Social Metabolism and Labour ina Local Context: Changing Environmental Relations on TrinketIsland1 

Simron Jit Singh, Clemens M.Grünbühel, Heinz Schandl, and Niels Schulz
Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies of Austrian Universities(IFF) Department of Social Ecology, Vienna,Austria

First published in Population and Environment Vol. 23(1):71-104, September 2001.
Copyright of this article is held by Kluwer Academic Press, New York.


From a material and energetic perspective, this paper outlines the patterns of society-nature interactions, of a local horticultural, hunter-and-gatherer population that lives on a remote island between India and Indonesia. Based on empirical research, we present several indicators to show an economic portfolio of a local society that combines horticulture, hunting and gathering activities with elements of industrialisation and market economy. In describing these environmental relations, the study narrows its focus to the use of three socio-ecological concepts, namely socio-economic metabolism, colonising natural processes, and the energetic return on investment. Using these concepts, we show the dynamics of social and environmental transformation at a local level and the consequences this may have for sustainability.  


Society-Nature Interactions; Society's metabolism; Colonising nature; Material Flow Accounting; Energy Flow Accounting; energetic return on investment; labour and time budget analysis; human appropriation of net primary production; Local sustainability; Transition studies  

1. Introduction

2. The Geographical and Historical Context

3. The Study Area: Trinket Island

4. Methodology 

4.1 Socio-economic Metabolism
4.1.1 Defining Systems Boundary and Identifying the Local Society's Physical Compartments

 4.1.2 Generating Data on the Local Society's Stocks (compartments/biophysical structures)

4.1.3 Generating Data on the Local Society's Material Flows

4.1.4 Generating Data on Society's Energy Flows

4.2. Colonising Natural Systems

4.2.1 Generating Data on the Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production (HANPP)

4.3. Generating Data on Energy, Labour and Time

5. Results 

5.1 Socio-economic Metabolism
5.1.1 The Local Society's Biophysical Structures

5.1.2 The Local Society's Material Flows

5.1.3 The Local Society's Energy Flows

5.2 Energy, Labour and Time

5.3 Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production (HANPP)

6. Discussion

7. Conclusion


End Notes 


1. Introduction

This paper sets out to describe patterns of environmentalrelations, from a material and energetic perspective, of a localhorticultural and hunter-gatherer society in transition. We provide aphysical picture of how this local society on a small remote islandin the Indian ocean relates to its natural environment and of thelevels of transformation that such an environmental relation hasundergone and is still undergoing.

Our material, therefore, is reconstructed around various timeframes that can be broadly categorised as historical andcontemporary. The width of the time frame is due to the fact thatseveral relevant socio-ecological changes, now permanently integratedin this local society, are attributed to historical influences.Hence, we view the island's history not in a conventional sense butfrom a limited contemporary perspective. In other words, we look backat those historical events and processes which have cruciallycontributed to the design of the present day local society. These"foreign" socio-ecological features can be seen in current land-usepatterns, diet, the copra2 economy, and the domesticationof cows.

While the historical analysis uses a great deal of secondaryinformation from literature supplemented with interviews, thecontemporary discussion is the result of an in-depth empirical fieldstudy. Two consecutive field visits (March 2000 and January 2001)were undertaken to assess the ongoing physical changes and transitorytrends on the island. Obviously, the time between the two visits isnot long enough to indicate a definite picture of transition and canprovide only hints of the direction in which the society is beingpropelled. Put differently, our data from the two visits indicate aphysical growth in the local society's metabolism which may notnecessarily be representative of the growth index for subsequentyears but does provide a limited view of the course that is beingfollowed on the island.

The theme of society&endash;nature interface and interactions ismuch-debated within the social sciences (Croll and Parkin, 1992;Descola and Palsson, 1996). We do not intend to contribute to thistheoretical discussion here as we have greatly limited the scope ofour paper to describing the environmental relations of the localsociety under investigation. This rather general question ofsociety&endash;nature relations has been narrowed down, for thepurpose of this paper, to the use of three socio-ecologicalvariables. This socio-ecological approach is founded upon the notionthat societies reproduce themselves not only culturally but alsophysically through constant exchange of matter and energy with theirenvironment.

The three socio-ecological variables (or concepts) used in thisstudy are (1) socio-economic metabolism, operationalised by aMaterial Flow Accounting (MFA) and Energy Flow Accounting (EFA)(Ayres and Simonis, 1994; Fischer-Kowalski, 1997; Foster, 2000;Schandl and Schulz, 2000), (2) colonising natural processes,operationalised by an account of the human appropriation of netprimary production (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl, 1993; Haberl, 1997;Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl, 1998), (3) energy, labour andtime using three models: (a) energetic return on investment&endash; EROI, (Rappaport, 1971), (b) Bio-economic Pressure &endash;BEP, (Giampietro, 1997), and (c) time invested in labour to meetessential daily requirements.

With respect to the first concept, MFA and EFA have been widelyapplied for national economies (Matthews et al., 2000), but have beenunder-represented for local-level case studies. It must be noted thatMFA and EFA were designed primarily as indicator tools for framingnational environmental policies and hence have a somewhat differentpurpose than to be used at the local level. Macro-level studies aremore engaged in issues such as possible de-linking of material inputwith economic growth, or North-South material flows.

As opposed to these objectives, our local-level study primarilyattempts to achieve an in-depth understanding in physical terms ofthe dynamics of environmental relations between a local society andits natural environment. In other words, our study is an effort toprovide from a micro-level perspective a sketch or a"characteristic metabolic profile" of a society intransition.

Additionally, a local case study, although borrowing the samesystems concepts and generally accepted national MFA methods, has analtogether different approach in generating data. While nationalstudies follow a top-down approach using statistical data fromofficial statistics, data for such local studies must be gathered byempirical field studies. Obviously, it would be rather naive toexpect good quality and reliable data sets from statistical officesfor say, a small village or a remote island in a developing nation.At the same time, it is also not possible to have a completelyestablished methodology for local studies as each location iscase-specific and can vary greatly. Therefore, a researcher, inundertaking micro-level studies, is equipped only with conceptual andmethodological guidelines while having the liberty to be innovativein devising novel onsite data collection methods and arrive at(logical) estimations in the field. Hence, one of our objectives isalso to share in detail the methods used in generating our data.

However, some of the basic indicators for both macro-level andmicro-level studies remain more or less the same. They have been usedin this study as well, namely in calculating the Direct MaterialInput (DMI), Direct Energy Input (DEI)3, Domestic MaterialConsumption (DMC) and Domestic Energy Consumption (DEC).4If a society is based on an extractive, export-oriented economy, thenDMI and DMC might differ considerably.5

In order to generate a holistic picture of how a society interactswith nature, such as the deliberate interventions into the naturalprocesses by that society, one must go beyond metabolic processes.Societies make intentional changes in natural land use patterns so asto create space for its habitat, increase the production ofharvestable biomass (such as agriculture), etc., changes that affectnatural processes in the environment they inhabit. Such interventionsare hard to define in terms of material and energetic throughput.

Therefore, the study applied the second concept of colonisingnatural processes. This refers to the purposive intervention of asocial system to transform (and maintain) the natural processes ofits environment so as to derive maximum utility. The indicator weused to operationalise these colonising processes was derived bycalculating the Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production(HANPP). Changes brought about in land use patterns results in theloss of Net Primary Production (NPP).6 This loss is seento be one crucial indicator for describing the environmentalrelations of a society not yet fully integrated into trans-nationaltrade and therefore not fully de-localised from natural resourceavailability.

The third concept looks critically from a functionalist point ofview at the energetic efficiency of labour invested for 3 mainsubsistence activities namely fishing, pig rearing and copraproduction. While the first two activities provide the local societywith essential proteins, copra is traded for other essentialcommodities like rice, sugar, cloth, etc. In this paper, we willpresent data on how much human and technical labour is invested toderive the daily requirement of fish, pork and rice in terms ofenergy.

Another indicator used to describe the energetic efficiency oflabour is energy throughput per hour of labour in the primaryeconomic sectors. Giampietro (1997) and Pastore et al. (1996) havesuggested an indicator to describe the bio-economic pressure (BEP),i.e. the exosomatic energy throughput consumed by a society per unitof labour time in the primary economic sectors (such as inagriculture, fisheries and mining). Here it is assumed that the lowerthe ratio of time invested in primary economic sectors as compared tothe total human time available and the higher the consumption ofexosomatic energy (fossil fuels, gas etc.) as compared to endosomaticenergy (nutrition etc.) in a given society, the higher the level ofdevelopment and the standard of living are. This indicator can beseen as the opportunity cost of physical human labour (Giampietro,1997) in a given socio-economic system and is in debate as a linkbetween the standard of living, technology and use of naturalresources.7

The choice of these three socio-ecological variables was not anarbitrary one. Besides attempting to cover a wide range of materialand functional aspects of the local society's environmentalrelations, these variables have strong interlinkages to each other.Because the predominant source of energy for local subsistencesocieties is from the use of biomass, the notion of socio-economicmetabolism can be intimately linked to the concept of colonisingnatural systems. Further, colonising natural processes is intimatelylinked to human labour &endash; the higher the temporal amount ofhuman (possibly also animal and machine) labour, the more intensivethe colonising occurs. Hence, while we treat these three variablesseparately in our paper for organisational reasons, there willoccasionally be overlaps.

We begin the paper by placing our local island society in thelarger geographical and historical context that we spoke of in thebeginning. We then provide a description of the study area and of themethods used in data collection. The empirical part will present theresults of the three socio-ecological variables used, and we willclose by discussing the changing environmental relations of thesociety under investigation, both within and outside the context ofsustainability. 


2. The Geographical and HistoricalContext

Fieldwork was undertaken in the remote tropical island of Trinket,belonging to the Nicobar archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Locatedsome 1200 km off the east coast of India, the Nicobar islands arepart of the larger Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, forming a 850 kmlong north-to-south oriented chain in the Bay of Bengal. Mostgeologists are of the opinion that these islands are the peaks of asubmerged mountain range arching from Arakan Yoma (Myanmar) in thenorth to Sumatra (Indonesia) in the south (Saldhana, 1989; Dagar etal., 1991 in Sankaran, 1998). As in many other situations withininsular Southeast Asia, the rise of sea levels following thePleistocene period led to the isolation of a once continental massresulting in its floral and faunal endemicity.

The 319 islands with an area of 8249 km_ house outstandingtropical diversity. Although taxonomic surveys are still far fromcomplete, biologists have already identified some 250 species ofbirds, 85 species of reptiles, 17 species of amphibians, 60 speciesof mammals and thousands of invertebrates and plants (ANET, 1998). Ofthe total 319 islands, only twenty-two belong to the Nicobar group,of which only twelve islands are inhabited by people belongingexclusively to the south east Asian cultural complex (as opposed tomainland Indians) and who derive their subsistence from hunting andgathering, pig rearing, fishing, coconut plantations and (only sincethe 1950s) the trading of copra in exchange for rice, cloth, sugarand other commodities.

Owing to their location on a historically important sea routebetween India and Southeast Asia, these islands were used as aresting harbour and for the replenishment of food and water bytraders and mariners, and later as a strategic military location bycolonists. Although there is evidence that the islands had long sincebeen visited, the first proper accounts were recorded by Chinesepilgrims around the 7th century, from which we know of thedomination of the Arab, Indian and Chinese traders on these waters atthat time. These accounts state that the inhabitants of the NicobarIslands were in a hunting-and-gathering stage and hence these islandswere not of commercial importance to the merchants (Chakravarti,1994).

From the 15th to the 19th century, this searoute was dominated by Indian, Arab and European trading shipscarrying a huge variety of goods such as cotton, iron, rice, timber,cattle, bricks, gold, silver, precious stones, silk etc. (Gupta,1994). Given these contacts, a small amount of barter trade tookplace between the islanders and passing traders, though this was onlyof marginal importance for the sailors, who halted there primarilyfor fruits and fresh water. Kloss (1902) gives a list of articles(such as rice, sugar, iron, matches, red cotton, old clothes, oils,silver) that were in great demand among the Nicobarese and that theyexchanged for coconuts, ambergris, areca nuts, bananas and otherforest foods.

Beginning in the middle of the 18th century, theislands were under the intermittent and infirm control of the Danes.They had their headquarters in the Nancowry islands (centralNicobars) and towards the middle of the 19th century,induced large-scale changes in land use by replacing huge tracts offorests into grasslands for the purpose of breeding cattle for theirprivate meat production.

The second half of the 18th century witnessed growingBritish domination in both the oceanic trade of the region as well asin terms of territorial power in India. The Nicobar islands wereofficially taken over by the British from the Danes in 1869 for thepurpose of controlling piracy in the central Nicobar islands and "toavoid the risk of such inconvenience as would be caused by thepossible establishment of a foreign naval station in such proximity"(Temple, 1908).

The colonisers, however, carried out very little developmentactivity, since they preoccupied themselves with matters of colonialexpansion and economic growth through this safe and strategicallylocated harbour. In the beginning of the 20th century, aWest Indian company by the name of M/s. Akoojee Jadwet and Co.acquired sole trading license on the Nicobars following an agreementwith the British. Later, in the 1950s, this company was led tointroduce by growing industrial demand, copra production. At the sametime, this company replaced barter exchange with a system of moneyand weights and measures to conduct business transactions. The moneythat the Nicobarese got from the company in exchange for theirproduce eventually found its way back to the company since they werethe sole stockists of all necessary commodities and food that wasimported.

The Japanese briefly occupied the Nicobar islands during World WarII between 1942 and 1945. The islands became part of the Indian Unionafter gaining independence from the British in August 1947. Underindependent India, the Nicobar islands have been declared out ofbounds under the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation of1956, and two central co-operatives (one for northern and the otherfor central and southern Nicobars) replaced the previous tradingfirm. At the same time, several welfare measures for the indigenouspeople have been gradually introduced by the local Indianadministration, including primary education, health care,communication, TV, new seed varieties and intensive coconutproduction techniques, copra price support, etc.

What stands out from the survey of these islands is the fact thateach of these 12 inhabited islands are at various stages oftransition and development. While the inhabitants of the southerngroup are still largely hunter-and-gatherers, those in the northerngroup are a semi-agrarian community engaged in horticulture and copratrade. The Nicobarese of the central group are somewhere in betweenbut under the economic influence of the Car Nicobarese, who were thefirst to link up with the market economy through the export of copraand betel nuts. 

3. The Study Area: Trinket Island

Trinket Island is one of the islands located in the centralNicobars (commonly called the Nancowry group of islands) and is anarrow, long and almost flat island with an area of 3626 hectares(Forest Department sources). Of these, almost 2000 hectares are underdense forest classified as Andaman Tropical Evergreen and AndamanSemi-Evergreen (Champion and Seth, 1964). Trinket is surrounded byabout 303 hectares of mangroves and densely populated corals thatprovide a suitable habitat for tropical biodiversity. In the middleof the 19th century, a large part of the island's centerwas converted into grassland, in the Danish colonial period forcattle breeding (to meet the Danes' beef requirements); this has notchanged today.

Trinket Island has three main villages &endash; Safed Balu,Trinket and Tapiang. As it is surrounded by a shallow sea and anetwork of corals that pop up at low tide, connectivity to thisisland is rather low. The island can be accessed only by canoes andoutboats only during high tide and with the help of a personknowledgeable of the location of coral rocks below the sea. Due tothis lack of easy contact, the island has remained more or lessisolated from outside influences. As compared to the other islands inthe central group, the people of Trinket are still relativelytraditional in their lifestyles and occupations.

The nearest islands from Trinket are the islands of Nancowry andKamorta. Part of Kamorta has been taken over by the government anddeveloped as administrative headquarters for the islands of thecentral group. The headquarter area also has several shops belongingto mainland Indians who have one or the other family member workingfor the government. It is from this little market that the Nicobareseof Trinket purchase the essential commodities they need.

Over the last decade, however, there have been several developmentprojects under welfare schemes introduced by the localadministration. Examples include a school, dispensary, solar lightingand, more recently, a powerhouse. 


4. Methodology 

4.1 Socio-economic Metabolism

4.1.1 Defining Systems Boundary and Identifying the LocalSociety's Physical Compartments

The first methodological step for operationalising socio-economicmetabolism was to delineate the boundaries of the social system underinvestigation according to pragmatic aspects of accounting forsociety's metabolism. A social system is located in a certainterritory, a spatial area that the social system is entitled toexploit; we considered this to be its domestic environment (forests,agricultural fields, shores, sea zones etc.). The geographicalboundary of Trinket island together with its coastal areas serve asthe limits, in this case, of the society's domestic environment andit constitutes the boundary between other socio-economic systems (andtheir territories). Besides, we had to define another boundary, thatbetween the socio-economic system and its domestic environment inorder to distinguish between the two types of material flows enteringthe said system. First, the extracted and appropriated materials fromthe domestic environment, which we termed as domesticextraction, and second, imported materials from othersocial units. Equally, on the output side we had todifferentiate between (a) wastes and emissions that are depositedinto the domestic environment and (b) material exports toother social units (see Figure 1).

We then considered the several material compartments orbiophysical structures of Trinket society. These biophysicalstructures were the human population, domesticated livestockand durable artefacts (huts, buildings, wells, pathways,boats, etc.).


Fig. 1. Systems Boundaries and Material Flows on TrinketIsland 
All data in tons per capita/year
'Domestic Environment' includes the coast of Trinketisland


4.1.2 Generating Data on the Local Society's Stocks(compartments/biophysical structures)

All materials and artefacts (including humans and livestock) thatremain within the boundaries of the socio-economic system for longerthan a year are considered to be part of that society's physicalcompartments. As a first step, we listed absolute numbers of localpopulation, of livestock and of the most important artefacts.Subsequently, we attributed weight (metric tons) to these stocks.Whenever possible, this was done by practically weighing theseartefacts. However, in some cases, we had to rely on factors fromliterature. The stock accounting was done for two years, for 2000 andfor 2001. While a detailed data collection was done for the year2000, the account for 2001 could be established on stock changes overthe past year.

To calculate the total weight of the local society's biophysicalstructures, all existing infrastructure on the island was categorisedinto ten types (such as traditional huts, outhouses, copra kilns,wells, concrete buildings, etc.). For each type, a representativesample was selected and all the materials used in that sample weremeasured by volume. By factors for weight per m_ of all thosematerials used, weight per m_ of that type of structure was derived.This amount was then multiplied by the total built area of that typeof structure on the island. For accounting those buildingsconstructed by the local administration under welfare schemes (mainlyof concrete), secondary data on the type and amount of materials usedwere taken from the divisional construction office statistics.

All other durable artefacts such as furniture, out boats, canoes,power generator, sewing machines etc. were categorised by sizes likelarge, medium and small and average weights were attributed to eachof them.

Using these methods, we established a stock account for the localsociety of Trinket that represents at least 95% of total stocks interms of weight.  

4.1.3 Generating Data on the Local Society's MaterialFlows

All data concerning society's material flows was collected whilekeeping in mind the distinction between materials domesticallyextracted and traded materials as defined by the two separate systemsboundaries mentioned above. The unit for material flows used wasmetric tons/year. All biomass flows were calculated both in terms ofweight of dry matter and fresh weight when harvested ortraded.8

Domestic extraction is comprised of biomass (for thebio-metabolism of humans and livestock, for copra production, fuelwood, etc.) and minerals (sand and gravel). In contrast to nationalMFA, no statistical data existed on domestic biomass extraction andso had to be estimated from different sources. These estimations forbiomass were based on (1) food consumption or the bio-metabolism ofhouseholds (including animal fodder), (2) biomass harvested for copraproduction, and (3) biomass used in construction. 9

Data on the bio-metabolism for humans was generated by physicallyaccounting the weight of the total amount of food consumed by aparticular household during a meal. Some 30 meal samples from 5different households were taken to provide averages of how much ofeach food type are consumed by a person per day and eventually over ayear. Before the cooking of a meal, all raw food and firewood aboutto be used for that meal were weighed and divided by the number ofmembers partaking. What we then had was a food list comprisingdomestically extracted biomass as well as imported biomass, and theper capita consumption of each of these food items.

Similarly, for livestock, several feeding practices (amount offood, number of animals and frequency of feeding) for pigs and henswere observed to calculate how much food is consumed per head and thedata thus generated was multiplied with the total population of thatspecies on Trinket island. The Nicobarese feed coconuts to the pigsonly once or twice a week. This comprises only 30% of their diet andthe remaining 70% is obtained through scavenging in the forest. Usinga study from Thailand on the total amount of dry matter consumed byan average pig per day we calculated the total biomass intake forpigs and arrived at a ratio between coconut feed and additionalscavenging. The same study was used to account for goats' and cows'food consumption.

Fuel wood extracted for the processing of copra was accounted byphysically weighing all fuel wood consumed and the resultant copraproduced during five production processes. The averages of all fiveprocesses were used to arrive at the amount of fuel wood required toproduce one kilo of copra. Knowing the total amount of copra producedin year 2000 (see export data below), we could calculate the totalamount of fuel wood harvested that year for copra production.

Incidentally, fieldwork was conducted during the short dry periodon these islands when new hut are constructed and faulty huts arerepaired for the coming year. This proved useful to account forbiomass input and imports for hut construction and maintenance.Representative samples of all materials used in the process werephysically weighed and the total input accounted for by counting aswell as interviews.

Main imports were identified to be minerals (cement, steel),fossil fuels, biomass (rice, sugar, grass, timber) and final products(soap, cloth) for consumption. A good amount of reliable data forimports of rice, sugar and kerosene was available from the localcivil supplies office. This office is responsible for the supply ofthese commodities in that region at government-subsidised prices.This import data was supplemented and/or crosschecked withinformation collected during household interviews on the monthlyconsumption of these commodities.

Data on the annual consumption of fossil fuel - mainly diesel(besides a small amount of kerosene for lighting), used for runningmotored outboats for the transportation of goods and people to andfrom the island - was obtained by interviewing both diesel suppliersas well as boat owners.

To arrive at the figures for imports of products like soap andcloth, household interviews and interviews with shopkeepers, as wellas personal onsite observations on monthly purchases by householdrepresentatives were undertaken.

Data on the domestic extraction of sand and gravel and on importsof cement, timber and steel for the construction of buildings onTrinket under welfare schemes was obtained from the divisionalconstruction office. Only those materials that entered or left theisland during the two consecutive years of fieldwork were taken intoaccount and an average of those flows was used.

Similarly, on the export side, the only two local traders providedquite accurate data on the amount of copra they purchased fromTrinket island in the last two years. Due to market fluctuations forcopra, an average for the two years was taken into account. Data onsand exported to another island for the construction of governmentheadquarters was available from the local contractor.

Due to lack of resources and in the absence of a waste managementsystem on the island, quantitative accounting for the output side(comprised of wastes and emissions into the domestic environment) ofthe socio-economic metabolism was not undertaken. However, aqualitative analysis was made.  

4.1.4 Generating Data on Society's Energy Flows

To account for the energetic input and energy conversion processeson Trinket island, we used the same systems boundary as for thematerial flow accounting (Haberl 2001). Hence, material flow data forbiomass and fossil fuels was converted to energy units by usingcalorific values. It is highly debated whether one should usecalorific values or heat values10 for this purpose andwhether such a re-calculation makes sense at all (Giampietro, 1997).Since our interest lies in achieving an integrated picture of theinter-linkages of material, energy and labour flows, we tried togenerate comparable data sets. Fig. 2 provides an overview of theflow of energy on Trinket. The main sources of energy on Trinket canbe seen to be biomass, fossil fuels and solar energy.

Calorific values for all types of food was derived fromViwatpanitch (1998); for fuel-wood (25% air dried) from Nossek et al.quoted in Krausmann (2000); and for fossil fuels from the UN (1997)Energy Statistics Yearbook. The efficiency of diesel in producingmechanical energy for running motorboats was taken to be 15% and theprocess energy from fuel wood was taken to be only 25%.

A solar energy plant was set up by the local administration in1990 to provide domestic solar lighting in the village for a periodof five hours a day during the evening. Data on the number ofconnections and the power (watts) it uses was collected duringhousehold interviews.  

4.2. Colonising NaturalSystems

4.2.1 Generating Data on the Human Appropriation of Net PrimaryProduction (HANPP)

As stated in the introduction, the indicator we use for colonisingnatural systems is the Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production(HANPP). This is achieved in 5 steps and requires (1) calculating theNet Primary Production (NPP) of the potential vegetation, orthe amount of NPP that would have prevailed in the absence of anyhuman presence or intervention, (2) calculating the NPP ofactual or current vegetation (before harvest) in the face ofhuman presence and interventions, (3) calculating the annual biomassharvest by the population on the island, (4) calculating theremaining NPP available in the ecosystem (after harvest) andfinally (5) calculating the HANPP by subtracting theremaining NPP (after harvest) from the potentialNPP.

Assessing the potential and actual NPP was done by using a"bookkeeping model" that estimates regional NPP by combining land usedata with existing databases of NPP of different vegetation units(Ajtay et al., 1979; Lieth and Whittaker, 1975). Land cover data forour purpose was derived from a map of Trinket island published by theSurvey of India in 1965-70, from statistics available from the localforest department, and from an onsite land use survey and villagemapping. Due to data limitations our NPP calculations were restrictedto aboveground productivity.

To assess potential NPP, we compared the results of the"bookkeeping model" (an aggregation method that multiplies the areaof various vegetation types with productivity values from literature,such as Cannell (1982).

Annual harvest for Trinket was assessed from the data alreadycollected on domestically extracted biomass for socio-economicmetabolism.  

4.3. Generating Data on Energy, Labourand Time

There were three main objectives for undertaking this part of thestudy. One was to look at the energetic return on investment, invested (both human and technical) as compared to energygained in the form of nutrition from three most important foods, i.e.rice, fish and pork. The second was to analyse the amount of timespent by an average household to obtain the daily requirements ofessential foods and products. The third was to calculate the BEP(bio-economic pressure) for the primary economic sectors of Trinketsociety.

In calculating the energetic input for obtaining fish, only humanlabour was accounted for. But in the case of pork, the energy contentof the coconuts fed to the pigs by their owners was also taken intoaccount.11 Rice is the main source of carbohydrates forthe Nicobarese today and is obtained in exchange for copra. Here, themethod used was to account for energy invested (both human and fuelwood) to produce one kilo of copra and, using local exchange values,to calculate how much energy is gained in the form of rice.

In order to calculate the investment of human energy for the threesubsistence activities, time and motion studies (Rappaport, 1971)were conducted in the field. All types of work in each of thesesubsistence activities were classified as very heavy, heavy, moderateand light and calculations were made using the basic metabolic rate(BMR) and factors provided by Vaclav Smil (1991). Data on food energyconsumption by pigs as well as fuel wood energy used for copraproduction was available from energy data collected forsocio-economic metabolism.

The second objective looked at time invested by a household formeeting the daily requirements of rice, sugar, cloth, fossil fuelsand soaps. In this case also, local exchange values were used to knowhow much copra is needed to obtain each of these items on a dailybasis. From the previous time and motion studies used for calculatingenergetic input for human labour in copra production, we know theamount of time required to produce one kilo of copra. Also, from thematerial flow data on the daily household requirements for all ofthese items listed above, we could further calculate total timeinvested by an average household to procure them.

For the third objective, we identified 3 primary economic sectors:pig rearing, fishing and copra production. The first two activitiesare purely subsistent as both pork and fish (the main source ofprotein) are directly consumed by the local population. The thirdactivity of copra production (although in a sense subsistent which weshall see later in this paper) is for trading those products, whichare not produced or otherwise available on the island.

The calculation of Bio-economic pressure (BEP) used the followingformula:

BEP = (ABM x MF) x (Exo/Endo) x (THT/C)

where ABM refers to the average body mass and MF is the metabolicflow; the Exo/Endo energy ratio is the measure of the exosomaticenergy metabolism in society; THT is the total human time availablein society and C refers to the time allocated to work in the primarysectors of the economy (Giampietro et al., 1997). 


5. Results 

5.1 Socio-economic Metabolism

5.1.1 The Local Society's Biophysical Structures

In 2000, Trinket island had a total human population of 399, whichincreased by 5 in the following year.12 Livestock for theyear 2000 was comprised of 314 pigs, 45 goats, 89 cows, 92 dogs and547 chickens. Except for dogs, which are used mainly for hunting wildboar, most of the livestock is kept for meat production. As statedbefore, cows were introduced by the Danish about 150 years ago tomeet their beef requirements. After the Danes left, these cows wentwild and were hunted occasionally by the local population. Only abouta decade ago were the cows re-domesticated, mainly to use their meaton special occasions and festivities. Among the many livestockspecies that the Nicobarese own, pig remains the most important bothin terms of social status and economic value. Besides using the meat,the blood is drunk, applied as medicine and used invariably for allrituals.

The built infrastructure on the island in the year 2000 comprised43 residential huts, 14 outhouses, 19 copra kilns, 12 storageenclosures, 21 standard wells, 2 schools, 1 dispensary, 1 powerhouse, 1 solar house, 1 graveyard, 1 bathing complex, 1 church and 25incomplete concrete toilet structures and a 131 metre long concretefootpath. Until 2001, 2 standard wells, a teacher's residentialcomplex and an additional 650 metres to a concrete footpath wereadded.

In terms of mass, the total built infrastructure on the islandamounted to 3,310 metric tons in 2000 and to 3,694 metric tons in2001. This equals 8.3 tons and 9.1 tons per capita respectively.Hence, total built stocks increased by 10% in one year. Buildingmaterials can be characterised as traditional (wood and grass) ornon-traditional (cement, steel, sand and gravel). The ratio betweenthe two types of building materials can be interpreted as a firstindication of modernisation. Already in the year 2000, in terms ofweight, non-traditional materials made up 95% of all buildingmaterials (see Table 1). This high proportion of non-traditionalbuilding materials stems from the construction of concrete buildings,such as school, dispensary, wells, footpaths, etc. commissioned bythe local administration under the tribal welfare schemes. What canbe envisioned is the increasing share of non-traditional materialsand the gradual replacement of traditional ones.

Table 1. Material Stocks on Trinket

Type of Material

  Total Weight in Year 2000
  Total Weight in Year 2001
  Material per Capita (2001)

Ratio of Building Materials (2001)









































































- 2.5











Government interventions, while aiming at improving socio-economicwelfare, bring about changes in housing patterns and also bringadditional land under construction. This can lead to considerablechanges in land use in only one year. Out of the total built area of5,979 m_ in year 2000, 2,454 m_ or 41% were under concrete ornon-traditionally constructed structures (due to government housingand development schemes). In 2001, this area increased to 3,234 m_ or48 % of the total.  

5.1.2 The Local Society's Material Flows

In this study we established a material input account for Trinketsociety. As discussed above, we distinguished between domesticallyextracted and imported materials. Materials extracted from withinTrinket's domestic environment comprise mainly of biomass (wild catchfrom sea and land, forest produce, fuel-wood and water) and minerals(sand, gravel). The imports consist of biomass (rice and sugar),minerals (cement, steel), fossil fuels and consumer goods (such asclothes and soaps).

On the output side, we accounted for only exported materials.Exports are comprised mainly of a huge amount of sand (for theconstruction of buildings by and for government establishments) andcopra (for industrial use). Although by mass, sand exceeds copra byfar, the economic gain from copra is much higher than from sand.

The Direct Material Input (DMI) in 2000 for Trinket (see Table 2 )was calculated to be 6.2 tons per capita. Out of this, minerals cover3.7 tons/cap/yr, biomass makes up 2.4, fossil fuels account for 0.04and other products (e.g. soaps, cloth) added up to 0.01 tons/cap. Asthese figures indicate, the bulk of the DMI is due to the movement ofminerals on the island. Mineral inputs consist of imported cement andsteel and domestically extracted sand and gravel. Of this, onlyone-third is used for local construction activities whereastwo-thirds are exported to the neighbouring island to be used in theconstruction of government headquarters. Therefore, though the totalDMI of 6.2 tons/cap appears at first rather high for an isolatedsociety like Trinket, a closer look at the figures reveals that mostof the DMI is the result of Trinket's extractive economy (Bunker,1988).

In the case of biomass, most (i.e. 2.3 tons) is harvesteddomestically (e.g. coconuts, fish, tubers, pandanus, wood, grass,etc.) and only a small amount is imported in the form of rice, flourand sugar. The dependency on imported biomass in the form of rice andsugar, both of which are traded within the framework of globalmarkets, strongly indicates Trinket's dependency on theindustrialised world and its transition from a subsistence to anon-subsistence economy.

The DMC (DMI minus exports) was calculated to be 3.8 tons percapita for the year 2000 with biomass being 2.3 tons/cap, minerals1.4 tons/cap and fossil fuels and other products being the same as inDMI. Except for biomass, the majority of the materials (fossil fuels,minerals and some products) have been introduced only recently(approx. 10 years). As Table 1 shows, exports are mainly minerals,all of which is sand (2.3 tons/cap/yr), and copra (0.1 tons/cap/yr).This difference between DMI and DMC suggests how much a society mustproduce or harvest in addition to its own domestic consumption inorder to enter into a trade relation with other societies for its ownsustenance and reproduction. In the case of a subsistence society,DMI would be more or less the same as DMC. For Trinket, however, thisdifference between DMI and DMC is an indicator of its transition to anon-subsistence society depending on trade and outside relations. Aswas mentioned before, barter trade with coconuts existed for a verylong time and was replaced with copra trade around the 1950s, buttrading sand is a relatively new development. 

Table 2. DMI &endash; DMC on Trinket (2000)

Direct Material Input (DMI)
  Domestic Material Consumption (DMC)





















Fossil fuels
















Water availability is not a problem on Trinket as it is on some ofthe other islands, particularly on Chaura where most of the water hasto be imported from the neighbouring island of Teressa in emptycoconut shells. Trinket has several wells from which people drawwater for all their needs. Annual water consumption per capita (forhuman consumption alone) on Trinket island is 47,450 litres. Most ofthis water, 44,165 litres, is consumed at source for bathing andwashing clothes and only 3,285 litres is consumed within thehousehold for cooking, washing dishes, cleaning, drinking and washingbabies). In the absence of artificial agriculture, there is no needfor water for irrigation, kitchen gardens or coconut plantations;natural rain is abundant and sufficient. 

 5.1.3 The Local Society's Energy Flows

Following similar methodological guidelines as with materialflows, we calculated the Direct Energy Input (DEI) and DomesticEnergy Consumption (DEC) for Trinket. The DEI was calculated to be 39GJ/cap/yr in 2000. About 23% (or 8.9 GJ) of the DEI is imported inthe form of biomass nutrition (rice, sugar, flour) for humans (1.1GJ) and fossil fuels (7.8 GJ). The remaining 77% (or 30 GJ) isdomestically extracted. Almost all of the locally harvested energycomes from biomass, two-thirds of which is used for thebio-metabolism of humans (3.7 GJ) and for total livestock (17 GJ) onthe island.13 The remaining one-third of harvested biomassgoes into copra production in the form of coconuts (6.2 GJ) and fuelwood (3 GJ). More than half of this fuel wood (1.6 GJ) is used in theproduction of copra and the remaining 1.4 GJ is used for domesticcooking. A solar energy plant was introduced on the island by thelocal administration in 1990 and currently delivers 0.0009 GJ/cap/yrfor household lighting. (see Figure 2).


Fig. 2. Energy Flows on Trinket Island

Subtracting exports (all of which is copra) from DMI, we get aslightly lower Domestic Energy Consumption (DEC) of 35 GJ/cap/yr. Thetotal efficiency of energy use14 was calculated to be 7%for Trinket island.

Four things are rather striking in the energy flows and conversionprocesses on Trinket. First is the rather inefficient system ofanimal husbandry. The output is only 0.1 GJ (or 0.7%) as compared tothe 17 GJ input of biomass energy. Second, the export of biomass farexceeds its imports. This one-way nutrient flow is a break in thesoil's nutrient cycle, endangering the future of the local ecosystem.Third, although biomass comprises most of the energy input onTrinket, among the energy carriers (fossil fuels, fuel wood andsolar), it is fossil fuels that play a dominant role. They are usedprimarily to run engine-driven outboats for the transportation ofgoods and essential commodities from the market on the neighbouringisland. Fourth, only human labour is used as useful energy fordelivering work. As with most agrarian societies, the livestock arenot used as draft animals. Mechanical energy is used only for runningboats on the sea and does not play a role a direct role in alteringthe environment.  

5.2 Energy, Labour and Time

As mentioned already, we approached the issue of energy, labourand time for important subsistence activities in three steps. First,we accounted for labour inputs and energetic outputs for some of theimportant foods such as rice, fish and pork. Second, we accounted forlabour investments to meet daily metabolic requirements, and third,we estimated the energetic efficiency of labour for primary economicactivities by calculating the BEP (Giampietro, 1997).

Table 3 shows the results of the energetic efficiency of obtainingthe daily share (grams/cap) of rice, fish and pork. To procure thedaily amount of rice, in exchange for copra, we calculated that ittakes 170 kcal input of energy (human and technical only) to obtain512 kcal output in the form of rice.15 Over the lasthundred years, there has been an increasing shift in the main sourceof carbohydrates, from naturally available pandanus (Pandanusandamanensium) to rice. Interviews suggest that it was easier toobtain rice from passing traders in exchange for coconuts than toprepare pandanus dough that was not only seasonal but also involved alot of work. Today rice is one of the most essential foods traded inexchange for copra.

Table 3. Energetic Efficiency for some Important foods

  Daily Consumption
  Energetic Input
  Energetic Output





























 Between the two sources of protein, fishing can be said tobe a more efficient way of obtaining protein16 than pigrearing. For pork, input is 12.6 times more than output17while for fish the energetic efficiency or output is 3 times theinput. Additionally, pig rearing also has a disadvantage in terms offood competition with humans, i.e. they depend largely on coconutsfor their survival. But as mentioned before, pigs have a strongcultural connotation and are the most important food on all festiveoccasions and rituals.

In calculating the Bio-economic pressure (BEP), one difficulty inour case was to define the adequate primary sector activities forTrinket. Obvious candidates are copra production, pig rearing andfishing.18 If we include all three activities, we end upwith a BEP of 11.97 MJ/hour as compared to, for example, a BEP of31.4 MJ/hour in India (Pastore et al., 1996). Excluding fishing wouldresult in a much higher BEP of 102.1 MJ/hour. These values indicatethat the population on Trinket invest almost all their time inprimary sector activities and have a low exo/endo energy ratio.

Compared to industrial economies, such as the UK economy (BEP of670.6 MJ/hour) or the US economy (BEP of 1,339.8 MJ/hour), both BEPvalues are rather low, signifying at the same time a low standard ofliving,19 and have a future potential of more efficienttechnologies in primary sector activities. Clearly this would resultin rising energy consumption and reduced labour loads in future.

A time budget study revealed that an average household of 9members together invests 202 minutes (or 3.4 hours) a day to meet itsdaily needs for essential commodities.20 This excludestime invested in all other daily activities like cooking, fetchingwater, gathering food from the forest, washing, constructing andrepairing their huts, etc. Despite this, such low working hours arestriking. This can be attributed on the one hand to the subsistenthunter-gatherer economy, and on the other hand to the high exchangevalue for copra.21

Müller-Herold and Sieferle (1997) discuss 'leisurepreference' as a risk avoidance strategy for societies underfluctuating environmental conditions. While a complete utilization ofall resources (optimising production) results in population growthand makes the society dependent on high consumption levels, theunder-use of resources maintains a safety margin to avoid completeruin.

To buy the five major consumer goods listed in Table 4, an averagehousehold had to produce around 1.1 metric ton of copra in the year2000. This results in 47.7 metric tons for the whole island. Fromexport figures, we know that around 52 metric tons were actuallyproduced and traded in the same year. Besides confirming the accuracyof our data, the crosschecking reveals that households in Trinkettraded 78% of the total produced copra in exchange for rice, clothand fossil fuels alone. This indicates that luxury goods andnon-essential products available on the market are not yet of highpriority for the people of Trinket.

 Table 4. Time Analysis for Obtaining EssentialCommodities

  Annual Household Consumption
  Copra Equivalent
  Time Invested














Fossil fuels








































Pig Rearing















5.3 Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production(HANPP)

Coming to the third and last variable used for this study, we lookat the Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production on Trinket.Table 5 provides a picture of the land cover on Trinket island,comparing how it would have been if there had been no humaninterference on the island, and how it actually looks. The remarkablechange is that of the presence of vast grassland, which amounts toalmost one-third the total area. As indicated above, this is areflection of the colonial past, when the Danes cut down a largeamount of the existing tropical forest to make way for grazinggrounds for their cattle. On the other hand, the area actuallycolonised (through settlement and plantations) by the Nicobarese isalmost negligible, amounting to less than 1 % of the total area.

However, the area under settlement and plantations are both on therise. The total built area of the island was 5,979m_ while in 2001 itincreased to 6,759m_ following new constructions under tribal welfareschemes, a growth of 13%. The total per capita built area in 2000 was15m_ and in 2001 it increased to 16.3m. 

Table 5. Percentages of Potential and Current (2000) LandClassification on Trinket

  Private Land Classification
  Potential Land Cover
  Current Land Cover





Tropical Forests






























Swamp and Fresh water














 Table 6 provides a similar picture, but in terms of HANPP.The potential NPP of Trinket island was calculated to be 1,239 TerraJoules (TJ) &endash; i.e. the NPP that might have prevailed in theabsence of human intervention. The total human appropriation of NPPwas calculated to be 383 TJ or 31% of the potential NPP. However,while the actual domestic harvest of biomass is only 7 TJ or 1% ofthe potential NPP, most of the loss (376 TJ) is due to the historicland cover change from forests to grassland, amounting to 30% of thepotential NPP.

Table 6. Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production (HANPP)on Trinket 2000


Tera Joules/yr

Percent age


NPP (potential)






NPP (actual)






NPP (harvest)






NPP (remaining)












Impact Land Cover Change





Colonising Efficiency22




Fig. 3. Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production (HANPP)on Trinket Island


6. Discussion

What do the results of these three socio-ecological variables haveto tell us in terms of the environmental relations of Trinketsociety? We begin first by highlighting the major transitional phaseson Trinket and their social and environmental consequences.

Major transitions on Trinket can be categorised into three phases.Two of these are attributed to historical processes and the third isan ongoing process of modernisation. The first owes its origin to itsgeographical location on an important sea route to Southeast Asia,attracting traders and colonisers for centuries. As a result, theislanders were long exposed to trade, new cultures, consumer goodsand non-traditional varieties of food.

The second transitional phase occurred with the introduction ofcopra processing/trade and currency by an Indian company in the1950s. This strongly connected the island to the global market, whichwas a major step towards a new form of subsistence, namely from alocally self-reliant to a trade-dependent society. The third phase isa more recent one. For almost a decade there have been efforts by thelocal administration to bring the islanders into the mainstreamsociety by introducing tribal welfare measures.

Given these outside influences, our results from the applicationof the three socio-ecological variables partly define Trinket to be asociety that is still rather traditional and largely subsistent, andpartly indicates its slow transition from a subsistence to a marketeconomy.23 There are several indicators that argue infavour of a traditional society. Economically, fishing, pig rearingand food gathering from the forest are primarily undertaken to meetpeople's daily nutritional requirements. Although copra might be seenas a product for trading on the market, it should be noted that themain producing units are the families and that export production isundertaken only in order to satisfy their needs for food and forproducts not available on the island. In this sense, even copraproduction is a subsistence activity. Household interviews (2000)indicated that almost all of the coconuts available on the islandwere consumed. Calculations on the use of coconuts were thefollowing: 48% in copra production, 32% fed to pigs, 11% consumed byhens, and only 9% domestically consumed within the household.

These figures tell an interesting story. Despite the fact that pigrearing is rather inefficient in terms of energetic return oninvestment (a loss of twelve), almost one-third of the coconuts areconsumed in pig rearing. Additionally, the energy gained by porkconsumption is less than 1% of the total biomass appropriated by thepigs, which characterises this as a highly inefficient method of pighusbandry as compared to the average 10% efficiency in animalhusbandry.

What we then see here is that Trinket society could produce atleast 32% more copra, if they wanted to, by replacing the ratherinefficient form of pig husbandry. But as mentioned before, pigs havea strong cultural connotation, add to the social status and are themost important animal for all festive occasions and rituals. In thisway, the significance of culture still outweighs the western conceptof efficiency in Trinket society.24

That Trinket society, despite transformation of traditionaleconomic patterns, is still a subsistence economy is also reflectedin a high labour ratio and low exo/endo energy ratio in primarysector activities. It does not, in a western sense, provide a highstandard of living. At the same time, subsistence activities aresignified by an economic portfolio strategy combininghunting-and-gathering with horticultural and extractive activities,at the same time integrating refining activities (copra processing).Such a portfolio strategy seems to be a common phenomenon forsocieties in transition and serves to minimize risk(Grünbühel et al., submitted).

The MFA data identifies characteristics of traditional society aswell as agents and influences of change. In general, both majormaterial flow indicators (DMI and DMC) reflect the characteristicmetabolic profile of a non-industrial society (Weisz et al., 2001).The average DMC/cap of industrial societies is about 5 times higherthan in the case of Trinket (see Table 7). However, when taking aclose look at the data, several materials appear non-traditional,i.e. only recently introduced to the society in question. This isspecifically the case for mineral and fossil materials.

The large-scale extraction and combustion of fossil fuels is amajor innovation of industrial society. Fossil fuels serve tominimize the human workload and transmit energy efficiently, albeitat a high environmental cost. The Nicobarese of Trinket use dieselmainly for powering their engine boats, with which they transportpeople and goods to and from the island. Engine-powered boattransport increases not only the influx of commercial products andbartered goods, but also allows people to be exposed to the worldbeyond the immediate surroundings and to values from outside. Inaddition, fossil fuels add to concentrations of CO_ in theatmosphere, thereby contributing their share to global environmentalchange.

The other non-traditional group of materials are sand and gravelused for the construction of concrete buildings and structures.Although sand and gravel come from domestic extraction, wood, bamboo,and grass for roofing used to be the traditional constructionmaterials. Modern concrete structures owned by private individualsare rare (there is only one) whereas most concrete buildings havebeen constructed and are owned by the government, such as the school,dispensary, the concrete pathway and the power generator shelter.Since the Nicobars are under Indian administration and have specialtribal protection status, the government engages in variousdevelopment schemes designed to gradually introduce modern amenitiesto their society. The DMC would be reduced to almost half its amountin the absence of government-owned buildings on Trinket. Of thebuildings and structures erected on the island, traditional housesare still in the majority. However, in terms of weight, modernconstruction materials make up 97% of the total. Considering thatthese modern structures exist only since 1996 or later, we arepresented with a huge recent increase in material flows, which hasled to material stocks growing at an average annual rate of around10%.

Not only have patterns of material consumption changed through theintroduction of new materials. Materials produced in Trinket andcommercially exported to other islands have equally increased. Sandis used not only in local building construction but is extracted bythe government on a much larger scale using labourers from Trinket.The large difference between DMC (3.8 t/cap) and DMI (6.2 t/cap) issolely due to large-scale sand extraction, from which the communitieson the islands receive only little benefits. 912 tons of sand isextracted yearly, causing massive alterations to the pristine islandecosystem. The DMC-DMI difference is characteristic of many so-calledextractive economies, as we know them from large parts of the globalSouth. Natural resources are exploited and exported immediately forprocessing elsewhere. Economically, as many national economies show,extraction without further processing produces the least benefits andthe highest environmental burdens to that region, as opposed toeconomies with a high percentage of the service and processingsectors that are able to displace such environmental burdens in spaceand time (Bunker, 1988).

Also, the export production of biomass has increased sharply.Trinket relies heavily on the ever-growing world market demand forcopra. 52 tons are produced yearly, which including wastes occurringin the production process amounts to almost 40% of total yearlybiomass extraction from Trinket. To this, another 48 tons of firewoodmust be added, which is necessary for drying the coconut flesh. Takentogether, the production of copra for export certainly puts a majorstress onto local land use patterns and the traditional plantationeconomy.

The increased demand for copra has yet another consequence. Theintensification of production for export has disadvantaged the localsubsistence economy. Today, imported rice has replaced thetraditional source of carbohydrates, pandanus. It follows that theNicobarese of Trinket are forced into an increasing dependency onimported foodstuffs, which makes them less resilient to unexpectedevents, such as natural disasters, world market fluctuations, andcrop failures in the rice-producing regions. Already, in energeticterms, 23% of consumed foodstuffs are obtained externally, mostlyrice, sugar, and flour in exchange for copra. It seems that the mainsource of energy in the traditional diet &endash; coconuts &endash;is not being replaced, since it is produced in large amounts andrepresents a convenient form of highly concentrated nutritionalenergy. Rather, rice makes obsolete the elaborate and laborious taskof obtaining and preparing pandanus, which is a wild growing treeupon whose supply one cannot count.

What yet have to be determined are the effects of the rise andinflux of non-traditional materials on wastes being disposed into thenatural environment, whether to land, to the waterways, or to thesea. The lack of waste management and the unfamiliarity ofnon-biotic, non-decomposable materials on Trinket island makes itdifficult for the researchers to assess the amount of these outflowsand their effects on the local ecosystem. It must be expected,however, that drastic changes in socio-economic metabolic profiles,in conjunction with other changes in society-nature relationsadversely affect the life resources of the society.

We see, therefore, that Trinket island has departed from being atraditional society. The MFA data of Trinket reconfirms other datagenerated for different modes of production (Krausmann, 2000; Weiszet al., 2001; Grünbühel et al., submitted) and setsa characteristic metabolic profile for a traditional society in abeginning stage of transition. At the same time, when comparingTrinket to industrial societies (Adriaanse et al., 1997;Matthews et al., 2000), we are confronted with the potential forincrease in material consumption. Through values and commoditiesintroduced by merchants and foreign governments, Nicobarese nowstrive to achieve a level of consumption similar to that of theindustrialized world. It remains doubtful, however, whether this isat all possible and whether they may increasingly and unwillinglyfall into a dependency already typical for large parts of theso-called Third World (see also Weisz et al., 2001).

Discussions of the material side of Trinket's metabolism withnature are also reflected in energy use. The amount of energyutilised (35 GJ/cap) is well below the level of energy utilisation inindustrial economies (198.3 GJ/cap). Also the composition of energysources differs greatly. Whereas two-thirds of available energy onTrinket comes from nutrition for humans and livestock, energycarriers such as fossil fuels and fuel wood play a minor role. Wefind the reverse picture in the industrial pattern, which to a greatextent relies on fossil fuel utilisation. Consumption levels ofenergy, however, are likely to increase in 2002-2003, because ofplans to start a power house on Trinket for an initial 7 hours a day.This will add an additional 3 GJ/cap/yr of energy in the form ofdiesel.

As stated earlier, the primary source of energy amongpre-industrial societies is biomass. In this respect, land use andcolonising natural processes (in terms of HANPP) are seen as keyindicators in defining a society's environmental relations.

Table 7. Comparing Trinket with other Studies andEconomies



DMI t/cap/yr










DMC t/cap/yr










DEI GJ/cap/yr










DEC GJ/cap/yr




















Colonising efficiency %









  Source: Trinket: own data collection and calculations; Sang Saeng: Weisz et al. (2001) and Grünbühel et al. (submitted); for Austria 1830: Weisz et al. 2001; for DMI & DMC of Industrial: own calculation based on Matthews et al. (2000) and Schandl and Schulz (2000); for DEI, DEC and HANPP of industrial: Weisz et al. (2001); Colonising efficiency: own calculation based on Weisz et al. (2001) and Grünbühel et al. (submitted).


Characteristically for a pre-modern society, the pressure on theland and available energy in ecosystems, as reflected by HANPP, isstill low on Trinket. The Trinket population apparently appropriatesabout 31% of its territory's potential productivity. While 31% NPPappropriation also does not sound very dramatic, as compared to 79%for Sang Saeng (Grünbühel et al. submitted), when oneconsiders the fact that 30 % of it is due to land cover-change andonly 1% is effectively harvested, it is quite alarming. The mostobvious change in land use is clearly attributed to colonialinterventions and since the introduced cows still remain on theisland Trinket island as semi-domesticated, their continuous grazingmaintains the grassland in the same state. Except for theintermittent supply of beef, the grasslands do not fulfil any otherproductive purpose, making the colonising efficiency less than 2% ascompared to 41% in Sang Saeng. This appears to be a quite inefficientmode of colonising. However, if we do not take into account thehistorical land cover change under colonial rule, the colonisingefficiency would rise steeply to 99%. 

Although the data suggests a 10% increase in settlement andplantations areas each year, it does not seem probable that Trinketwould face deforestation as in the case of Sang Saeng (that now hasliterally no forest) and most parts of the world. At most, with theincrease in population and the consequent need for more copra,natural forests will be replaced with coconut plantations, therebypreventing under-story NPP growth and resulting in HANPP increasingto 50-60%. 


7. Conclusion

What we see on Trinket is an externally driven process oftransition, specific of the global South. Although there are stillstrong indicators that Trinket is a subsistence economy, it hasalready started its journey towards a market economy and modern wayof life with an increasing dependency on trade and rising materialconsumption. Obviously, in the case of Trinket, trade is not a noveldevelopment but has had a centuries long tradition. The difference isthat while in former times trade consisted of bartering coconuts andforest produce with other goods, it is now processed into copraand traded under the conditions of global demand and its marketstructure using currency as a central exchange value.

It has often been argued that transition from one mode ofproduction to another greatly transforms a society's environmentalrelations and its potential for environmental degradation (Sieferle,1990). From our data, this is already evident in the use of fossilfuels, the burning of tons of fuel wood for copra production, theextraction of many more tons of minerals for export, the replacementof natural forests with coconut plantations, and the increases insettlement area. Trinket, as a peripheral extractive society, hasbecome more and more vulnerable to fluctuations in the world marketand its demand for copra. At the same time, it is highly dependent onthe government sector and private trading corporations for thecontinuous flow of food and commodities to the island.

Trinket's environmental relations are, therefore, inextricablylinked to its trading relations with other societies, both at theregional and the global level. These external relations are alsocrucial in defining Trinket's internal social and cultural integrity.Changes in socio-cultural parameters manifest themselves in new formsof environmental relations. In order to capture these complexprocesses of the interlinkages between society-nature andsociety-society interactions, we require more dynamic concepts thanare available at present. 



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End Notes

1 The fieldwork, on which this paper is based, was supported by agrant from the Government of India (Department of Culture, Ministryof HRD). The (first) author gratefully acknowledges the funding aswell as the immense logistical support provided by the Andaman andNicobar administration during fieldwork. The Indian National Trustfor Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), New Delhi, has lent bothinstitutional and personal support in undertaking this project.

2 Copra is a dehydrated form of coconut baked over open fire forabout 20 hours and is used for industrial purposes like extractingoil, in the manufacture of soap, margarine etc.

3 Both DMI and DEI are the sums of materials/energy imported aswell as domestically harvested.

4 The DMC and DEC are the actual amount of materials/energyconsumed by the society after subtracting exports.

5 Unfortunately, DMC does not reflect the material standard ofliving of a society, since the indicator includes intermediarymaterials for production and direct consumption.

6 NPP is a rate of biomass growth on a given area in a definedtime (usually one growing season, or year). It can be expressed interms of dry matter (kg. of Biomass/m_ yr) as well as in energeticunits (MJ/m_ yr).

7 There are, however, several critiques to this approach, for indicates only physical standard of living and does not explainthe distribution of wealth within a socio-economic system or society(Giampietro et al., 1997).

8 Water content for MFA is a crucial issue. It has been agreed tointegrate materials in the flow balance with their fresh weight whenharvested or marketed (Matthews et al. 2000). However, there are someexceptions, e.g. green fodder and timber, where for green fodder astandardised 14% water content is taken into account so as not tooverestimate fodder intake during grazing when compared to stallfeeding. For timber, water content when removed from woodland(usually 25-40%) is taken.

9 One important aspect of data collection was interviews andobservation for all 43 households on Trinket.

10 The calorific value is more compatible with ecologicalunderstanding whereas heat values would be more in line with atechnical perspective.

11 The Nicobarese feed their pigs only with coconuts once or twicea week that constitutes only 30% of their diet. The remaining 70% isobtained through scavenging. Our calculation for energetic input inthe case of pig rearing does not take into account the energy contentof food obtained through scavenging.

12 This gives an annual growth rate of 1.5%, very close to that ofmainland India.

13 Total energetic intake of pigs was calculated to be 9.2 GJ(including energy from scavenging), chickens 1.3 GJ, cows 5.4 GJ andgoats 0.7 GJ.

14 Energetic efficiency is the percentage of useful energy (2.32GJ) in relation to the DMI (39 GJ).

15 Calculations for energetic input for obtaining the daily riceis based using copra as the central exchange value. Energetic inputfor producing copra is calculated taking into account only human andfuel wood energy required in the process. The 170 Kcal, therefore,does not include energy of the coconuts. From the input of 170 Kcal,only 3.3 Kcal is human labour and the rest fuel wood.

16 Only in terms of total energy input and not so much in terms oftime expenditure in human labour.

17 The energetic efficiency of pig rearing is calculated takinginto account the food fed to the pigs by their owners. It does notinclude the food that is obtained by the pigs themselves throughscavenging that amounts to about 70% of their total diet.

18 Whereas the copra production process involves activities whichcould also be classified as secondary sector activities, fishing is ahunting and gathering activity and hence not part of the economy in astrict sense.

19 Pastore et al. (1996) have empirically shown high co-relationsbetween many classic indicators for material standard of living andthe energy input per hour of labour in the primary economic sectorsas expressed by the BEP. Hence, they assume that BEP can also serveas an indicator for standard of living.

20 Time investment calculations were made keeping copra as thecentral exchange value.

21 Copra production is generally undertaken once a month when foodstocks have been exhausted.

22 Colonising efficiency is the percentage of NPP (or biomass)harvested in relation to total NPP appropriated by humans from agiven area.

23 We speak of traditional society, in terms of the political,social and economic characteristics of Trinket. Although administeredby India, the elected headmen of the villages take local politicaldecisions. The extended family and village solidarity dominateNicobari social structure. Albeit a few specialized roles in thesociety, such as the priest, witchdoctor, midwife and the teacher,social stratification is nearly egalitarian on the village level. Notso on the regional level, where the traditional system of triballeaders and an elected tribal council is in place.

24 The inefficiency of pig husbandry, along similar methodologicalconcepts, has also been recorded by Rappaport (1971) in his classicstudy among the Tsembaga population of New Guinea. Besides theimportance of pigs in rituals and regulating relations between localgroups, he also attributes some ecological reasons such as being partof a food chain and converters of vegetable carbohydrates intohigh-quality protein.

25 Sang Saeng is an agrarian, ethnic Lao village in northeastThailand where the population live primarily from rice farming andmigratory labour.

26 The DMI & DMC of industrial economies (1996) are based onthe unweighted averages of UK, Austria, Germany, Japan and theNetherlands. The DEI, DEC and HANPP stated for industrial economiesrepresents the data for Austria (1990) alone.


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