carving (which may be combined with any of the others). The technology of fishing—hooks, lures, canoes, nets, traps, and the techniques for their use—was and is highly elaborated. Traditional forms are now supplemented or supplanted by imported boats, engines, hooks, lines, and nets. Today, clothing is almost all made of imported fabrics, but some dance skirts are made from traditional materials. Items for the small tourist traffic such as shell necklaces, fans, and wooden artifacts are also made.

Trade. It is unlikely that the separate islands were involved in significant trade networks before Western contact, though there was interisland voyaging and visiting that may have been accompanied by exchanges, marriages, and political tribute. Foreign traders were originally interested in coconut oil and subsequently in copra (dried coconut flesh for the food and cosmetics industries). Copra is still exported but has declined in importance, owing to inefficiencies of scale, difficulties of transport, and fluctuating prices on the world market.

Division of Labor. At the ideological level, though perhaps less assiduously in practice, there was and is a general sexual division of labor, in which men engage in pelagic and lagoon fishing from canoes as well as the gathering of coconuts and palm toddy and the more strenuous forms of cultivation. Women share the activity of reef fishing and collecting and take responsibility for weaving and infant care, as well as harvesting some crops and preparing food. This division is less clear-cut in the modern occupational fields opened up by Western-style education. Women, however, are still underrepresented in positions of authority in government, civil service, and the church. Traditionally, there was little fulltime specialization, though certain men were acknowledged experts at fishing, navigation, defense, canoe making, house building, and gardening. Both men and women were able to inherit or acquire skills as curers and diviners. On at least some of the islands, this division was formalized into bodies of knowledge ( poto ) or tasks ( pologa ) pertaining to and jealously guarded by separate descent groups. Traditional chiefs do not seem to have been exempt from working at the common range of pursuits. It was with introduced models of organization in the church and in government that specialization really took hold. Fishing, however, remains a valued activity for many men who are otherwise full-time waged workers.

Land Tenure. Reconstruction of fully traditional forms is speculative. It is possible that the original form of tenure was communal, as this arrangement still exists and is accorded symbolic priority. From a system in which chiefs probably allocated land rights on a usufruct basis, more complex forms of title have evolved. Land may now be held privately, either by individuals or by groups—though this distinction is blurred by the developmental cycle of groups with rights in estates. Landholding groups go by different names on different islands: puikaaiga (most southern islands), kopiti (Nanumea), etc.

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