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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

The economic exploitation of land

The economic exploitation of land

Rarotonga is a volcanic island about twenty-six square miles in area; its high mountainous core being dissected into a series of valleys and ridges which radiate out across the coastal lowlands to the lagoon which encompasses the island. The three major soil types follow the pattern of physical configuration: 1 the relatively infertile coastal flats giving way to a narrow low-lying belt of very fertile soil lying between the coastal flats and the mountains and often extending up the valley floors for half a mile or more, while behind it lies the deeply dissected mountainous interior occupying two-thirds of the island's total area.

Corresponding to these three soil zones were three zones of plant life, but those of the coastal fringe and the mountainous interior supplied relatively few of the needs of the people, the bulk of the food and other subsistence requirements (apart from marine products) being obtained from the middle zone, the whole of which had been cropped at one time or another, and was covered entirely with either second growth or cultivations.2 It was in this zone that the dwellings of the people were situated.

1 For full details of soil types see Fox and Grange, Soils… 7–13. For sketch map of Rarotonga see page 14 ante.

2 Cheeseman, TLS 6:265–8. Details of the flora of the island are given by Cheeseman, TLS; Wilder, Flora of Rarotonga; Gill, Jottings… part III; Buzacott, Mission Life… 240; and Pitman to LMS 29.11.1827 SSL.

page 108

Most of the food supply was produced by agriculture, the principal crops being taro (colocasia esculenta), breadfruit, bananas, kumara (ipomea batatas), yams, arrowroot, kape (alocasia macrorhiza), coconuts and ti (cordyline terminalis). Kava (piper methysticum) was grown for use as a beverage.1 Fowls and pigs were domesticated and kept in considerable numbers,2 but pigs were eaten only on festive occasions. Rats and lizards were prevalent, but were not eaten in Rarotonga (though rats were a common item of diet on the neighbouring island of Mangaia). Hunting was restricted to the snaring of birds and wildfowl.

Fishing was carried out in the streams, in the lagoon, and in the open sea, and provided an important part of the diet. Eels were caught in the taro swamps and crabs were taken on the beaches at certain seasons. Fish weirs, made of coral boulders, were constructed in the lagoon. Watercress was gathered from the stream-beds and edible seaweeds were collected in the lagoon.

Other foods were gathered but not generally cultivated, the most important being plantains, chestnuts, roots and berries. In periods of famine after hurricanes or destructive wars, candlenuts, roots, pandanus drupes and even banana stalks were eaten. The main green foods consumed were taro leaves and the leaves of the poroporo shrub (solanum oleraceum).

1 Buck states that mataiapo particularly grew it just outside their homes, but there is no indication that it had the close link with status and ceremonial that obtained in Western Polynesia. - Arts and Crafts… 18–20.

2 Early mission accounts refer to a scarcity of pigs, and while this was in fact true for the Avarua and Arorangi districts at the time of arrival of the first missionaries, it was due to the recent defeat of those districts at the hands of Takitumu when their pigs were killed and their crops destroyed. Captain Chase of the ‘Falcon’, who visited the island in March 1824, reported that there were pigs in abundance - New Bedford Mercury 15.4.1825; and Pitman notes that there were large numbers of pigs in the Takitumu district. - Pitman, Journal 5.12.1827.

page 109

Breadfruit, taro, bananas, and plantains were the most important crops. The breadfruit was seasonal, producing but one crop annually, in summer, which was the season of plenty.1 Most of the other agricultural crops could be harvested throughout the year, and there was accordingly relatively little food preservation; the only recorded types being breadfruit paste stored in pits, chestnuts preserved in the same manner, and dry coconuts stacked in houses built for the purpose. Bananas were buried in the ground, but this was for the purpose of ripening the fruit rather than preserving it.2 Foods were stored against the time of breadfruit shortage (the winter months) and also as emergency supplies in the event of large numbers of visitors for occasions like weddings and funerals or in the event of hurricanes or drought.3

Raw materials for every need were, with the exception of a few obtained from the lagoon and sea, derived from the land. Most garments were made from the beaten inner bark of the paper mulberry (broussonetia papyrifera) and the breadfruit, while a coarser cloth was prepared from the bark of the banyan tree (ficus prolixa). The hibiscus (hibiscus tiliaceus) which grew in profusion in uncultivated areas, furnished cordage from its bark, platters from its leaves and rafters from its branches. Mats and other plaited-ware were produced from the leaves of the pandanus (some varieties of which were cultivated) and the coconut. While

1 The two seasons recognized were the Kuru (literally ‘breadfruit’ referring to the season of plenty) and Paroro (scarcity).

2 Bananas were (and still are) preserved in some of the Cook Islands. - Diary of Andrew Bloxam 86. No reference to this having been done on Rarotonga has been located.

3 ‘A man who has two or three pits of chestnuts, as many of mai or sour breadfruit paste, with a number of old cocoa-nuts, is well provided for against the season of scarcity.’ - Gill, Jottings… 196.

page 110 pandanus thatch was used for god-houses and the houses of chiefs, only coconut thatch was used by commoners.

Timber for house-building and the manufacture of canoes and other artifacts was obtained from cultivated trees such as the coconut and breadfruit, as well as from forest trees. A host of articles of lesser importance was obtained from the land - candlenuts for torches and dyes, barringtonia for fish poisons, pua (fagraea bertercana) for perfumes, vines for the making of fishtraps and a variety of products for medicinal purposes. None of these products were cultivated, supplies being collected from self-propagated trees. Owing to the random growth of such trees, a considerable area of land was necessary to ensure an adequate supply of all products.1

There being no trading on the island (or between this and any other island) there was no incentive for production beyond the quantities necessary for subsistence, for gifts and tribute, and for the entertaining of guests. The risk of hurricanes, to which most of the crops were vulnerable, made food preservation prudent, but known techniques of preservation were limited to the few products already mentioned, and nothing could be done to protect most of the crops from hurricane damage.

Land was not regarded as a capital good and there was no conception of the sale of land or its produce. Line ages with surplus land could nevertheless exploit it to their own advantage, in order to swell their ranks and prestige, by making land available to distant relatives and refugees whose subordinate status made them vulnerable to larger than usual contributions of tribute.

1 With one unimportant exception there are no gregarious trees native to Rarotonga. - Wilder, Flora… 5.

page 111

The Rarotongan people were aware of the different soil types and their potentialities for various crops. Taro was planted in the alluvial soils of the stream-beds and swampy depressions of the old lagoon bed. Most varieties were grown in swamps (both natural and artificial) and necessitated the use of a simple irrigation system of dams and water channels to enable the crop to be grown across the valley floor and not just in the stream-beds themselves.1

As Buck noted, a good deal of supervision was required to ensure that the various families, having terraces at various levels, got their fair share of water, especially in dry periods. Such a system required organization above the household level (for various households used a common source of water) and would probably have been the responsibility of the head of the major lineage.2

The rich soil and the warm moist climate made growth rapid and easy. Consequently there were not the refinements in agricultural technique which are often found in areas where the pressure of the external environment necessitates more careful husbandry. The only agricultural implements were the ironwood digging stick (ko), and the planting stick.3 Unlike the digging stick, which is of uniform thickness, the planting stick has a thick rounded end and was used to drive holes in the soft earth to plant taro. It was also known as the ‘ko’.

1 This technique of cultivation, which was so prevalent at the time of first European contact, is still practised today, though on a smaller scale.

2 Unfortunately no indigenous records illustrate this point, but Buck maintains that ‘… the chief who owned the land had command over the irrigation channel and the distribution of the water’. He quotes an example where Kainuku Ariki had cut off the supply of water to one of his ‘tenants’ owing to the latter's failure to provide certain tribute. - Arts and Crafts… 250. Presumably this action was taken by Kainuku as head of his own lineage and not as an ariki of Takitumu.

3 These are more fully described in Buck, Arts and Crafts… 248–9.

page 112

It was probably due to the limited range of implements and to the fact that the staple vegetable (taro) required very little clearing and a minimum of other cultivation that the bulk of the food supply was obtained from this source, as well as from breadfruit, bananas and plantains, which did not require cultivation at all. Garden crops were grown, but they merely supplemented the above-mentioned staples. Shifting cultivation was practised, but it only applied to the less important crops like kumara, arrowroot, yams and giant taro which were grown on the alluvial flats and the lower slopes of the hills. Swamp taro, bananas and the tree crops did not require the rotation of soil or crop.

Planting was carried out according to the phases of the moon, each night being clearly categorized as propitious or otherwise for growth of the young plant.1 The role of the priests in gardening lore, and the details of the system of gardening magic are no longer known.

Ridges and other natural features were used almost invariably to demarcate the hilly parts of one tapere from another. The flat coastal portion was usually marked by rows of chestnut or banyan trees.2 In some cases rock walls were constructed across the flat land to serve as tapere boundaries.3 Within the tapere the stream which ran down

1 This custom is still practised by some people on the island. While some nights were considered propitious for planting in general, others were considered appropriate for specific crops only.

2 Chestnut trees are still commonly used as boundary marks, and due to the age which these trees are said to attain, many of them may have been growing since the pre-contact era. Relatively few banyan trees are left today as most have been destroyed to make room for agriculture, since each tree in its natural state may cover an acre or more of ground.

3 It is not known whether these were an indigenous feature (as they were in Samoa) though there is no doubt that the majority of them at least were built at the instigation of the early missionaries in the first half of the last century.

page 113 the middle of the valley very frequently formed a boundary, with holdings extending from the stream to the top of the adjacent ridge.1 Natural features, rocks and trees were used to indicate important points, the boundary itself being an imaginary straight line running from one landmark to the next.2

Boundaries between contiguous taro plots were marked by stone retaining walls which were necessitated by the irrigation system. Alternatively earth-works (motu) were constructed to divided the plots, and bananas or breadfruit were planted on them. Trees, or stones, or a row of banana plants, are often used today to demarcate contiguous plots belonging to members of the same minor lineage and it is claimed that this is an old-established system. All lands, including home sites, were identified by a particular name and each subdivision within a block was individually named. It was the prerogative of the owning group to give or to change the name. A meaning was always ascribed to the name and it is not uncommon for disputants in Land Court cases to tender knowledge of the origin of the name as evidence of ownership. Likewise, the fact that members of a particular descent group had been buried on certain lands, or had marae there, was not infrequently used as evidence of ownership of the surrounding lands.3

Confirmation of the transfer of any land was shown by the preparation of a feast to which all interested parties were invited. Any person who partook of the feast was

1 A map showing current ownership of land in Rarotonga illustrates this point clearly. See page 68.

2 These features are clearly seen in any of the early surveying handbooks.

3 Though examples do exist of descent groups which had been conquered and had forfeited the rights to most of their lands being permitted to continue to use the burial grounds and marae.

page 114 considered to have concurred in the arrangements to which the feast gave the stamp of confirmation.