Ngavalus - Commodity


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The people of Ngavalus live in close proximity and harmony with nature in a place where resources are abundant and the soil is fertile. The community’s methods of interaction with the environment are passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition; it is through legends and folk lore that the community remembers and records the usage of the commodities found in their environment.

The community of Ngavalus is located on the coast of New Ireland, thus there is access to the South Pacific Ocean and its abundance of fish and shellfish species such as: flying fish, barracuda, parrot fish, sea shells, clams, brown sea urchins, lobster, jack, tuna, and shark. According to the fishermen of Ngavalus, fish from the reef in New Ireland are known for their distinct flavor throughout the provinces of Papua New Guinea. While fishing and lobster catching is often done by groups of three to five men, the harvesting of sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and other reef creatures is typically done by women.

When fishing, the people of Ngavalus must know how to navigate strong currents and the men must be able to dive and navigate at night since lobster hunting is done in the dark. They must be especially aware since lobsters are concentrated at the edge of the reef where the waves break, adding another factor to be considered when hunting at night. The practice of fishing and hunting for lobsters is a specialized job in the community meaning that only the people who have been trained do the fishing and hunting.

Fish and shellfish are not only used for consumption and as a trading commodity, but parts of the fish and shellfish are also used for making a number of different tools. Spines from puffer fish can be used as needles to mend torn clothing. Shells are also used for decorating wooden furniture, sculptures, bags, and necklaces. A very particular shell is used for making mis, the traditional money of New Ireland. The community also uses a conch shell to announce the start of community events.

Though fish and shellfish are a common element in many meals in Ngavalus, the every day diet consists primarily of starches, specifically cassava and sweet potato. Almost every meal the H.I.T. team had during our stay incorporated sweet potatoes or cassava. Most often, sweet potato was cooked in coconut cream or roasted directly on the fire, but they were also times when it was cut and fried. Cassava was a more common element of our diet. The tropical root crop was usually prepared with coconut cream in some fashion. The H.I.T. team participated in the preparation of two of the more common cassava dishes: cassava cakes and cassava balls. The cassava was peeled and grated, the juice squeezed out, and coconut milk added. The final mix was then formed in one of two ways. The cassava balls are generally boiled or steamed, giving the cassava the consistency of matzo. It can also be formed into cakes which are then fried.

The sago palm is another commodity found in Ngavalus with various uses. Sago palms grow in swampy, wet areas, so the trees are concentrated only in certain areas of the community. The sago palm reaches maturity 10-15 years after planting. When it has fully matured, the palm produces a large flower at which point the community knows it is ready to be cut and processed to make saksak. The men of the community work together to cut, clean, and turn the inside of the tree to mulch. This mulch is then mixed with water and squeezed to release the saksak which is then left to settle resulting in a very fine powder (similar to corn starch) that is used to make a number of dishes. Not only is it an excellent source of food, but it is also used in construction material. Our hosts often joked that saksak is their “fast food” because it requires relatively little work and produces a significant amount of food that lasts for weeks.

Sago palms are also used for a number of different everyday purposes. Mats, roofing, construction materials, baskets, and food storage containers can all be made using sago palm leaves. Young, narrow leaves are needed for the weaving of mats and baskets, but older and wider leaves are used for the making of durable roofs because the leaves have thickened. The stalks found near the top of the sago palm can also be used to make the windows on houses and the thick layers of bark around the top of the palm are used to make the cleaning troughs used when making saksak. The community has a use for nearly every part of the sago palm tree.

There are a number of trees in New Ireland, with a very specific use, either in making tools, natural remedies or construction. Some of the hardwoods found in New Ireland are: kalapulim, pom, kuilan, malaren, and palm. Palm trees are known to produce a strong and durable timber; therefore, it is often used in the construction of buildings and furniture. Only the kalapulim, kainu, or kuilan trees are used to make the garamut, a drum used for various purposes through out the community. The type of hardwood used to make the garamut is chosen depending on the desired sound of the drum. Each of the hardwoods mentioned produce a drum with a unique pitch and tone and must be selected carefully. The head of the sapal, a tool used for pounding sago trees, is usually made from the malas hardwood but can be made out of any of the hardwood trees found in the area.

The kainu and kalapulim trees can be found along the coastline near Ngavalus. Many of these trees were planted a number of years ago and act as a natural wind and wave breakers. When the king tide of 2008 occurred in New Ireland, these coastal trees kept the community of Ngavalus from experiencing extensive devastation. The kainu and kalapulim trees grow to be quite large and are distinctive enough that fishermen use them as a point of reference while fishing and diving.

Coconut palms were planted in large numbers at the beginning of the 20th century, when Papua New Guinea was under the control of Germany. These palm trees are now 70-100 years old. For the community of Ngavalus, the value of a coconut palm does not only consist of its fruit or its use in construction. The juice, milk and flesh of the coconut fruit is commonly used for cooking. Coconut milk is also used as a bleach and preservative in basket weaving. Mixed with lemon juice, coconut milk acts as a natural hair conditioner, resulting in smooth hair. Palm trees are not very demanding, in fact, the people of Ngavalus have found that if one takes care of the trees in the first seven years, there is no need to look after them for the next 70 years. However, after 70-80 years, coconut trees gradually stop bearing fruit. Thus, over the past years there has been an increasing awareness in the community of the need to plant new coconut palm trees.

Oil palm cultivation is one of the sources of income that people in Ngavalus have. The fruit from the oil palm is sold to the New Britain Palm Oil company for the production of palm oil and is a growing industry in New Ireland. The fertilizer required to cultivate oil palms leeches the nutrients from the soil around the trees, preventing anything from growing under or in close proximity to the trees. Even when oil palm trees are cut down, it takes five to seven years for the soil to recover and be suitable for farming. It has become a trend that more and more landowners are allocating their land for the cultivation of oil palm, resulting in a decline in the availability of land to be used for subsistence gardening. All of which contributes to a growing food security concern for Ngavalus.

Date Entered: August 2011