Volume 95 1986 > Volume 95, No. 2 > Where development never comes: business activities in Kilenge, Papua New Guinea, by J. Grant, H. Saito and M. Zelenietz, p 195-220
WHERE DEVELOPMENT NEVER COMES: Business Activities in Kilenge, Papua New Guinea
On a hot sunny afternoon in mid-1977, one of the authors visited a tiny trade store in a village in the Kilenge area of West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. Just two items, razor blades and underarm deodorant, graced the almost empty shelves of the only retail outlet open in the village at the time. The shopkeeper may have been surprised that the rich foreign anthropologist was not interested in buying his goods; after all, the store stocked the symbols of affluence. But while the affluent can take for granted such consumer goods, Kilenge people welcome these products into their community and, as they do, they begin to accept the meanings which those goods have come to represent.
In this paper we document changing forms of economic adaptation among the Kilenge people of West New Britain. Through the business groups they have created and through wage labour migration the Kilenge participate in the global economic system as transient labourers, minimal producers and minimal consumers. As they pursue the elusive dream of “development” they transform their society and economy from self-sufficiency to peasantry. We argue that their hope for development leads to their victimisation, not only at the hands of external agents, but increasingly from some of their own kinsmen as economic change brings with it new forms of social stratification.
Development in Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea is only one Third World country caught between the dreams and drawbacks of self-reliance and the economic reality of the international economy. With the flush of independence in 1975, the Government espoused the goal of self-reliant development. Official planning literature suggested that the nation would pursue its social goals, embodied in the Eight Aims, 1 and not attempt simply to achieve - 196 economic growth. While the Eight Aims remain official policy, in fact Papua New Guinea has not diverged significantly from the path which its Australian colonial administrators set for it. Good intentions have not severed the ties of dependence and exploitation which link Papua New Guineans to the global economy. If anything, incorporation into the global economy is increasing, and in recent years even the most remote rural villages cannot but have felt its penetration. As they receive medical assistance, schools and trade stores, people become part of a broader national and international economic system. In order to pay for the services and the goods brought to them in this process of development, they must sell either their products or their labour. They must learn new rules of social behaviour. Labour, which traditionally had a social component embedded in close personal relationships in small subsistence economies, becomes a disembodied political and economic function, a commodity, in the modern capitalist network.
Development policies and priorities reflect long-standing attitudes about economic activities. Despite the fact that 80 percent of Papua New Guineans live in rural areas, the towns monopolise the nation's wealth. Because the rural areas lack amenities, economic planners believe that they drive people away; because rural producers engage in subsistence production, economic planners see them as reserves of surplus labour. In the values of economic decision makers, rural people are poor. Yet we find that governments devote little effort to actually improving life for rural residents: the provision of services to rural areas seems directed towards preventing urban migration rather than to making an important contribution to rural development. Since rural residents do not have the means to finance the services they receive, governments fund them from the revenues from large developments. Hence even rural residents become dependent on the exploitation of their country because that exploitation pays for their health care and their children's education. Government's fear of massive urbanisation, coupled with an apparent lack of faith in indigenous initiative, has resulted in more services than ever before in rural areas, but it has not brought self-sustaining economic improvement.
From the earliest days of contact in Melanesia, traders, administrators and missionaries often commented on the problem of getting the natives to work. Although the people gladly laboured in their gardens, they often expressed reluctance when asked to work for the expatriates who invaded their land. The Europeans, with their religious/ moral work ethic, accused the natives of laziness (Jinks et al. 1973:278), not understanding that attitudes towards the value of particular types of - 197 work can vary widely (see Baudrillard 1975). Once the Melanesians fulfilled their limited needs, they no longer wanted to work for the white man (Stent and Webb 1975): they worked for wages to meet fixed objectives (e.g., the purchase of steel tools), not simply because they believed that sweat and toil can save man's soul. Head taxes, in part designed to encourage participation in the monetary economy (especially on plantations), did not significantly increase wage labour participation or cash crop production. Unlike the expatriate worker who never satisfied his ambitions and his needs and hence held a job for a lifetime, the indigenous worker met his goals and then quit to go home.
Subsistence economies seldom seem to maximise production (Wharton 1971). People work hard enough to feed themselves and to meet their social commitments, but do not generate much surplus (Allan 1971, M. Harris 1959). Their considerable spare time they devote to leisure pursuits. Little motivates them to take time away from leisure for an economic activity such as cash cropping (Shand and Straatmans 1974). 2 If a man could give over two hours of dancing to copra production in return for, say $1.00, would he do it? That would depend on a number of factors, such as: Does he want tinned fish for dinner? Does he need a new bush-knife? Did he already make copra this week? Did his son send him any money from town lately? What Fisk (1964) said two decades ago remains true today: for many indigenes the utility of money is low, since there is nothing to buy. Unless he has an immediate need for cash, and a ready product to purchase, the rural resident does not sacrifice social activities to commodity production. 3
In some areas of Papua New Guinea motivation seems less problematic, since a shortage of land has forced some people into full-time participation in the monetary economy. Cash crop settlements, such as the oil palm project at Hoskins in West New Britain, provide a good example. There the Government, in conjunction with a multinational corporation, set up small-holders to provide ripe palm fruit to the oil mill. These producers who have joined the monetary sector pay a heavy price; they work long hours to make a living, and do not always succeed. Lack of opportunity in their home communities has offered them little choice, however. They have become an urban (or in some cases semi-urban or even rural) proletariat, while their brothers at home, only partially incorporated into the monetary economy, are peasants (Lingenfelter 1977, Howlett 1973). Thus, we find the rudiments of an emerging class structure in a previously classless society. In town there is even an underclass of the unemployed, the unenumerated. As Williamson (1977) indicates, this marginal class cannot participate in the regular economy, - 198 and resorts to marginal activities in a last-ditch effort to make a living, with poverty and crime all too often the result.
Perhaps because of the close linkage between economic and political activity in traditional societies, the proverbial big-man system of achieved leadership (Sahlins 1963), leaders are at the forefront of economic development in Papua New Guinea. A number of authors (e.g., Finney 1968, Fisk 1972) comment on the importance of the role played by indigenous leaders in shaping people's participation in the monetary economy. If cash cropping is to succeed, then people need leaders to urge them along and to keep up interest. Since leaders can command or cajole followers into helping them, they often have the largest crop holdings. In the Papua New Guinea Government, politicians are entrepreneurs and vice versa. Economic might readily translates into political influence. Politicians distribute economic favours to followers, much as the traditional leader did. However, in the context of a modern urban society political influence contributes to the formation of a new indigenous upper class.
While communities differ a great deal in the degree to which they participate in the monetary economy, all Papua New Guinean societies have changed greatly in the last hundred years. Gradually even remote rural communities become drawn into the global economy. Formerly self-sufficient societies have become peasant societies, firmly attached to a dominant external culture which provides new meanings and new products for it. In the following sections we discuss some of the changes in attitudes towards economic activities brought about by this process of encapsulation in one Papua New Guinea society.
Economic Activity in Kilenge
The Kilenge of the north-west coast of West New Britain 4 provide an example of a rural people who still produce most of the food they consume, and who remain relatively self-reliant in some aspects of their economy. Approximately 1000 Kilenge people cultivate their mixed taro, yam, sweet potato and manioc gardens on the footslopes of Mount Talave. Perhaps as many as another 350 Kilenge live away from the three villages, working in distant towns. A ship stops at the village twice a week on the Lae-Rabaul run and once a week an aeroplane lands at the airstrip 10 km away. During the monsoons, however, the villagers may have no direct contact with the outside world for weeks on end. News reaches them through numerous transistor radios, and urgent messages can be sent via the Catholic mission's radio-telephone. The road, which crews rebuild constantly, never seems to reach farther than the district - 199 headquarters at Cape Gloucester: will it ever reach its intended destination of the provincial capital, Kimbe, or will the torrential rains defeat all efforts to keep it open?
The Kilenge first saw white men perhaps as early as the 1890s when German labour recruiters entered the area. The Catholic mission, on a hill just a few minutes' walk inland from the coastal village, was just established in 1929. The current Government centre at Cape Gloucester (30 km away) is quite recent by comparison, established in 1959.
Before contact with Europeans, the Kilenge participated in a trade network extending from the Willaumez Peninsula in central New Britain through the Siassi Islands to the New Guinea mainland (Harding 1967). Because of their central location in the trading system, they benefited from the trade without having to manufacture a great deal for it themselves. Through control of a bottleneck in the network, shrewd trading ability, and a willingness to journey through often dangerous territories, they acquired obsidian for tools, clay pots and wooden bowls for food preparation, shell money for exchange and personal ornamentation, dyes, pigs, and even women and children.
Today the Kilenge are at least marginally integrated in a much broader trade network which spreads its tentacles around the world. The Siassi trade network has atrophied, the great sailing canoes have rotted and once valuable trade goods been supplanted by industrially produced counterparts. 5 The Kilenge can still produce 90-95 percent of the food that they consume in the village so they remain primarily subsistence horticulturalists, but their contact with colonial administrations led them inevitably into participation in the global economy. Participation began in a minimal fashion with the first colonial masters. German patrols in the 1890s to about 1910 “recruited” Kilenge men (not always volunteers) for plantation labour in the Gazelle Peninsula and for the native constabulary. The process of economic integration was not all-encompassing by any means, and even today the Kilenge actively participate only marginally in the global economy: while they voice aspirations of “development”, they constantly limit their commitment to participation in the system.
Through the imposition of a head tax, the German administration, and later Australian administrations as well, attempted to draw New Guineans into the cash economy. Foreign administrators foresaw a time when indigenes would gladly engage as labourers or would furnish the raw materials to build a strong national economy. The modern Kilenge would surely disappoint the early expatriates. While efforts to stimulate copra production characterise virtually the whole of the post war period, - 200 and although coconut trees cover large areas around the villages, the level of copra production falls far below its potential, given the number of mature trees available. Although the Kilenge have sent many young men off to work for expatriates in town, in the villages they do not act with economic rationalism. Within the villages, copra production offers the only consistently viable access to cash, yet individuals do not produce large amounts of processed copra, even when the price of copra is high. Why not? The answers are complex.
Firstly, villagers have limited cash needs. Only a small number of essential outlays and purchases initiate the production and sale of copra. School fees and taxes draw a production effort for a few days or weeks a few times a year. Moreover, the trade stores carry a restricted selection of trade goods, and accordingly fail to stimulate much of a demand for cash. Occasionally men need cash to purchase supplies for a ceremony to honour children or grandchildren: products of the international economy (rice, tea, sugar) have become integral elements of traditional celebrations.
Secondly, the Kilenge do not like the labour associated with copra production. They find the work boring and tedious, and even antisocial unless they combine efforts to work together in a group. They have grown coconuts for generations, and worked on plantations since the turn of the century; perhaps for the latter reason they see copra production as a colonial activity connected with their own exploitation. They favour garden work, fishing or relaxing with kinsmen, while they view copra production as a necessary evil in times of need. Rather than labour hard selling copra, men move to town 6 for a few months or years to take a job to save some money to bring back to the village. 7 Given a choice of employment, few Kilenge men would take plantation work, so great is their disdain for that form of labour.
Finally, political and infrastructural problems have hindered the development of the copra industry in Kilenge. The absence of strong leaders in a culture where people expect effective leadership has created a political vacuum and a consequent inability to enforce greater production levels (Zelenietz 1980). Poorly considered attempts at diversification resulted in agricultural projects unsuited to local needs and conditions (Grant 1980). Introduced crops failed because of plant disease, poor soils or weather, marauding pigs, or the lack of a marketing system. A succession of agricultural extension officers at nearby Cape Gloucester failed to provide assistance when villagers required it, leaving many projects to wither on the vine. Projects using imported machines broke down as soon as did the equipment. Nor has there been evidence of - 201 village willingness to seek out development projects of late. 8 Failure in project after project sapped faith, producing a pessimism born of experience. Reluctant to embark on a project likely to meet disaster once the initial enthusiasm and external support dissipate, the Kilenge have become conservative. They still idealise development as the end state which would signify their membership in the modern world, but they fear and reject the process whereby they would attain it. They tend to conservatism in an attempt to preserve their influence over their own economic activity, and to prevent recurrent failure through experimentation. Without effective local leadership to allay fears, to create incentive, and to stimulate performance, the villages in Kilenge seem economically stagnant.
We might argue that the structure of social and economic dependency within the village limits social and economic dependence on external systems. In Kilenge the elders grip tightly the reins of influence on young people. Young men depend on their elders for assistance in learning skills, in raising bride-price, and in organising ceremonies for children. The gerontocracy effectively eliminates men younger than middle age from village politics and decision-making. 9 The older men control the activities of their juniors, encouraging migration during youth and later demanding that the migrants return to the village. While youths might like to extend their involvement in the urban system, their dependence on kinship ties and social obligations in the village prevents many lasting conversions.
Similarly, commitments to aid and provide for family and kin take precedence over monetary concerns and thus serve to limit cash crop production. Dependence on the future assistance of kin makes present demands on labour and prevents villagers from alienating their services in favour of the external economic system. Even those who leave the village to work in town find themselves subject to requests for gifts and cash from kinsmen who remain at home. To ignore such requests would deny social obligations, and might alienate the migrant from the community. Because few villagers want to live in town forever, they accede to the incessant demands in order to retain their standing in the social network.
Obviously, the Kilenge are at least partially integrated into the economy of Papua New Guinea: they provide some copra for export; they send workers to the urban centres of the country; they depend on the consumers of North America, Europe, Asia and Australia to buy their products; they rely on foreign producers for their steel tools, their clothing and their sweets. They are minimal producers, minimal con- - 202 sumers and transient labour for the urban economy. However, they have managed to minimise their dependence by attempting to limit their cash needs and their acceptance of the ideology. They retain strong obligations to kin. They hold tightly to their fellows who flirt with the urban economy. Despite their verbal declarations of dedication to the idea of development via cash cropping, they find excuses to restrict their involvement in the market economy. Yet even while they disdain modern attitudes towards work, land and money, they increasingly value the consumer products which symbolise wealth and success in the modern economy.
Although they continue to perceive themselves as self-sufficient horticulturalists, they have become peasants, part of a larger economy and society which supplies them with products and with meanings. As they listen to provincial radio broadcasts and sip hot tea with supper they talk about attending church on Sunday and wonder how they'll raise the school fees for their children. Like it or not, the Kilenge have become another element in the ever-expanding global economy.
Although the Kilenge try in many ways to maintain their traditional activities and values, we must recognise that they have changed many of their attitudes and activities partly as a product of culture contact. Elsewhere Grant and Zelenietz (1980) reviewed transformations in the patterns and context of wage labour migration from Kilenge. Here we discuss the economic activities and attitudes associated with a new economic form, born out of the dream of “development”. By studying business groups, we can gain greater insight into the economic and social interpenetration of cultures and the resultant effects on indigenous peoples.
In 1981 business groups accounted for most of the monetary sector production within the villages. People work for their business groups to make copra; they purchase their trade goods from the store run by their business group. If not for the existence of the business groups it seems likely that there would have been virtually no copra production in 1981-82, since the mission plantation shut down when the price fell below production costs, and no independent producers were active. Yet, while the price of copra fell so low that major plantations laid off their help and closed shop, village business groups in Kilenge kept up work as usual, and even tried to increase production levels in some instances. Given the dislike for copra production, this dedication may seem surprising, but people's cash needs do not diminish when the price of their commodities - 203 falls, and they must increase their efforts to maintain their purchasing power. With no other option, people make copra to earn money; what we found especially interesting in 1981 was the mechanism which they had adapted for that purpose.
The original idea of forming an organisation for consolidating monetary sector activities in the villages came to Kilenge in the early 1960s. By then the extensive lines of coconut trees planted during the mid-1950s, on the order of the Government, produced nuts for processing. A few people received a short period of training and preparation for running a co-operative society, and the community established the Ongaia Native Society in September of 1961. Members from a number of villages purchased shares in the society and determined that it would buy copra and sell trade goods. In 1963 the society opened its first trade store, catering to both retail and bulk markets. Most of the society's profit in the first few years went back into the business to pay off the building materials, and few dividends ended up in the investors' pockets.
The motivating force behind the society, the paramount luluai (senior headman), Tave, 10 appointed the officers of the society and the storekeeper. It is unlikely that the society would have had such an influence in Kilenge if not for Tave's backing. Tave, a physically and politically powerful man, threw his full weight and support behind the society (see Zelenietz 1980, 1981). Indeed, his control of the society became one of his power bases as it broadened his economic leverage. He coerced villagers into planting more trees and encouraged them to make copra. For the first several years of operation, the society glowed with success, a jewel in Tave's crown of leadership. But problems with securing regular transport, poor quality control in production and faulty bookkeeping plagued the society, and it fell deeply into debt. With the illness and death of Tave in the early 1970s, the society suffered its fatal blow. Although it reorganised in 1976 and continued to operate until 1978, it found its members gradually beginning to seek other outlets for their copra. Improved shipping stripped the society of its monopoly as transport agent. The mission opened its own copra drier and purchased unprocessed coconuts from villagers, so that they no longer had to make copra themselves in order to earn money.
But, as in Karkar Island, the Kilenge did not totally abandon the idea of co-operatives. As McSwain notes (1977:103):
The societies, although they had not provided the hoped for material and social equality with Europeans, were still thought to be a good system. They did symbolize in a concrete and communal way an improved (in- - 204 digenous) . . . status, thus reflecting the traditional socio-economic ethic of prestige and collectivity.
She goes on to say, however,
. . . the co-operatives, which were the main stimulus for village trade stores, were an inadequate means of economic education . . . , providing only the outward form of Western trading without its underlying concepts (1977:117).
The early co-operatives failed in virtually every community which tried them. The storekeeper of the society boasted to us that the Kilenge co-operative was the last one to close down, a sad legacy to a good idea.
As the society entered eclipse, villagers began to form alternative smaller-scale business groups. With self-government and the approach of independence, the rhetoric of development became ever more eloquent and Government representatives exhorted villagers to participate. Tave's successor as Local Government Councillor introduced sweeping changes to the notions of business groups; he ordered each men's house group in the village of Potne to form its own business group and build its own copra drier. Although the groups rapidly failed (perhaps because of their small size), the experiment set the pattern for most of the business groups to follow.
The Kilenge model their business groups on pre-existing social forms in their culture, and on an ideology of kinship relatedness and mutual aid. All the members (from two to 100) can claim some sort of kinship tie to the leader or some other influential member of the group. In kin groups the social relationship entails co-operation in daily economic, ritual or ceremonial activities; in business groups it obliges assistance in monetary sector activities. To some extent the sets of obligations may overlap as many members of the business group are in the same kin group, but the two are not coterminous and members of any number of kin groups may join to form a business group.
Members of the business group freely contribute labour to the group at least one day a week, on “business” day. That day people should not work in their gardens but instead devote their efforts to cash crop production and development.
Villagers associate personal identity, prestige and status with their business groups, just as they do with traditional social groups. People boast about the amount of copra their group produces. They derive enormous pride from their group's trade store (even if its shelves are - 205 bare). The trade store epitomises success, a repository of cargo: the consumer goods which are the symbols of wealth. People firmly believe that business groups can bring them into the modern world, and despite their lack of success to date, they do not abandon that belief. Instead they play with the form or the size of the groups in an effort to improve performance.
Between 1975 and 1978 several new trade stores opened as village groups increased their copra production and imported trade goods, but the large village groups did not last long. Established traditional rivalry between village section alliances found expression in the proliferation of business groups. The business groups which we now see in Kilenge are these village section groups, or sometimes smaller sibling sets. A few individuals make copra themselves, but they are a rare breed.
A number of factors may generate the fissioning which has characterised collective enterprise groups in Kilenge, factors related to economics and to cultural values. Many analysts seem to assume that primitive societies have a co-operative spirit. The idea of a harmonious communal original state has long permeated popular mythology and political rhetoric. While people in all societies must and do co-operate to some extent, the co-operative ideal may simply expect too much. Melanesian societies often experienced dissent, rivalry and warfare. Small kin groups might have maintained group solidarity, but “villages” did not even exist in Kilenge, except perhaps as temporary alliances. That the society broke down should not surprise us since the types of rivalries which led to internal dissent often characterise interpersonal exchanges in Kilenge. Now that business groups have fragmented to the size of village sections we may find the process of fission slowing. Village sections, as traditional social units, have considerable stability over time, even though members may change. We may see some further fissioning to sibling sets, but totally individual enterprise seems far away, and would require the erosion of a number of still important values such as kin group co-operation and mutual support. 11
Changes in economies of scale and transport opportunities over time also contributed to the demise of larger groups. In the early history of the society, a ship of the Burns Philp trading concern would call to pick up copra every six weeks or so. As people realised that hard work in copra would pay only minimal rewards, and as the utility of the money proved finite, production decreased and the ship found it no longer economic to call regularly. As transport became erratic, the copra produced sat on the wharf for months and frequently rotted before reaching market. The society had a monopoly on copra sales: the only Copra - 206 Marketing Board number, a ticket to occasional rebates. Small producers had no choice but to sell to the society. When the Catholic mission began to produce its own copra in the mid-1970s, the marketing situation altered markedly. The mission arranged for regular shipping to Kilenge to pick up its product and to bring in cargo. Local producers suddenly had many more options for disposal of their products. The society lost its monopoly, and rapidly disintegrated under the competition and chronic management difficulties. By 1981-82 the Kilenge could also send out copra by a small provincial Government boat assigned to ply the coast to facilitate commodity marketing.
The local belief that somehow the society caused fluctuating copra prices also undermined confidence in the large co-operative form of organisation. When the mission offered better prices than the society paid, people thought that the society clerk had cheated them. They blamed their diminishing returns in hard times on the society. In an effort to improve their own returns, they began to try new forms of organisation. Optimistically they thought that they could achieve development through copra production if only they found the right type of groups to organise their efforts. But the price of copra continued to fluctuate, and each time it came down the business groups experienced new stresses. Members harped at each other for alleged theft or laziness. As people left the large groups, they formed new smaller ones.
Other problems plagued the society, and many of the same kind of problems develop in the smaller groups as well. Inadequate management, coupled with a lack of accountability of the salaried storekeeper, led to a confrontation between the storekeeper and the parish priest in 1977. The public confrontation eroded what little confidence remained in the society's operation.
The formation of smaller groups, often capitalised by villagers working in town, has not overcome the troublesome problem of disappearing funds and misallocated resources. Many of the problems that have led to the fissioning of business groups originate in the basic dilemma of copra production: there is no money in it. By no stretch of the imagination can we see copra production as rational in the economic sense. While the price of copra remains low on the world market (as it has for most of the period since the early 1970s) there is precious little profit in its production. Yet the Kilenge believe that copra production begets development. They saw expatriates make their fortunes from copra plantations. Their Government has repeatedly urged them to increase production. Even the mission supplements its revenues through copra production. As individuals they are not interested in making copra, and their groups do - 207 not seem to make any profit, in that they never generate a surplus. Yet villagers continue to regularly produce some copra. Why?
The business group notion has given a social context to monetary sector activity. People find copra production an unpleasant and economically unrewarding activity. By turning it into a joint effort they resolve both problems: group members work together and entertain one another to alleviate boredom; furthermore, groups do not pay their members for work, so that they eliminate the cost of labour.
In the traditional economy kinsmen regularly exchange services and freely provide labour to each other. 12 Although people feed the kinsmen who work for them, they do not pay money or valuables for assistance. Similarly, in the co-operative atmosphere of the business group people freely donate their labour to a communal activity. Villagers do, however, earn money for the coconuts which they gather for group processing. The sale of unprocessed nuts provides the only cash income generated in the village (except for the few people hired by the business groups to tend the copra drier fires and a small number of villagers who earn cash through regular or casual labour for the mission). People do not view the sale of nuts to their group in terms of a return for their gathering labour, but rather in terms of disposing of a resource which they inherited, generated or purloined.
Would a higher price for their nuts encourage people to collect more (to raise their income) or to collect less (to maintain a given income)? The quantity of copra produced depends only indirectly on price, but directly on organisation and need. When people need money they produce copra or collect coconuts until they meet their need. If groups organise effectively, people produce copra. Undoubtedly copra production falls significantly below its capacity, as it does in many coastal Papua New Guinean communities (Harding 1971).
Although Moulik (1972, 1973) and others have commented on the problem of motivating Papua New Guineans to participate in development, village activities require more detailed examination. We can accept that people would rather work less than more, that they value traditional pursuits, but why then do they produce copra at all with the price so low? While they may not consume a wide range of products, they are dedicated consumers of a fixed set of commodities. They need cash for certain purchases and participate in “irrational” activities to achieve them. In order for them to receive any income at all they must sell their coconuts: if they did not process those coconuts without charge then there would be no copra to sell to pay for buying more coconuts. Villagers use their own labour, rendered socially appropriate through the - 208 organisation of production, to subsidise their consumption.
Village Labour as Commodity
In the village context labour is not generally a commodity. Outside the village the Kilenge participate in the wage economy, selling their labour to industry or the Government. While some Papua New Guinea communities have as many as 70 percent of their adult men away (G. Harris 1974), we found 43 percent of the adult males absent from Ongaia village in December of 1977. Kilenge attitudes towards wage labour are not surprising: they do not like the work, but they like the money and the experience. They do not care whether they work as skilled or unskilled labourers. They do care about the social conditions at work. They prefer to work with wantoks, other Kilenge. High pay usually will not keep a Kilenge man in a job with an unfriendly boss or hostile co-workers.
The village economy and society has accommodated wage labour. Remittances add some cash to the village economy, 13 and a period of wage labour forms part of a man's socialisation in the modern world (Grant and Zelenietz 1980). The attitudes towards labour which characterise wage work have not penetrated the village until relatively recently, but increasingly we find evidence that labour can become a commodity even in the village setting.
For many years the mission has employed some domestics to help run the station. In addition, the hospital and school employ a few local workers. The mission hires two to four men for its copra drier, and one or two men as mechanics and drivers. So a small number of villagers earn a regular cash income while they live at home. Because there are so few positions available, only a handful of families find their standard of living affected by the greater disposable income. While households with cash income may be better off in theory, in fact they often give up their additional resources to kinsmen. A family with a working man or woman must meet its garden labour needs with the assistance of kin. The income earner maintains his standing in his kin network through conspicuous gifts and sharing. Thus, income earned through one person's wage labour filters into many village households.
More significantly, the formation of a youth club in 1981 may herald the beginning of a new phenomenon: village-based labour as commodity. The young people of each village formed clubs to play a role in village development. In one project they rented their labour to anyone who needed more help than they could muster from their kin connections. For a relatively small fee the club members would plant a garden, clear new forest, build a house, or undertake whatever task needed do- - 209 ing. While the youth clubs may not survive for long, the revolutionary ideas which they embody may well outlast them. Before the clubs offered villagers a form of labour set in the context of employer/employee, wage labourers in the village had to maintain their social relations in order to meet their needs. Should hired help remain available at low rates, then those who work for wages could effectively isolate themselves from their kin networks without economic penalty; they would not need to share their resources because they could pay for the assistance they need. Cash income currently distributed through the community could concentrate in the hands of wage labourers, creating a wide difference in the ability of households to consume.
Administrations have tried for many years to get the indigenous people to work harder in the cash economy. Is it possible that their expectations may eventually be fulfilled as people continue to strive for their notion of development? Business groups make copra even while expatriate plantations (the heart of industry and enterprise) lie idle. Young people have organised to earn money instead of spending their time in more leisurely pursuits. In their mystical search for development, villagers gradually increase their dependence on and commitment to the cash economy.
Cargo Cult—the Modern Version
In many Melanesian societies, cargo cult ideologies (promising the attainment of Western manufactured goods through ritual means) have accompanied people's efforts to participate in the modern world. Frustrated in their desire to join the economic mainstream, many communities resorted to cults as a protest at being left out (see, e.g., Burridge 1960; Worsley 1968; Counts 1971, 1972). In other areas, like Kilenge, cults never became very influential, 14 but elements of the ideology do affect attitudes towards business (see also McSwain 1977). The co-operatives, which the administration may have encouraged as an antidote to cargo cult movements (Snowden 1981), depended on the same desire: the ability to consume modern goods. While cargo cults often overturned traditional social order in a revolutionary attempt to bring about a new system (Walter 1981), business groups worked within the established order, taking advantage of Government programmes and following Government advice. As McSwain says of the Karkar Islanders (1977:98):
Their expectations of these programmes as means of achieving the European way of life sustained a cargo ideology which existed alongside - 210 apparently successful modernization.
The Kilenge have not been quite as successful in achieving modernisation, yet they too still seek the secret of cargo. They formed and supported various types of business groups almost as in a ritual because they believed that they could get cargo if they did so. When the cargo failed to materialise, they realigned the group, changing its size or some of its functions, but never giving up hope.
The administration encouraged people to believe that “development” (viz. the ability to consume at will) would result from “business” (viz. the production of cash crops). When it did not, the Government officers let villagers believe that they were not working hard enough, so that they would blame themselves rather than forsake the ideal of development. Advertising showed people the wonderful products they could buy with the money they would earn. The administration facilitated (through loans) the opening of trade stores in the village to bring products to the people. Ever since Melanesians discovered that steel axes could make felling trees a simpler job they have valued access to Western commodities. The commodities of modern society enable subsistence production: the Kilenge could not feed themselves today if they had to forfeit their steel tools. Equally important, imported commodities have come to play a symbolic function in individual and group competition in modern Kilenge society. The members of groups with large, well-stocked trade stores feel superior to those with empty shelves. Those with empty shelves look down on those with no stores at all. Men who can provide a feast of rice, tinned fish and tea for the village earn a reputation for generosity. Those with houses built of industrially manufactured materials feel superior to those who live in thatch huts. Because the Kilenge produce most of the goods they need for subsistence, they can afford to devote a good deal of their cash income to luxury consumption; perhaps for that reason their consumption seems blatantly conspicuous and competitive. Commodities have become symbols of dominance in the village context.
The commodity fetishism invading Kilenge is, of course, not isolated. It differs only in scale from that recorded in Western society where commodity exchange dominates (Lukacs 1971). We have become insatiable consumers, conditioned to need an ever-increasing array of disposable goods. Contemporary society promotes consumption because that allows production to continue to increase (Leiss 1976). We make the commodities we buy fetishes by imbuing them with mystical symbolic powers. Through the power of advertising they become fetishes for - 211 Third World peoples as well.
The image, the commercial, reaches out to sell more than a service or a product; it sells a way of understanding the world (Ewen and Ewen 1982:42).
It is this new way of understanding the world that people like the Kilenge seek. They want to be part of the modern world, and that means using the products of modern technology, such as underarm deodorant. In a community where people have so little, what could anyone possibly want with deodorant? As Mark Poster suggests in his introduction to Baudrillard (1975:8), before commodities became social values “(t)here could simply not be articulated a ‘revolution’ in underarm deodorants”. Yet we find that the revolution has reached the bush: even in Kilenge, Western goods have become symbols of social value which people use to play out traditional rivalries and antagonisms. 15 As commodities play an ever greater role in activities such as ceremonial distributions and bride-price payments, more and more effort must go to accumulating cash. Those with greater access to cash find themselves in a more favourable position for improving their status. Status no longer accrues solely to those who fulfil their social obligations and excel at traditional endeavours; increasingly status can be manipulated through access to money, thereby precipitating marked changes in internal stratification in the village.
Commodity Consumption and Stratification
Kilenge society never constituted an “equal” society by any means. Seniority in descent played an important role in leadership; the eldest child of an eldest child always had the respect of his juniors, regardless of their relative ages. Leaders consolidated their titles through their abilities and generosity. Although a traditional leader may have had an extra wife, otherwise he did no better than his followers; while he had greater debts owed to him, he also had greater obligations to meet. The traditional leader may not have owned more than his fellows, but he controlled the flow of goods, women and information through the community; his power derived from his ability to direct the production and distribution of goods.
Colonialism brought about new inequalities in status for indigenous peoples; they became a subservient, inferior “caste” (Jinks et al. 1973:286), a “race” kept apart from the colonial masters. As they participated in the intrusive new economy, villagers joined the working class, the proletariat. Those who remained in the village growing cash - 212 crops found themselves slowly transformed into peasants (Amarshi et al. 1979), incorporated willy-nilly into the global economy.
Class differences also appear within the village as monetary sector activities permeate village life.
The transformation of subsistence villagers into peasant farmers is only the first stage in the process of rural social change in colonial situations. The development of capitalist agriculture also engenders deepening inequalities within the peasantry (Good 1979:102-3).
Most people may not consume very much, yet there are individuals who come out ahead. Those who have wage labour employment in the village can enjoy a wider range of consumer goods than the villager with no cash income. There are also, however, some villagers who get ahead on the labour of their fellows: petty capitalists.
Each business group has a leader, often the most senior-ranking male in the kin network. In addition, the group has a clerk or storekeeper who keeps a few books (usually poorly) and who handles the operation of the store. Between the group leader and the clerk the group's earnings all too often manage to disappear. In part, earnings evaporate because of the problems of marketing; people fear that their copra will not reach market safely so they send the leader or clerk with it. The cost of shipping the man eats away the meagre profit margin on the copra sale. The leader or clerk's expenses in town come out of group proceeds as well. The wantok sistim, the obligation to honour the requests of kinsmen, further erodes the business earnings. When the clerk or leader brings cargo into the store, his relatives sometimes take goods without paying. More distantly related members of the group must pay for what they consume, as do nonmembers. In this process, group members with distant ties to the group leader and clerk subsidise the leader's consumption and his generosity to others. Members work freely to make copra which the leader sells to buy cargo, then they sell their coconuts to the group so that they can buy the cargo. Our investigation of a number of trade stores indicated that not one accumulated a profit; they function rather to provide access to consumption goods for group members. Any surplus generated by the members' free labour is appropriated by group leaders to maintain their followership and to establish their generosity. When the leaders occasionally distribute a dividend (from Copra Marketing Board annual rebates) they encourage group members to see it at a personal gift which demonstrates the leader's power, influence and ability. In public harangues, leaders incite their followers to work hard - 213 to kirapim ples, to develop the village. Thus, they enforce production and expropriate the proceeds. Their control of decisions regarding the commodities purchased for the store plays a role in shaping tastes and needs for village consumers. Their influence is pervasive, and they mediate socio-economic change for their followers. In some parts of Papua New Guinea their counterparts have become wealthy politicians (Finney 1968). In Kilenge, traditional patterns of wealth consumption limit the overt accumulation of nonperishable commodities. Kilenge leaders still use wealth in traditional ways to build their prestige. If, however, the Kilenge began to accumulate wealth like the Tolai of East New Britain (Epstein 1972, 1968), then we could soon see the formation of a permanent indigenous bourgeoisie.
Participation in the global economy also has definite implications for the relationship between the sexes, especially in the urban situation. Among wage labour migrants it is unusual for women to work. While women in the village provide at least 50 percent of the labour and bring food from the gardens, in the urban context their labour is “valueless”. The frequent result of such powerlessness is depression, frustration, and sometimes abuse. Although men may enjoy their time in town, women have mixed feelings: life is easy in some ways, but difficult in others. Women inevitably feel inferior and unimportant. Even in the village men seem to receive more of the cash generated by cash cropping or wage labour. Most men share their wealth with their families, but some use their money for self-indulgence (e.g., Zelenietz and Grant 1982), leaving their wives and children without resources they may need.
Does Development Have a Future?
Most Third World nations, and the many residents within them, readily commit themselves to development. What do they mean by “development”? Undoubtedly there is a wide range of answers, but in general it seems that governments seek economic growth (the production of greater wealth), usually through industrialisation and modernisation. Indigenous peoples see development in simpler terms, in access to consumer goods; the need to participate in production for the monetary economy becomes, for them, a necessary evil. At both levels development implies change in indigenous economics, changes brought about through education, technological improvement, capital infusion and planning. Ideally these changes, along with alterations in the distribution of wealth generated, should improve people's standard of living. If we were to accept Rostow's (1960) assessment that mass consumption constitutes the final stage of development, then the more imported products - 214 that people consume the closer they are to a state of development. Yet consumption alone cannot constitute a meaningful definition of development, just as an increase in the national income per capita guarantees nothing about the relative wealth of rural residents. Free handouts of food or other goods may be necessary to overcome immediate crises, but do not provide long-term development. Promoting industries or enterprises which create rich urban elites provides precious little “trickle down” to the rural poor, and only leads to the “modernization of poverty” (Illich 1977:3). If development is to mean anything then it must mean long-term improvement in the standard of living of all citizens at a rate and level which the people are able to sustain (politically, economically and socially). If the changes generated are not self-directed, then they may simply perpetuate or intensify the impoverishment of the Third World and increase its underdevelopment (Gunder Frank 1975, 1972; Cockcroft et al. 1972). If economic change results in exploitation and injustice, then can we believe that it brings development? Does an increased ability to consume the products of technological innovation justify overturning indigenous forms of social stratification?
We know that consumerism elsewhere in the Pacific has led to numerous problems for indigenous peoples. Rody (1978) and Jabre (1978) document the malnutrition that has often accompanied change from a traditional diet to consumer foods. There is no evidence to indicate that a high ability to consume commodities contributes to psychological well-being even where it accompanies material wealth. Yet, if Third World peoples want more, who are we to deny them? How can we sit in comfortable chairs, typing at expensive machines, reading by electric light, and suggest to people who know no such luxuries that Western goods really wouldn't be good for them so there is no use in wanting them? It would probably make little sense to even try, because governments accept the ideology of development and promote ever greater involvement in the global economy. People around the world are learning Western consumption patterns (Illich 1973): they drink Coca-Cola, they laugh at Mickey Mouse, they flock to the cities, they dismantle mountains to sell the contents. They begin to believe that the products of technological innovation have importance beyond their immediate utility: value as symbols of status and even dominance. The limited availability and high cost of such products allow people to ply them as symbols of affluence, just as they once traded beautiful shells and obsidian blades.- 215
Nations like Papua New Guinea must decide what shape they want their future to take. Do they want to emulate “modern” societies, with all the benefits and the ultimate costs that would entail? Do they want to chart an independent course for themselves? Once they clearly outline their goals in a form which they can implement (rather than the motherhood sentiments of the Eight Aims), then they can decide whether copra production seems the best strategy to bring development to communities like Kilenge.
It seems obvious that the capitalist system increasingly draws in Kilenge society without ever developing it. Although people live longer, have more children, get more education and enjoy more material wealth than they did before the white man came they have achieved none of this themselves. All that they have has come at a price: increasing conversion to Western values and participation in the capitalist economy. It has resulted in new labour demands, feelings of relative deprivation and incipient class distinctions. New social forms have arisen to meet the challenges, and new attitudes and values promote change in activities. While traditional social forms and subsistence patterns have not totally disappeared, villagers have to make alterations to accommodate new technology and practices.
Can any effort to develop the Kilenge area through copra production succeed? There is no money in copra, yet people have not given up their faith in its potential. They do not question the paradigm within which they have operated for a generation or more. Could other commodities offer them a better future? Could they raise their income and consumption levels, improve the quality of their lives, if (for example) they produce betel (areca palm) nut in sufficient quantity? 16 Betel, in high demand on the internal market, offers a future of bright promise, but its nonexportability has perhaps led the Government to overlook it as a potential development crop. Could betel, or some other product, really “make it” for the Kilenge, or would they only substitute one form of oppression for another? What can bring development to those who live, physically and metaphorically, at the edge of the global economy? Must development mean abandoning the past, adopting imported forms and values along with imported goods? Or is there another path to the future?- 216 - 217
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1 The Eight Aims are: (1) to increase the proportion of the economy controlled by Papua New Guineans, (2) to ensure the equal distribution of benefits, (3) to decentralise, (4) to promote small-scale artisan activity, (5) to achieve self-reliance, (6) to raise revenue locally, (7) to ensure equal participation by women, and (8) to use necessary Government control and involvement in directing development (Papua New Guinea 1976).
2 The Tolai of East New Britain provide an obvious exception to this generalisation. Epstein (1964, 1965, 1968) reports that their desire to accumulate wealth exceeds their love of leisure.
3 Many Melanesian societies do not encourage savings, so that a desire to save does not stimulate production. Traditionally, Melanesians emphasised the movement and manipulation of wealth rather than pure accumulation. Men accumulated wealth only to redistribute it as part of their social activities and commitments.
4 Grant and Zelenietz worked in Ongaia village from March 1977 to January 1978, and from November 1981 to January 1982. Saito worked in Potne village from November 1981 to January 1982.
5 We saw evidence that the Siassi Islanders had adapted to changed economic conditions when they visited Kilenge at Christmas 1981. The Kilenge clamoured for wooden Siassi bowls, still valued for ceremonial (marriage) transactions and for utilitarian purposes. The Siassi, though, came not to dispose of bowls but to sell boats. They no longer make bowls, preferring to devote their considerable carving skill to the more lucrative market in modern canoes. They came to Kilenge not to trade traditional commodities but to sell modern commodities.
6 The census that Grant and Zelenietz conducted in Ongaia village in 1977 showed that 43 percent of the productive males and 35 percent of the total productive adults lived in urban areas. This high level of integration with the urban economy is not, however, directly reflected in ideology or daily activities. Almost all village men had lived and worked in town at some point, but they evidenced little sense of identity with the urban environment.
7 The motivations for urban migration are more complex than this brief passage indicates (see Grant and Zelenietz 1980).
8 For instance, in 1981 the parish priest successfully organised a project to bring piped water into the villages. While residents of two villages enthusiastically participated in the construction of the pipeline, members of another community simply refused to contribute any labour or money to the project.
9 Young men with responsible positions in the church or Government sometimes take an active role in discussions, although their seniors by no means defer to them. While age begets wisdom, leadership demands strength and stamina; men who are too old, weak or senile to actively participate in the village economy soon lose their authority in the power structure.
10 Tave is a pseudonym.
11 When the Tolai first began to accumulate assets, matrilineal kin groups acted as agents of capital concentration. More recently, however, individual ownership has become more common (Epstein 1968:69-70).
12 Counts and Counts (1970) found a rather different situation farther east in West New Britain: the Kaliai have to pay fellow villagers who help them when family members are away working.
13 In 1977 few families reported receiving remittances, but in 1981 many families said they got some money from kin in town. The average amount of remittance reported declined during the four-year period.
14 Zelenietz (1981) speculates on the reasons why cargo cults never assumed much significance in Kilenge.
15 The presence of commodities is not new in Kilenge. The trade network through the Siassi Islands constituted an exchange, at least in part, of commodities (if we accept the definition that commodities are items produced for exchange rather than use). People in each community in the trade network produced some items just for exchange. What we find with the new commodities is that they bring with them new values, assumptions, beliefs and practices. Commodities in the old trade network fit into a system of social relationships based on interdependence and relative equality; in the new economy, commodities create dependence and inequity.
16 Betel-nut is a stimulant chewed by an increasing number of Papua New Guineans. The drug is legal and provides a lucrative cash crop for some coastal peoples.
17 The presence of items such as deodorant on trade store shelves does not necessarily imply complete village acceptance of the items. In fact, many stores have some items which remain on the shelves for years, since no one wants to buy them.