Unit E1


Islands are by their very nature limited in many of their resources, such as the land and soil, fresh water, and the stocks of wildlife and fish, and modern society is not the first to have to learn to live within those limits. There have been many waves of migration across the seas in the past, bringing different peoples and cultures to settle in the islands. They either learned to live within their island limits, or they failed to survive.

The tragic example of Easter Island shows what can happen if people do not respect their island's environmental limits. The evidence suggests that the Polynesian population of Easter Island grew too large some centuries ago. The people cleared more and more of the island forest to grow food and to meet their need for wood. Finally all of the trees were cut down. There was no more forest to restore the fertility of the soil, and no more wood to build houses or even to build canoes to sail away from the island. The unprotected soil got poorer and poorer and could not produce as much food. Apparently these resource difficulties led to warfare and social decline as people fought over the few resources that were left. Today the island is covered with grass without a single native tree or shrub, and can support only a small population. The giant stone statues erected long ago stand as silent witnesses to the environmental disaster of the past.

As people settled in the islands, they made many changes in the environment, cutting and burning forests, hunting wildlife, and clearing land for agriculture. Sometimes they destroyed a resource before they understood its limits, as in the case of the New Zealand Maoris who apparently hunted the moa (a large bird) to extinction.

Fortunately, probably after a period of trial and error, most island peoples learned to be careful, and to control their use of those resources that were in limited supply. Since each island is different, the techniques they developed varied from one place to another. Their methods showed great ingenuity and a deep understanding of the resources.

It is important to understand and judge these methods in their traditional context. There were very few materials available on the islands; wood, some leaves and fibres, shells and stone were the only things that could be used for tools or construction. Walking, paddling and sailing canoes were the only means of transport. Therefore some resource management problems did not arise because human impact was limited by the available technology. It was hard to clear large areas of forest with stone axes; fire was perhaps the most powerful land clearing tool available where it was dry enough. Remote reefs upwind from the village were seldom fished because they were too hard to get to. Fishing was selective because nets and traps were crude and let many fish escape. Hunting was equally difficult. In these cases direct controls on resource use were less necessary because the technology was already limiting. Sometimes the return to a simpler technology may be the best protection for a resource.

Traditional use and management methods often illustrate intelligent solutions to various resource management problems, and can thus serve as a guide to the limits to respect or the methods to apply today. The following are a few examples, but each country or island should explore its own store of traditional knowledge for the most appropriate local practices. Further details for one country, New Caledonia, can be found in Dahl 1989.


The biggest challenge in traditional island agriculture was to maintain a supply of staple foods all year round when the varieties available and environmental conditions made food storage difficult. Some crops like breadfruit were very seasonal, but yams could be stored for a few months and taro could often be held in the ground until needed. Still there could be times when people were reduced to eating bark and roots in the forest.

The types of agriculture were adapted to each island. Where there was enough land, shifting cultivation was widely practised because of the problem of maintaining soil fertility. Where water was in short supply or variable, systems of irrigation and water management were developed. The following example from New Caledonia will illustrate traditional approaches to island agriculture.

The two principal crops in New Caledonia in pre-European times were yams and taro, both the subject of intensive and highly specialized cultivation techniques (Barrau, 1956). Yams are a dry land crop with great cultural significance. They were grown in mounds specially prepared to provide ideal conditions for tuber development. On slopes, these mounds were crescent-shaped with the points down hill. Stone or clod retaining walls were often used to retain their form, and the channels near the points were generally lined with stones to prevent erosion. On valley bottoms and along streams, the mounds were circular or more often linear, 3-4 metres wide, more than 1 metre high, and sometimes extending for several hundred metres. Lands subject to heavy flooding were avoided. The channels dug out to make the mounds provided drainage and helped to protect against flood damage during the wet season. The slopes of the mounds were often planted with sugar cane and other crops to retain the soil; windbreaks and mulching were also used. The vines were trained up straight poles, which could be removed in the event of a cyclone, or up basket-like trellises (in the Loyalty Islands). Special techniques such as planting the yams over hollow cavities allowed the production of tubers up to 2 metres long.

Taro requires saturated or continually humid conditions for growth, which with the seasonal and irregular rainfall patterns of New Caledonia makes irrigation essential. Legend records that the technique of irrigated taro cultivation was brought long ago by foreigners who made many mistakes at first, but the numerous traces of terraces still visible today all over the island show the extent to which the art was developed and perfected locally. Water was captured high up on permanent streams and conveyed through canals, often over several kilometres, to slopes where terraces could be constructed. Aqueducts were used to cross depressions, hollowed trees were used to bridge gullies, and special overflows protected against damage in heavy rains. Terraces generally 2 to 6 metres wide were carved out of slopes up to 80 percent, with an outer wall sometimes reinforced with stones or logs. Stone-lined spillways and sluice-gates directed the water from one terrace to another, and permitted precise control of water flow, but the systems required constant surveillance and maintenance. The hydraulic works were protected by a code of prohibitions and taboos, but earthworms were a significant cause of leaks. Plantings along the banks had both magical and practical significance in stabilization and erosion control. Some heads of valleys became great amphitheatres of taro terraces, and terraces were also developed along streams, and in low swampy areas where the taro was planted in raised beds. Similar types of irrigated taro cultivation occurred where conditions were appropriate throughout Melanesia and Polynesia, and are still practised in some parts of Vanuatu.

Both yams and taros are maintained as vegetatively reproduced clones. Many varieties were imported at different times, and others were probably generated spontaneously in gardens long left in fallow. The result was a large number of varieties adapted to different culture conditions and harvest times, which were grown in different gardens and even different parts of a terrace or mound. A small village could maintain 20 or more varieties of an important crop plant. There was an obvious awareness of the importance of these varieties, and new forms were sought out and tried. While various lists or descriptions of these varieties have been made, the precise conditions for which they were adapted have seldom been noted, nor has there been a comparable effort to preserve the varieties themselves, and with the decline in subsistence agriculture and the collapse of irrigated taro cultivation, a large part of this valuable genetic resource base has probably been lost.

Many secondary crops, such as sugar cane, bananas, and other fruits, greens and nuts, were grown in and around the principal staples, or gathered in abandoned gardens or in the wild. Some foods or varieties were restricted for use in times of drought or famine; these may have been more important in early pre-cultivation times. Others were important sources of fibres and other materials. These useful plants have been reasonably well documented for most of the region. There were presumably also traditional controls of plant pests and diseases, but these have not often been recorded.

There were two principal constraints on traditional agriculture in many islands. The first was the difficulty of maintaining an adequate food supply all year round. Periods of scarcity requiring the use of less palatable foods from the forest were common. The yam is a seasonal crop, and while it can be stored for about 6 to 10 months under cool dry conditions, there is often a gap before the next harvest, especially if much of the supply is consumed at an important event. Taro keeps only a few days after harvesting, but with regular rainfall or irrigation it can be planted all year round and held in the ground for a long period after maturity. This was a principal justification for the effort of maintaining irrigated taro where rainfall was erratic. The potential for growth of both of these staples also varied from one island to another, and in some places it was necessary to rely on other crops including breadfruit and pandanus. The long-term accumulation of agricultural surpluses was therefore impossible, and a system of exchanges for immediate consumption remained the basis of the economic system. The food supply was also vulnerable to disasters such as cyclones, and plantings were often fragmented for better security. The success or failure of a crop depended on factors beyond human control, and much traditional magic was an attempt to influence these factors.

The second constraint was the lack of methods for maintaining or improving soil fertility. In spite of the great investment in clearing forest and sometimes in constructing terraces or mounds, only a few harvests at most were generally possible before yields declined. A fallow period of 3 to 20 or more years was usually necessary before the land could be used again. This meant that very large areas had to be developed, with much of the land in fallow at any one time.

The agricultural calendar is one of the most critical aspects of any agricultural system, yet little information on this has been preserved in many cultures. Sometimes planting and harvesting were linked to celestial events, or to natural happenings such as the flowering of a tree. However, each local area adapted these to their weather patterns, crop varieties, and other factors, and there are great variations from place to place. Such timing was one of the most important aspects of island life, to the point that plants such as yams that permitted man to situate himself in time were sometimes given magic or ritual qualities. Counting or measuring time does not seem to have been part of many island cultures, and is such cases there was more reliance on celestial events and on a calendar by association with events in nature such as the flowering or fruiting of trees.

While big islands allowed large scale agricultural development, there could be equally sophisticated techniques for atolls where there was practically no soil and no surface fresh water. In Kiribati, for instance, pulaka (a kind of taro) is grown in pits dug down through the coral rock to the level of the fresh water in the underground lens. Soil has to be made for each plant. Baskets set at the water's surface are filled with leaves and vegetable matter which rot to produce the soil in which a single pulaka plant is grown.


While in agriculture the amount harvested depends on the amount planted, fishing is different in that it is basically harvesting a wild resource, like hunting or gathering in the forest. A traditional fisherman could not increase the amount of fish over what was there naturally. The challenge for traditional fisheries was to make the greatest sustainable harvest all year round regardless of ocean conditions. This requires the control and management of the kinds and amount of fishing allowed, and there were many traditional methods to do this.

The first level of control was through the ownership of, and thus limited access to, fishing resources. Usually a section of reef, lagoon or river belonged to a village or family. They were responsible for the resource and depended on it for their survival, so management was both possible and necessary. Under these conditions it was possible to leave fish for later without fear that they would be taken by someone else.

The second level of control was the fishing technology itself and the fact that most fish caught could not be stored and had to be eaten immediately. Fishing with a spear, for example, or using a trap permitted selecting just the fish that were needed. Some parts of an island or reef were usually too difficult to get to or fish in with canoes, and thus served as reserves to maintain fish populations.

The basic fishing techniques were similar in most island areas. Women and children gleaned crabs, sea urchins, octopus and various shellfish from reef and mangrove areas accessible at low tide. Fishing with nets, lines and spears was a men's occupation. Nets were made with fibres from forest vines or coconuts and could reach 50 metres in length. The fish encircled with such a net were grabbed, clubbed or speared, so that only useful fish were taken. Special large nets were made for catching turtles and other large animals. Smaller nets served to catch small fish such as sardines or mullet. Coconut leaves were also used to encircle fish. Fish traps were constructed of basketwork or with stone walls. Dugong, turtles and even whales were hunted when possible. Sometimes these scarcer resources were reserved for chiefs or for special occasions. Poisons from various plants were also used for fishing in both rivers and the sea, with plants collected in the wild or even cultivated. Traditionally such techniques were usually used judiciously and in moderation.

A third level of traditional management was through controls on the times and places for fishing. Fishing calendars were as elaborate as agricultural calendars. There was sometimes an extensive lore linking the flowering or fruiting of various trees with the best times for catching different species of fish. Fishermen knew the behaviour, migrations and reproductive cycles of many species of fish (Johannes, 1978), and used this knowledge both to make catching fish easier and to protect the species when they were particularly vulnerable.

Most island peoples observed a complex set of rules governing fisheries which ensured both good catches and sound management of the resource. Some areas were protected by permanent taboos and served as reserve areas. Other taboos might be seasonal, either protecting a resource when it was particularly vulnerable, or reserving an easily caught resource for the bad season when other kinds of fishing were not possible. There were also occasional taboos, such as that on the death of a fisherman over the area where he customarily fished. Such closures of an area to fishing allowed the fish populations to recover.

For example, there is a traditional fishery in the Solomon Islands for certain shells used to make customary shell money. The fishery used to be managed by the pagan priest, who would put a taboo on an area of the lagoon for 3 to 5 years (which was just the time for the shells to grow to a reasonable size). He would then lift the taboo in that area and apply it somewhere else. Unfortunately, when the villagers converted to other religions, the priest kept the taboo on for 30 years because he was not given enough pigs to sacrifice, and the traditional management system broke down.


The lack of adequate sources of animal protein on the land was a major problem on many islands, especially for tribes without access to or an orientation towards the sea. In the Pacific, only Papua New Guinea had significant large game animals. On most Pacific Islands, the forest only provided flying foxes (fruit bats) and birds such as pigeons as game worth hunting. On some islands land snails and certain grubs were also eaten. As with fishing, hunting was limited by the technology available for killing or catching animals and birds, as well as by traditional rules and practices. There were also taboo forest areas which, among other things, protected breeding stocks of hunted animals.

As in other societies where animal protein was limited, the desire for flesh sometimes led to cannibalism. Wars were sometimes motivated by a desire for meat, and in some areas it was even a role of certain families to supply one of their members for the chief's meat. The European introduction of large mammals made other sources of protein widely available, and these practices quickly died out.


Traditional healing techniques depended on environmental resources, particularly on the medicinal use of many local plants. These practices often continue parallel to western medicine even today. Traditional medicine is known to include both rational and psycho-therapeutic techniques, together with a folk classification and names for ills and diseases, and involves both simple family remedies and specialist healers for different types of treatments. Traditional surgeons, for instance, were highly skilled, and were even able to replace parts of the skull with coconut shell.


Traditional technology concerned the knowledge and skills necessary to use the materials available in the environment to meet various human needs. There were techniques for the fabrication of bark cloth and various types of string and rope. Pottery was made in some areas, and jade and other stones and shells were worked to make different implements. While most of the techniques and the resulting articles have been recorded, the skills that can only come from practical experience have largely been lost.

While island structures sometimes achieved spectacular proportions (huts in New Caledonia could reach 9 metres in diameter and 12 metres in height), they were sometimes condemned by westerners as unsanitary and there was great pressure to replace them by European-style houses. Traditional construction techniques were often highly sophisticated and very beautiful. Each island developed types of structures adapted to local conditions. The open Samoan fale remains comfortable and airy in spite of the tropical heat. The closed hut of New Caledonia was much better adapted to the hot days, cold nights and mosquitoes of most rural areas, than the corrugated iron shacks that were built to replace them, and today many families keep both. Kanak huts also had a flexible construction that made them very resistant to cyclones.

The qualities of each material available in the environment were known and appreciated. Islanders were able to cut large trees in the forest, move them to a building site and erect them as centre posts, or hollow them out for canoes or aqueducts. There was obviously a very complete knowledge of the qualities and resistances of each wood and their appropriateness for different tasks.

General environmental knowledge

The scope of traditional knowledge of nature and the environment was very large. There were names for and a classification of every significant species of plant and animal. Periodic events like the movements of celestial bodies, the flowering and fruiting of trees, and the migrations of birds and fish were observed and incorporated into the system of knowledge. Celestial navigation was practised, permitting long ocean voyages and precise landfalls. The weather could be predicted with only rare exceptions.

The traditional islander did not feel cut off from his environment but a part of it. He knew his local environment as well as he knew his own body. To the heritage of knowledge received from his parents, family and ancestors, he added his own personal experience from a lifetime of intimate contact with his surroundings. Only rarely would he be surprised by an unknown or unexpected phenomenon beyond his experience. Life was not always easy, but he learned to make the best of it through full and wise use of all the resources of his environment.


Barrau, Jacques. 1956. Native subsistence agriculture in New Caledonia. South Pacific Commission Technical Paper No. 87:45-153.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 1989. Traditional environmental knowledge and resource management in New Caledonia, p. 45-53 in R.E. Johannes (ed.). Traditional Ecological Knowledge: A Collection of Essays. IUCN-The World Conservation Union, Gland and Cambridge. Revised from Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 1985. Traditional environmental management in New Caledonia: a review of existing knowledge. South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, Topic Review No. 18. 17 p.

Johannes, Robert E. 1978. Traditional marine conservation methods in Oceania and their demise. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 9:349-364.


Where did the people on your island come from?

What changes did they make in the island environment before the Europeans came?

What plants or animals did they bring with them that were not already on the island?

What kinds of traditional agriculture were there on your island, and how were they managed?

Was there any time of year when food was scarce? What did people eat?

How was traditional fishing managed on your island?

Was there ownership of or controls on access to coastal waters?

What fishing techniques were used and how did they work?

Were there taboo or closed areas or seasons in the sea? on land?

How was hunting managed?

Do you know the important medicinal plants in your area?

What are some of the ways in which traditional houses were adapted to the environment on your island?

Do you know some of the signs for predicting the weather?

What do you think should happen to traditional knowledge today?

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UN System-Wide Earthwatch Coordination, UNEP, Geneva
Updated 10 March 1999