The return of shell money: PNG revives old ways after Covid's blow to economy

For many in Papua New Guinea, Covid-19’s “Niupela Pasin” – new normal – is a return to the old ways.

As the country wrestles with a nascent but potentially crippling new outbreak of coronavirus infections, emanating out from the crowded capital, Port Moresby, to the highlands and the river valleys of the sprawling archipelago, many in PNG’s villages are returning to traditional economies.

When East New Britain province faced lockdown in April, public transport came to a halt, people’s access to services was restricted and basic goods began to run short. So too did hard currency.

As barter and informal exchange were revived, the province also saw traditional shell money being traded outside of its customary uses.

An existing currency among the Tolai people of East New Britain, tabu is made from the shell of a marine snail known locally as palakanoara.

Traditionally it’s used in mortuary ceremonies or bride price exchange, but can also be used to pay school fees, local fines and even local government taxes.

Aunty Minia Tolik from Kerevat district says that during the lockdown period, more people were using their tabu collections to buy every day items because they simply had no money.

“We couldn’t travel to town to sell our produce at the markets or buy things from the shop, so we started to use our tabu more.”

Vanessa Mulas, a resident of Kuradui village, says those who were able to circumvent the cancellation of public buses brought back store goods and exchanged them with neighbours for tabu.

A shopkeeper in Kokopo counts traditional shell money, known as tabu, received in exchange for goods.
A shopkeeper in Kokopo counts traditional shell money, known as tabu, received in exchange for goods. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian

Tabu is measured by arm length: one-and-a-half arm lengths equals a packet of rice.

Mulas explains that 10 to 12 small shells used to equal about 10 toea (US$0.03) but that with Covid, tabu has increased in value.

Kuradui village was caught just inside a quarantine zone and Mulas says the sudden lockdown meant there was no time to stock up on store goods.

Personal gardens were quickly depleted quickly, prompting residents to “go walkabout” within their village boundaries in search of a friendly exchange.

“I bartered some of my excess store goods like rice, tin fish, soaps and noodles for fresh garden produce,” she says, each exchange being carefully individually negotiated.

Tradition Tolai shell money, known as tabu, is sold at the Kokopo markets in East New Britain, PNG.
Tradition Tolai shell money, known as tabu, is sold at the Kokopo markets in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian

Mulas says the lockdown has presented families a rare opportunity for to spend more time together and for children to become more involved in gardening, harvesting and cooking.

Elders have revived old ways of preserving food, such as burying already harvested kau kau (sweet potato) or cassava in the ground to make it last longer, and taught younger generations how to weave baskets and fish traps.

Teen girls are learning to sew meri blouses, Mulas says, and young men who were previously content to buy tinned fish are heading to the ocean to catch their own.

PNG, the most populous nation in Melanesia, stands on the threshold of a potentially devastating wave of infections. While border closures and domestic shutdowns have kept official infection numbers very low by global standards – just 361 cases and three deaths – there are fears the country’s fragile health system could quickly be overwhelmed by an unconstrained outbreak.

There are fears, too, the actual extent of PNG’s Covid spread is far greater than the official statistics. Since the start of the pandemic, the entire country has conducted only 14,000 tests.

There is also significant stigma attached to those who have contracted the virus, giving rise to fears infected people will be reluctant to have their case confirmed, and stay home, spreading it to others.

Despite the recent spike in positive cases – from less than 10 a month ago – the government is under pressure to ease restrictions and address the country’s acute economic challenges. The government chose not to extend a recent 14-day lockdown, opting instead to transition to the “niupela pasin” – the “new normal” – precautionary measures such as masks, social distancing, and hand-washing, while easing business, school and travel restrictions.

But the resumption of domestic travel out of the capital has increased the likelihood of the virus spreading to regional and remote areas, intensifying a national sense of uncertainty.

Those with sufficient land are extending their home gardens and pop-up gardens have become more noticeable, even in the crowded capital.

Christine Valvalu collects Taro leaves for cooking.
Christine Valvalu collects Taro leaves for cooking. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian

Herman and Christine Valvalu from Gelagele in East New Britain manage an integrated farming network which donated more than two tonnes of produce to six locked-down quarantine wards.

The land of their province, Herman says, has no gold, no oil and no gas, but plenty of fertile soil. They would like the provincial government to provide gardening tools, seeds and training to encourage self-sufficiency.

“Nature is telling us to go back to basics, so if there’s another disaster, we don’t need to rely on the stores or worry if shops are closed down,” he says. “Our future generations depend on what we do now; if we teach them to garden now, they’ll be able to sustain themselves and live well.”