PNG’s fatberg politicians: Keeping the sunshine out

I’m an Indigenous female entrepreneur: Let me introduce myself

Prisilla Manove
Prisilla Manove

| Prisilla’s Notes*

GOROKA - My father’s father lived in a complete agrarian society. What that means is that everything they ate they grew; everything they needed they made.

All labour and life revolved around both the harvest and ceremonies celebrating the harvest.

For my people, these practices happened up until the mid-21st century in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Fragments of them still happen today.

My father was educated under the Western education system by the colonial Australian Administration where assimilation into the industrious and materialistic West was the order of the day.

The once prized agrarian society was frowned upon as uncivilised and backward.

My father, so indoctrinated in this idea of the Western way of life, refused to teach his children his mother tongue, which was a direct act of rebellion since, in my country with 800 distinct languages, the mother tongue is one's identity.

Initially he wanted to assimilate the ways of the white man but he mellowed over time and eventually grasped every opportunity to celebrate and preserve his father’s culture.

By the time I reached adulthood, there were still remnants of my rich culture left.

My people, as other indigenous people of the world, are connected to the land through generations of a sacred relationship of mutual respect and reverence.

The first actual agrarian civilisation, dating back to 10,000 years BC, has been found in Western Highlands Province at Kuk Village in the Wahgi Valley, no more than 300 km from my village.

Our ties to the land can make it difficult for it to be developed commercially.

In fact, 97 % of the land in Papua New Guinea is classified as traditional land and the remaining 3% covers the church, government and private.

When my father went for higher education, true to his lineage he pursued Agriculture.

At this time, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, PNG was on the steps of independence.

There was an air of confidence in self-determination and nationalism not sensed before.

The Anglo expatriate population evaporated overseas and questions were raised about what sort of future an Indigenous government would provide considering most of the country had less than 40 years contact with the outside world, especially the Highlands.

For many people in the upcoming middle class bourgeoisie in the public service, this was a time for them to determine their own fate.

My father believed that agriculture was the way out of what the colonisers termed our way of life, that being poverty.

That we didn’t have Tupperware or television let alone much by way of clothes but still were able to lead self-sustaining lives on our own terms was disconcerting to the colonialists’ saviour complex.

To the colonial government’s credit though was its emphasis on agriculture.

Young men, like my father working in the Department of Agriculture, travelled the length and breadth of their province creating crop awareness through extension services, building nurseries and helping buyers reach markets for their produce.

At the same time, the Administration and the people worked together to build roads to accessible places and built airstrips in more remote places to help farmers transport and sell their produce.

This worked for a moment and farmers prospered. They could afford health care and education, and buy clothes and processed food.

However, much of the infrastructure of production and supply was owned by colonial interests and these could go only as far when it came to aligning Indigenous interests which provided the labour.

At the height of the vibrant commodities period in the 1970s and 80s, Papua New Guinea produced excellent coffee and honey. In the 1990’s and 00’s, local vanilla and cocoa were at their peak.

When farmers focussed on quality, we produced the best commodities renowned for their distinct flavours. They were also organically grown and fetched top dollar in niche markets.

However the government didn’t reward this by providing more funding and incentives to promote the smallholder farmers who were responsible for the bulk of production.

The inequality and bottlenecks that resulted from farmers receiving minimum prices for top dollar produce resulted in falling farm production.

For instance, annual coffee production in 1977 was about one million bags, a figure never since passed. In 2021, production was just over 700,000 bags.

Of course there are a number of different issues affecting this, but the obvious one was inequity of prices for labour intensive crops.

The government had failed to capitalise on our national strength in agriculture.

It had failed to vigilantly maintain, expand and innovate as it turned its focus on the mushrooming extractive industry and the funds provided by development aid.

This inadvertently alienated the majority of the labour force as more than 85% of the population lived in rural communities.

A lasting legacy of the colonial Administration was the narrowly-based ownership of infrastructure and production facilities by people or families associated with the government.

Most Indigenous players - large scale farmers and middlemen traders - were involved in partnerships with established houses.

Although there are now a few Indigenous-owned businesses, they are minor players even though they identify more with farmer issues and have more active social programs involving farmers and communities.

Industry in PNG has always had white faces.

I grew up picking coffee beans to pay for stationery for 30 to 50 toea (less than 10 cents) for a 10kg bucket.

During semester breaks I also worked as an administrative assistant at a coffee house to pay for university tuition.

In his own humble way my father was actively involved in the coffee industry from farm to export.

In his shadow, I was exposed to the commodities industry, its potential and promise as well as its inequalities, ineffectiveness and inefficiencies.

My interest always aligned in working with smallholders.

The more I became involved in agriculture, the greater was my desire to help farmers find and establish markets where their produce would be appreciated. I also sought to address disparities in the market.

Initially I bought vegetables and fruit from rural women to sell to urban markets.

But I realised they were spending more time on commodities earning low prices and that’s when I got involved in coffee.

It had been the elephant in the room that I never wanted to address, even though I knew so much about this industry, knowledge that trickled down to other commodities like vanilla and cocoa.

Prisilla    Coffee illusI don’t work with people with large tracts of land (although this is a myth in my country).

I work with smallholder coffee farmers to improve the quality of coffee and to find niche markets for them to sell their coffee at fairer prices.

My purpose in using social media is to have a voice and to gain greater appreciation of my journey as an Indigenous woman operating a social enterprise in PNG.

I want to communicate the challenges and triumphs I face in bringing quality coffee and other commodities to international niche markets.

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Garrett Roche

Very interesting. One does wonder about problems facing the coffee industry. We wish Prisilla all the best.

A minor query - there is a reference to Kuk as being in Jiwaka Province. However to the best of my knowledge Kuk, recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, is not in Jiwaka but it the neighbouring Western Highlands Province. It is not far from Baisu.

I know that many years ago that the the area now known as Jiwaka province was part of the older Western Highlands Province, but the place Kuk is still part of Western Highlands Province. I visited the place several years ago.

Thanks for the correction, Garry. The reference is now fixed - KJ

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