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Big men in PNG: beyond the rational market


“IF THEY SEE ME planting too much cocoa, they’ll do things to my land and my family, and they won’t bear fruit; really bad things; puripuri and other witchcraft.”

This was how Peter explained to me why he had only cultivated half of the three-hectare block the PNG government had given him after he was evacuated from his home during a volcanic eruption eight years earlier.

He was also providing a response to an accusation I had often heard levelled at his fellow villagers by government officials and development workers in the course of my anthropological field research: that the people were lazy or stupid because, like Peter, none had planted the whole of their blocks of land.

Such an avoidance of profit maximisation might have appeared economically irrational. But from the perspective of those villagers, putting in extra work just to make oneself a target for the jealousy of one’s neighbours would be highly irrational behaviour.

Critics of untrammelled free markets have long attacked the assumption that markets are rational, driven by rational self-interested economic actors. Yet, field research clearly shows that the actions of individuals vary massively depending on social context.

Living in PNG, one is struck by the resources expended on gigantic ceremonial gift exchanges. The “big men” running such systems did not call in debts to maximise the number of pigs or modern wealth items such as money or trucks in their possession. But academics continued to assume that the aim was to profit over the long term, with the discrepancy between this assumption and the big men’s actual activities being explained as the result of “selective amnesia”.

It was only when the assumption of economic rationality was dropped that it was possible to understand the big men in their own terms. Their aim was to increase the number of those dependent upon them, and so, like a Mafia godfather, their aim was to create debts that would never be repaid.

Like Mafiosi, their actions were neither the result of what one economist described as “an inferior mentality”, or a lack of rationality. They were entirely rational within a context in which building up an army of followers was at times a more pressing demand than stockpiling wealth objects.

Source: Extract from ‘Magic and the myth of the rational market’, Financial Times, UK (registration required for access).  Keir Martin is a lecturer in social anthropology at Manchester University


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Arthur Williams

In the early 1970s I was asked by a local leader if I knew the bit in the Bible about the ‘bastard cannot inherit’. I eventually found the Old Testament reference to Ishmael being Abraham’s servant girl’s child and she and the lad were sent in to exile when Sarah Abe’s wife dropped their own child.

Anyway Joseph asked me to type it for him on a piece of paper. It appeared he was in dispute with a neighbour over a block of land I thought both wanted to develop.

Fifteen years later he and I were walking in the bush towards his village when he stopped, “Here it is Arthur!” he exclaimed.

I saw nothing. We were in virgin jungle. Then he opened his basket and showed me the now fading piece of paper. “This was the land I told you about.” He said it like it was only a few months since that 1972 conversation.

I was surprised that not a single axe had been laid to any tree and our track was merely a body width – just. We walked for perhaps ten minutes when he stopped again and told me, “Here is where the block ends.”

Not a sign of any activity anywhere along the muddy trail we had walked. But he had stopped Mr X from doing anything with the block.

In Metekavil village I was asked by the traditional landowners to help them recover the land that their grandfathers had sold to the Germans for a coconut plantation.

I asked the then owners, the Catholic Mission if it would be possible to buy back the land. It was and so my bosboi and village leaders started a passbook account for which I was asked to become one of three signatories to avoid any wrong transactions.

Most of the able-bodied villagers worked for me and so, fortnightly, they would contribute a small part of their wages for this buy-back project.

Things went well for over a year until one Sunday after lotu we sat down for the usual good meal after which it was time to yarn. However that day we discussed a serious matter.

One of the traditional leaders it now appeared was not consulted before workers started contributing to the account. Therefore he would not allow it to continue; even though it would have meant his clan eventually becoming part of the locally owned plantation.

Within a few weeks all the several thousand cash had been withdrawn and everyone had been repaid his contribution.

In Tari pre-oil, my boss, the current MP got the old Pasuwe Ltd store on behalf of the people of Koroba-Kopiago electorate.

The other two stores on either side of our block were owned by Matiabe Yuwi (ex-MP), the busiest, and Harulai Mai (ex-MP), the smallest. Normally supporters of each politician would never consider being seen entering one of the opposing politician’s shops; even if their own had run out of stock.

My MP-picked staff and his supporters were always asking me, “When will Aruru buy a haiwei?” They meant an articulated truck. I managed the store and knew it would be some years before it could generate enough profit to even consider buying such a huge asset.

But one day the valley came alive as an articulated truck entered the valley from Ambua mountain road. Amazingly it was Harulai’s. Soon it had parked end-on to his tiny bulk store and very soon cargo was being emptied from the 20+ tonner into the small store buildings so that there was hardly room to be served even in the retail area.

My people and loyal customers were disgusted at being so clearly second class. I lived on our block and daily saw the truck start up, circle the airport and return to park at its store front.

A few months later I returned to New Ireland, so I never knew if it ever left the valley after that first trip.

Eventually the jealousy had turned to a quiet ridicule of Harulai and His Artic till, late one Saturday night, I heard some drunks from the Tari Club standing on the road near the haiwei and shouting about the white elephant of prestige it had become.

Next day I asked my security what they had been saying and was told they had been laughing and swearing about the truck and its idleness. Sadly it would soon be returned to the truck seller somewhere down the Iambakey Highway.

Finally I read with interest the recent million kina pig compensation paid to an aggrieved tribe or clan but have always wondered why a single on the hoof pig is considered to be so much.

It was K500 in my Southern Highlands days but you could still go to Tari market and buy a quarter for around K10 – K15 plus similar amounts for the belly and mid-sections. So that in all a dead pig could be bought in the market for perhaps K80 – K100.

Yet in bride price or other ceremonies it was then valued at K500 and now K1,000.

I’ve had my own comeuppances too but for now they must remain untold.

One for all and all for me!

Arthur Williams
Lavongai & Cardiff

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