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PNG's 6,000 years of sustainable agriculture

Prisilla  FarmersPRISILLA MANOVE
| Prisilla’s Notes

GOROKA - In the remote and rugged highlands of Papua New Guinea, traditional Indigenous communities have practiced sustainable farming techniques for centuries.

Kuk in Western Highlands Province is one of the first places on earth where people started farming.

The archaeological agricultural site at Kuk consists of 116 hectares of swamps 1,500 metres above sea-level.

Nestled among towering peaks and lush rainforests, the Kuk people learned to cultivate crops in harmony with the land, using methods both efficient and environmentally friendly.

The methods were passed down through the ages, in fact they are still practised today.

If you go into any rural village where people’s lives revolve around farming, you will see these traditional practices in operation.

The lives of PNG’s rural people revolve around their understanding of traditional practices: how to properly execute a technique; how to mobilise resources; who will be available to help; and how these people will be accommodated and fed.

It spans into a conversation that last for a couple of days depending on the magnitude of the task at hand and then materialises as a social debt for the recipient.

Everyone has to participate in this work, otherwise they will go hungry. And there is no distraction from this work except for customary obligations such as bride price ceremonies and death rituals.

One traditional method is ‘slash and burn’, where farmers clear small plots of land by cutting through and burning the vegetation.

Young men, usually relatives, are mobilised and given ‘wok mak’, basic instructions on where and how the work will be done and information on how they will be provided for (food is cooked for them by the aunties).

Their work creates fertile soil for planting and helps control pests and disease.

After a few years, the land is allowed to lie fallow and rejuvenate before being cleared.

The grass and the brush is burned which releases nutrients that fertilise the soil.

So the slash and burn process successfully clears land for agriculture and introduces fertilising nutrients into the soil, leaving it in excellent condition to grow crops.

This rotation system ensures the land remains productive for generations to come.

Another technique used is terrace farming. This involves building terraces on the sides of hills and mountains which helps prevent soil erosion and also retains water for crops.

The terraces create a microclimate that is ideal for growing a variety of crops, such as sweet potatoes, yams and coffee. This approach is more common in the higher altitudes.

The indigenous communities of PNG have a deep understanding of the plants and animals that inhabit their area, and they use this knowledge to create a diverse and sustainable food system.

For instance, in their gardens they inter-crop , planting complementary crops like corn, sweet potatoes, taro, greens and cucumbers which maximise yields on a small pieces of land.

They plant trees or plants which have herbal remedies to help with ailments or act as pest repellents.

An example is a thorny leaf, salat, to apply to sore muscles.

They also practice agroforestry, planting crops alongside trees that provide shade, protect the soil and fix nitrogen in the soil.

I have also learned the idea of drip irrigation, placing a stone next to a plant which attracts moisture to the underside of the rock to feed the plant water.

Despite the challenges they face, such as climate change and the loss of traditional knowledge, these Kuk communities are determined to continue their sustainable farming practices.

Climate change has affected the planting and harvesting seasons and their work timetable.

The loss of traditional knowledge is slowly seeping away as people die of new illnesses such as malaria.

They are a shining example of how people can live in harmony with the land, and how traditional knowledge can be used to create a more sustainable future for all.

Most of this utilises the resources of the community and costs nothing but cooperation with other members of the extended family and community.

As we strive to create a more sustainable world, we can learn much from the Indigenous communities of PNG, who have been living in harmony with nature for centuries.

Their traditional farming methods provide a model for sustainable agriculture that can be adapted and applied around the world.


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Garrett Roche

Prisilla thank you for this information. Highlanders can indeed be proud of their long history in agriculture.

The heading refers to '6,000 years of sustainable agriculture' . Research reveals that the agricultural activity may actually extend back to 8,000 years or even longer.

Highlanders can be proud also that centuries of farming activity did not harm the environment but kept it in good condition.

The Kuk area is still very fertile. (The so-called 'Fertile Crescent' in the Middle East, one of the acknowledged oldest places where agriculture began, is no longer so fertile!).

More information on Kuk can be found on internet. Pamela Stewart and Andrew Strathern have information that can be downloaded:

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