Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Island Economy: Volcanic Trade

Last week I had the privilege of attending a reception hosted by the Federated States of Micronesia to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.  Volunteers have served on the tiny Pacific Islands that comprise Micronesia for forty-four of those years.  The event was attended by about a hundred or so aging former volunteers who eager for news of their adopted families and old haunts.  Most had been school teachers and a few were involved in the health care field.

It was an economic disaster that took me to Micronesia as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  I was assigned to a tiny dot of real estate called Fias Island  -  about one and one-quarter square miles of coconut palms, pandamus and banyan trees.  Unlike most Pacific islands Fias has no lagoon.  It sits on the very tippy top of a long dormant volcano.  Island folklore describes strange gases emanating from the island center  -  a location long considered “taboo” for residents.

The wisdom of locating on such a precarious place might seem questionable.  Nonetheless, archeological studies indicate the island has been populated continuously since at least 400 AD.  The attraction had been the island’s rich soil, which was laced with phosphate by volcanic activity.  Fias became known as the garden spot of Micronesia and its residents frequently filled large canoes with overflowing baskets of sweet potatoes, breadfruit, coconuts and papaya for friends and relatives on other islands.

Agricultural production was more than sufficient to support a strong artisan population.  Fias produced wooden fishing tackle boxes, coconut fiber twine, weaving looms and accessories, and woven tapestries known as lavalavas that serve as clothing or ceremonial purposes.  Fais was also a popular destination for getting a full body tattoo.  In earlier times the island’s three villages boasted several “houses” where men and women could receive adornment with designs inspired by dancing dolphins and flying fish. 

The life of plenty soon came to a screeching halt with the onset of World War II.  The Japanese had been assigned responsibility for the Micronesia region after the conclusion of the previous world war.  Apparently it made sense at the time to remove the phosphate-rich soil to Japan to support that country’s war effort rather than leaving it to the benefit of scantily clad islanders.  Japanese military forces used large, motor-driven brushes to whisk away Fais’ rich soil.  The last shipment of soil went to the bottom of the Pacific after U.S. bombers attacked the ship on its way back to Osaka.

After that Fais islanders were left to garden in small plots at the island’s periphery, coaxing a few potatoes and a bit of papaya from the weak soil.  Most put their time into “cutting copra” for pressing into the coconut oil that ends up in pet food or cosmetics.  Cash receipts from copra sales were used to buy bags of rice from government trade ships carrying the copra buyers and cooperative store.  If the price of copra was down on the world markets or the trade ship schedule got delayed, islanders were sent foraging out into the thick tropical vegetation for something edible.

My language tutor taught me a very important economic term while I lived in Fias and pondered the implications of world policy decisions on who gets to eat and who does not.  As all words in the unwritten Fias language, the verb thō-ră-vee is pronounced phonetically. It means to “grasp” something as in opportunistically grabbing anything that goes by whether it is an idea spoken in the casual repartee of the “island men’s house” or flotsam on the ocean current.  Either has value  -  real economic value either as intellectual property or a natural resource. 

While I bemoaned the recent turn of misfortune for my island friends, I also realized that they had survived on that tiny bit of land for many centuries, probably knowing both feast and famine.  It occurred to me that a culture with a word like “thoravee” is a bunch with economic resilience.  My visit to the FSM reception confirmed that view.

Next post will be about how Fias volcano trade has turned to other exports.

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