Jan TenBruggencate

Jan TenBruggencate

By Jan TenBruggencate

We don’t talk about it much, but there is a significant underground economy in the Islands.

A barter economy—one that has been here for generations, even centuries. If I have an excess of something, I give some to family, neighbors, friends, fellow office workers, people who might be in need. When one of those folks has an excess, it gets shared as well. And so forth.

You could almost make something mystical about it. I toss something into the void without direct expectation of return, and yet something of value comes back to me. I might throw akule into this system today, and next week bananas show up. I might hand out mango chutney, and later someone might drop off some potted vegetable seedlings.

But it may in fact be something quite a bit more controlled than that.

In the quarterly journal Pacific Science earlier this year, noted Stanford researcher Peter Vitousek and  Kaua`i’s Mehana Blaich Vaughan wrote an article discussing this: “Mahele: Sustaining communities through small-scale inshore fishery catch and sharing networks.” Mahele is a Hawaiian word for dividing, apportioning or sharing.

It’s a fascinating study that makes the point that this kind of giving creates and sustains a community.

In their introduction, they write, “We find that the traditional and customary system of sharing fish, like subsistence activities in other mixed economy settings, provides benefits beyond the provisioning of food. These benefits include perpetuation of traditional and customary skills and practices, social status, social networks, reciprocal exchange, and collective insurance.”

The Vaughan-Vitousek research project studied 15 fishers in the Ha`ena, Kaua`i area. The study found that fishers retained a quarter of the fish they caught, and distributed three-quarters.

“Multiple interviewees describe dropping off fish at each house on the way back from a fishing trip, arriving home with just enough fish to feed the family, or even giving it all away before reaching home,” they wrote.

“Fishers in this study described mahele recipients returning a variety of goods, from smoked meat, to homemade bread, to Filipino food,” and even non-food items like child care, or fishnet-making lessons.

Some might call it reciprocal altruism, which of course suggests that it’s not entirely altruistic, since some reciprocation is in the equation.

The mahele contributions are gifts, in one sense, but in another, not really gifts.

“Recipients of shared products of subsistence harvest have an informal but nonetheless powerful obligation to reciprocate,” Vaughan and Vitousek write.

There’s an old adage, that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. This study suggests more than that–teach a man to fish, and you feed an entire community.

It’s also a caution for government regulators who propose to protect resources by limiting access to them. In the case of fisheries, restricting access to the fishery can have significant impact on a community—and it’s a community much larger than that of the fishers themselves.


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