What Capitalism’s Brought to Tonga

The eruption of the undersea volcano, off the twin islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha'apai within the Tongan system, drew the world's attention, if only for a few days, to the island kingdom of Tonga. The death toll so far has been low, and so, for the global viewing audience, more spectacle than tragedy. The satellite images of Nuku'alofa, the capital, covered with grey ash, looked somber and spooky. But such volcanic fall-out is part of Polynesia, isn’t it? Won't it surely wash away in the tropical rain?

One heard the little discussion, at least among the talking heads on cable news, of what volcanic ashfall does to a vulnerable ecosystem involving freshwater wells, fishponds, and crops such as coconuts. Coconut palms like volcanic soil, of lava and lava ash, beneath them; they do not, however, like the ash raining down on top of them, defoliating them, breaking their branches. This is especially important as Tonga's main exports have long been copra and coconut oil. Ash is not good either for the vanilla plants, either, which produce their (sometimes) lucrative beans for the world marketplace.

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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