Essays on the Marshallese Past

Traditional Material Culture and Skills:
Knowledge of the Past for the Future

For many years the traditional skills and technologies of the people of S.E.Asia and the Pacific were perceived by governments, media and outside experts to be outdated and inferior to those of the west, and therefore not worth documenting let alone promoting. Such documentation, where it happened, was the realm of museums and anthropology departments of universities. Economic progress meant modernisation and bidding farewell to the old traditional ways. Traditional skills had no place in the wonderful world of tomorrow. This perception is still very wide spread among government officials, the public opinion creators of the media and, chiefly, among economists and developers. Gradually, however, some changes in attitude become visible.

The importance of traditional medicine and plant knowledge, for example, is increasingly recognised by the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry of the western world. In both cases it was the economic aspect, the time savings, which alerted the industry to its potential. Today it has become a common standard of knowledge acquisition.

While this realisation may have occurred in the research laboratories and board rooms of some companies, it is not common among the middle-level government staff and most economists. In those circles, and especially in the developing world a notion still prevails which sees all that is traditional as either useless or intrinsically bad.

As this attitude is held by many governments and is commonly fostered by international aid donors, a funding base for much needed documentation of traditional skills and technology has not been forthcoming. This continues at a time when cultural change in the world is happening faster than ever before, and when a great amount of knowledge is about to be lost with the old people trained before World War II dying.

In many parts of the Pacific area and S.E. Asia there is still an abundance of traditional knowledge which has been handed down from generation to generation. These skills and techniques have, over time, been adapted and fine-tuned to perfection to maximise the benefits within the constraints given by the traditional technology available and the environment the people live in.

In the communities of these countries western technologies and consumer goods are desirable as they seem to be preferred tools and objects of enjoyment of the economically privileged Western expatriates and of the economically privileged locals alike. Such display of western goods, reinforced by the western media in form of videos, advertising and the like, has created an urge for all that is modern and western. The post-World War II period of affluence and self determination has created a perception that any western development, any western goods are intrinsically superior. By implication then, all traditional is no longer useful, impeding the individuals "progress" and therefore negative. This condemnation of the traditional is firmly burned into the minds of the people and constantly reinforced.

In the local perception an outboard motor boat must be better than a sailing canoe because the latter is "outdated." If one looks at the hard economic facts, however, this is a misconception. An economic comparison of the costs for the acquisition, maintenance and operation of traditional Marshallese sailing outrigger canoes with the costs for motor boats of comparable size has shown that the canoe is substantially cheaper¼between three and four times¼and thus more likely to return a profit.

Likewise, rice has replaced the traditional staples of breadfruit, taro, yams, and Pandanus in most diets in Micronesia, and in fact throughout the Pacific. The reasons for this are simple: while the other food plants are seasonal, imported rice is not; it is easier and quicker to prepare; and further, rice is a modern, western (eastern) food and thus ideologically preferable. The Colonial powers' increased push towards a coconut monoculture at the end of the last and the beginning of this century has resulted in a reduction of traditional subsistence food production. The wave of imported food items after World War II, and the ease with which such items could be procured has rung the death knell for traditional selfreliant subsistence production. Modern development concepts largely push the production of cash crops for export, and the resultant purchase of food with the income. Estimates have shown that the average Marshallese family in the non-urban ("outer") islands eats three bags of rice a week, at a cost of $8.00 or more per bag. The same family could save US$100 per month if rice were substituted by local food items while they are in season. The projectable annual savings amount to some US$600-700. If preserved fermented food is prepared and stored(such as fermented breadfruit¼Bwiro) then the savings could easily reach the US$1000.00 mark. At the current market price of copra this is equivalent of 10,000 lbs of copra. Even if we use the current subsidised Marshall Islands government price of ¢25 per pound, this is equivalent of 4000 pounds of copra. Quite a saving, which, moreover is not subject to tax or customary presentation of the chief's shares

These examples of canoes and local food production use extant technology and skills, skills which are in the process of dying out. Even after the skills have been lost, there is sometimes a way to retrieve some of them: archaeological research on Aneityum, Vanuatu, has shown that taro irrigation was practised about 1000 years ago. Due to a decrease in population this intensive way of horticulture was not maintained and made way for the normal non-irrigated taro field with a lesser yield. Over time the knowledge of taro-irrigation had faded and became lost. In modern time, however, population density had increased again, and an intensified system of taro planting was needed. As a result of archaeological investigations, taro irrigation was revived using the traditional field systems discovered by archaeologists.

Of course, not all traditional skills are useful and economically sound today. A careful selection needs to be made. Only very rarely does someone conduct a cost-benefit analysis. Traditional technologies are commonly disregarded from the start. The incentive to the few cost-benefit analyses which have been conducted usually comes from non-economists, such anthropologists or material culture specialists teaming up with economists. In many cases, especially when time is not a major economic factor to be considered, traditional technologies are not only appropriate for the circumstances, but also economically sound: expenditure during acquisition is lower, maintenance less expensive and the life span of the investment is longer.

In all developing countries the emphasis is on the increase of income to improve the standards of living among the population. However, in some contexts it turns out that an increase in income is often not possible, or only in small, too small increments. Yet, in the Pacific region only rarely the other side of the economic equation is considered, namely that a reduction in expenditure for some items frees monies which can be spent elsewhere, and hence likewise improves the standard of living.

Import substitution needs to be promoted more extensively, and in this area especially the utilisation of traditional skills and technologies. Cultural research and documentation, as conducted by the Alele and the R.M.I. Historic Preservation Office have a meaning in the modern world, and can be of considerable benefit for the economic well-being of the people. Curtailing the funding for these areas means, in the long run, that a country squanders some of its resources, and moreover, resources which are generally unrenewable once forgotten. By the same token, these resources can be developed, maintained and even fostered of the political will is there.

Traditional skills and knowledge form a finite resource left behind by our forebears. It is our responsibility to manage this resource in a wise, and thoughtful manner. These skills have enormous economic potential. It is the choice of those allocating funding, whether these resources shall disappear, or whether they shall survive and shall be utilised in the service of the country.

Let us foster these skills, and let us not squander these resources lighthandedly at the expense of our childrenØs generation.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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