ONCE THERE WAS the Department of Agriculture, Stock & Fisheries (DASF) and its smallholder cattle projects.
These projects were the origin of not altogether apocryphal stories of small breeding herds transported with great difficulty into inaccessible areas, there to spend peacefully barren years until it was discovered a bull had not been included in the package.
Australian advisors employed by DASF (today's Department of Agrioculture and Livestock) formulated the scheme in the late sixties, and the then PNG Development Bank (now the Rural Development Bank) provided the finance.
It was said with truth that a vital, expanding cattle industry was needed in Papua New Guinea and that smallholders should form part of this. DASF would lead the way.
The picture of smallholder cattle projects can be best characterised as mini-ranches. Questions of herding on commonly-owned tribal land, and of overnight enclosure in pens or byres near the houses of the owners, were never considered.
Land titles were sought and funds were committed to build perimeter and paddock fencing and steel gates - all along Australian lines.
These small projects were not tailored to fit the average village-dweller’s subsistence lifestyle in any way.
Nor, just like the failed 20-hectare coffee scheme of sad memory, were they shaped to fit the society upon which they were imposed by DASF economists.
The cattle projects were wholly separate businesses in concept, to be run by men. This took no account of the fact of the habits of the men of PNG.
Nor that other types of smallholder enterprise, such as the harvesting and initial processing of smallholder-produced smoke dried copra, cocoa and coffee, all successful village-based enterprises, were heavily dependent, in fact reliant for their success, upon a high proportion of labour input from women.
Perhaps it was thought that cattle management, being potentially more adventurous, would attract and hold the interest of men.
Adventurous the scheme was, and not just from a banker’s viewpoint. Good quality breeding stock was imported, stock of the sort which had the capacity to maximise the conversion of grass into muscle.
These large and vigorous beasts, Angus/Brahman crossbreeds, the apple of the average Australian stockman’s eye, tended to throw the fear of the devil into their new owners.
What to do when the fearsome creatures jumped over or crashed through the expensive barbed wire fences erected with much trouble under the fond guidance of Australian advisors? How to catch them? The collective village mind was overawed.
And how to immobilise the beasts so they might be loaded, in a dormant posture, on the back of a hired village-based Toyota Hilux (that’s if there was a motor road into the project), and taken on a long, expensive trip to the nearest government abattoir to be killed and butchered and hung and chilled all in accordance with regulations imported from Australia?
Droving was not considered, for obvious reasons (too scary – think of other peoples’ gardens) and cattle trucks were only a dream.
Many a smallholder, faced with the need for ready cash, resorted to the simple expedient of immobilising a chosen beast by hiring someone who owned a shotgun to cripple it in its hindquarters.
In this way the now quiescent, bleeding beast would be hog tied and manhandled onto a small truck and taken to a village which had ordered it for a communal singsing feast.
Here it would die as required for the mumu oven, bleeding slowly to an agonised death after its throat was cut. Officers of the Rural Development Bank, of course, were never guests at such feasts.
Much later it was suggested that it may have been better, perhaps, to have looked at Indonesia or India or parts of Africa for a model.
Small and docile Asian cattle, no more difficult to handle than the pigs Papua New Guineans are accustomed to herd, lead, accommodate and hand-feed, might, it was thought, have better fitted the country and its culture.
Perhaps the concept of milking for home consumption as opposed to slaughter for sale could be introduced.
After all, all through Africa and Asia, poor villagers make cheese and yoghourt from the milk of their herded cows, and also use them as draught animals, as well as for their meat and hides.
A new, modified user-friendly smallholder cattle scheme was never activated in PNG. It is said that the smallholders still owe a large debt which remains as an “asset” on the books of the Rural Development Bank – together with the huge debt owed by defunct coffee projects.
So the project-provided cattle long ago went wild and have been provided by men, adventurous enough to approach and kill them, for general consumption.
The approach I describe is a continuing problem for all those who attempt blindly to jump a cultural boundary to help PNG society change in one way or another.
The writer is well-acquainted with a scheme which operated under the late Agriculture Bank – predecessor to Devbank of today - the so-called Coffee Client Service.
This scheme, operating from Goroka and Mount Hagen, involved several hundred coffee grower families. Guidance was given by a small team of 'barefoot didiman' overseen by two experienced coffee men, holders of Diplomas in Tropical Agriculture.
No money was available to participants, who were placed in hauslain-based groups of five families. The head of each family had to agree with the other four to support any family which, through sickness, death or criminal charge resulting in imprisonment, was ultimately unable to repay its loan.
Loans were in around K400-600 and bought a kit of basic tools, a plastic bucket, a knapsack spray and weedicide, and a small initial allocation of 12-12-18 fertiliser pellets. They were to be paid off over five years.
Those groups which wished to do so were able to buy a small hand-operated pulper to share between families. These were the K600 loans.
The scheme also provided clean bags for the dry coffee and a group-marketing system where, for dry clean coffee, a premium price was obtained and for which transport was provided by the buyer.
The initial participants all paid back their loans within the five year period of the agreement.
This was and is a record in the annals of small agriculture production in PNG. In later years, with constantly-changing management, the scheme closed and eventually the Goroka-based subsidiary of Devbank, which ran it, also closed down.
This was around the time of the demise of another worldwide-recognised Devbank scheme, the Stretpasin Stoa scheme.
In later years a similar but more ambitious project was approved for funding by the European Union to the amount of some K2.7 million.
This was conceived and managed by the Coffee Industry Corporation. Named Stretpasin Kopi Maket, it didn’t get far off the ground. After a year or so of inactivity, the EU withdrew the funding.
Similar schemes for smallholder timber harvesting and for cattle, based upon a breed of small beasts from Indonesia, have been mooted, but not stirred interest.
In 2003 I was told by an associate, who comes from the area, that a DAL station situated a little south of the Wewak-Maprik road contained the nucleus stock of small, docile cattle from Indonesia.
She told me that like many DAL experimental stations in Sepik and Morobe and the Highlands, the place was defunct and the cattle roaming, becoming feral as new generations grew in isolation.
Those Papua New Guineans who have skills and drive enough to become successful entrepreneurs travel in the world of business.
But in development-orientated NGOs and government departments, the receipt of a regular salary seems to dim idealism. This is both a national characteristic and a curse.
I wonder how successful the ban on imported fatty meats, shoddy clothing and household goods will be when its proponents meet the assertive entrepreneurs active in these fields.