Ecological variability and ritual cycles in North Vanuatu

For some time now I have been reflecting (and preparing some collaborative materials) on the subject of ecological variability in relation to key ritual practices in the Torres Islands. The motivation for these ideas comes primarily from the gradual realisation, over the past decade, of medium and long term fluctuations by which certain key environmental factors (humidity of fertile soils,  rainfall and drought, ) horticultural products – especially, but not exclusively, kava – have appeared and disappeared from the local horizon of productive and ritual cycles by which Torres islanders organize their seasonal activities – horticulture, inter-island movements, ritualised exchange, which of course includes Church-related activities, etc.

Here, specifically, I just want to point to the manner in which ENSO, aka El Niño, had an apparently direct effect, over the past decade, on local people’s capacity to grow kava, and thence to organize the previously mentioned lehtemet rituals of grade-taking for uninitiated men.

While the fact that island societies in the South West Pacific are subject to mid- and long-term ecological fluctuations is not necessarily breaking news, especially to the community of biologists, ecologists and natural scientists studying the Austronesian world, the issue is that the specific environmental and meteorological factors at play in these variable – hence, only predictable with large degrees of uncertainty – cycles have only recently been taken more seriously by social anthropologists interested in things like food production, seasonal practices, climate vulnerability, etc. A cross-section of exemplars regarding this subject can be referenced herehere, here and here.

When one considers that food production takes up an absolutely vital and predominant part of people’s daily and long term effort across the Melanesian islands, and that it is a determinant factor behind the labour that is put into organizing ritualised exchange, it becomes increasingly clear that we have to pay more attention to what is happening, not just within spaces of social production but over time, to the environments in which local communities play out their cultural practices. This, I would argue is a corollary of the study of the array of “local/non-local” forces, flows of information and economic processes related to the environment (subjects that fall partly within the purview of political ecology, of which there have been several good and important contributions in recent years).

As for me, I only gradually discovered the surprising role that ENSO seems to have had, probably for centuries, on the timing of key ritual activities in the Torres Islands. The best, but not only, example that I can put forward is what I considered to be the unusually variable and infrequent celebration of the aforementioned lehtemet ceremony, by which young men begin the process by which, over the course of a lifetime, one or two of them eventually grow to become the most powerful magicians and high-ranking men of the islands.

In essence, this ritual requires that sponsors, aspiring initiates and various key participants in the lehtemet, are seen to be able to produce important quantities of kava (negí in the local language of Lo-Toga), which should preferably come from local gardens.

The issue here is that for long periods of time – which appear to correspond to the variable years of inactivity or low-intensity activity that characterise the time between one major ENSO event and the next – the soils of the Torres Islands tend to suffer from excessive drought, a condition which renders them particularly inadequate for cultivating kava. For reasons which are still not entirely clear to me, but appear to relate to very subtle aspects of overall rainfall patterns, the dryness of local soils tends to be slightly less intense on the windward hillsides of the islands of Toga and Hiw, hence rendering some of the gardeners from these two islands relatively important as sponsors for ceremonies in which some kava simply must be had (funerals, etc). It is therefore on these two islands that the cultivation of the local variety, or cultivar, of negí, known as “red kava” for the colour of its root, has been kept and continued from generation to generation. Interestingly, the islanders distinguish quite clearly between at least six different major soil types and up to 10 major and minor soils combined (these islands are very small coral uplifts, so the amount of differentiation, and people’s acute awareness of it, is quite surprising); sometimes, soil types appear to change in relation to mean annual temperatures and rainfall –  at least, this is how Torres islanders explain it.

Chewing on an ENSO-related bumper crop (?) on Loh Island. (c) C. Mondragon

When I first arrived in the Torres, in early 1999, just after a particularly intense ENSO event, most people declared that there was no kava in the islands. They didn’t just mean that there was no kava available, but seemed to imply that kava just wasn’t something that people planted or could cultivate in the Torres. This version of things was repeated to me over and over, until a visit in late 2007, when I realised that there was suddenly an abundance of kava gardens in all four of the main islands in the group. My surprise was compounded when I learned that, in fact, these kava plants had been maturing for over five years, and that it had been the first crop taken from the batches that had allowed the local community to organize their most recent lehtemet earlier in the decade.

In sum, after much inquiring into soil types and distribution, aridity, rainfall patterns and genealogical memories of rich garden sites and successful past gardeners (during my last field stint in 2008) I began to realise that there seems to be a pattern of long-term drought and short-term rainfall that tantalisingly fits into broader fluctuations associated with ENSO throughout the past century. Just to be clear, precision here is not what I am after, i.e. a direct correlation between ENSO and local kava production, but rather for broader patterns of rapid adaptation which Torres gardeners and ritual actors have developed over time in relation to their highly variable environment. This adaptability involves close monitoring of soils, humidity, seasonal variation in the combination of different garden crops in order to protect kava plantings, and various important meteorological factors (including the intensity of cyclones in different years).

I don’t think, nor have I seen any evidence to prove, that this adaptability is contained in a coherent, easily identifiable corpus of traditional environmental knowledge. Rather, I suspect that it is built into local systems of food production. Importantly, variability is also built into local ritual cycles in a way that allows for long-term inactivity (decades can pass between one and another lehtemet) because, as I pointed out above, ENSO is neither predictable nor reliable as an indicator for specific moments of horticultural practice. Nevertheless, I think what all this points to is the way in which certain practices and knowledge, as well as lifecycles and social structures, probably contain subtle but significant ways of interacting with broader environmental fluctuations.

It will be interesting, as I elaborate on my own work, to see how these data and insights are teased out and presented in the research of other colleagues.

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