Chapter 25: Village Economy

Like elsewhere in PNG, in the past our village’s subsistence centered around agriculture supplemented by hunting, gathering, fishing, and trade. Garden foods were abundant. Some of the main crops we planted in large gardens were native taro and many varieties of sweet potato. There are three main types of yams, two ground yams and one tree yam. Sago is derived from sago palm trees that are grown in swamp lands. There were also a great variety of vegetables and greens. These include flat beans, round beans, a kind of native spinach called aupa, tulip tree leaves, two types of coarse leaves called agɨs and barɨgəs, fern leaves, pitpit, and native cucumber.

In the past hundred years or so, more crops, plants, and vegetables were added to the list of foods we farmed. Chief among these is rice, Singapore taro, and cassava or tapioca. Others include a variety of new beans such as long beans, snake beans, round cabbage, onions and shallots, capsicum, eggplant, cucumber, chilies, carrots, tomatoes, and watermelon. There are also large red tree ferns used both as food and delicacy. Two kinds of breadfruit, for eating the seeds and for eating both the flesh and seeds, are also available. Mango is an excellent seasonal fruit. Ton fruit is as well. These fruits are eaten raw as a delicacy.

Fruit and vegetables, including bananas, are usually planted inside the garden. Once the garden land is selected a small patch is cleared. The nigirakʷ, ‘earthworm’ is then symbolically killed.1 Incantations are offered to the spirit world to open up the earth for human food production. The farmer then calls upon the community to help him prepare the ground. Women cut the undergrowth. Men come later and cut large trees. In the olden days, when trees were too large to cut or were considered worthy of standing, men would climb them and cut down their branches, letting enough light through for the garden beneath to grow. After a couple weeks of drying, the cleared garden is then burned. For the garden to be ready for digging and planting, the earth must be burned. The burned ashes help the crops grow well.

Before the garden was burned, strong fences were built, mainly to keep off wild pigs.2 Fences are also useful to keep thieves out of the gardens. Fencing is a man’s job. Often assistance is sought from neighbours from the village. The garden owner is expected to provide food for the workforce and the gardener may even be obliged to offer a patch of the garden to the worker, to plant his food. This is not a give-away of land, it is only an opportunity to grow food. In the beginning of course, when the land was free and in plentiful supply, gardening was a way in which land ownership claims were established.

Pawpaw and coconut may be planted or may grow up on their own from fallen fruit. Pawpaw is both for sustenance and a delicacy. Coconut is for sustenance, it is a drink and a form of flavoring. Coconuts nowadays, especially among the coastal people, are an important source of income. When world market prices are high, copra and dried coconut meat sells very well. A tonne of copra can earn up to K200 or more. When the prices are down, a green coconut is still useful for a nice drink and a filling snack at the local market. Mature or ripe coconuts are also often sold at the local market.

These days, food from an individual’s garden is not enough to survive.3 Children often want rice and fried flour balls, sugar, tea, and protein. In the past, these were provided from the garden or the forest. These days, land is in short supply and it is more difficult to find bandicoot and tree possum for meat. Tinned fish, tinned meat, rice, and flour from the local trade store have become important additions to the villagers’ diet. Subsistence gardening still forms by far the largest part of the village food economy. However, little is actually known about the structure, scope, or exact extent of that part of the village economy. It is probably true that most families are 80-90% reliant on the food, vegetables, and protein they produce themselves. But it is difficult to give any monetary value to the subsistence sector of the economy. In-depth study of hunting, fishing, and gardening is needed to determine how vulnerable rural communities are during times of want or need. Many families today rely on support from family members working in towns or urban workplaces.4 5 However, this is not true of everyone. Some families do not have family in town they can call upon for support.6

The notion that Wautogig people live in a world of plenty is not true. There are often times when a family will have a good garden harvest of yams, Singapore taro, bananas, or other vegetables. But because storage is non-existent, the perishable food must be used up quickly, and the people return to a state of want. Under these circumstances, reciprocity becomes important. The more you give away when you have plenty, the more you will receive when you are in need. As you give so you receive.

Coffee was the first real income earner for the village. Unfortunately, deadly black ants entered the gardens and built large nests that made harvesting the coffee unsafe. Red-eyed birds ate the ants but when large trees from which the red eye birds had built their nests were cut down, the birds went away and coffee “went bush”. The coffee trees have become overgrown and a large area of land remains idle now. It would require determined effort to cut and prune the trees to grow coffee again for harvesting. At the moment, coffee is producing negative income to the village. Meanwhile cash crops like cocoa, coffee, copra, vanilla, and spices like chilies, cardamoms, and peppers are becoming increasingly important.7

Cocoa has always been an important source of income for families or individuals. Those who are lucky to own cocoa down on the narrow coastal strip earn an income of about K20-50 per fortnight8 But cocoa does not do well up in the mountains of Wautogig. At best, a family might earn K5 per week or two at good harvest times. Cocoa is an old tree crop, first introduced by Sir Pita Simogun 50 years ago.9 The Wautogig people own a lot of coconuts down the coast. These coconuts have the potential to earn at least K10,000 per year for the villagers. Coconuts are an amazing tree of life from which many other industries can emerge. But because of internal squabbles, the harvesting of these coconuts has proved very difficult.10

Most recently vanilla has emerged as an important cash crop. PNG and Sepik in particular produce two types of vanilla: the Tahitian (large leaf) and the Planifolia (small leaf). Vanilla was selling for as much as K200-300 per kilogram. This was the type of money the people were looking for. Two or three farmers were making windfall profits. By the time the people had realised the value of vanilla and started planting vanilla in a frenzy, the prices collapsed. The price fell from an all-time high of K200-300 per kilogram to as low as K10. This fall was greatly upsetting and as usual, they abandoned the crop. Wautogig people, including all village farmers, are now back to no cash economy.11

So, for all intents and purposes, the people of Wautogig are now without any source of revenue or income. The women of Wautogig rarely go to Wewak and sell their coconuts, taro, yams, or vegetables, since this involves substantial effort. They have to carry their load down to the coast through a very windy, steep road for 3 km. They have to do this very early in the morning, at 4 or 5 am. Once they reach the coast they have to find a passenger motor vehicle and pay K6 per head plus 1.5 toea per piece of load, to get a ride to Wewak. All of this effort has greatly discouraged our would-be market goers. FLAG – ADD SOMETHING ABOUT THE ONGOING/CURRENT STATE OF THE ROAD

It is conceivable that our people could market their products down on the coast. In the past, they created markets near the school at Banak, or along the roadside, or near the clinic. But the local response has been quite negative. Hostile and sometimes drunk young men have disrupted the markets. Women have been threatened and intimidated and harassed, with the result that they do not want to go to the markets at all.12

Because of the rugged nature of Wautogig’s terrain, timber is not harvested commercially. Alluvial gold is found in our rivers, but it is not mined.


1 Julius Yehaipim interprets this reference to nigirakʷ, as meaning that land must be allowed to grow back before it can be replanted. Listen.

2 Julius Yehaipim explains that fences are no longer made because there aren't troublesome pigs going around like there were before. Listen.

3 Tony Nindim talks about how food used to grow in greater abundance in the past.

4 Those present affirm this statement. They explain why financial support from town relatives is necessary and explain how it works. Listen.

5 Tony Nindim explains that the villagers can afford to take care of small expenses, but the big things like funerals and school fees take money that their wage-earning town relatives provide. The problem is that the crops they work, like cacao, sell for too low a price. Listen.

6 Julius Yehaipim explains that the Wautogigem are self-reliant: they will not go hungry. By the time they are harvesting one garden they will already be preparing a new one. Listen.

7 This coffee plantation was at Urumi. It was eventually replanted with other cash crops. Listen.

8 Now even on the coast the cocoa has been ravaged by an insect called the “pod borer”. Listen.


10 The discontinuation of copra farming follows a different trajectory from cocoa. The coconuts still grow but Wautogigem don't have that many, and the buyers have left so there is no more market for them. Listen.

11 Vanilla was a new cash crop at the time of writing that is still being planted until now. But what Narokobi describes, investing in a crop that is getting high prices until the market shifts and prices fall, has been a common experience for the Wautogigem.

12 Tony Nindim says the real obstacle to women selling garden produce is transport. Listen.

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