Economy of Malekula


All of the data in this section comes from the Report on the Agricultural Census 1983/1984, Part I, The Results.

The main form of agriculture on Malekula is subsistence gardening, which is done by virtually all the population. The shifting "slash and burn" technique is used, with a succession of crops being grown for 5 or 6 years on each plot until it is planted to coconuts and left. Pigs, for ceremonial and food purposes, are also raised, along with cattle and chickens. There are a few goats and chickens around, too.

There are three forms of commercial agriculture on Malekula. First, the presence of wage-earners in Norsup and Lakatoro has led to a market being held in Norsup three times a week, where garden produce, seafood, meat, and bread is sold by local villagers. There is also a smaller weekly market in Lakatoro.

The commercial smallholder sector produces substantial quantities of copra and cocoa for export. In 1983, Malekula led Vanuatu's regions in area of village coconuts; 14,364 ha or 20% of the total. At the same time, Malekula led the nation in area of smallholder cocoa; 861 ha or 47% of the total. In 1983, Malekula smallholders produced 334 Tonnes of cocoa, 34% of Vanuatu's smallholder total.

Malekula has four active plantations. Tisman Plantation, Malekula's only active ni-Vanuatu-managed plantation, is a community-owned corporation producing cattle and copra. Metenesel Estates Ltd. is a joint venture owned by the Government of Vanuatu and the Commonwealth Development Corporation. It is developing 500 ha of cocoa at Lambubu on the west coast. PRV at Norsup and Ballands Plantation at Sarmette are French-owned and produce copra, cattle, and cocoa. It has been found easier to develop cocoa on the east coast, which gets more rain, under existing coconut trees than to develop virgin forest on the dryer west coast. Almost all of Malekula's plantation coconut trees are approaching the end of their productive lives, with 74% over 50 years old and 24% between 30 and 50 years old. This is also true of the old plantations that reverted to smallholder ownership at independence. Malekula's plantation calving rate in 1983 was 45%, and the herd off-take was 10%.


The central government Fisheries Department runs a program that provides subsidized equipment and fuel for village-based fishing projects. There are 10 or 12 projects on Malekula, with about one-half of them active. Technical support is provided from the Fisheries Office and Store at the Lakatoro Wharf. Some of the catch is sold directly in villages, some is sold from the Lakatoro Fisheries Store, and some is air-freighted to Vila to be sold there.

There is also quite a bit of private reef fishing, spear fishing, and mollusk collection that provides a large proportion of the protein consumed on Malekula.


Most of Malekula's commerce is small private retail stores, which are located in every village. There are also some cooperative stores, the largest of which are in Lakatoro and Lambubu. Another large store in Norsup is collectively owned by Malekula's cooperative stores.

Three shipping companies are owned by men Malekula, although their head offices are in Santo or Vila. David Edson and Hollingson Isacar (head offices Vila) are from Atchin, and Kalpen (head office Santo) is from Pinalum.

The Japanese government has recently built a commercial centre containing retail and office space and some commodity storage space at the new Litzlitz wharf. This facility stands empty, as Vanuatu's Government has not yet decided who is to run it.


There were some logs cut and exported when the Metenesel Estates Ltd. plantation was being cleared, and MEL continues to sell timber they saw with a portable mill. Recently, there has been interest in large-scale logging by Taiwanese, Chinese, and Vila-based loggers. The central government is negotiating with the Taiwanese company. Care must be taken that logging is carried out in a responsible and sustainable manner that gives long-term benefits to Malekula's land owners.


Malekula's only industries are very small scale manufacture of such things as concrete blocks, etc.

Foreign Rip-Offs

There have recently been a rash of schemes coming from outside Vanuatu that are designed to quickly separate ni-Vanuatu from their money. Unfortunately, they find fertile ground amongst a population that is naive about the money economy, is confused by large numbers, does not readily understand the concept of chance, and is predisposed to seek out easy gains. Some of these schemes are as follows:

Chain Letter-Pyramid Scheme. This one is run from Austria and seems to have entered Vanuatu from Fiji. It combines the usual chain letter (send US$25 to top name) with the pyramid feature of selling the letter to others for US$25. Instead of copying the letter themselves, players send the names of those to whom they have sold the letter to Vienna along with an US$25 fee. The Austrian office prints and mails out the new letters.

There has also been a copy-cat local chain letter that the players copy themselves and sell.

Business Clubs. There are at least two of these operating out of the United States. Their advertisements say that they will sell information on how to obtain loans, even for people with poor credit records and no collateral. They then send out lists of phone numbers of American banks that provide credit cards. They also send out advertisements for a Canadian "credit union", which on receipt of a large membership fee, will allow members to apply for credit. Another service offered is a club where members pay US$100 to join and can then apply for a grant. They sell many other "services", and also offer "dealerships" for people to sell the business club to others.

Canadian Lotteries. A Vancouver outfit is selling 6/49 and "Provincial" tickets overseas by mail. This is probably the most honest scheme listed here, and I even met a man from Vila who had won 100,000 vatu playing 6/49. Nevertheless, this company is selling CAN$1.00 6/49 tickets for the equivalent of about $2.50. In any case, I don't think that the local purchasers really understand how small their chances of winning are, and CAN$2.50 is half a day's pay here, not 10 minute's like in Canada.

I have also seen a German scheme coming in bulk by mail, and there are undoubtedly more. My efforts to explain these schemes have not been understood, and efforts to dissuade players are often interpreted as a whiteman trying to block locals from getting rich quick.

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©Stan Combs, 1995.