COUNTING SHELLS AT A NEW BANK IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA

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Radio Australia Pacific Beat February 27, 2002 Melbourne, Australia

There are fears in PNG that a new bank for traditional shell money could undermine cultural traditions.

The East New Britain provincial government has plans to have shell money function as a parallel system to the country's official currency, the kina.

But as Pacific Beat’s Sonya De Masi reports, there are some concerns about the implications for an important part of the region's heritage.

The Tolai people have traditionally limited the use of shell money or ‘tabu’, to the fulfillment of traditional obligations and some transactions.

They include payment of bride price and at funerals, some land transactions and as a medium of exchange at village markets.

The provincial government is eager to encourage people to use shell money more often, rather than accumulating large reserves in their homes.

Special Value

But the executive director of the National Cultural Commission, Dr. Jacob Semit, says shell money has strong ceremonial and ritual value, and can’t function as an alternative to kina.

"Now there are a lot of things which I see that might be problematic with that because tabu is not an alternative . . . You don’t easily come by tabu, it’s very difficult to earn tabu, and tabu is something which you don’t, which (not) everybody has.

"They seem to think that if people can’t get access to the kina then they should turn to tabu, and that’s something from the word go, something totally with that. So I would like to be able to make a contribution towards sort of correcting that."

Looking Into The Problems

The East New Britain provincial government has commissioned research to address several challenges to its plans for the widespread use of shell money.

The Governor, Leo Dion, acknowledges there are several contentious issues, including the source of the shells, which are currently imported from other islands by private business people.

"Even though we have sources of this from here it is very rarely found in very many parts of the country. As far as we . . . know our source also comes in from the other Pacific islands of the Solomons and Vanuatu. But the significant thing is that it is part and parcel of our culture. It’s in the blood of every Tolai community. What we are trying to do is mobilize it so that it is totally recognized now as the legal tender by everyone that comes to East New Britain."

Shell money was traditionally measured in fathoms, roughly from the nose of the person measuring to the outstretched palm, with two shells to a centimeter.

Neither this, nor the rate of exchange against the kina, has ever been standardized.

Nevertheless, Trade and Commerce adviser John Orim says shell money is being used on a daily basis by people across the province for a wider range of transactions than ever before.

"That is already happening – school fees at the high school they allow students to pay shell money and later be exchanged by the school for cash, actual cash. So on a daily use now.

"Both subsistence farmers and highly employed workers (use shell money). Even our governor is using it on a daily basis. Even though he has a lot of money, he still uses the shell money. All walks of life."

Mr. Orim concedes regulating shell money has its problems.

"Certainly there are people who have both -- are at a greater advantage -- because they can choose to use kina or the shell money."

Millions In Circulation

It is estimated approximately eight million kina (US$ 2,147,200) worth of shell money circulates in East New Britain.

The local level government of Balanataman is the first to establish a shell money exchange, but others are being encouraged to follow suit.

While the East New Britain provincial government awaits the results of research, the National Cultural Commission remains wary.

Dr. Jacob Semit hopes the research will also consider whether the cultural value of a centuries old practice will be forever diminished.

"This is what I am saying, that I have my own reservations about that, and I would like to think that this is not the way, that this is not the way they are intending to do this because, like I mentioned, the work that was done by that provincial government they want some work to be done on this. They use the term mobilization and standardization of Papua right? So this is where my fear is."

For additional reports from Radio Australia/Pacific Beat, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia/Pacific Beat.

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