Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Wa rely on mountain farming, which varies in technique and productive power in different regions. Basically, they have three different methods of farming, which developed in different times and now coexist as alternatives for different ecological environments. The oldest method is slash-and-burn cultivation in which they plant seeds by dibbling with a wooden stick, rely on the ash of wild plants as fertilizer, and abandon the land after a year of farming for eight to ten years before reusing. This way of farming became the main source of food for the Wa after the thirteenth century when they started to build permanent villages. The second method of farming combines slash-and-burn farming with plowing and spreading the seed by hand, using iron hoes and plows that were introduced by Han people who came for the silver mines from the mid-eighteenth century on. This method preserves fertility by crop rotation and intercroping or mixing crops together, and thus they can continue using the land for two or three years, leaving it to lie fallow for four or five years before reusing. For the remote land on steep hillsides, however, the first method is still the only choice because the second method is only good for flatter and lower hills where the soil is richer and won't be washed away as easily by the tropical rain. These two methods of farming provide the major subsistence for the Wa; each is applied to about half of the total farmland. Their third farming method is to cultivate rice-paddy fields, which were introduced by rice-producing peoples in the nineteenth century and exist mostly in the outskirts of the A Wa Shan region, where the Wa and rice-producing peoples live together and the land is level and close to water supplies. Rice paddies account for about 5 percent of the total farmland.
Trade. Interaction with a larger cultural context not only gave the Wa access to new farming techniques but also stimulated the growing need for exchange. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Wa participated in regular markets for trading—largely with other ethnic groups—in iron tools and living necessities such as pottery, salt, cotton cloth, and thread. In the late nineteenth century, British dealers introduced opium to this region. As a result, opium became the large-scale commodity product of the Wa, which they exchanged for living and productive necessities, including rice, cows, tea, iron instruments, and weapons. Opium provided one-fourth to one-third of their total income before it was prohibited in the 1950s.
Industrial Arts. Craft is subsidiary to agriculture. In most Wa villages, one or a few farmers serve as part-time blacksmiths who make and repair iron tools and silver work using raw material bought from other peoples. The family crafts—hand weaving cotton cloth, pottery making, rice wine making, basket weaving, and so forth—are mostly for family consumption.
Division of Labor. Labor is divided by gender. Males do the cutting, burning, and plowing, and females, with some help from children, do the seeding, weeding, harvesting, cooking, and weaving. Warfare, politics and religious activities were male dominated and used to consume much of men's time prior to 1949. Women became the major laborers in the field and household, but today men are more engaged in economic activities than in the past.
Land Tenure. By 1950 land tenure had developed into three different kinds in different regions. In the central region of A Wa Shan, where roughly one-third of the Wa population resided, more than 80 percent of the total farmland was the private property of families, with the other 20 percent of poorer quality land remaining the common property of the village community. In the area bordering A Wa Shan, where about two-thirds of the Wa population lived, all the land, including moutains and rivers as well as the animals in the forests, belonged to the "princes," the hereditary rulers of about one and one-half dozen "Dahu" communities, with each consisting of about five villages. The members of the Dahu had to pay tributes and taxes as well as unpaid labor to the princes and the heads of the Dahu in order to use the land. In Zhengkang and Yongde, where 8 to 9 percent of the Wa were living together with the Han and the Dai, the landlords owned the land and rented it to the poorer peasants and farm laborers. From 1954 to 1958, the government directed a collective movement that led to all of the Wa being organized into People's Communes by 1969. This meant that the government and the communes owned all the land and other productive property and people worked collectively, shared their products, and sold the after-taxes surplus to the government and the communes. Since 1979, the communes have gradually been abandoned and a new government policy has been practiced; each family can use a share of the land by contract and pays some taxes to the collective and the government, which actually own the land.