The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 203-205
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Harvesting Development: The Construction of Fresh Food Markets in Papua New Guinea, by Karl Benediktsson. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002. ISBN cloth, 0-472-09800-4; paper, 0-472-06800-8; xii + 308 pages, tables, maps, photos, figures, notes, glossary, botanical terms, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$57.50; PAPER, US$23.95.
It is no easy matter, these days, to find a publisher for a PhD thesis written about a country as unfashionable as Papua New Guinea, especially when the subject is actually a community in Eastern Highlands Province looking for ways and means to sell their sweet potato in the national food market. So the Icelandic author should certainly be congratulated for his skillful use of the Viking "wantok system" to channel this work through the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies and into the bountiful arms of the University of Michigan Press. Perhaps, in doing so, he trod the same kind of path, and surmounted the same kind of obstacles, as the Eastern Highlanders who go to such lengths to fly huge bags of sweet potato down to Port Moresby and then fly back with a much smaller bag full of money.
Karl Benediktsson's thesis, completed in 1997, was written under the supervision of Bryant Allen in the Department of Human Geography at the Australian National University. Its subject matter reflects a long-standing concern of Allen and his colleagues, in what is now called the PNG Land Management Group <http://rspas.anu.edu.au/lmg>, to show that one of PapuaNew Guinea's best chances of "real development" (if there is any chance at all) is to be [End Page 203] found in the expansion of the national fresh food market. And the people of the central highlands have shown themselves to be highly capable of exploiting all available opportunities to participate in this process, with or without the assistance of formal marketing organizations sponsored by government or donor agencies.
Benediktsson's book still bears the standard hallmarks of the doctoral dissertation, which must contain a theoretical chapter 2—in which the author demonstrates his capacity to open up the toolbox of his discipline and select the right spanners for the job in hand—and a conclusion—in which he carefully positions himself somewhere in the midst of the arguments raging in the pages of international journals in order to accommodate the theoretical predilections of any potential examiner. Benediktsson's chosen position lies somewhere between the "actor-oriented" approach of the Netherlandish tribe of development sociologists and the "actor-network" theory espoused by the Parisian tribe that follows Lord Bruno Latour. Which means that he leans fairly heavily toward the agency side of the agency-structure divide, and not just because that is a fairly safe location in the contemporary spaces of human geography, but also because the local entrepreneurs who form the subject of his study would doubtless prefer to see themselves in much the same way, as people who might not be able to choose all of the circumstances in which they are making their own history, but who are making it all the same.
Having completed his obligatory review of "general theoretical approaches to the integration of rural people into markets" (17), and the specific application of these approaches in the literature on PNG rural development, the author takes us on a guided tour of the marketing elements of the "lifeworld" of the Lunube people who live in the Asaro Valley, some twenty-five kilometers by road from the provincial capital of Goroka. Chapter 3 documents the internal social relations of the community, as the author witnessed and experienced them during his fieldwork in the mid-1990s; chapter 4 locates this community within the national food market and investigates the way this market looks to the community; chapter 5 explores the distinction between "formal" and "informal" forms of marketing activity (which is,not surprisingly, a heavily gendered distinction); chapter 6 zooms in on the commoditization of the sweet potato...