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PNG farming: dependence has led to incompetence


HUMANITY IS ON A GENERAL COURSE to betterment. It could be likened to travelling on a river a long way from the Sea of Contentment.

Papua New Guinea has some people who can compete with the best, their eyes are firmly fixed on joining the fastest. They can do it, but there is room only for the favoured few.

The villagers’ and settlers’ canoes are left far behind with hardly a tow line extended by the leaders. There is scarcely a competent farmer in all of PNG after nearly 37 years of dependence on external aid.

Competent farmers are defined by the ability to farm the same area for a generation at least.

Now, without imported rice, flour and meat, PNG would be beginning to face food security issues.

Today the farmers exploit the land and move on.

I write here today about a subject in which I have expertise and which is dear to my heart: the development of small farms in PNG.

Hunter farmers are humans who practice shifting agriculture and hunt when at all possible. Each family will slash and burn a new plot every year.

In the early civilisations (BC and AD) much settlement was on land renewed by annual flooding. Small farms were of a permanent nature and had some form of secure tenancy to enable improvements to be made; major improvements are in the hands of the rulers.

As later civilisations emerged, Asian and European nations had permanent farms and the progressive farmers knew how to put back the animal manures to renew the soil. They also knew how to make rotations of various crops to maintain fertility. These farms had tenure that allowed improvements to be made between wars.

The South American Mayan corn based civilisations apparently understood green manures.

Quite large populations supported a big government and cities on soils similar to the Trobriand Islands today; no surface water and limestone based soil, sometimes the water was many meters below the surface.

It seems that they, unlike the Trobriands, the Mayans maintained fertility by heavy use of leguminous green manures.

With this background established, I want to make some recommendations for PNG:

Encourage PNG villagers to stop slash and burn gardening, this should not be termed farming.

Villagers should be encouraged to use agricultural techniques suitable for a permanent farm.

These would include draining across the slope and crop rotation with green manures to retain fertility.

Where the land is level enough to use mechanized plowing by animal or tractor, Vetiver grass should be used to control sheet erosion.

In some areas, deep drains are needed; priority should be given to covered sub soil drains opposed to deep open drains. Deep open drains ensure that large quantities of topsoil will be eroded. The UK is still subsidizing subsoil drains to improve farmland.

Because Papua New Guineans own their own land, the village elders should give a provisional title to any land that is cleared for a permanent farm. This title should be approved and registered by the relevant PNG authority as a customary title. This title is to be transferable only other customary landowners of the area. These transfers are to allow for land consolidation within the community.

Do you think it reasonable for every PNG villager to pass a viable registered farm to his son and not a bit of forest clearing?

Consider that after a lifetime of clearing, fencing and draining there is nothing of permanent value left.

No wonder most youths consider the village to be a place of last resort, a place for the failures who cannot find a place in the “real” economy.

This attitude has to change!

Footnote: All successful nation states in the days before industrialization and the aid culture knew that they rode on the farmer’s back and the condition of agriculture and the farmers was important. In PNG most of our politicians are joined at the hip to all and any aid donors and give only lip service to the state of the village farmers.

Some relevant links:


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Tony Flynn

The article was written to fit on a little more than one page. The web sites are to give a more academic insight.

The green manure or pasture parts of farming rotations are designed to be an alternative to the bush fallow involved in slash and burn.

The principle is that the land is in use during the entire rotation. Village people do not study the why's and wherefore's of what they do. If it works it becomes a part of custom, if not it is discarded.

A question for all, why is an introduced crop maize and its various products almost completely ignored by our agriculturalists? It is not only a fresh vegetable.

The Trobriands and other coral islands suffer badly from starvation in their root crop based economy. Maize was found by the Mayas to grow well on limestone soils.

Other cultures use Maize as a storable crop to carry them through droughts. We can and should be learning from others.

Michael Lorenz

To portray it as "slash and burn" is, I think, an oversimplification of agriculture in PNG. I look upon the practice as both a disease control measure and carbon depletion dictated fallowing process.

Build up of pests and diseases over time is most likely the primary consideration.

Re the reputed utility of the "slash and burn" method, in the study that Harry mentions*, it is noted that on Tanga the fire ash that is often suggested as the reason for the slash and burn process was observed to be completely removed in the course of preparing the land for planting.

And with good reason, especially in a place like Boeng Is. which is fossil reef (i.e. high pH limestone), as the principal crops, kaukau, taro and yams all need slightly acid conditions to thrive.

The ash will raise the pH and create less than ideal conditions for these crops. In addition, disease can become more of a problem with more neutral soils.

Also, in my experience, secondary crops such as bananas and cassava (tapioc) are harvested before the land is left to fallow.

As I mentioned above, as well as disease control, I suspect that the fallowing process may be related to the depletion of what is lately called "soil carbon" (organic matter and associated soil flora and fauna).

This soil carbon provides a slow release mechanism for the production of carbon dioxide which, on conversion to sugars, oils, fibres and starches, makes up the bulk of the dry mass of plant-life.

PNG farmers have embraced many new practices and ideas in the last fifty years and remain eager to adopt methods that they perceive to be useful, provide variety or income and increase production.

In my opinion, they have generally acquitted themselves well in the tricky business of integrating agricultural innovations into their lives while minimizing the disturbance to their cultural and social fabric.

Harry Topham

Tony - Interesting viewpoint.

Whilst traditional farming methods may have had a place in earlier traditional society, with PNG’s population doubling over the past 35 years is obvious that the current agricultural systems have proved inadequate to meets the food needs of the overall population as evidenced by an increasing reliance on imported food products hence a change in mindset set is needed by the general population, the government and its planning authorities.

Whilst small pockets of land in PNG have good arability factors and potential high productivity levels, the majority of lands in PNG have poor soil qualities requiring substantial ancillary improvements either through chemical fertilisation or as you suggest perhaps utilising a holistic natural green approach.
Whilst the land quality factors could be corrected, the issue then arises as to whether the benefits envisaged would out way opportunity costs associated with the required improvements needed.

The other limitation faced is more complex in nature as it relates to the interwoven nature of PNG citizens attachment to the land and how many of today’s farming practices have deep cultural roots extending back to earlier taim bipo.

As an analogy – In 1933 a anthropologist named FLS Bell conducted detailed research into the role of food in the Tanga Society in New Ireland.

His detailed article was later published in the Publication “ Oceania” in 1946.

As Bell notes in the foreword to his article:

“The garden is the focal point of Tangan life. It is the one inescapable reality of native existence. A Tangan cannot enter into any undertaking, subscribe to any belief or satisfy any desire without reference to the garden. He cannot celebrate any social event from birth to a canoe launching without taking thought of the resources of his garden.

"He cannot make love nor can he make war without taking precautions against damage to his garden. He cannot speak of the supernatural either as it is manifest in his life or in the life to come without reference the garden.

"The first thought of the sick man and the last thought of the dying are for the garden”

Bell's work is very detailed in nature and as such is beyond further elaboration here however for any one having an interest in this matter feel free to contact me though the editor of this site for a scanned copy.

Alas my copy of this article is somewhat tattered and unfortunately the last few pages of his essay are missing.

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