Peasants, Subsistence Ecology, and Development in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

Peasants, Subsistence Ecology, and Development in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

by Lawrence S. Grossman

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Lawrence S. Grossman explores the far-reaching implications of the conflicts between subsistence and commodity production in developing countries. Describing the introduction of commodity production in Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, he analyzes the effects of both the enthusiastic involvement of peasants in cattle rising and coffee production in the mid-1970s


Lawrence S. Grossman explores the far-reaching implications of the conflicts between subsistence and commodity production in developing countries. Describing the introduction of commodity production in Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, he analyzes the effects of both the enthusiastic involvement of peasants in cattle rising and coffee production in the mid-1970s and the subsequent decline in village commercial activity in the early 1980s.

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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Peasants, Subsistence Ecology, and Development in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

By Lawrence S. Grossman


Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-09406-9


Kapanara Village

The Bisnis Ethos

As is true for peasants in rural communities throughout the Third World, the fortunes of the people of Kapanara village (see Map 1.1) are linked intimately with the commercial economy. They have been involved in cash-earning enterprises, or bisnis in Tok Pisin, for approximately 25 years. They have earned money from mining gold; growing passionfruit, vegetables, and coffee; operating trade stores and passenger trucks, and most recently, raising cattle. Their commitment to these activities has varied considerably through time, reflecting oscillating periods of enthusiasm and disillusionment. In terms of the amount of land and labor utilized and revenues produced, cattle projects and coffee production are currently their most important commercial endeavors. Influenced by high coffee prices in 1976 and 1977 and high expectations about the potential returns from cattle raising, the villagers made a substantial commitment to both forms of commodity production. This intensive commitment was not the result of indebtedness to other social classes or oppressive government policies, problems experienced by many peasants in other parts of the Third World. Kapanarans still retain substantial autonomy, and thus to a considerable degree can increase or decrease commodity production according to their own initiative. To explain their involvement we must probe into the bisnis ethos that pervades the community.

Cattle raising, coffee production, and other commercial enterprises are not only sources of income. They are also symbols of bisnis, presently a culturally valued endeavor. Bisnis has entered into the criteria defining a man of respect and prestige, one held in esteem by his fellow villagers. To earn respect a man must not only help his kin, be generous, work hard, and provide adequately for his family. He must also be a man of bisnis who is engaged in various cash-earning enterprises. What is significant for the man of bisnis is not so much the amount of money he makes, though this may be important, but that he is involved in bisnis. Such activity, in and of itself, is considered good. This is regarded as a self-evident truth. It is evidence of one's character. Not to be involved in any form of cash-earning activity invites the label of baehi baiinti in Tairora or rabisman in Tok Pisin, a person of no worth or consequence, lacking in prestige.

I am not arguing that people will engage in any bisnis activity no matter how unprofitable. The villagers abandoned passionfruit growing and goldmining because either the returns were poor or they considered the labor inputs too demanding. However, periodic disillusionment in the past does not negate the belief today that bisnis per se is a worthwhile activity. No one questions whether bisnis is a good thing. Rather, the question is which cash-earning enterprises are good.

The villagers' motivations for participating in commodity production and other commercial activities are complex. An understanding of these motivations is necessary to explain the perpetuation of the bisnis ethos.

The most frequent answer to questions concerning reasons for involvement in the cash economy is that people want to earn money. They need cash to pay taxes and school fees, for transportation, and to purchase certain necessities and items of consumption that have become part of the currently accepted standard of living. Cash is also necessary for full participation in social life, and village life is intensely social. Money is required for such varied activities as beer drinking, gambling, contributing to bride-wealth and compensation payments, and participating in competitive exchanges.

People do not accumulate money for hoarding or purchasing substantial amounts of material goods for themselves. They channel much of their income, either as cash or goods purchased with money, into the system of reciprocal exchange, in which generosity is highly valued. The more money an individual has, the greater is his potential to give to others. Contributing to another's bridewealth payment, helping a relative with a feast for his affines, giving generously in exchanges, and providing plentiful food to guests are manifestations of such valued behavior. In addition, giving to others creates an obligation for reciprocation. If an individual has several others in his debt, he is able to call upon them for help in certain endeavors designed to increase his prestige.

Kapanarans do not channel all of their cash into the exchange system. They also reinvest in enterprises such as cattle projects and trade stores to increase their income. Although reinvestment enlarges an individual's potential to give to others, it also creates the possibility of greater capital accumulation and hence greater economic differentiation. The continuing satisfaction gained from participating in the reciprocal exchange system and the strong emphasis on sharing, which is backed by the fear of social sanctions such as sorcery, somewhat discourage extensive capital accumulation. Villagers often attribute sickness in humans and their pigs to sorcery carried out by someone who is angered by the failure of the victim or the victim's owner to share adequately. Similarly, elsewhere in the Eastern Highlands, many Gorokans attributed the deaths of several prominent national businessmen to sorcery performed by persons envious of the commercial success and high status of the deceased (Finney 1973: 113). Nevertheless, even with these constraints greater differences in wealth are emerging among Kapanarans.

The popularity of bisnis is strengthened by a traditional characteristic of the Highlands population, interpersonal and intergroup competition. Success in competition brings renown and prestige, and competition in bisnis activity is one arena in which people can gain prestige. Groups that adopt new enterprises such as cattle projects gain prestige by favorable comparison with those groups that have not done so. This competitive spirit was demonstrated clearly in Kapanara when one group decided to pool money to purchase a passenger truck after learning that another group in the village was going to buy one. A villager stated his reason for pooling the money: "It is not good that we see another kin group start a business, and they stand up as men and we just feel shame." The size of the enterprise is also an important consideration in competition. The group with the most cattle in its project, for example, gains prestige in relation to those that have fewer animals. In essence, investments in commercial endeavors such as cattle raising, coffee production, and trade stores provide clearly visible evidence to impress others, demonstrating to them one's involvement in the valued and prestigious realm of bisnis. Public displays of wealth have traditionally been an integral part of interpersonal and intergroup competition, and in the case of commercial activities, group pride and prestige are enhanced by what Finney (1973: 80-81) calls "conspicuous investments." The phrase "There's no business like show business" may be applicable to Broadway, but the sentence "There is no show business like bisnis" is clearly applicable to the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

Stimuli for the adoption of commercial activities also lie outside the traditional system of relationships and exchange. Economic development is official government policy, and occasionally government officials from Kainantu, the District headquarters, visit Kapanara to stress the importance of business, self-reliance, and economic development for the good of their newly independent nation. As inspiration, they present accounts of the economic progress of villagers in other Third World countries. Other government agencies, most notably the Department of Primary Industry, have been instrumental in influencing people to start such enterprises as coffee growing and cattle raising. In addition, the elected Councillor representing Kapanara often returns from local government council meetings in Kainantu with reports concerning new programs in economic development, how business will help the country, and the part that Kapanara must play. Whatever the source, the message is the same: bisnis is good!

Commercial enterprises were originally a European activity. The villagers' understanding of and relationship with Europeans provide another clue to their participation in income-earning endeavors. Highlanders were often awed by and envious of the superior technology and wealth of the Europeans. To emulate Europeans in activities such as business enterprises demonstrates to fellow villagers one's prowess, ability, and competence in accomplishing feats traditionally performed only by Europeans. (The speech of one cattle project leader in Kapanara reflected this motivation. While intoxicated and distributing beef at a party, he boasted to those assembled that he was just like the white man because he had many cash-earning enterprises, including cattle, coffee, a trade store, and formerly a passenger truck.) In addition, the racist, paternalistic, and intolerant treatment of villagers by some Europeans left no doubt in the people's own minds that they were perceived as being inferior by at least a segment of the white population. To adopt income-earning enterprises was one way of achieving equivalence with the Europeans in the people's own view. Furthermore, to the Kapanarans, the European's life appears relatively luxurious and easy when compared with the small amount of physical labor he performs. In contrast, the villagers view their own lives as just the opposite, consisting of hard work, which is sometimes physically painful, yielding little in luxury or comfort. Cash-earning activities, the European way, are thus perceived as being a more satisfactory way of obtaining a livelihood.

Although bisnis is a fundamental aspect of the people's lives, it is not their major form of livelihood. Kapanarans traditionally were and still are primarily horticulturalists, growing most of the food they consume. They exploit several culturally recognized environmental zones and plant a variety of crop combinations particularly suited to the different areas. Grown in small, convex mounds, the sweet potato is not only the main staple but also the favorite food. Gardens are fallowed for different periods depending on the type of crops planted and the environmental zone.

Food production is not solely for human consumption. People feed a considerable amount of the garden produce, mostly sweet potato, to their domesticated pigs. Without fail, the daily round of events is punctuated by the squealing pigs hungrily awaiting their morning and late afternoon rations provided by the women of the household. Most families own a few pigs, with the more enterprising and industrious households caring for ten or more. Owning many pigs provides prestige. Villagers also value their pigs because pig meat and fat are prized delicacies and are used as remedies for illness and pain. In addition, pigs are an integral part of the gifts presented in the exchanges and ceremonies recurrent in village life.

Given the dedicated commitment to commercial enterprises and the need to engage in subsistence endeavors, a possible conflict between the two forms of production arises. This conflict certainly is not unique to Kapanara, but is widespread in rural communities throughout the Third World. However, before considering this issue in more detail, we need a more in-depth view of the local setting.

The Village Site

The village of Kapanara is in the Tairora Census Division of the Kainantu District, Eastern Highlands Province (see Map 1.2). Situated on the easternmost edge of the Central Highlands, the villagers are speakers of the Tairora language, which is part of the Eastern Family of the East New Guinea Highlands Stock (Wurm 1978), the largest language stock in the Highlands. The boundary of the Tairora language speakers extends over several census divisions (see Map 1.3), though a major geographical and linguistic division between the Northern and Southern Tairora exists at approximately the southern border of the Tairora Census Division (Pataki-Schweizer 1980: 54).

The topography of the Northern Tairora region ranges from flat valley bottoms to undulating hills to small mountains. The area lacks the ruggedness characteristic of much of the Highlands. It is a mosaic of rain forest at various stages of succession, anthropogenic grasslands, and swamplands. Grasslands predominate. Each village territory has its own unique combination of these environmental zones. Situated in a valley in the northeast edge of the Kratke Range, Kapanara is well endowed in all three zones. Steep forest-covered hillsides form a basin rim around the northern, eastern, and western portions of the village boundary. Within the basin lie gently rolling grass-covered hills, the most extensive feature of the landscape. Narrow tree-lined watercourses traverse the open grasslands and form the northern tributary of the Lamari River system, which drains to the south coast. Intermixed within the grassland area are patches of swampland in the poorly drained valley bottom. The altitudinal range encompassing hamlets and most gardens, approximately 1,650 to 1,850 meters, is relatively narrow compared with some other Highlands areas.

Each environmental zone has special cultural significance. The forests are a repository of many edible resources such as nuts, leaves, insects, fungi, small mammals and birds, as well as a source of materials for house and fence building, firewood, cordage, and dyes. They also provide items used in sorcery and healing. The water here is cool and considered more refreshing than the warmer water of the grasslands. When people become enervated by the heat, they seek refuge in the cool forest for a few days. The forests also have many potential dangers for the unwary. Hidden sorcerers from other villages as well as malevolent spirits can harm those alone in the forest. The open grasslands are much safer but offer fewer resources. People obtain the grass Imperata cylindrica for roofing, some cordage, a few small edible mammals, and edible ferns from the grasslands. One of the most relished dietary supplements, the munah beetle (Lepidiota vogeli), is found here. The marshlands are important because they provide excellent foraging for the village pigs. Traditionally, people feared this zone most, and until recently large areas of swampland had not been cultivated within memory. Villagers believe that worms, or ahe'u, inhabiting the swamps possess evil powers.

The village is linked to the outside world by an unpaved road that bisects its territory. The road, which leads to Kainantu 26 kilometers away, is adequate during most of the year but can become quite treacherous for driving during periods of heavy rainfall. A sporadic trickle of traffic, which consists mostly of public motor vehicles (PMVs) and the trucks of coffee buyers, passes the village each day. The PMV operators, who are all nationals living in other villages, charged adult passengers 70 toea in 1977 for the one-hour ride to Kainantu. Despite the occasional availability of motorized transport, most people walk to nearby villages using either the main road or the traditional narrow footpaths.

Adjoining the road, the village hamlets are in the center of the grassland area. As is typical in the Northern Tairora area, the settlement pattern is nucleated (see Map 1.1). Residences in the hamlets are constructed of wooden frames, plaited bamboo walls, and grass roofs. Most are round with a conical roof, and the others have a rectangular floor plan. An inspection inside a house reveals a relatively simple technology and few material possessions. All households own a few metal cups, plates, utensils, pots, and pans. Some have a kerosene lamp, flashlight, and perhaps a few purchased tools such as a hammer or saw. Every household possesses a steel axe, bushknife, and spade, which are the major store-bought gardening implements. Traditionally prepared artifacts such as bow and arrows, string bags, and Pandanus leaf mats are ubiquitous. Most households own at least one store-bought blanket, and a few own pillows. Rough wooden beds, a table, and boxes may also be found. A few people own such luxury items as a radio, pressurized lamp, or umbrella. In most cases, that is all.

Interspersed within the hamlets are small, rectangular-shaped, family-run trade stores, which sell a variety of basic items such as imported rice, canned fish and meat, matches, soap, tobacco, kerosene, and paper for rolling cigarettes. With the closest town one hour away by vehicle, having locally operated trade stores makes it more convenient to purchase food and other items.


Excerpted from Peasants, Subsistence Ecology, and Development in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea by Lawrence S. Grossman. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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