- Yali's Question: Sugar, Culture, and History
Why do some peoples have great wealth and power while others have precious little? This, in general terms, is the question Yali, a famous leader in Papua New Guinea, asked biologist Jared Diamond, whose answer became the thesis of his popularly celebrated but anthropologically criticized book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (Diamond 1997). Those who dominate the world, Diamond argued, have had relatively greater access to resources, technologies, and disease resistance through accidents of geography and history. This allowed them advantages over others that eventuated in the patterns of inequality that we see today.
In Papua New Guinea, white Europeans arrived with the aid of the material leg-up that was their chance inheritance and, rather than just sharing their wealth and status equally with the black people they met there, they established hierarchical relationships characteristic of the empire-building and capitalism that they espoused. They built local economies based on wage labor, markets, and competition, through which they hoped not only to enrich themselves, but also to develop the country and better the lot of the Melanesians. The behavior produced by the colonists' ideals proved shocking to many native Melanesian peoples, guided by their egalitarian and spiritual [End Page 755] worldviews, which naturalized their status and inherent rights to the wealth appearing in their territories. They found the actions of the whites selfish and insulting, and this incongruous and insufferable situation inspired not only Yali's question, but also numerous cargoistic movements, cults, and mindsets that in their turn shocked the white invaders and immigrants—and fascinated ethnographers of Melanesia.
Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz's book Yali's Question rebuts Diamond's grand theory of how inequalities have been generated—not only between what are more accurately described as pink and brown peoples meeting in 20th century Papua New Guinea, but worldwide over the past 13,000 years. They offer an alternative answer that takes as its beginning point precisely these different cultural assumptions that led Europeans and Melanesians to come into contact and sometimes conflict. The authors do so in the manner of ethnographers, by describing in great detail a group of people converging at a particular place and time, who they have gotten to know well through extended fieldwork.
The setting is a sparsely-populated region in the interior of Madang Province, once contested tribal hunting grounds, that within a few decades of first contact became the site of a smoke-belching sugar factory and vast, geometrical cane fields. This book, then, takes on Diamond's scientific theory of world history by way of a rich and particular ethnographic history of the company occupying this site, Ramu Sugar Limited. The book is really about the marvelously different people who, enacting their ideals and ideas, which Errington and Gewertz term "narratives," brought this monumental, historical achievement to pass. The company and its surrounding community of Papua New Guinean nationals and expatriates serves as a basis for a case study of how inequalities and unfairness, perceived and actual, can come into being.
Pointing to the cultural and ideational complexity and contingency of Ramu Sugar's rise, Errington and Gewertz argue that the material foundations that Diamond identifies as causal of the European colonization and domination of the world are necessary but not sufficient conditions. Their point is this: having the ability and resources needed to dominate others does not automatically compel one to do so. Cultural and historical contingencies influence the desires and motives of individuals in a dizzying array of ways, and it is people's "narratives" (3) of how life should be lived that set history-making actions into play. There is variation, both within and between social cultures, in what people regard as desirable—not a universal human tendency to endless acquisition and conquest. Under these conditions, the period of European domination [End Page 756] of the world that began in the 15th century, producing self-conscious have- and have not nations, was the result of the confluence of two accidents of history...