Agriculture needs to be a big part of our growth


PAPUA New Guineans have worked the land for thousands of years.
Our ancestors used farming methods – like irrigation – which were far more advanced than those used by many cultural groups of their time.
It makes sense then that one of the leading industries in a developing economy like PNG should be agriculture, and that is why Prime Minister Peter O’Neill told a summit this week that agriculture is not being given the attention it deserves.
O’Neill sees agriculture as having the potential to be a major revenue earner for the country, in terms of both export and domestic consumption.
We have seen Papua New Guinea’s economy go through a bust-and-boom cycle for quite a while, largely because we depend too much on the resources sector.
While that sector has helped Papua New Guinea well – with mining seeing big growth over the past quarter of a century, complemented by oil and hydro-carbons – we seem to have lost sight of what we can do on the land, mostly because our energy in recent times have focused on what we can extract from its depths.
When we came out of independence, coffee, copra, cocoa and tea were among our main exports.
Those cash crops were produced at grassroots level in our rural communities and benefitted our people at that level of the economy.
Fishing is another area where we have seen growth, but when it comes to involving our people at the bottom of the food chain, it is agriculture which is promising the greatest potential for both the local and national markets.
We only have to look at the recent emergence of sugar and oil palm to realise what agriculture can give.
Although sugar is produced for domestic sale, other industries have shot off the Ramu cane fields; beef is up and running and targeting the local market.
And in West New Britain, livestock and oil palms are going hand in hand.
We have tried other things. Some cottage industries have tried to take off but failed. The growing of pyrethrum was once mooted as a cash crop for the rural communities, particularly in the Highlands region. In the late 1990s and early 2000s vanilla became a lucrative enterprise after the world’s leading producer, Madagascar, suffered a major disaster with vanilla disease; now with prices good, trade is flourishing – especially across the border with Indonesia.
The Highlands provinces and Morobe are seen as the food bowl of the country and these provinces have been producing large amounts of garden produce for the domestic market for years. Most sweet potatoes consumed in the country’s main cities and towns come from the Highlands.
However, as of late, agriculture has taken a backseat to other big earners like minerals, LNG and oil and as a consequence the agricultural industry suffered and declined and the momentum we gained from those early years after independence, lost.
Hopefully, things will change, but we can only be guided by what the prime minister said this week and hope this new energy will translate into tangible action that can put agriculture back on track.
The Government should take heed of the direction being taken by Rural Industries Council chairman Sir Brown Bai and develop agriculture to the point where it can contribute a sizeable chunk of our gross domestic product.
The other thing with agriculture is that it is rural based and therefore any benefits derived from it will touch the lives of our rural people.
Because of this, agriculture can drive both economic and social change in some of the poorest communities in the country.