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Coin Shortage, Tooth Surplus for Solomon Islands
solomon islandsBy Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News
June 18, 2008
solomon islands

Here we go again. Yes, yet another nation is reporting a coinage shortage, this time it being the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific Ocean region. The difference between this shortage and shortages in other such places as India and China is that primitive money items traditionally used in barter may become a handy backup in the Solomons.

The Central Bank of Solomon Islands has called on citizens of the island nation to cash in their coins. Both the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Radio New Zealand International reported May 1 that Solomon Island businesses and local merchants were simply running out of coins to use in commerce.

Part of the problem, according to the ABC, is that "The low value of coins in Solomon Islands' currency has led many there to either hoard them, or to give them as gifts to children." RNZ added, "However, the number of people doing this is starting to affect businesses."

Denton Rarawa is the acting governor of the Central Bank of Solomon Islands. He was recently quoted by both sources as saying, "When coins don't come back into the system we have to continuously mint new coins," adding, "The bank has now begun a public appeal asking Solomon Islanders to cash in their coins for [bank] notes."

So, what do you do if you live or work in this South Pacific archipelago and run out of coins to use in commerce? According to an April 30 Wall Street Journal article by Yaroslav Trofimov, you do business the old fashion way. You use dolphin teeth.

Have any doubts about if dolphin teeth, wild dog teeth, tapa cloth, feathers of specific exotic and likely endangered species of birds, or any of a number of other things that were at one time used as what in numismatics is usually dubbed "odd and curious money?" Ask the International Primitive Money Society. To put in a shameless plug for the IPMS, the organization can be contacted at 2471 SW 37 St., Ocala, Fla. 34474 or through Charles Opitz at The IPMS meets at the annual American Numismatic Association convention. It will hold its next meeting in Baltimore Aug. 1 at 4 p.m. in Room 318. The IPMS publishes a newsletter twice a year containing original articles on primitive money and offers free ads to members.

Getting back to Trofimov's Wall Street Journal article, the author states: "Over the past year one spinner tooth has soared in price to about two Solomon Islands dollars (26 U.S. cents), from as little as 50 Solomon Islands cents. The official currency, pegged to a global currency basket dominated by the U.S. dollar, has remained relatively stable in the period."

Apparently dolphin teeth must be all the rage in the islands. Central Bank of the Solomon Islands Governor Rick Houenipwela is described in the article as an investor in dolphin teeth, purchasing what is described as a "huge amount" a few years ago.

Houenipwela is quoted in the article as saying, "Dolphin teeth are like gold. You keep them as a store of wealth - just as if you'd put money in a bank." It doesn't sound as if Houenipwela's commodity position will encourage people to want to put Solomon Island coins back into circulation.

Houenipwela has had his chance to literally put his dolphin teeth into the bank. Some time ago he was approached by local Solomon Island businessmen who wanted to establish a bank in which dolphin teeth could be deposited. Houenipwela declined the request not because he didn't think it was a good idea, but because only conventional currency can be deposited in banks under Solomon Islands law.

Depending on your attitude toward wildlife conservation you may approve or disapprove of dolphin teeth being used as money. You don't have to kill anything to produce coins, although the soaring price of the metal of which coins are composed may kill your wallet.

According to the Trofimov article, "Hundreds of animals are killed at a time in regular hunts, usually off the large island of Malaita. Dolphin flesh provides protein for the villagers. The teeth are used like cash to buy local produce. Fifty teeth will purchase a pig; a handful are enough for some yams and cassava."

Believe it or not, according to Trofimov, the ancient native tradition of purchasing the bride with dolphin teeth is alive and well, also encouraging the use of odd and primitive money over that of metal coins. The Wall Street Journal article identifies one individual as needing 5,000 teeth for an upcoming double wedding of his two sons. This individual ordered the teeth through someone at a hunting village in Malaita. Wouldn't it be cheaper to simply write a check?

The natives aren't particularly humane about how they harvest the dolphin teeth, according to Trofimov. The natives still use the traditional method of nearly suffocating the dolphin, then cutting off its head with a machete.

One individual who sells dolphin teeth was quoted in the Wall Street Journal article as saying, "The white man's money will end, but the dolphin teeth will always be there for us." It would appear the Central Bank of Solomon Islands may have a challenging time getting people to put metal coins rather than dolphin teeth back into circulation.

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