Academic journal article Oceania

Where to Next?: Garden Site Selection in the Papua New Guinea Highlands

Academic journal article Oceania

Where to Next?: Garden Site Selection in the Papua New Guinea Highlands

Article excerpt

Before clearing and burning natural vegetation to establish a new garden in any location, people who practise swidden farming, with its periodic moving of gardens from one location to another, have to decide where they are next going to cultivate (Conklin 1961:313; Ellen 1982:46-47). The Wola of the Papua New Guinea highlands may take several factors into consideration when selecting new sites for cultivation. What is the relative significance of these various factors in reaching decisions? Several criteria influence them when choosing a new site to clear and cultivate, including tenure rights, aspect, convenience, physical features, and so on. They consider these more-or-less simultaneously in judging sites and none necessarily has precedence over others, although sometimes one weighs more heavily than it does on other occasions. This is true even for the factors of land tenure and soil fertility, both of which might otherwise be assumed to have some priority. The flexibility of Wola tenure arrangements, and the comparatively ready availability of cultivable land in their region, mean that land tenure considerations are not necessarily foremost in choosing a garden site (Sillitoe, in press). Soil fertility is difficult to assess, ungardened soils changing and sometimes improving with use according to the Wola, inspection of it telling them little about possible performance of a new garden site under cultivation and it not necessarily featuring prominently in their choice of locations (Sillitoe 1996). Nonetheless, soil conditions may enter indirectly into people's calculations, because some of the physical geographical factors discussed here, that influence their choice of site - like slope, terrain and so on - also affect soil formation processes. Other factors investigated here which may be just as influential in the choices families make include: distance from homestead to gardens, the manner in which cultivations are enclosed, the topography of locations (aspect, slope, terrain, and altitude), their natural vegetation before clearance, and social considerations.(1) The objective is to investigate how these various factors seem to inform Wola decisions about where to locate gardens, as issues of experiential knowledge in action. The selection of swidden sites involves knowledge as practice, not as discourse, which has intriguing methodological implications for the status and interpretation of data. If asked "why have you cultivated a garden here?", a Wola farmer is likely to respond with an incomprehensible look, and a comment perhaps to the effect that it is a good place. If quizzed further about why it is a good place, he may mention some of the factors discussed here, commenting on aspect, distance to homestead or whatever, but he is unlikely previously to have weighed these up in a discoursive manner. Not verbally rationalizing his decision, he acts practically in response to perceived situational factors. No single factor may dominate in decision making because farmers assess all of them simultaneously in the gardening act. Each selection of a garden site is akin to a performance, unique to that place and time. This paper responds to the call for more precise ethnography of such performance skills, to combat the danger of misplaced abstraction, originating in the ethnocentric Western dichotomy between episteme and techne as distinct forms of knowledge (Richards 1993; Sillitoe 1996).

A performative understanding of decision making provides a standpoint from which to criticize materialistic assumptions about productive arrangements in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, offering an opportunity to contribute further to my long term enquiries into these issues (Sillitoe 1985; Modjeska 1982). It is important to this argument that there is neither an absolute shortage of cultivable land in the Wola region, nor do the preferences that inform people's choice of garden site result in culturally determined land shortages. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.