The agro-forestry system of Tonga includes crops used for food, medicine, and other purposes. Among these is the ‘ahi or sandalwood tree. This paper describes events that occurred in the Ha'apai region, in the early 1980s, when a trader offered to buy ‘ahi at unheard of prices. Although farmers have detailed and sophisticated knowledge of the island's ecology; in spite of the fact that Tongan lands are privately held and farmers control garden plots as individuals under the law; and that ‘ahi is prized within traditional gift exchange, the farmers of Ha'’ano harvested all their ‘ahi in the space of two years. Much of the overharvest was the result of the defensive actions of farmers. Superordinate kin (fahu) were harvesting the trees without permission, encouraging many farmers to harvest their trees defensively. Though land in Tonga is privately controlled, land, crops, or people are encumbered by the interests of, and obligations to, others. This means, as in the case of the ‘ahi tree, that the conservation potential of private property may not be realized. Nonetheless, the ongoing kinship system that supports fahu also continues to ensure biodiversity and sustainability in contemporary Tonga by regionalizing the ecology.

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