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A 1980 Attempt at Reviving Ancient Irrigation Practices in the Pacific: Rationale, Failure, and Success

Abstract and Keywords

The author was project leader on an attempt to revive ancient irrigation practices on Aneityum Island (Vanuatu, S. Pacific) in 1980, based on his archaeological and ethnoarchaeological research on the island. Here he tries to reconstruct the context and his rationale for instigating such a project. While successful in a technical sense—abandoned irrigation systems were indeed brought back into use as planned—the project was set up in the absence of a defined market and marketing policy. Inevitably it soon collapsed when the taro that was produced remained unsold. But all was not lost after all and a seed was sown. Recent reports from participants in the original project suggest that the ancient techniques that were re-taught to a wide section of the Island’s community in 1980 have not been forgotten. These productive techniques are increasingly being reapplied on Aneityum in a time of rapid population growth.

Keywords: irrigation, ethnoarchaeology, taro cultivation, Aneityum Island, Vanuatu

A Young Man’s Quest

As a committed Marxist, the archaeologist V. Gordon Childe (1892–1957) was unsettled towards the end of his life by the seeming lack of relevance of archaeological practice to solving the world’s problems:

Pure contemplation is no more creative activity than is the cyclical movement of a wheel. Knowledge is not to be contemplated but to guide action. That is not to say that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, pure science, is futile or meaningless. Major scientific discoveries of the greatest practical utility were indubitably made for precisely that motive without any reference to possible use. Yet the practical results, however long delayed, provide the sole conclusive test of the truth of the discovery, the proof that it is a contribution to knowledge and not just superstition … I am an archaeologist and devote my time to trying to gather information about the behaviour of men long since dead. I like doing this and my society pays me quite well for doing it. Yet neither I nor society can see any immediate practical applications for the information I gather; we are indeed quite sure that it will not increase the production of bombs or butter. Still, we like to think that even archaeological knowledge may someday prove useful to some society.

(Childe, 1956: 127)

(p. 396) I had long been a supporter of the ‘Left’ in an anarchist-hippy sort of way before I started university education in 1973. My exposure to French-derived Marxist anthropology during my first year of an Archaeology and Anthropology degree was, however, a life-defining moment. It gave me a somewhat coherent theoretical framework to organize both my studies and—in what now seems an extremely partial sense—my life. I certainly believed (with McGuire, 2008: xii) that ‘a theoretically informed and politically guided archaeology might make a difference in people’s lives and might contribute to a more humane world’.

Moving on to doctoral studies in 1977, I conceived of a project to test Karl Wittfogel’s (1957) ideas about the importance of management requirements of irrigation systems in the creation and maintenance of what was picturesquely called at the time ‘Oriental despotism’. The region of study was the Pacific, by design, and more serendipitously the island of Aneityum in southern Vanuatu; at the time part of the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides (Spriggs, 1981a). Archaeologist Les Groube had worked on the island in 1972 and reported extensive stone-terraced irrigation systems, long abandoned and covered by dense secondary forest (Groube, 1975).

Population and Irrigation on Aneityum

The extent of such irrigation systems on Aneityum suggested a settlement pattern approach to reconstruct population and production on the island at European contact in 1830. This date was taken to represent the maximum extension of the irrigation systems because subsequent massive population decline began in the following decade and continued until the 1940s. By this time the population had shrunk from a censused population in 1854, after two historically attested epidemics of unknown mortality, of 3,800 down to 186 inhabitants in 1941 (McArthur, 1974, 1978; Spriggs, 1997: 255–259). After that time population recovery commenced, the population having reached 464 during 1979, soon after I commenced fieldwork, and in 2014 upwards of 1,000.

By utilizing measures of labour input and garden yield, derived from ethnoarchaeological studies on Aneityum and other islands in Vanuatu and New Caledonia, the archaeologically mapped areas of irrigation on the island, and various levels of notional surplus/social production, I was able to suggest a pre-contact population for the island of between 4,600 and 5,800 (Spriggs, 1981a, 2007).

I had expected that irrigation of the root crop taro (Colocasia esculenta), being such a notable feature of many Pacific island gardening systems, would have been well studied by local agricultural authorities; I was soon disabused of this idea. In fact, studies of traditional agriculture in the Pacific were surprisingly few and far between, and virtually non-existent in the details which the demographic model I was using—derived from the (p. 397) work of the geographer Tim Bayliss-Smith (1978, 1980)—required in terms of yield figures, labour inputs, and so on.

With the levels of population collapse documented for Aneityum being depressingly common throughout the Pacific in the wake of European contact (see Kirch and Rallu, 2007), there came a concomitant collapse of much of the traditional knowledge of traditional agriculture, particularly that pertaining to the more labour-intensive methods such as large-scale irrigation practices.

At the end of the 1970s the agricultural potential of intensive systems of taro irrigation was not recognized, and the knowledge built up over some thousands of years of use of such techniques was in danger of being lost. As well as catastrophic population decline, additional reasons for the abandonment of such systems included novel forms of labour mobilization and reward attendant on European colonization, forced or voluntary relocation of population, new crops and animals, an increasing reliance on cash crops that competed directly with traditional agricultural pursuits for land and labour, land alienation to European plantations, and transformations of traditional leadership patterns which had a role in agricultural production. In some areas new crop diseases and pests have also been significant factors (see Brookfield, 1972; Ward, 1982).

The archaeological surveys on Aneityum had revealed the presence of an extensive and sophisticated set of agricultural practices that had involved the construction of a stone-built infrastructure that was essentially permanent (although cf. Doolittle, Chapter 3, regarding the maintenance requirements of ‘permanent’ structures). Under the forest canopy the ancient irrigation canals, although silted up, still maintained the optimum grade to supply water to fields, the stone terraces remained with their surface angled for better flow of water using furrow irrigation, and networks of storm drains and stone-lined creeks ensured diversion of heavy run-off in storms and cyclones away from the garden areas.

And yet in 1979 only one small furrow irrigated garden (Aneityumese: incauwai) on the island was in operation, built by a somewhat eccentric ‘loner’ who had removed himself and his family away from the three population centres on the island and lived in the remote valley of Igarei. There were at the time only a handful of active gardeners who knew how to build or reactivate such systems and none were contemplating such activities in the foreseeable future. Prominent among these garden experts was Chief David Yautaea at Umej who had undertaken furrow irrigation gardening in the early 1970s. Island bed swampland irrigation systems for taro (inhenou) were in a healthier state of production on the island, but even there the median age of active gardeners was skewed towards the oldest active generation, men then in their forties and fifties.

The archaeological study led me to conclude that irrigation on Aneityum allowed a greater control over environmental factors, a higher yield/ha than dry land crops grown in equivalent conditions, and a greater potential for further intensification (see Spriggs, 1989: 6–9 for a more detailed listing of the advantages of irrigation over dry land agriculture on islands such as Aneityum). As the infrastructure, once constructed, was semi-permanent there was a better return for labour than in dryland agriculture where the garden had to be recreated from scratch at every iteration.

(p. 398) Neglect of Traditional Agricultural Knowledge

It seemed to me that in the Pacific overseas-trained economists and agricultural officers were being fed a particular line of economic development (embarrassingly, largely emanating from the university I was enrolled in) destined to undermine the subsistence autonomy of the traditional agricultural systems through neglect and discouragement. This was to be replaced by the promotion of commercial production of coconut and of cocoa and other introduced crops. The result would be that the newly-created peasant class would be permanently trapped within capitalist relations of production while, almost as an inevitable result, losing their land to outside interests.

One of the reasons for the seemingly easy acceptance of such enforced socioeconomic change in the region was the denigration by generations of missionaries and other outsiders of the traditional cultures of the archipelago, their past seen as an ignominious ‘time of darkness’. Independence was eventually to change such attitudes to a large extent in Vanuatu, but they were still very much to the fore in the late colonial period.

An alternative and less sinister interpretation might be that the effectiveness of traditional practices in subsistence agriculture was obvious to agricultural officers and therefore needed no comment or interference; hence the concentration on trials and research on commercial crops. For instance, in Papua New Guinea, Macauley (1976) wrote: ‘Major changes are unlikely as their present systems have been perfected over thousands of years.’ But such an attitude was misplaced at a time when these practices were in fact being radically transformed and much traditional knowledge and many crop varieties were disappearing.

Land-use surveys at the time certainly presented a very misleading picture of Aneityum’s potential for further agricultural development. The published soil survey (Quantin, 1979) took no account of the traditional techniques of irrigation that would allow high yields to be obtained even on soils of seemingly low fertility. If it was true that with a population density at the time of 2.5 people/sq km some three-quarters of the cultivable land of the island was being used, then how could the island have supported nearly 24/sq km in 1854 and a population perhaps considerably higher 30 years previously? Clearly the potential productivity of the island’s soils had been drastically underestimated in the survey. The Quantin report mentioned hydromorphic soils but said their area was negligible and they were said to be of mediocre fertility (Quantin, 1979: 50). The archaeological survey showed this to be simply untrue. First, the swamp soils, although often found in small patches, formed a measurable percentage of total land area and were distributed all over the island. Second, the yields of taro obtained from such supposedly mediocre soils when partly drained and mulched were among the highest ever recorded for the crop.

The soil report concluded that ‘The utilisation of potentially cultivable soils is considerable and almost total on … Aneityum’ and that ‘on Aneityum … the possibilities for (p. 399) agricultural development are very restricted’ (Quantin, 1979: 11; English translation by Spriggs). Again the archaeological survey of large areas of intensive agricultural land under secondary forest in 1978–1979 showed these conclusions to be completely erroneous.

Vanuatu was in the late 1970s in a difficult phase of decolonization from the British and French colonial authorities. The nationalist Vanuaaku Party (henceforth VP) led the country to independence on 30 July 1980 on a platform of the return of all alienated land to the traditional owners and a version of ‘Melanesian socialism’. My, in retrospect extremely naïve, Marxist political analysis of the situation found a sympathetic ear among the young VP activists and some of the more left-leaning expatriate advisers, particularly on the British side of the colonial administration. I felt most smug at reading in the VP manifesto ahead of the 1979 pre-independence elections the following policies in relation to agriculture:

  1. (a) Recognition of the vital role of custom and subsistence agriculture in the rural areas and far from denying this role, it must be recognized as the basis for the development of the cash economy.

  2. (b) Responsibility of Government to ensure that cohesion of community structures based on custom links is maintained.

  3. (c) The encouragement and revival of traditional techniques in root crop farming; and

  4. (d) The introduction of traditional agricultural techniques in the Agricultural school (Vanuaaku Pati, 1979).

Attempting to ‘Walk the Walk’

In late 1979 the new Director of Agriculture, an expatriate long-time VP supporter, Barry Weightman, and I formulated a successful application to the British government for project aid of the princely sum of £7,533 to revitalize traditional taro agriculture on Aneityum. The two-year project was approved on 26 June 1980 in a letter to the Chief Minister of the New Hebrides Government, Father Walter Lini. I took leave of absence from writing up my doctoral research in Canberra and returned to Vanuatu to set up the project immediately after independence on 30 July of that year. The details of the project can be found in a 1981 report, called somewhat triumphantly ‘Bombs and Butter’ (Spriggs, 1981b); further accounts can be found in Spriggs (1982, 1989, 1993).

The aim of the project was to ensure that a younger generation had a chance to learn the traditional techniques for taro production, and to give an initial ‘push’ to the development of taro as a cash crop on Aneityum. It was felt that taro irrigation offered one of the more promising avenues for cash generation on the island. Coconuts and cocoa yielded poorly under local conditions. A major and ongoing problem in the country was recognized as urban drift, particularly from the remoter islands where there were few economic opportunities. (p. 400)

Project funding provided money for paying people to undertake the major initial garden tasks, such as dam and canal reconstruction, forest clearance, and the cleaning of swamp ditches (see Figs. 20.1 to 20.5). Tools such as crowbars, spades, forks, and pickaxes were provided and the government undertook to arrange the marketing of the taro. Why was such a ‘push’ and cash incentive needed? One important reason was the decline in chiefly power as the organizers of the labour force. The chiefs could no longer command people to turn out for communal labour as in the past (see also Kendall and Drew, Chapter 22).

A 1980 Attempt at Reviving Ancient Irrigation Practices in the PacificRationale, Failure, and SuccessClick to view larger

Figure 20.1 During canal construction on the Nijiemhang River a lot of effort was required to remove colluvial boulders along the line of the re-cut canal.

Photo by the author.

Although the people were genuinely interested in growing taro as a cash crop, they would not invest time and effort in such labour-intensive tasks as re-digging canals. There were two reasons for this: the vast majority of people on the island had never made such canals before and were sceptical they could complete the task successfully. If paid, they would at least attempt it and then come to realize the comparative ease with which it could be accomplished. Second, without a guaranteed market the Aneityumese felt that they would be wasting their time in producing large quantities of taro that they could not sell. (p. 401)

A 1980 Attempt at Reviving Ancient Irrigation Practices in the PacificRationale, Failure, and SuccessClick to view larger

Figure 20.2 Group re-cutting the Nijiemhang irrigation canal near its take-off point.

Photo by the author.

A 1980 Attempt at Reviving Ancient Irrigation Practices in the PacificRationale, Failure, and SuccessClick to view larger

Figure 20.3 The author (left) and government agricultural officer Andy Welford sitting on the oil drum aqueduct to carry the Nijiemhang irrigation canal over an old logging road which had cut the line of the canal.

Photo by the author.

(p. 402) There were thus a series of vicious circles preventing the development of taro as a cash crop on the island. Many of the people did not have faith that they were capable of re-digging the irrigation canals, having never tried to do so before nor even ever having seen such systems in operation. The chiefs and older gardeners who had made such canals in the past and knew it could be done no longer had the power to coerce the people to assist in re-digging the canals.

Paying for the initial reconstruction of the canals and digging over and mulching of swampland garden beds, the most labour-intensive of the tasks, broke this circle. The question of a market for the taro was a more difficult one. The local communities did not possess the required expertise in negotiating for buyers and ships to transport their produce. They were thus discouraged from planting. On the other hand commercial buyers saw no evidence that sufficient amounts of taro were being or could be produced on the island. Therefore they would not come forward to negotiate for the purchase of taro that had not yet been planted.

The way out of that impasse was by the National Cooperative Federation guaranteeing to buy any taro produced under the project, and by them organizing its transport and sale. Promising discussions were held at the start of the project along these lines but were not followed up; not least because the very nature and organization of the Cooperative Federation changed immediately after independence and it later became essentially moribund. The support of the colonial powers had been critical in regular scheduling of shipping and other aspects of cooperative management, and once that was withdrawn, more hardline commercial imperatives came into play.

The project got off to a good start at Anelcauhat, one of three population centres on the island. A labour force of up to 30 individuals was employed and at the Nijiemhang River incauwai site a 500 m canal was repaired with the first 50 m of its course and the take-off dam having to be completely rebuilt because of earlier flood damage (see Figs. 20.1, 20.2, and 20.3). No living person had ever seen this furrow irrigation system in use, its abandonment having taken place at least 100 years previously. A large area of forest covering the irrigation terraces and subsidiary canals of this 5 ha system was cut and left to dry for a few months prior to being burnt off and planted. Drains at the large swamp behind Anelcauhat were cleaned out (Fig. 20.4) and taro planted experimentally in the middle of the swamp to see if it would grow in an area never before used for taro.

At the second main centre of Umej a completely new furrow irrigation system with a complex canal network was dug convenient to the present village in an area of formerly dryland agriculture. The considerable authority of Chief David Yautaea of Umej led to this major engineering work being undertaken, with advice from Johnny Tamadui, the Igarei taro expert. The large taro swamp adjacent to Umej village was also brought into a larger scale of production.

The project took longer to get going at Port Patrick on the north coast, not least because of the small pool of available labour at this relatively minor centre. Eventually an area of former taro swamp was cleared and planted towards the end of the project, and some work was undertaken rejuvenating an abandoned furrow irrigation garden (Fig. 20.5). (p. 403)

A 1980 Attempt at Reviving Ancient Irrigation Practices in the PacificRationale, Failure, and SuccessClick to view larger

Figure 20.4 Men and women cleaning out old drains in the swamp behind Anelcauhat village.

Photo by the author.

At the time of the formulation of the original project I was dimly aware that archaeological knowledge of ancient agricultural practices elsewhere in the world had the potential to contribute to modern land use practices. A key text I had access to was Ford (1973) which noted Israeli efforts in this regard in relation to arid zone agriculture (p. 404) (Evenari et al., 1971). Arriving at the Australian National University (ANU) in 1977 I was appraised in general terms by regional specialist Ian Farrington of attempts at experimental revival of ancient irrigation practices in Central and South America. I later assisted with the organization of a conference at ANU in August 1981 on ‘Prehistoric Intensive Agriculture in the Tropics’ to bring together American and Pacific perspectives, not least on the applicability of archaeological approaches to rural development. Ian Farrington’s introduction to the two volumes resulting from the conference recalled that this topic ‘produced a lively discussion’ (Farrington 1985: i).

A 1980 Attempt at Reviving Ancient Irrigation Practices in the PacificRationale, Failure, and SuccessClick to view larger

Figure 20.5 A raised bed or island bed taro system (inhenou) in operation on Aneityum.

Photo by the author.

My own recollection is that Americanist colleagues largely shied away from the political implications of such practice. My own, surely doctrinaire, rantings on the issue were not very popular at the meeting. Experimental construction of irrigated garden plots of ancient type had indeed been a feature of Americanist archaeology during the 1970s, but in general the purpose was strictly ethnoarchaeological; that is to inform the interpretation of the archaeological record. The published paper in the conference volumes that most directly addressed issues of archaeological knowledge and revival of ancient techniques as an alternative to current development strategies was recruited later by the editor and had not in fact been given at the conference (Erickson, 1985; see Farrington 1985: ii). Erickson continued to pursue this aspect of applied archaeology in later years (p. 405) (see for instance Erickson’s 1992 paper, later reprinted with additional references as Erickson, 1998).

Failure and Success

The story of what transpired after I handed the project over to the Agriculture Department in late 1980 can be reconstructed from field officer reports on visits to Aneityum (information from unpublished reports of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Vanuatu, in the author’s possession). The project’s progress had remained promising in November 1981, a year or so after its inception, despite some problems of local organization, but had subsequently foundered. The last report was dated to October 1982, soon after the ‘official’ end of the project. It was at that stage declared to be a complete failure, with little local interest in restarting it.

One aim of the project had, however, been accomplished by October 1982: some knowledge of furrow irrigation techniques had been passed on to another generation at two of the three main centres on the island. But commercially the project was a failure and was not self-sustaining after two years as had been hoped. There had been some technical problems such as the lack of sufficient planting material and extensive damage to one of the canal take-offs in a flood. But the major problems were a lack of respect for garden taboos by younger workers, the inability of the various communities to cooperate in gardening and management tasks, and uncertainty about marketing opportunities. While questions of land tenure had been worked out at two of the three villages, this surfaced as a problem late in the project at the other village when the traditional owner of one of the garden sites demanded 50 per cent of the proceeds. This turned out to be the occasion for final abandonment of the project at that location.

The garden taboos involved not eating certain foods and refraining from sexual activity for a period prior to working in the gardens. The problem is a common one of intergenerational and to an extent religious conflict. Irrigated garden skills were known to older men, but the hired labour force consisted primarily of younger school-educated individuals who were sceptical of traditional beliefs. There had also been a recent history of disputes over village councils, cooperative organizations, land matters, and political and religious divisions in the lead-up to independence. These had left a legacy of distrust both within and between the different communities on the island. Such disputes weakened chiefly power on the island and so created something of a leadership vacuum.

A reafforestation project which started earlier in the 1970s and was ongoing at the same time as the taro project was successful precisely because there was a designated outside manager, a forestry officer permanently stationed on the island who oversaw all stages of the project. In the taro project it was at the point where outside organization and payment gave way to a phase requiring communal and unpaid labour organization in anticipation of returns from marketing of the crops that it failed. In later informal discussions with Aneityumese participants they suggested that production from private (p. 406) gardens (that is, by small family groups) would work better because those outside the family could not be trusted to respect the garden taboos, and also there would be no disputes from sale of the taro or over the division of labour.

As far as I was concerned, there matters rested essentially until 2010. I had visited Aneityum on several occasions in the interim, but there seemed to be little further to be said on the matter. Aneityumese friends felt that their own internal problems had contributed to the failure of the project, and I was embarrassed that the project had not been better conceived at its outset, particularly in ensuring a regular market for the produce. In 1995 my principal fieldwork assistant during the thesis project, Jack Yauotau, showed me a quite extensive furrow irrigated garden he had brought back into use on his land in the Anauwau valley. It was his third incauwai in the valley since the taro project, and he had further plans for his family to reactivate other furrow irrigation systems near the valley mouth. Jack had been a key figure in transmission of the techniques, having studied Tamadui’s solitary garden at Igarei with me in 1979, and having put that knowledge to use in the reactivation of the Nijiemhang River irrigation system behind Anelcauhat in 1980. Jack noted that perhaps five or six other incauwai had been planted at different times since 1980, including ones at Umej, Igarei, and Imtania (this last by a son of Tamadui).

Discussion: A Dangerous Archaeological Fantasy?

In 2010 I had a chance meeting in the Vanuatu capital Port Vila with Theodore, a son of Chief Yautaea of Umej who said he was very pleased to meet me because as a young man in 1980 he had worked on the taro revival project under my direction. I mentioned the abject failure of the project, but was pleasantly surprised to hear his opinion that ‘a seed had been sown’. He contended that as the population of Aneityum continued to grow rapidly there was a pressing need to intensify agriculture there to feed the population, particularly in areas that did not have access to monies coming in from cruise ship visits to ‘Mystery Island’, the sand cay off Anelcauhat on which the airstrip is situated. His generation, now in their forties and fifties, carried with them the knowledge passed on in 1980 by the then-older generation. A few of them had continued to make small furrow irrigated gardens in the interim, but he could see the need to pass on the techniques to a burgeoning younger generation on the island.

I had further discussions along these lines in early 2011 with Joel Simo, a university-educated Aneityumese who was then Director of the Land Desk at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and who is a prominent land rights activist (see for instance Simo, 2005, 2010; Naupa and Simo, 2008). Based on these discussions, in June 2011 Joel formulated an application to the Genographic Legacy Fund of the National Geographic Society to set up a formal process to teach aspects of traditional agricultural and fishing techniques (p. 407) to the young people of Aneityum. The grant application was successful and at the time of writing the project is ongoing. Tools were provided and irrigated gardens have been planted at several different locations under the guidance of experienced older gardeners, many of whom learned their irrigated gardening skills in 1980. Discussions have begun on organizing a traditional competitive feast (nakaro) to mark the end of project funding, the first to take place since the missionaries suppressed such practices in the 1850s.

It has to be noted that the comparable work of Erickson and others in attempting to reactivate traditional raised field agricultural systems in Central and South America has been dismissed as a failure by Swartley (2002), based on detailed study of such a project in Bolivia. She sees the revival projects as the pernicious result of the archaeologists’ and some NGOs’ fantasies of traditional, ecologically sound agriculture that condemn local farmers to poverty when there are better avenues of advancement they could participate in (see also Herrera, Chapter 24). As with the Aneityum case, once the direct funding of labour was withdrawn the projects collapsed. But the Aneityum case suggests that any truly beneficial results—as perceived by the local population—may take decades to become evident as the socioeconomic and demographic situations in an area change.

A return visit to Aneityum in 2011, in part to discuss the new project with the Island Council of Chiefs who sponsored the application, allowed a ‘census’ of recent furrow-irrigated gardens (incauwai) and the learning networks of the farmers involved. Moving anti-clockwise round the island, at Anuayac, farmer James Kayawei had harvested one incauwai in 2010, and had now brought another one into commission. He had learned how to make such gardens during the 1980 irrigation project. At Umej, interim Chief Clement Japarahor reported that there had been an incauwai in use there a few years previously, constructed by the youths of the village under the direction of Theodore, the Chief I had met in Port Vila in 2010 and who had learned his craft too in 1980. The Umej garden had not produced taro because the youths had not taken the garden taboos seriously. It was mentioned that a new incauwai was in progress in the area but I was unable to obtain information about it during my time in the village.

A walk of several hours round the east coast of the island brought us to Isino in the Uca/Uea district, where an operating incauwai was seen, its canal tapping the Uca River. Theodore had taught the farmers here. At Ahaij, further west along the island’s north coast, a now dry incauwai was seen, its canal tapping the Inwanma. Most of the taro had been harvested but the drug-plant kava (Piper methysticum) planted between the furrows was still growing in the garden. The farmer, Louie Inmejcop, had again been taught by Theodore. He had planted some irrigated beds here in 2009 and more in 2010.

No further incauwai were seen over the half of the island to the west, which includes the north-west dry side of the island. Discussions with Jack Yauotau revealed changes in rainfall patterns and the incidence of extreme weather events on that side of the island have made furrow-irrigated gardening impossible over the last few decades. Streams such as the Uche River, to the west of Anelcauhat, which were perennial in 1980 have now become seasonally dry as rainfall has decreased and become less predictable in leeward areas. Larger rivers such as the Anauwau originating deep in the uplands have (p. 408) become subject to a higher incidence of flash-flooding as extreme rainfall events have seemingly increased. Yauotau’s more recent attempts at bringing old incauwai back into use that tapped the Anauwau all ended in failure as the canal take-off points were washed out in flash floods and damage was caused to the garden areas. He noted river down-cutting as another problem, leaving the former canal take-off points high and dry. Pipes would have to be purchased to enable the incauwai on this side of the island to be reused.

These intimations of significant climate change are confirmed by my own observations. In 1978–1979 I recorded many incauwai, inhenou (taro swamps), and other garden sites at the mouths of rivers and creeks on the leeward side of Aneityum. Many of these must have been abandoned more than 80 years previously because of demographic collapse, but remained as a permanent infrastructure that could be brought back into use. In 1979 one of the elderly taro experts, Balau, had brought a stone-terraced inhenou at Anuonopul back into use, after clearing the dense vegetation from it. According to Yauotau a major flood in 1996 destroyed this taro garden and several near-coastal incauwai sites. In 2011 the mouth of the Anauwau River at this point had changed so much that I could no longer recognize the area. Similarly, walking past one of the major areas of archaeological investigation in 1978–1979, a terraced dryland garden system at Imkalau, floods had completely altered the lie of the land. The ancient agricultural infrastructure that had existed in these areas for some hundreds of years had been completely destroyed in little over 30 years. The symptoms of irreversible climate change have clearly narrowed subsistence choice over a significant part of the island.

Conclusion

When I initiated the taro revitalization project on Aneityum in 1979 I had few models to follow, having only the most cursory awareness of other such initiatives in the Americas and Israel. Academic Marxist archaeology of a non-Soviet kind was at the time very much a minority interest and it took me several more years to assemble enough examples for an edited volume on its scope (see Spriggs, 1984). ‘Community Archaeology’ and ‘Indigenous Archaeology’ were certainly not terms I was aware of at the time—I am not sure that the former term had even been coined by then!

My own intervention into what has since been termed ‘Applied Archaeology’ certainly derived its impetus from my Marxist leanings, as a means (I thought) to help empower and give choice to the indigenous Ni-Vanuatu of Aneityum, faced with the loss of aspects of their own traditional culture through colonialism while having little opportunity to gain the benefits of the conservative vision of modernity currently on offer at the time. But it was the archaeological discovery of a largely intact agricultural infrastructure on the forest floor of the island, and the high yields of taro possible under an intensive but sustainable gardening system that led to action rather than merely ‘talking the talk’. The (p. 409) ethnoarchaeological study of gardening practice had been initiated originally merely to provide data for the archaeological model of prehistoric population levels.

The search for these data led to a lonely garden at Igarei and the realization that this kind of information most likely would not be recoverable in future, either by archaeologists or descendants. The stone terraces and canals would then become truly ‘prehistoric’ and only of archaeological interest. The project outlined above was conceived and a new generation of Aneityumese was introduced to these unique gardening practices.

Now, just over 30 years later, we are doing it all again in order to feed a burgeoning local population rather than to sell taro to distant markets. Certainly older, and hopefully wiser this time, the aim is the passing on of techniques and values. How people choose to use them will be their choice. It is enough that these practices aren’t forgotten and that the choice remains. The current threat to these productive systems is no longer the loss of knowledge, but the destruction of the gardens themselves because of climate change: less reliable rainfall and more extreme rainfall events when it does rain have clearly taken their toll over the last 30 years.

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