Besides oil and gas: Lessons from Highlands gardeners

Weekender

By KEVIN PAMBA
THIS article follows on from the previous onetitled “Will the phoenix rise in ‘resource- rich’ region?”published a fortnight ago.
That article is available onThe National onlineatthis link: https://www.thenational.com.pg/will-the-phoenix-rise-in-resource-rich-region/.
If you travel up the Highlands Highway, there is quite a spectacular sight along the sides of the road in the great Waghi Valley in Jiwaka and Western Highlands provinces (part of the valley stretches into WHP from Jiwaka).
There you will see bales of kaukau(sweet potato) piled up along the side of the road awaiting trucks to pick-up and truck down to markets in Madang and Lae and also shipped over toPort Moresby. The kaukau bales are also sold to other customers travelling along the highway. The locals also sell their kaukau in smaller heaps to the travelling public.
The Jiwaka folks call one of their popular kaukau varieties “Waghi Besta” and another “Rachel”. The “Waghi Besta” and “Rachel” varieties are also grown in WHP. Gardening is in the DNA of the people here with world famous archeological site of early organised agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago found at Kuk Swamp, which is located in the northern end of the Waghi Valley.
After you leave Mount Hagen city and head South into the Nebilyer Valley en route to Southern Highlands, you also find heaps of kaukau being sold by village farmers at the roadside markets. There are several popular kaukau-selling spots along the Nebilyer Valley stretch of the Highway. One kaukaumarket is just atop the decent to the Nebilyer River bridge.
The other popularkaukau market is near the turn-off into the Pacific Bible College at Pabrabuk about 15 minutes drive down from Nebilyer bridge.
At these kaukau markets you will see vehicles bound for SHP and Hela stopping by to buy kaukau, pineapple, banana, taro, tapioca, peanut, guava, beans, cucumber and other vegetables from these hard working Western Highlands village gardeners. Motorists and commuters travelling in the opposite direction do the same.
During holiday seasons and traditional ceremonies, you will also notice many Southern Highlanders and Helas buying bales of kaukau, banana and taro from the roadside markets in Nebilyer and Waghi valleys and at Mt Hagen city market for their feasts (mumu). They even buy the WHP and Jiwaka kaukau as feed for their livestock such as pigs.
The WHP and Jiwaka garden produce is also transported to markets in SHP and Hela and sold there. During my doctoral study field work in Hela few years ago, I was surprised to find the WHP/Jiwaka garden produce sold in faraway Tari town market and at Para in Hides 4, which is the epicenter of the upstream end of PNG LNG Project where the gas conditioning plant is located on the south side of the legendary Mount Gigira.
By and large, the sale of garden produce is one of the ways Western Highlanders and Jiwakans have trapped money from the big-spending petroleum project rent, royalty and grant beneficiaries in Hela and SHP. The other ways include merchandising, hardware, hospitality, entertainment (pokies parlors and night clubs) and even the underworld ‘enterprise’ of selling stolen motor vehicles and stripped parts.
Roadside markets selling similar quantities of kaukau and other garden produce as in WHP and Jiwaka diminishes after you cross the Kaugel River bridge and enter into SHP territory and travel deeper into the province and onwards to Hela.
Whatever amounts of kaukau and other garden produce that are sold in markets in SHP and Hela tend to be sufficient for immediate consumption.
One of the factors contributing to the paucity in production of garden produce in many parts of SHP and Hela is the high altitude related cold climate that makes the soil conditions poor for cultivating such food crops. This is a well-researched and documented feature of the lands in this part of PNG. This factor inhibits the people here to plant certain foods grown well in the more fertile and lower regions such as the Nebilyer and Waghi valleys and in the plains of Eastern Highlands (starting from Asaro Valley all the way to Yonki-Arona Valley).
The people of Tambul in Tambul-Nebilyer district of WHP are also affected by high altitude and associated cold climate as many of their neigbours in SHP and Hela.
These people have beaten the tyranny of high altitude and weather by successfully adopting food crops that are suitable for their conditions.
The Tambuls have found a niche in growing English potato, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, spring onion, tomato and strawberry. They are major suppliers of these fresh foods to the famous Mt Hagen market and beyond. There is a high altitude National Agricultural Research Institute (Nari) station in Tambul that supports the village farmers there.
As you travel through the plains of EHP, you also notice how the village gardeners have carved a niche in growing considerable amounts of the same food crops like their compatriots in WHP and Jiwaka. They also truck their produce down to Madang, Lae and even ship them to Port Moresby.
People of the mountainous Gembogl area in Chimbu have also found a forte in farming food crops that are tolerant to their high altitude-affected lands like their peers from Tambul. Bulb onion is one main crop the Chimbu people are growing in considerable quantities and are now sold in places like Madang market.
The growing of kaukau in large quantities in the WHP, Jiwaka and EHP – beyond the traditional domestic use- has become a source of income to enhance the livesof the villagers involved.
In April, 2014 I met one such person from the Nebilyer Valley in Port Moresby.
The enterprising young man was driving his own taxi in city. He picked me up at the taxi rank outside the domestic terminal of Jacksons International Airport and told me that his taxi business came from growing and selling kaukau.
He said after several years of working hard in growing and selling bales of kaukau in Mt Hagen, Lae and Port Moresby he quit and opted to take a break and do something else in the national capital.
The Nebilyer native said after he had a good sum of money in the bank, he left the kaukau business and relocated to Port Moresby to try his hand on taxi service. He bought two sedans from a used-car dealer and began his taxi business.
The hardworking village gardeners from WHP, Jiwaka, Chimbu and EHP have been doing their business with little or no formal support from the Government and run a largely rudimentary enterprise. These Highlands farmers do it tough with no proper handling, storage and transportation systems and facilities as found in more developed commercial agriculture elsewhere in the world.
In many instances, they lose sizeable quantities of their produce due to poor handling, transportation and storage and even from the notorious “roadblocks” caused by rain and lawlessness. These setbacks are also widely documented concerns of local farmers over the years.
The village farmers from the Highlands provinces described above have a moral lesson for the people of SHP and Hela and their mandated leaders who are intermittently caught up in self-inflicted lawlessness and disturbances to their provincial administrations.
The Nari-backed high altitude agriculture resource centre opened in Ialibu, SHP in 2014 and the inauguration of the Israeli-backed Innovative Agro-Industries trial farming sites beginning with Koroba in Hela in 2013 followed by one in Pangia in SHP are positive starts to direct the minds of the people of the two restive provinces back to the land.
These initiatives also rekindle the reasoning behind the World Bank-backed agriculture intervention program in SHP back in the late 1970s as discussed in the last article.
The World Bank-backed agriculture intervention projects include coffee and tea plantations, cattle ranches and tea and coffee processing plant that were under the ownership and management of the provincial government. These projects all shut down due to management problems in the 1990s.
For the majority of the folks in SHP and Hela, there is and must be life besides the caprices surrounding the riches from oil and gas exploitation.

  • Dr Kevin Pamba is a Divine Word University-based researcher on development communication and engagement issues in the petroleum project areas in Hela-SHP. He graduated with a PhD on the subject in March this year. Dr Pamba wrote a thesis for his PhD titled “Communicating with indigenous landowners in a liquefied natural gas project: A Papua New Guinea case study”.

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