“Papua New Guinea is an agricultural country, our people are rural and agriculture is their life blood”, said Bernard Narakobi, Minister of Agriculture during 1994-5. “Why is it that so much of the wealth that comes in from our minerals is squandered on imported food, imported meat, imported fish? Whatever else, the import bill must be brought down, not to the exclusion of trade but to the benefit of every family unit in PNG.”
Improving efficiency to become self-sufficient in food, must, Narakobi believes, start with the nuclear family. The unit of father, mother and children forms the basic unit of production in the agriculture sector. He has worked on a development model similar to the Moshab in Israel. It creates a nucleus around which the small farmer can operate. The nucleus might include a factory, a market, support services, fertilisers, transportation, education, health and basic services. The nucleus could be joint funded or even 100% foreign funded. The farmer remains independent with a choice of selling back to the nucleus or creating his own market.
It could be that Narakobi has a chance to realise his vision in his home province of East Sepik. There is a pressing need to re-settle large numbers of mountain Arapesh who were drafted to work on the coastal plantations after 1945. The Department has surveyed an area of 10,000 hectares and worked on a plan by which the timber could pay for the whole resettlement programme, including roads
, bridges, homes, schools and clinics. It is a controversial scheme which will not please the environmentalists, comments Narakobi wryly. But it is a way forward that will avoid the squabbles over land which have characterised so many PNG developments.
A Ministerial statement in July 1995 set out the department’s objectives. The peoples of PNG were amongst the earliest agriculturists in the world but so successful were they that they had no need to advance beyond the digging stick and shallow water fishing. In the last twenty years the growth rate of agriculture is 1.0%, way below the population growth of 2.2%, yet agriculture remains the dominant economic activity for 85% of the population. It makes up 38% of formal private sector employment and it contributes 37% of GDP and one-third of export income. Despite this broad base, agriculture is in recession. This directly affects the living standards of the majority of the people. Revitalising agriculture and restructuring the rural economy has to be a key development objective for PNG.
Some projects are already under way for example the development of the tree crops sector, including coffee, cocoa, oil palm, coconut, rubber and tea. These crops account for over 94% of the total agricultural export value and engage the bulk of the population directly or indirectly. Their value has been declining on world markets. Now there should be some effort to add value before export. There may yet be a future for PNG chocolate, cocoa drinks and coffee ice-cream. PNG has a wealth of tropical fruits, mangoes, guavas, pineapples, pawpaws, bananas, but very little is done with them. The department wants to encourage processing factories to produce juice or canned fruits. Likewise a highly lucrative future can be foreseen for PNG spices, especially chilli, vanilla and cardamom. The prices are high and the weight is low so shipping costs are minimal. PNG should be able to enter the spice market at a competitive level.
Another aspect of the Agriculture Ministry which has been neglected is livestock. PNG has a few large herds of cattle but there has been some expansion recently. Now there is a quota system which should encourage people to farm cattle. A similar scheme is suggested for sheep. At present there are no more than 10,000 head in the entire country. And there are more exotic beasts. The trade in farmed crocodiles is developing, largely thanks to horizontal integration – the chicken bits are fed to the crocs.
The Ministry operates several research institutes. The Bubia Agriculture Research Centre has recently found the answer to taro leaf blight, a disease which almost wiped out the taro crops in Western Samoa. The discovery has already attracted international attention. Bubia works cooperatively with other DAL research stations at Aiyura in the Eastern Highlands, Kerevat in East New Britain, Laloki in Central Province and the Land Utilisation section in Port Moresby. Ultimately every institute, every project will need funding. DAL is looking not just to the government but to developers to put up capital in joint ventures with local landowners. This, they are sure, will be the way forward for agriculture in PNG.