Masters of Tradition: Consequences of Customary Land Tenure in Longana, Vanuatu

Masters of Tradition: Consequences of Customary Land Tenure in Longana, Vanuatu

Masters of Tradition: Consequences of Customary Land Tenure in Longana, Vanuatu

Masters of Tradition: Consequences of Customary Land Tenure in Longana, Vanuatu


Land, copra, and custom were the dominant themes in the colonial history of the New Hebrides; they remain crucial concerns as the Republic of Vanuatu, the name adopted at independence in 1980, is experiencing the transformation of its peasant society from small copra producers to participants in regional and world market economies.

Based on extensive fieldwork, this book gives a detailed account of how the 'chain of copra' works -- from the commodity markets of Europe to the native producers and back again. Through the use of well-constructed examples, Rodman shows how small producers respond to changes in world prices, which in turn are related to the emergence of economic differentials within Longana.

The islanders, usually considered to be powerless in their dealings with the outside world, do, however, see themselves as retaining, and in fact do retain, a measure of control over their economic activities in production and marketing, as is demonstrated by Rodman.

The author describes how the flexibility of customary land tenure allows the system of land holding to change while appearing to remain the same. Out of older kinds of inequality are emerging new kinds of inequality in cash income and in control of land -- land is being concentrated in a few hands while the subsequent social differentiation among the peasant copra producers is being obscured.

The way in which the penetration of capitalism has taken place in Vanuatu makes possible the persistence of an illusion that rich peasants are the same as traditional men of rank and influence. While this is certainly an illusion, it is also a real way of coping with change and slowing the impact of capitalism in a local economy with a different kind of logic.


With independence on 30 July 1980, the archipelago Captain Cook first called the New Hebrides became the Republic of Vanuatu. The country's new official name is really an old one, for Vanuatu represents the land which existed from time immemorial to the present and into the future (Taurokoto 1980:11). The land remains: an illusion of immutability in an island world transformed since Quiros' first sighting in 1606.

European discovery of Vanuatu initiated changes laden with consequences for indigenous views of land as a symbol and as a resource. In this chapter, I suggest that the history of changing linkages between Vanuatu and the joint colonial powers of Britain and France created conditions whose consequences are expressed in several ways. First, Vanuatu's colonial past has molded the islanders' concerns over alienated and customary land discussed in Chapters 3 and 4. Second, economic history of European involvement in the islands has shaped the organization of copra production and marketing analyzed in Chapters 5 and 6. Third, the history of interactions between Europeans and the people of Vanuatu suggests that islanders have had both a self-image and a reputation as active bargainers in dealings with outsiders. Despite economic dependency and political containment, the Vanuatu people were not meek recipients of the dictates of colonial powers, nor are they passive price- takers in a global market-place. This theme of the partly valid, partly illusory sense of independence, or power over their world, runs throughout . . .

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