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Amherst Creates.
Children jumping in sugar sacks
Plantation workers' children compete in a sugar-sack race at Ramu Sugar Limited, the Papua New Guinean company that is the backdrop for Deborah Gewertz's book

Reviews | Short Takes


Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture and History. By Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz, G. Henry Whitcomb 1874 Professor of Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 360 pp. $67.50 hardcover.

In Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture and History, anthropologists Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz tackle the crucial issue of how we think about inequalities of wealth and power worldwide. In contrast to deterministic narratives of human history, like the geography-is-destiny explanation offered in Jared Diamond’s widely read Guns, Germs and Steel, Errington and Gewertz argue that historical outcomes must be understood as the result of the actions of actual people. To understand these actions—and to enable an evaluation of accountability for harms done—we must take seriously the historical and cultural contexts from which these people come and what it is that they desire and think of as feasible to do.

Rather than claiming to stand outside of history looking down from on high, as does Diamond in his “short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years,” Errington and Gewertz enter into history’s stream from a particular cultural and historical vantage point: contemporary Papua New Guinea. They begin where Diamond does, with the story of Yali, a Papua New Guinean political activist who, in 1972, asked Diamond to explain the inequities that characterized life in the not-yet-independent nation: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

Like Diamond, they use Yali’s question as a jumping-off place for a larger discussion, but drawing on their more than 30 years of experience working in Papua New Guinea, Errington and Gewertz argue that Diamond fundamentally misunderstood Yali’s question. It was not actually about Western goods, or “cargo,” at all, they argue, but rather about the nature of colonial relationships between white and black people. An influential cargo-cult leader in his day, Yali actively protested such colonial power dynamics, engaging in ritual practices that focused symbolically on Western things, but did so to effect social parity with Westerners.

In their own effort to respond to Yali’s question, Errington and Gewertz explore a particular slice of Papua New Guinean history, one in which the struggle for social status and equality on the global stage has been a paramount concern from the outset. Their analysis focuses—perhaps somewhat surprisingly—on a sugar plantation, Ramu Sugar Limited, or RSL, a large-scale national development project created in order to free Papua New Guinea from dependence on sugar imports. 

Needless to say, a sugar plantation is not the type of setting one normally associates with the anthropology of Papua New Guinea, and indeed, RSL contrasts sharply with familiar images of exotic, traditional Papua New Guinean life. With its internationally capitalized, “smoke-belching, steam-shrieking factory and vast fields of carefully tended sugarcane,” and its hierarchically ordered staff of workers and managers, each living on the company’s fenced compound in one of five grades of standardized houses, RSL seems a testament to the eventual triumph of Western-style industry in even the world’s most out-of-the-way places. By taking seriously the specific history of the plantation, however, Errington and Gewertz demonstrate that RSL is actually a fundamentally contingent outcome, reflecting not the inexorable march of natural, morally neutral, world-historical forces, but rather a series of choices made by differently positioned people, with very different visions of how the world can and should be organized. 

To understand the actions of the people in question, the authors conduct an ambitious ethnography of everyone involved with the plantation, presenting their findings in the form of a series of contrapuntal narratives. These narratives include those told by the Papua New Guinean nationalists who decided to create the plantation in the first place, as well as those told by the expatriate managers and advisors from the progressive British firm that has run RSL since its inception. They also include the Mari villagers who claim ownership of the land on which the plantation sits, and agents representing the forces of global capitalism, such as the Coca Cola manufacturer who buys more than 25 percent of RSL’s product and the World Bank consultant who insists that the company be weaned from domestic tariff protection. Errington and Gewertz are remarkably even-handed in recounting these different narratives, striving in each case to convey who these people are, what they care about and what role they see for RSL in their lives and in Papua New Guinea. The authors are careful, however, not to collapse these various characters into an easy equivalency. Even if all believe their perspectives to be right, we are reminded, they do not all enjoy equal power to impose their views on others.

What emerges is a vivid sense of RSL as a social context in which inequalities can be negotiated—the kind of inequalities that concerned Yali. At RSL, Papua New Guineans and expatriates struggle to build social connections across what are sometimes profound differences of culture and class. In their lives and work there, many also struggle to attribute responsibility for the inequalities and injustices in these differences. In this regard, Yali’s Question offers not only an argument for how global inequality should be understood, but also, implicitly, a case for how such inequality might be redressed. The solutions achieved in a place like RSL are not easy to come by and are rarely entirely satisfactory to anyone; but they can, as Errington and Gewertz show, amount to a successful “muddling along” toward lives that are more dignified and equitable.

Unfortunately for RSL’s future, global capitalism fails to evaluate the plantation in human terms such as these. For Coca-Cola, which continually threatens to buy its sugar from a less expensive foreign source, and the World Bank and World Trade Organization, which are currently pressing the government to drop the tariffs on which the plantation’s viability depends, RSL exists as an expendable abstraction, not a vibrant social world. If the plantation does eventually succumb to the unforgiving logic of free trade, in the eyes of these global corporate entities the loss will be just another casualty in the historical luck of the draw—another example of history’s neutral, natural tendency to consolidate the wealth and power of its “haves,” with their cargo of guns, germs and steel, at the expense of its “have-nots.”

Like Yali, and many others in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere, Errington and Gewertz refuse to accept either the neutrality or the naturalness of historical narratives that justify existing social inequalities. For them, what matters more than history’s grand trajectory is how we engage with its weight in our lives: what kinds of actions we take, given who we are and the options we have.

—Elizabeth Garland ’90

The reviewer is a Ph.D. student in socio-cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago.

Next: Waiting for Birdy, by Catherine Newman ’90 >>

Photo: Ramu Sugar Limited


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