- Yali's Question: Sugar, Culture, and History
Significant and fascinating books have been published from the Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture Series, including several that demonstrate how Melanesia has been a driving force for theorization in anthropology. Here is another. The significance of this publication relates to the interlocutors toward whom the authors direct their narrative, and their method of engagement with those interlocutors. Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington frame their exploration of RSL (Ramu Sugar Limited—a large sugar factory development in a rural part of Papua New Guinea) as a response to a popular contribution to the understanding of human history and culture, that is, to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997). Diamond's thesis is that groups with geographical advantages developed certain technologies with which they were able to dominate others. Why they chose to do so is taken as self-evident. The lectures from which Yali's Question is developed bore the subtitle "On Avoiding a History of the Self-Evident and the Self-Interested," and that moral-sounding enterprise structures the book. Thus Diamond and those who are content with his explanation of the unequal distribution of wealth and power in today's world are the first of the authors' interlocutors. The second are Papua New Guineans who, like Yali in the book's title, also seek an answer to the vexing question of why white people have so many powerful material goods. A third set of readers is clearly envisioned, and those are students of history, anthropology, and politics who are called on in the text to avoid subscribing to a history that is "intellectually and politically flawed" (6) because it ignores "the ways in which various people understand the desirable and the feasible" (7).
Gewertz and Errington go about their task through an engagingly rich and nuanced ethnographic focus on the ways in which the development of RSL in the Upper Ramu Valley has been and continues to be shaped by the expectations and desires of differently situated parties to the enterprise. To capture these different positions they devote verbatim space, and then analytic attention, to narratives told by those involved, which are discernable from archival and documentary material. The narratives of course trace the history of the factory, from the first visions of development under colonial survey and government intervention, through land alienation and factory construction, to contemporary pressures faced by its management, workers, and other dependents, from, among other things, global economic "liberalization." One of the authors' many achievements is in writing a history, anthropological in its cast, that shows how events appear and have consequences dependent on how goals are shaped, how mechanisms to achieve them are imagined to operate, and how many different aspirations and values may be present at any one moment of the history of an enterprise as large and complex as RSL. So the [End Page 260] book is not intended to synthesize a single, agreed narrative. The emphasis on narrative is explicitly deployed to show how these have given shape to the social, political, and physical landscape that radiates from RSL.
While problems and contradictions are apparent with many of these actors' positions, the only characters here who are shown little sympathy are recent overseas consultants, the promoters of neoliberal economic rationalization. These people seemingly personify the "self-interested and self-evident" whom Gewertz and Errington wish not only to provide an alternative to, but also to expose as just that. Ignorant of the successes of RSL, of its history of development as an aspect of national self-reliance, of the dependence of large numbers of rural people on its income stream, of the hard work and good intentions of many involved, these consultants demand that Papua New Guinea should compete (economically) on more stringent and difficult terms than major superpowers—with the consequence that RSL would...