Economic Development in South East Papua

Permission has been obtained from Dr. Belshaw to include this unpublished survey of village enterprise in the Commission Social Development Committee Circular series since, though related to a single area in Papua, it deals with post-war problems of native production common to most of the South Pacific territories. It is hoped, therefore, that it will prove of interest and practical value to many engaged in furthering the commercial and industrial advancement of island communities.

  1. The author is a New Zealander, formerly a District Officer in the British Colonial Service and. now a Fellow of the Australian National University engaged in field resarch in New Guinea. Possessing the double qualifications of an anthropologist and economist, Dr. Belshaw has published several articles on topics connected with the economic life of the Melanesian peoples. His first book, “Island Administration in the South West Pacific: Government and Reconstruction in New Caledonia, the New Hebrides and the British Solomon Islands”, was published jointly by the Royal Institute of International Affairs and the Institute of Pacific Relations early this year,
  2.  It should be emphasized that the views expressed in the paper are those of the author and. are not necessarily endorsed by the South Pacific Commission or the Australian Government.

A Summary

Dr. Cyril S. Belshaw

With the object of observing modern economic activity among the Papuans and the effects of modern activity on Papuan life, I have recently had the good fortune to visit a number of villages in the area adjacent to Samarai. I have gained the very strong impression that the Papuan of this area is intensely interested in commercial development and the mastery of industrial techniques, and that, given encouragement and advice, he is well on the way to achieve a society and economy quite new to Papuasia. It is the object of this paper to summarise the situation here, and to suggest ways in which the area can be integrated commercially. This is of course no “blue print” for development. There are so many unknowns in such a subject that a “blue print” would be too rigid and lead to disappointment. This is only a suggestion, pointing up possibilities and opportunities.

The people have been under more or less intensive missionary influence for the past 70 to 80 years. The indigenous culture has, in most places, given place to something new. In the main it is the exotic custom that has given way —— warfare, cannibalism, ritual food abstentions, old—time feasting and dancing in some places, pre-marital sexual intercourse, magical exhortation, the practice of sorcery, and the like. On the other hand the deeper features of culture have remained, with varying degrees of modification. Most of the ancient customs are remembered and regretted: some of the old people still practice magic in their gardens, and young people point with envy to their success as gardeners; in times of misfortune there are immediate accusations of sorcery, and perhaps some poor unfortunate and unpopular person will be seized upon as a scapegoat and hauled off to court. More important, clan and family organisation is still strong, and all economic organisatlon is based on an indigenous social structure. The District Officer who wrote that social structure and religion parallel the social structure and religion of the European was wide of the mark.

The people are matrilineal, not matriarchal. That is, descent and clan—membership is traced through the mother, though women are in other respects no more important than men. Land inheritance is fundamentally matrilineal (from the mother’s brother, not the mother), though in many areas sons customarily give a feast to the father’s relatives, in return for which they may inherit from their father. This link between feasting and inheritance is one of the reasons why successful European attacks on feasting would have serious social and economic repercussions.

Marriage exchanges, where they continue, are very modest and not at all onerous in this area, besides having a stabilizing influence on the family, Over most of the area (except for instance Wagawaga) native valuables such as greenstone adzes, ceremonial lime spatulae, armshells, and bagi, are very much in evidence. The ancient ceremonial exchanges still continue, especially in the islands, linking a wide range of communities in friendship, and providing opportunities for trade and. cultural spread. The desire to move about for these reasons seems to village constables and other people to conflict with the patrol officers’ desire, natural during census-taking, for them to remain quietly in one village.

Some villages are large, of nearly three hundred people, but nearly all the Papuans of this area are scattered in small hamlets, sometimes of one house, sometimes of four or five, all containing relations who own the hamlet land and nearby gardens. There is a prevalent belief that this is a modern and undesirable state of affairs. As regards its modernity, there is I think no justification for this belief. The hamlets are consistent with an age—old social structure, and are common to many Melanesian societies.

Desirability is a different question and seems to have been answered in the negative by patrol officers. Putting aside the crude argument that centralisation makes administration easier, there is much to be said for this view. Scattered hamlets remove labour from development areas, and make problems of distribution and transport almost impossible to solve, especially in inland areas. Eventually there must be found some way to linking scattered family groups to a common centre.

The method employed in at least one case that has been brought to my notice has been for the patrol officer to order hamlets to be abandoned and the inhabitants to move to specific sites. One cannot but agree that the Circular Instruction which forbids this practice is correct, and it is a pity it has not been observed. The patrol officer concerned was obviously too rushed to enquire into details of land ownership, distance from gardens, and. other factors involved. The people do not appear to understand the reasons for the move, and have contented themselves with building houses on the new sites and living on the old ones. As each successive patrol officer reinforces the orders of the first (whose order is written in the Government book), the people are wondering first at the impotence of the Government, which does not see through their ruse, and second at the sanity of the patrol officers for, if the patrol officers cannot see the reasons for their old custom, neither can they see or understand the reasons for an apparently arbitrary order. Such methods of social control only create disaffection.

The people are likely to move, however, either if they are inspired to do so through some mystical event, like cargo cult or a form of Christianity; or through obvious self-interest. Economic development, if successful and attractive, should provide an incentive to concentrate, and also sufficient funds to maintain a few roads linking hamlets to their economic centres(For instance, a bus service along the south coast of Milne Bay, where a road exists, could well supply labour for Wagawaga industry without the necessity for concentrating hamlets — if the industry can stand the expense of the service, including a small amount of road maintenance).

The mainland communities suffered from the war. The shock resulting from evacuation and the sight of fighting and military activity was greatThe material results of the war have been repaired through the course of time and the size of military dumps. War Damage Compensation has in the main been paid liberally, but in most areas has been frittered away without control. Delays of payment in some areas are causing intense dissatisfaction, and the heavy task of assessing claims and making payments is an awkward burden for an already harassed administrative staff.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Milne Bay area was set almost classically for a movement of the cargo cult type —— deep psychological disturbance, economic frustration, a history of religious prophet movements, and an acquaintance with a form of Christianity particularly prone to distortion. Yet no cargo cult arose, and. one can only point with interest to the high standard of education of Kwato and Catholic missions, and to the efforts of the Kwato mission to encourage village industry and a sense of racial self-respect. While I do not agree with the entire policy of Kwato, particularly its pre-war antipathy to native custom and its tendency to centralise on Kwato Island, nevertheless it is unfortunately quite apparent that its policy is much more nearly in conformity with official Government policy, as set out in Director of District Services Circular Memoranda, than is the policy of junior field officers, or even other Missions. It is also most unfortunate that religious sectionalism is tending to handicap the development of the Eastern Division as a wholeKwato experiments are inevitably restricted to Kwato adherents, not because Kwato limits them but because there is no machinery to cut across religious boundaries. This applies particularly as between Protestants and CatholicsOnly a lead by the administration, accepting positive responsibility for such development, can overcome this difficulty. This lead is so far lacking, in this area.

The main cash resource in the area is still copra, largely obtained from trees planted under the pre-war system of enforcement. A few communities, which I did not visit, mainly inland D’Entrecasteaux, depend on the sale of labour. The following list shows some of the other activity that is going on to provide a cash income —

Wagawaga : Chair manufacture, mat making, communal agriculture,  commencing prefabricated and pre-cut house construction, pit-saw, projected fish and fruit canning and fish nurseries in co-operation with Maiwara and near-by areas,

Naura District : Experimental corn and pineapple growing, the latter for canning. Projected jute growing and mixed European and native settlement area with central experimental and machine—holding organisation. (Not visited.)

Divinai : Village machine saw-mill. (Not visited.)

Logea : Community owned sailing vessel (c.8oft), with East Cape partners, used to transport copra and other products over a wide area

One :         Boatbuilding, copra and shell enterprise, pit-saw, experimental rice.

Bwasilake : Boatbuilding(not visited.) Rice-growing.

Tubetube : Pit-saw

Ware :   cutters and whaleboats, trading, fishing, and transporting produce. 3 whaleboats building. Pit-saw. Considerable copra-making and fishing on islands and reefs over a wide area bounded by Sud-Est, Tubetube and the Dumoulins.

Several different forms of organisation were noted Including the following —

(a)         Village production under close European guidance, co-ordinateci with plans of neighbouring areas (Kwato enterprise).

(b)         Attempts at village co-operation with little or no. European guidance (Dlvinai and Ware).

(c)         Private enterprise making use of clan relatives as labour (Ware and Tubetube).

(d)    Joint enterprise, financed and worked by close relatives on a partnership basis (?opa, Ware, Kitai, and being replaced at Wagawaga by (a)).

(e)         Enterprise of the simple family, mainly producing copra as required on a very small scale, and restricted by lack of capital and technical ability (most of the islands),

Although everything as yet is on a small scale, the variety of enterprlse is considerable and it is apparent that this variety lends itself to an integrated development. This will be based not so much on variation of resources, though this will play a part, as on variation of interest and knowledge of the people, and labour distribution.

The basic cash industry everywhere is copra, supplemented in some places by shell-fishing, All methods of sun, smoke, and hot—air drying are used. Copra is the one sure industry until the expiration of the present agreement with the United Kingdom. It is more than likely then that the price will fall substantially, unless re-armament creates a new demand. The price today is probably higher than ever before, yet everywhere I went I met complaints at low prices, and a seeming belief that firms were cheating. This belief is closely linked with the fundamental distrust of Europeans, and the limited nature of education, particularly in elementary economics and business management.

In view of a possible fall in the price of copra, and increases in the price of imports in relation to the price of exports, the utmost advantage of present conditions should be taken

Copra is the one source, apart from War Damage Compensation, of capital funds. Even direct loans are likely to be repaid in the first instance by means of copra monies (c.f. the case of Wagawaga). There are several ways in which copra money could be retained for investment. I understand that the Wagawaga people are now depositing all their copra money for investment, using income from current activity (e.g. chair making) to finance immediate consumption. This is very sound, but possible only under close guidance. Another way is for greater propaganda and guidance to be given by patrol officers, with the object of encouraging Post Office Savings Bank accounts to be opened and used for capital investment. Patrol Officers seldom if ever look at the accounts and papers of village entrepreneurs, who seem pathetically eager for help on many subjects — book-keeping, purchasing and selling advice, and so on. I do not agree that patrol officers (even cadets) are too young and inexperienced to deal with such matters, It is true that they themselves need guidance, but they should be able to discuss matters with District Officers, and the best way of learning is through practice. Their main lack is one of time, while one patrol a year to a village only gives an opportunity for census and court work. Ideally, at least one to two full days should be given to each village once or twice a year, with periods of a full week in one or two selected villages —— a great deal of vital information on gardens, social structure and business enterprise can be gained even in this short space. Nothing would better restore confidence than an interest which goes deeper than the collection of names, hygiene inspection, and conversations with the Village Constables and. Counclllors.

Another method of encouraging saving, also a method heavy on the time of patrol officers, is to permit local Councils, set up where possible, to make a small levy on bags of export produce, to be used for Council funds. Such a levy would be a nearer approach to a graduated income tax than could be achieved by most other means, and in effect would result in a welfare co—operative run by the local body, with funds supported by private enterprise.

Finally there is the possibility that capital items, such as machinery, could be purchased by Government and hired to villages, with a central maintenance service for major repairs.

I feel fairly confident that, given proper incentives, some means of capital accumulation would be devised by the Papuans themselves, The trouble here is that education along suitable lines has reached only a very small minority of people, an elite as it wereThese individuals cannot act successfully without the support of their family group or clan, and their leadership is lost unless the family or clan itself has been sufficiently educated to the new incentives. At the moment there are very few places indeed where new incentives have penetrated to any effective degree. Even at Wagawaga it is difficult for the leaders to visualise specific concrete developments, let alone pass on their ideas to others; while at places like Ware and Bwasilake there is continual talk of saving and. working for the common good -— but no conception of what concrete things could be done with capital so saved (beyond holding feasts as Christmas, etc.).

There is however considerable willingess to discuss objectives and a desire to attain industrial power. Most communities are indeed eager to fit in with a common plan and one cannot help sensing an excitement as these things are discussed, Anything that can promise, without too much sacrifice, a higher standard of living, technical and mechanical achievement, contact with overseas, education, racial equality, and greater Papuan unity, will be seized upon. Better that it be sound economic development than distorted cargo cult.

It is not difficult to sketch plans based on present tendencies. These must be centred on the industries projected for Wagawaga. As time goes on less and less of Wagawaga labour will be allocated to copra production, and capital will be more and more raised by local industry itself and by loans, The principal danger here is that investment may proceed too rapidly for the optimism of the people to bear the load of debt – they expect to see income being used for consumption as soon as possible. Wagawaga industry obviously involves the rest of Milne Bay. At present it is hoped that complementary industries may be established elsewhere in the Bay, and that areas such as Naura will provide the agricultural background, The main reason for spreading industry is to reach labour and to by—pass possible property difficulties if industry is concentrated too much at Wagawaga.

There is, however, much to be said for such concentration, particularly because transport of products to Samarai would be very easy if made from one port at Discovery Bay. The Wagawaga people are in such a state of flux, and their old culture has been changed so much, that property difficulties are less likely to occur here than at most other places. There could well be an influx of family labour, with careful guidance and control; indeed there is already a tendency in this direction.

The only other area of concentrated population I have visited, is Ware Island., Here there is considerable potential for development, though life is so simple that one hesitates to suggest changes of a complicating nature. Nevertheless in their own interest some industry other than copra needs to be established. Two possibilities for further investigation immediately spring to mind : dessicated. coconut, with, say, John Wesley of Tubetube’s assistance; and industrial fishing to supply the Wagawaga, or their own, factory. The Ware fleet would be a great asset both in fishing and transport. It would need to be partly mechanized, as considerable time is lost by beating against the wind, and refrigeration might be required.

There is a further possibility for the Ware people, Trading and long distance sailing is their particular vocation. With help they could continue be be the carriers and. middlemen for the whole area. If Ware increases its population, food will have to be imported, while Wagawaga will need native supp1ies, especially if people of a more Papuan culture migrate thither as labourers. The Ware custom of trading and carrying from the D’Entrecasteaux, Misima, and Sud-Est, as well as the Logea—Bwasilake group, could be stepped up quantitatively and would have an additional value.

One possible complication must be mentioned hereI am told that a European is applying for a land grant on Ware, presumably for trading purposes. This might easily be a death blow to Ware trade, since the local people have insufficient help or understanding to enable theem to compete. If the applicant, however, is a man of good will, he might be persuaded to take part in the above scheme and act as educator and friend of the local people.

The stepping up of industry on these lines will increase the demand for transport. To my knowledge there are already cutters being built by Papuans at various places. These craft are admirably suited to the shell and copra trade; but larger vessels with auxiliary engines will eventually be needed. Boat-building is the most successful Papuan craft, but one feels it is being pursued because it is the only one known, and that perhaps it is being over—emphasised at the expense ol others.

There is a crying need for timber everywhere, and such enterprises as the Divinai saw-mill must not be allowed to fail, as they could supply needs over the whole area. Professional agricultural data relating to the area have not been consulted by me, if indeed they exist,  But from my information it seems that the Logea-Bwasilake islands, with Dobu and some mainland areas, will be able to supply food to supplement the gardens of the new industrial workers. Rice is now being grown on Sideia and Bwasllake, and no doubt a ready market would soon develop in Milne Bay and at Ware. There seem to be no native—owned cattle, goats, or horses in the area. The two former would be invaluable, not only as food, but to keep down vegetation around villages and on plantations. The last would be useful for transport, especially reaching one or two plantations slightly inland. I recognise that Papuans are far from ideal in animal husbandry: nevertheless many Solomon Islanders have large cattle herds, and New Hebrideans use goats. It should be simple enough to allocate two or three children or elderly men to tend a herd.

The keynote of most of this development must be Papuan supply working for Papuan demand. Admittedly, Wagawaga will work partly for European and export demand, but no real integration of the area will be possible if villages always and only work to sell at Samaral. Further, the tendency always to sell and buy from Europeans, and to look to Europeans always for technical help, means a continual feeling of inferiority which has eventually to be overcome0.The growth of a Papuan centre of demand at Wagawaga, with consequent trade links throughout the area, is of the utmost importance in the development of the wide district loyalty based on division of labour and community of interest.

The fostering of Papuan technical independence is extremely difficult. Before long there will be a vocation for travelling professional technicians, maintaining and repairing the costly machinery that already exists in several places. There are now a few such mission—trained technicians, but these can seldom be spared from mission headquarters, or else do not cross mission boundaries. Catholics must be encouraged to help Protestants and vice versa: and people needing assistance must become accustomed to looking for it if necessary beyond the staff of their own particular mission.

I have already, in other reports made to the District Officer, Samaral, emphasised the urgent need for book—keeping training and the introduction of simple accounting procedures. Eventually, too, a knowledge of pricing methods, the export— import trade, and marketing must be givenAlready simple handbooks on such subjects have been written for African conditions.

 Finally, I would emphasise once again the wonderful opportunity that exists in this area. The people are not yet involved in cargo cult and similar fantasies. They are on the whole energetic, keen to learn, and many are well educated. The resources of the area are reasonably diverse. There is a tremendous willingness to be taken into confidence, a hope and need for new things, particularly a new relationship to the European and his world economy. Whether we act to guide present movements or not, the next ten years will see changes which are perhaps unpredictable,

Research Fellow

         Australian National University         Cyril S. Belshaw.

         8th August 1950


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