Economics of Abelam tribe of Papua New Guinea Essay


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The Abelam people are found mainly in East Sepik; a province in Papua New Guinea. They inhabit Sepik’s grassy plains northwards of middle Sepik River as well as the Prince Alexander foothills. They are also known by other names such as the Abulas, the Ambulas, the Ambelam or the Ambela. Depending on where they inhabit, they are also divided into sub groups such as Kamukundi, Manjekundi or Shamukundi (Ember & Ember, 2004). Their economic activities are to a very large extent influenced by their cultural beliefs and practices. Yam is the staple food of the Abelam people though they also cultivate other food crops. The size of the yam has been and continues to be seen an indicator of the stature of men in the community and the men who produce the longest yams earn the prestigious stature of ‘big man’ (Hamson, 2004).


Commercial and subsistence activities

There are some minor differences in the economic activities of the Abelam people due to a difference in the ecological nature of the regions which they inhabit. The foot hills are very fertile while in the grassy plains, the vegetation is rather scarce. Generally, The Abelam people are primarily horticulturalists and their staple food is mainly sweet potatoes, yams as well as taro which they cultivate in their farmlands. Their land is very fertile and this combined with their excellent gardening skills, enables them to earn a decent living from the yields of yam and taro which they use mostly for subsistence but can also be cultivated for commercial activities (“Abelam Economy”).

In the plains of Sepik, the yields from the farmlands are not as much as in the foothills due to the ecological nature of the area. Other widely cultivated foodstuffs include Sago palms, which are cultivated seasonally, as well as vegetables and fruits of different varieties such as breadfruit, coconuts and bananas. Each community can be said to be food secure since they are able to meet their subsistence needs without involving others communities (Ember & Ember, 2004).

            The Abelam people are skilled cultivators and follow the slash-and-burn technology of cultivation which allows the farmland to rest for a few years before resuming cultivation. There is a significant reduction of the fallow period as it used to be as long as twenty years. The main cash crops of the Abelam people are coffee and cocoa and the cultivation of these two crops is the main reason behind the reduced fallow periods (“Abelam economy”). Vanilla has also come up as a very important cash crop cultivated by the young men (Hamson, 2004).

            Other economic undertakings of the Abelam people include pig rearing as well as hunting which is done mainly by the foot dwelling Abelams. Hunting involves netting, shooting or spearing both large and small game. The pigs are reared for exchange only; a kind of barter trade with the neighboring communities (Ember & Ember, 2004). Net bags and artistic carvings were also important trading goods especially for Abelams in the south who produced them for trade with the north (“Abelam economy”).


Subsistence activities

The economy of the Abelam people has been largely influenced by elaborate cultural practices. The growth of yams, for instance, is a very important ceremonial and cultural activity. There are different varieties of yams; those which are cultivated for subsistence and the ritual yams which are cultivated for ceremonial and trading purposes. The growth of ceremonial yams is the preserve of the men who compete to see who will produce the biggest yams, typically measuring around two meters or more in length. The size and quality of the yams produced will determine the status and prestige as well as power which will be accorded to the man responsible for the production. It is thus a competition among the men to see who produces the best yams. The best of these ceremonial yams are later used in a competitive barter trade with the neighboring communities (Ember & Ember, 2004).

The ritual of growing yams is quite complex and is enshrined in several taboos during the planting season. In fact, all the male initiation practices can be linked to it while the women are considered to have adverse effects on the yam growing process. As such, men are discouraged from having sexual intercourse during the planting season which is claimed to rob them off their strength and serve as a distraction from more important activities. The result of this taboo is seasonal births in the area. The production of long yams is considered symbolic to procreating a child but is the preserve of men only. The long yams cannot be eaten by their owners and are instead used for trading with the neighboring communities (“Abelam Economy”).

While long yams are being exchanged, it is a must for the pigs to be contributed as well. The pigs are reared by the women and just like the long yams; they are for exchange only and cannot be eaten by those who rear them. The exchange process takes place during the yam festivals (“Abelam economy”).

Gender roles in economics

The male and female categories are constructed in such a manner as to reflect the socio-cultural practices of the Abelam people. The division of labor through sex is quite distinct. From a very early age, the boys and girls are socialized into gender specific behaviors. As soon as they are able to, the girls are supposed to assist their mothers in the preparation of food and other household chores. The very boys mainly engage in play for lack of tasks to do but as they grow older, they will hunt for small game in the company of other males. Occasionally, the small boys may assist in the small household chores such as scraping of coconuts but for the most part, this is a female responsibility. The women fetch water and collect firewood, they do the cooking, the cleaning as well as taking care of the children (Ember & Ember, 2004). The making of net bags is a female activity and they sew and weave them for use as trading goods. The net bag is the most important accessory for both sexes and its production is known and is done by all the women (‘Abelam economy”).

            In the subsistence activities, the division of labor is also apparent. The men do the clearing of the fields including the felling of trees if it is a new land to prepare for the planting season. The fencing of the land is done by both sexes. The men will plant all the yam varieties and later, the women will cultivate taro in between the yams. Weeding is an exclusive female activity and is done several times, approximately six times, before the harvest. The men set up the sticks to support the yam vines and they are the ones who will later harvest the tubers. The women then clean the dirt as well as the excess roots of the tuber. On the other hand, the rearing of the pigs is a woman only affair and they put in much labor towards this task. In previous times, the pigs were used to get wealth such as shell rings from the neighboring Arapesh (“Abelam Economy”).

The process of trade in the early times was also influenced by the gender roles. Mostly, it is the men who went for the trading expeditions, sometimes going as far as the North coast. Other than trading for shell rings, they exchanged their trade items for yellow paint as well as magical substances. Some of their trade items such as the carvings and the bags were given as gifts to those who helped them along the way, offering food and shelter.

Socio- economic aspects

Unlike most African societies where women are not entitled to property ownership, both the Abelam men and women are entitled to inheritance of gender- specific property and have more or less equal rights in ownership and control of land. They both exercise an equal control over their produce and as such, both are able to contribute more or less equally to economic activities (Ember & Ember, 2004)). However, it is evident that it is the men who control most of the economic activities, since they are the ones who go out for trading expeditions and engaging in the elaborate exchange process.

Land tenure system

The ownership of land is through clan systems and lineages and this implies that the land is cultivated communally. The plots are differentiated using some perennial plants which determine which determine which lineage owns which part of land. If someone clears a parcel of land for use or plants trees in it and no objection is raised, he is automatically considered to be the owner (“Abelam history”).

Culture as prestigious item of trade

Other than the traditional items which were used for trade by the Abelam people, they also exported their culture to the neighboring communities, mainly the Arapesh who were the key trade partners of the Abelam people. They exported their cultural rituals in exchange for wealth items such as shell rings. The sales of the rituals were at times outright, though the Abelam could also ‘lease’ their rituals such that they would receive payment each rime the ritual was performed. The leasing involved negotiations over a long period of time and was performed by the village leaders. Being the entrepreneurs that they were, the Abelam people were careful to withhold key information about their rituals and only gave partial information to the Arapesh which not only served to distinguish them from the Arapesh (Harrison, 2006). The Arapesh are the most esteemed of the Abelam’s trade partners and were the sole providers of shell rings and ornaments used for bridal payment. Other trading groups were the Boiken and Sawos though to a small extent (“Abelam- history”).

Overall, the indigenous exchange process has greatly influenced the contemporary economy of the Abelam people such that even with the advent of modernization, some of their economic practices can be seen to reflect their values learnt from their indigenous customs and practices (Journal of Small Business).


The Abelam of Papua New Guinea can be termed as ambitious entrepreneurs and their current economy is still influenced to some extent by the traditional practices. In deed, it is this spirit of entrepreneurship which gives rise to leadership. The drive in the local men to be leaders has made them become very competitive especially in yam production so as to gain the prestigious big man title. This is very important for economic advancement within the community (Langness, 1999). This drive for prestige is also seen in the development of trade stores which are supposed to portray stature (Journal of business) The yam festival is still considered very important to the community and is still observed. However, many of the taboos associated with it such as abstinence from sex and meat have been relaxed. As a result, the control on births has relaxed leading to an expansion of the Abelam population which places further demands on their economy (Ember & Ember, 2004).

The effect of the modern economy on the cultural beliefs and practices is that it is giving rise to a new category of ‘big men’ who do not have to follow the traditional initiation rites. Over the last decade, Vanilla has come up as a leading cash crop. As such, there is a shift between generations on the measure of status attainment among the men. The old men are still involved in the growing of long yams but the younger ones are now growing vanilla to earn a living for their families (Hamson, 2004).

There has also been an introduction of wage labor which has opened up opportunities especially for women to earn a living since the men controlled most of the economic activities in earlier time. The division of labor based on gender roles is also becoming less apparent (Ember & Ember, 2004).

Migration and circulation of people is increasingly becoming a new way of life for the Abelam people and an important part of their socio- economic development. From the 1950s, there has been a steady influx of the Abelam people from their rural area of Wosera to the West New Britain towns as well as the resettlement schemes sponsored by the government. This demographic change is mostly supported by the indeginous economic relations who were largely capitalist. Migration is viewed as a strategy for diversification and increment of incomes (Curry & Koczberski 1998).

            One of the significant developments of the Abelam economy is the village trade stores which are used for storage and sale of goods which are not readily available such as the village economy. They are mostly seasonal as they operate when it is peak season for the production of cash crops during which a lot of money is in circulation in the economy. While they are indicative of an emerging rural capitalism, most of them are based on the indigenous economic relations of gift exchange and as such are not profit oriented. The profit margins are actually quite small and the proprietors still depend on food production for subsistence. Not many of the Abelams have established trade stores and most of them are investments from groups that are drawn extensively from the kinship network so as to obtain capital and labor. Thus, most of them are family undertakings and symbolize modernity (Journal of small business).

As money replaces the barter trade system and the traditional economic practices die out, the villagers are increasingly performing their own trades; exporting the cash crops and cultivating fruits and vegetables which they then sell by the roadside in the local area or in the town markets (Journal of small business). The Abelam Art has also become a major attraction and a likely source of revenue. Like agriculture, it is also rooted in the cultural practices and beliefs. Some of the art was also used in the decoration of yams (Kleiner & Mamiya, 2008).


            Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy of Papua New Guinea, both in terms of food crops and cash crops. The main cash crops are coffee and cocoa as well as vanilla while a variety of staple foods are cultivated for subsistence. Interestingly, the agricultural sector has failed to develop in the post colonial era. The incomes gotten from farming are reducing and forcing many people to look for alternative means of earning a livelihood such as informal employment. To improve the economy of Papua New Guinea, it is therefore important to focus on improving the village economy which is the chief contributor to agriculture (Connell, 1997).

The Abelam people are by and large self sufficient; capable of adequately meeting their subsistence needs and at the same time, obtain items that they lack through an elaborate exchange process. These items are used for accumulation of wealth which can be used in different social processes. The shell rings, for instance, are used as bridal payment. The cultural practices of the Abelams have greatly influenced their modern economy and need to be taken into account in any economic development policy. Thus as the journal of small business points out, it is necessary to establish a business enterprise that addresses the non- market objectives in order to enhance development in the village economy.


Abelam Economy. World Culture Encyclopedia. Retrieved 05 Feb 2009


Abelam History and cultural relations. World culture encyclopedia. Retrieved 05 Feb 2009


Ember, C.R & Ember, M. (2004) Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Men and Women in the World’s Cultures Michigan: Springer

Connell, J. (1997) Papua New Guinea: The struggle for development. London: Routledge publishers

Curry, G. & Koczberski, G. (1999) The Risks and Uncertainties of migration: an exploration of recent trends amongst the Wosera Abelam of Papua New Guinea Oceania Vol. 7

Hamson, M. (Feb 10, 2004) Big men and long yams: The measure of Man among the Abelam of Papua New Guinea (lecture) Butterfield and Butterfield, San Francisco

Harrison, S (2006). Fracturing Resemblances: Identity and Mimetic Conflict in Melanesia and the West Oxford: Berghahn Books

Journal of Small Business & entrepreneurship Vol 18 No. 2 (spring 2005): Canadian Council for Small Business & Entrepreneurship.

Kleiner, F. & Mamiya (2008) Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A global history. Kentucky:

     Cengage learning EMEA

Langness, L. L (1999) Men and ‘Woman” in New Guinea Carlifornia: Chandler & Sharp

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