Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Making things grow

A recently erected sign next to an old well on Home Island explains:
There are no fresh water rivers or lakes on either of the Cocos atolls—and without access to an alternate water source, human settlement would not have been possible. Fortunately Cocos, like many other coral atolls islands, has an underwater system of fresh water “lenses”.
These lenses “float on top of the subterranean saltwater”. This provided water for the initial settlers in 1826 and this does now.

Old well
New water gallery

You only have to dig down about 2m or less to reach this fresh water. Indeed, if you excavate much deeper, I suppose, you’re back into salt water.

I’ve seen two bores on Home Island. Returning from the beach around noon, I bumped into the Watercorp officer. He was testing the water by putting it into a beaker—it went pink as usual. This was what he was looking for apparently. And that, I trust, is good news for all of us! I think the water tastes great here. But water is not just for drinking.

Making things grow

Most of what Home Islanders consume, including the rice staple, is shipped in. Nevertheless, local residents supplement this. At 1950mm/year, rainfal abounds, but the ground appears sandy and rocky.
Bananas are rain-fed. They are planted in small plantations. Some of these plantations seem to struggle with poor growth and little fruit to show.


This, in spite of efforts at composting.

Compost heap.

Nek Neng, and I imagine others too, grows jerok (in my ignorance, I’ll translate this as “Southeast Asian lime”) and manggo.

Me trying my hand at harvesting tapioca roots.

However, what really excited me was running into our neighbours harvesting a few singkong (tapioca) roots. With my usual lack of reserve, I asked if they would let me help, without understanding what they were doing. At least this gave me a chance to learn a little from my mistakes.
You can eat the tapioca’s roots (ubi kayu) and leaves. Small roots are used to make flour. Large roots are used to make chips (keripik). The leaves can be used in curries etc. The remaining stalks are replanted. As stated, I got very excited about the possiblities of this miraculous plant and I was not alone. The grandfather (nenek) pictured was also enthusiastically relaying its properties, and one of our neighbours started taking photos of us taking photos of them. (In my undergraduate days I could have written a wonderfully complicated post-modern essay on this, but I will save you the pain of reading it.)

Backyard vegetation.

Aside from gardening, some locals keep animals. Ducks and pigeons (widely consumed in the Malay world) are numerous. Not suprisingly, chickens are also reared, mostly in cages, but there are some around the housing area.
A coop for chickens and other fowl.


Survival, Culture and Modes of Adaptation

Why are anthropologists interested in things like obtaining water? Culture enables humans to survive in their environments. It is not primarily about symphony orchestras or elaborate dances. Of all living organisms, humans are organisms born least equipped. We inherit comparatively few instincts. Those instincts we possess, do not enable us to procure food from a forest or water from a hill. Such knowledge and skills necessary for survival are external to the human organism; they must be learnt and transmitted. We only have cultures to adapt to and change the vastly different ecologies we depend on.

Modes of adaptation vary. Although archaeology continues to be updated, the current picture is that humans have been around for about 100,000 years. Until about 10,000 years ago we hunted and gathered.  But, it turns out, different ecologies can sustain different modes of adaptation and in the last 10 millennia these have flourished. Different societies began to plant gardens (horticultural); herd animals (pastoral); irrigate crops (agricultural); build factories (industrial). Some societies have swapped from one to another. Most societies have combined elements of the different modes.

Irrespective, all modes of adaptation must fulfil one criteria—enabling survival and reproduction. Without that, the society disappears. So, the cultural challenge for residents on Home Island, like all human societies, has been how to survive.

Several approaches to studying human culture thus places method of survival at the base. According to a Marxist approach, this all forms part of the economic base. On top of this lies superstructure, namely social structures (gender, family, class, clubs, caste etc.) and belief structures (magic, common sense, religion, science etc). It seems to me this isn’t a bad way to start trying to understand Cocos Malay culture on Home Island.


  1. Arriving back in the field in 2016 a desalination plant has been built! I bumped into a mainland worker from Watercorp and asked him why. He said the concern with groundwater was "quality and quantity".

  2. A very important point I overlooked was that most homes on Home Island use a rain water tank too. Rain is plentiful and some people prefer drinking rainwater.