Agriculture key to PNG’s future

Editorial, Normal

The National – Monday, January 31, 2011

LAST week, we reported the uplifting news of the East New Britain Development Corporation paying out rebates to copra farmers in the province.
The rebate of K250,000 will go a long way to support farmers, particularly those who support children through school, during this period when school fees are a primary financial focus in many households.
The ENBDC is a wholly-owned company of the East New Britain provincial government and its support for agriculture is commendable.
Today we carry two further positive stories from the highlands of that region’s mainstay  crop – coffee.
In Wapenamanda, Enga, local MP Miki Kaeok and Kandep MP and Minister for Foreign Affairs Don Polye jointly launched the Wapenamanda coffee development and rehabilitation project last Friday.
The project includes a coffee nursery of 500,000 seedlings.
To the outsider, any mention of Enga evokes the image of the giant Porgera gold mine and riches untold from the mine.
This is largely untrue, particularly in what goes to enhancing the livelihood of local people from the rest of Enga such as the people of Wapenamanda district.
While, in truth, the Porgera mine pumps millions of kina into the coffers of the provincial government, it is largely unseen by the majority of Engans. Many live as they have lived for eons – farming the land to grow sweet potatoes, sugar cane and vegetables and raise pigs.
With the Wapenamanda coffee factory, which was built with the support of the provincial government several years back, coffee development and rehabilitation project can hopefully encourage more people to use their land to grow the crop and earn cash.
And, then, there is the other story from the Hela region which, over the weekend, had a ground breaking ceremony for its new coffee factory.
Of course, the Hela region is better known for its hydrocarbon resources than its agricultural output.
And, again, this is a largely inaccurate view.
Most people of the Southern Highlands, and even the majority of Hela’s 350,000 people, live outside of the footprints of the oil and gas projects.
If you ask them, they will proudly attest that they are Helas and they are owners of the gas and the oil but, if you visit them in their homes, they live their humble lives out as they have done for generations.
There is really no evidence of millions, and even billions, of kina having been made here.
The roads remain unsealed and most areas that do need a road have been promised them but are yet to see them.
Most of them see none of the royalty payments or any other cash benefits accruing from the projects.
All of them, however, tend their gardens and many of them are to be found with the products from those gardens in the markets that are sprinkled throughout the region.
And, in the land lies their future.
Throughout Papua New Guinea, land is the most important asset owned by the people. They are born onto the land, live by it and enter it in death. It had spiritual value for the people for millennia before it ever did attain commercial value.
And it is this that policy makers must take cognisance of.
It is encouraging that some provincial governments, such as the examples given here, are promoting agriculture.
Provincial governments must take the lead in tackling lack of sustained agriculture development.
If the Southern Highlands and Hela policy of every adult person planting 1,000 trees was to become a reality, for instance, and you multiplied 1,000 trees by 300,000 adults, that gives you 300 million coffee trees. A very conservative estimate is that one coffee tree would yield K10 worth of beans in one year. The total coffee produce for one year would be a staggering K3 billion, a third of our national budget in revenue for one province alone.
No amount of strategising or planning or vision setting can replace this principle and it begins with working the land – something that Papua New Guineans have been doing ever since they happened on this land millenniums back.
They only need better skills and equipment that science and technology can today lend for them to continue doing what they are good at.
If only agriculture can be supported to drive the economy, there would be no under development problem.
That is something to think about as we strategise and plan for the windfall money from the LNG project which can never really affect every home – even in Hela region.