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Tamana: a Study of a Reef Island Community

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posted on 2021-11-07, 21:58 authored by Lawrence, Roger James

This thesis is an exploration of the factors which give the tiny reef island of Tamana, in what is today the nation of Kiribati, its particular character. The research falls into three main sections. The first reviews the available documentary sources in order to build up an understanding of the settlement of the region by Micronesian peoples, the character of the island environment they encountered and the economy and society that developed. The changes resulting from the expansion of western capitalism into the region are then described. This material provides the context for the contemporary household-based study presented in the second section. This presents the findings of twelve month's field study of sixteen Tamana households. It considers household structure and, organisation, access to resources, patterns of tine allocation as well as the character of the subsistence and cash economies, their relationship to each other and the extent to which the household economy has become incorporated into the market economy of the outside world. The third section draws both sets of material together to consider issues of change and development and the likely future character of Tamana. The initial settlement of Tamana by Micronesian people led to some environmental modification and the introduction of new plant species. However, the system that evolved could be considered an autarkic man/environment system where a fluctuating balance between man and resources was maintained through drought-associated mortality. With the arrival of the whalers, traders, missionaries and colonial officials Tamana ceased to operate as an isolated entity and the changes which ensued resulted in the external relationships, through trade, employment and aid becoming increasingly important in determining the character of economic life on Tamana. In several important respects the process of incorporation into the market economy evident on Tamana differs from that encounted in other subsistence economies subject to similar influences. Colonial policy, in recognition of the high population densities and, obviously limited resources, discouraged the establishment of a plantation economy. The limiting atoll environment restricted the choice of cash crops to the coconut which was already an important element in the vegetation and whose productivity could be maintained with little intensification of labour inputs. The subsistence economy thus was able to maintain its vitality and enabled the islanders to oscillate between the subsistence and market economy as market conditions dictated. This is reinforced by the fact that some 45 percent of household income comes from outside the village economy through remittances and gifts, thus underlining the significance of Tamana as a "straddled economy" where the household depends on local production and wages earned in employment in either the phosphate workings or urban employment away from the island. For these reasons the commitment to the cash economy on Tamana is not strong. Because of the heavy emphasis of government spending on welfare and service spending and the emergence of a large, aid-dependent bureaucracy at the administrative centre on Tarawa, the aspirations of most Tamana peoples are towards wage employment which implies migration to the urban centre as an alternative to rural life. Unless these trends are rectified rural outmigration can be expected, to increase.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Watters, Ray