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From Land to Mouth

From Land to Mouth: The Agricultural "Economy" of the Wola of the New Guinea Highlands

Paul Sillitoe
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 512
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  • Book Info
    From Land to Mouth
    Book Description:

    Among the Wola people of Papua New Guinea, our category economy is problematic. Distribution is unnecessary; the producers of everyday needs are the consumers: produce goes largely "from land to mouth" - with no implication that resources are scarce. Yet transactions featuring valuable things -- which are scarce -- are a prominent aspect of life, where sociopolitical exchange figures prominently. The relationship -- or rather the disconnection -- between these two domains is central to understanding the fiercely egalitarian political-economy. In this detailed investigation of a Highland New Guinea agricultural 'economy' and acephalous political order-the most thorough inquiry into such a tropical subsistence farming system ever undertaken-esteemed anthropologist Paul Sillitoe interrogates the relevance of key economic ideas in noncapitalist contexts and challenges anthropological shibboleths such as the "gift." Furthermore, he makes a reactionary-cum-innovative contribution to research methods and analysis, drawing on advances in information technology to manage large data sets.

    Over a span of more than three decades, Sillitoe has compiled a huge body of ethnography, gaining unprecedented insights into Highlands' social, economic, and agricultural arrangements. He uses these here to illuminate economic thought in nonmarket contexts, advancing an integrated set of principles underpinning a stateless-subsistence order comparable to that of economists for the state-market. Sillitoe's insights have implications for economic development programs in regions where capitalist assumptions have limited relevance, following his advocacy of development interventions more respectful of existing social orders.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16295-0
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-xvi)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. CHAPTER 1 The Agricultural “Economy”
    (pp. 1-25)

    When is enough enough? Never, according to the capitalist economic view, which assumes that human wants are insatiable. When we have a sufficient amount of something we seek another thing, and so on endlessly. Capitalism depicts us as essentially selfish creatures, or maximizing individuals out to get the best for ourselves, whose needs can never be met, for when we satisfy one need, we invent another to chase after. Scarcity is consequently an unavoidable fact of life for all (Lipsey and Harbury 1990, 6–7; Colman and Young 1990, 2). It is a persuasive argument with a relentless logic for...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Economics and the Self-Interested Individual
    (pp. 26-55)

    While chapter 1’s definition of the economy, focusing on the material aspects of existence, circumscribes a domain of human behavior, it remains to decide which aspects of Western economic thought are relevant to understanding life in the Was Valley. Many topics of interest to economists, as intimated, are irrelevant. The differences between large-scale capitalist society, such as that of Europe, and small-scale subsistence society, such as that of the Wola, are so vast that they appear to occupy quite separate realms. The economist-cum-anthropologist George Dalton (1961, 1) pointed out that a fundamental difference is that in capitalist societies “everyone derives...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Community and the Other-Interested Individual
    (pp. 56-84)

    It is increasingly evident that the collectivist sociological approach is inadequate to entirely understanding human sociality. It is not that it is wrong so much as partial. But the economists’ view that individual self-interest is the driving force behind behavior is equally partial. As some economists acknowledge, such as Sen (1990, 37), who comments that the “purelyeconomic man is indeed close to being a social moron.”¹ The idea that selfish material interests drive human behavior gained favor in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At this time, as Dumont (1977, 97) comments in his review of Adam Smith’s...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Land Tenure and the Collective-Interests Individual
    (pp. 85-125)

    Land is one of the factors of production identified by economists and its availability is central to an agricultural economy. It is a finite, and hence potentially scarce, resource. Land tenure arrangements, the topic of this chapter, should tell us something about how people perceive its supply. They relate also to the sociopolitical issues discussed in the previous chapters and tell us more about the constitution of local communities. The Wola claim use rights, but not ownership and disposal rights to land, by virtue of acknowledged exchange-validated connections to their kin-defined, locally constitutedsemcorporations. These differ dramatically from capitalistic...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Selection of Cultivation Sites and Individual Choice
    (pp. 126-168)

    It is possible that factors other than tenure constrain access to cultivable land, making it scarce. In addition to access rights, several other criteria influence gardeners’ choice of sites. Even if tenure arrangements suggest the Wola perceive there is sufficient land to meet their needs, sites vary physically—from well-drained slopes to poorly drained hollows, from steep inclines to gentle rises, some under montane forest and others grassy vegetation, and so on—which requires them to make choices. Choice is an inevitable consequence of formal economic assumptions, suggesting that the formal model should have some relevance, although the marked contrast...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Land Issue: Scarce Resource?
    (pp. 169-215)

    If we take stock of where we are regarding chapter 2’s definition of economics and our efforts so far to ascertain its applicability to the Was Valley, we can see that the focus on the individual who evidences self-interest in making decisions has some relevance to the egalitarian political economy with its esteeming of personal autonomy. But the Melanesian individual differs from the capitalist individual, having a tripartite focus of interests that include not only self but also others and the collective. Indeed, the capitalist individual, as some commentators point out, is not motivated only by self-interest either, as economics...

  11. CHAPTER 7 The Population Issue: Too Many People?
    (pp. 216-252)

    The use of current population trends to project possible future land requirements seems a reasonable way to proceed in assessing when demand for cultivable land might outstrip supply and it become a scarce resource. By comparing demographic trends with current population and land use we can assess how pressure on land resources may go up or down in the future (assuming no significant technological innovations changing land use). The assumption of ecological theory, as pointed out previously, is that populations expand to fill their niches, so the western Wola, with abundant resources, might be anticipated to demonstrate demographic expansion. We...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Pioneering Gardens: Men’s Labor
    (pp. 253-294)

    It appears that the Was Valley communities have considerable scope to expand before fully exploiting their region’s resources; although the Malthusian observation that populations tend to grow so long as there are the resources to sustain them suggests that this will be a temporary state (Malthus 1806), while technical innovations, changing the relationship between humans and resources, may extend it repeatedly (Boserup 1965). Whatever, scarcity seems not to be an issue currently, with arable land and capital to work it in sufficient supply. Consequently, are we to agree with the substantivists that formal economic concepts are irrelevant because maximization does...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Cultivating Gardens: Women’s Labor
    (pp. 295-329)

    Many gardens in the Was Valley are recultivated repeatedly over several years, querying, as noted, the shifting cultivation label regularly applied to such Highland New Guinea farming regimes. The cultivation of such a garden for a second or subsequent time follows a different pattern than a new swidden. The work falls largely to women, albeit the fences and ditches enclosing such sites demand periodic attention, involving men in occasional heavy work. According to the Wola, if the soil in a garden is “good,” that is, friable and well structured, then women may remound and replant it again relatively soon after...

  14. CHAPTER 10 The Labor Question: Scarcity of Time?
    (pp. 330-375)

    The assertion of some writers that New Guinea societies feature political inequality has long perplexed me, as I take equality as a cardinal value. It is a key to understanding how Wola subsistence practices and material ideas differ from those of capitalist economics. According to some, the “big man” complex demonstrates that certain persons achieve positions above others; extreme versions even talk about despots (Salisbury 1964; Watson 1967). The ethnographic evidence from several regions, including the Was Valley, does not support this view. Other commentators, who agree that an ethic of equality pervades relations between men and relations between women,...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Exchange: Taro Gardens
    (pp. 376-416)

    One of the first anthropologists credited with considering economics as some sort of social process is Malinowski (1922) who, in the context of his investigation of thekula, which went on to become a celebrated Melanesian exchange institution, declared it a sociological phenomenon, although it had some of the appearances of an economic activity. But he was not, as it appears, ahead of his time, or only inadvertently so. To cite him as among the first to see economic behavior as a social process is to attribute to him something of which he seems unaware, for he makes it clear...

  16. CHAPTER 12 The Exchange Economy?
    (pp. 417-453)

    Scarcity, it seems, is an issue in the Was Valley, though not in the way economists might imagine, as it has little relevance to material well-being. Every household has equal access to the land, capital, and labor it requires to sustain its material existence, none of which are scarce with current subsistence demands. Residents do not think that they exploit available resources to the full, a view supported by environmental and ecological data. Under the current population and farming regime, land is not scarce; the wide choice afforded by the flexible tenure system reflects this, allowing families considerable latitude where...

  17. CHAPTER 13 No Economy, No Development?
    (pp. 454-482)

    The future for regions such as the New Guinea Highlands that are peripheral to the increasingly worldwide capitalist economy will, it is widely assumed, feature continuing incorporation into the global market by the process of economic development. International agencies, national and provincial governments, and communities such as those in the Was Valley all think that development is the way forward, although they have quite different ideas about what this might entail and result in. What is the validity of economic development where there is no economy in the capitalist sense, and what are the implications? The inappropriateness of much formal...

  18. APPENDIX 1 Garden Survey Schedule
    (pp. 483-484)
  19. APPENDIX 2 Census Survey Schedule
    (pp. 485-485)
  20. APPENDIX 3 Time-Expenditure Survey Schedule
    (pp. 486-486)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 487-528)
  22. References
    (pp. 529-560)
  23. Index
    (pp. 561-575)