Push for diversification in PNG agriculture
Push for diversification in PNG agriculture in the face of challenges such as the cocoa pod borer crisis.
There's a fresh emphasis on diversification in Papua New Guinea's agriculture sector.
While in recent years, the energy and petroleum sector has joined mining and forestry as PNG's big ticket revenue earners, the importance of agriculture has been at times overlooked.
Yet it's estimated that about three quarters of PNG people depend on small-scale agriculture for their food and livelihoods.
Moves to develop and diversify PNG's agricultural products are gaining momentum as the sector confronts some of its biggest challenges.
Johnny Blades compiled this report:
OFARA PETILANI: Agriculture is very, very important. It is the foundation of Papua New Guinea. And it will still be foundation of Papua New Guinea. I think the most important thing is that the land is owned by the people. So they can grow their crops, build their houses and do anything in terms of their survival. I think food and income are the basis of agriculture because you can grow crops and eat from directly, or you can sell and get money.
Ofara Petilani, of the National Agricultural Research Institute, believes agriculture is the greatest natural asset that PNG people have. Land grabs by foreign investors notwithstanding, the country's traditional land tenure system continues to provide the template for widespread participation of Papua New Guineans in the subsistence economy. Mr Petilani, the Research and Development Coordinator of NARI's Islands Regional Centre says one of their focuses is teaching farmers to combine traditional methods with the modern.
OFARA PETILANI: In terms of traditional crops that they are used to - like taro, cassava, banana and other crops that they are used to - they are integrated into certain designs with probably more monetary oriented crops that should be combined together with those food crops.
Traditional food gathering and preparation remain strong in rural PNG but a growing reliance on imported foods is threatening that. A New Britain woman Antonia Petilani says using traditional methods is something she encourages all other mothers to do.
ANTONIA PETILANI: Most of the veggies I got them from my backyard garden. I also grow veggies like cabbages, tomatoes, beans, capsicum. Also including taros and bananas in my garden so many times I don't really go far to look for those types of food.
She says there are plenty of other uses for the crops.
ANTONIA PETILANI: Oh yes, example like the coconut, we also make our own oil at home for cooking and also for our bodies like that. And also there are other things that we process like the tapioca - we grow the tapioca and then we grate the tapioca, then we dry it in the sun and make flour out of it. So for example, instead of going to the shops to buy flour, we can make our own flour at home.
However, PNG agriculture has recently been in crisis, partly because of the damage inflicted on the cocoa industry by the cocoa pod borer pest. Due to the pest, cocoa production in East New Britain plummeted by 82 percent between 2008 and 2012. Other cocoa-growing provinces, like East Sepik and Bougainville, have had a similar decline. Now, the World Bank is helping finance PNG's efforts to rebound from the borer devastation, with a US$30 million package announced in February for the Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Project involving partners such as NARI. This involves training farmers to manage the pest and developing hybrid plants that are more pod borer resistant. A NARI-affiliated scientist Louis Kulika says one of the project's components targets 500 women farmers who are members of co-operatives.
LOUIS KULIKA: And the main goal of this is to rehabilitate one hectare of cocoa for each of the five hundred women farmers that we have who belong to the six co-operatives. And that is our main commodity crop. But for cocoa, it's not only rehabilitating the cocoa per one hectare block - the project goes further, to establish cocoa nurseries.
However the pod borer crisis has meant many cocoa farmers are faced with a stark decision if they wish to continue with multi-cropping, according to Dennis Hill who runs a Virgin Coconut Oil business out of Kerevat.
DENNIS HILL: The farmers supplying us are certified as organic. They really have to make that decision. If they want to stick with their cocoa, they have to manage without insecticides. A lot of our farmers in the long term will make the decision to stick with coconuts only, which will give them a better yield of coconuts, and our purchasing pricing reflects that, that they don't have two crops off the one area of ground.
Meanwhile, Louis Kulika says the new management practices for cocoa plantations will gradually transform the industry. He says the current way of growing cocoa, through subsistence type small holder arrangements, is no longer appropriate for managing things like the pod borer pest. Mr Kulika says the new partnership programme, the PPAP, features a diversification drive.
LOUIS KULIKA: You focus on cocoa as your main commodity crop because that is a crop that we already have established markets for. But we are also looking at galip as another crop that should diversify in terms of if indeed it becomes an industry and we believe it's heading that way.
The national government has recently earmarked more funds for road projects designed to improve access to markets for rural farming communities. But Ofara Petilani says the government should still direct more resources to capitalising on the country's agriculture potential.
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