By MALUM NALU
Where did the word ‘didiman’ (agriculturalist) come from?
We should know soon when Papua New Guinea’s veteran didiman Dr Mike Bourke gives us the answer.
“I am currently working on a paper on the term ‘didiman’ and the German agriculturalist whose surname gave us the term for those engaged in agricultural development in PNG,” he tells me.
Bourke is PNG’s longest-serving didiman.
He has now been working as a didiman in PNG for 48 years.
Bourke first came to PNG in 1970 after graduating with a degree in tropical agriculture from the University of Queensland.
He was based at the Department of Agriculture research station at Keravat near Rabaul from 1970 to 1977 where he was responsible for research on food crops and farming systems.
One of his major projects at Keravat was to map the history of land use and food production on the Gazelle Peninsula from 1875 to 1975.
Bourke researched ways to improve productivity of many food crops, particularly sweet potato, taro, pineapple and corn.
After leaving Keravat, he spent 1977 in Australia and Great Britain writing a thesis for a master of agriculture degree from University of PNG.
Then in 1978 Bourke and his family returned to PNG, this time based at Aiyura near Kainantu.
“I conducted research on ways to improve Highland food production and I described many aspects of village agriculture,” he says.
“I was the principal horticulturalist in Department of Primary Industry by then and 20 PNG and expatriate scientists reported to me on technical matters.
“I did a large projectwhich sought to understand the causes of occasional food shortages in subsistence agriculture in the Highlands.
“I conducted many long-term surveys including recording the area of food crops planted each month by 20 women in two villages over a three-year period.
“My long-term surveys of food markets in the Eastern Highlands and Southern Highlands led to intensive surveys of three markets to understand their role in the local economy.”
During his time at Aiyura, Bourke did several large national-level studies.
One he describes as a “fun project”, in which he defined the altitudinal range of 230 crop species.
“As crops and people react to rapid climate change in PNG, this information now forms the basis for understanding climate change in PNG,” Bourke says.
“In another large study, I recorded the seasonal production patternsof crops in different regions.
“I also made a start with mapping village agriculture in seven provinces.
“Later this work formed the basis for a larger project in the 1990s when my colleagues and I mapped and described village agriculture for all PNG.”
However, his time in PNG was not all didiman work.
Bourkewas a keen bushwalker and cave explorer.
He did many long walks in parts of New Britain, New Ireland and the Huon Peninsula.
He also trekkedparts of other provinces including Western, Gulf, Central, Northern, Morobe, Madang, West Sepik and the five Highland provinces.
Bourke was a pioneer cave explorer on New Britain and New Ireland.
“I organised and led expeditions to the Nakanai Range of New Britain and the Lelet Plateau of New Ireland,” he says.
“I explored caves in many other parts of PNG, including the Muller Range in Hela and in some locations in Eastern Highlands and Chimbu.
“I founded a journal devoted to documenting PNG caves, Niugini Caver, which was published for 10 years from 1973.
“As well as documenting the caves, the journal included articles on how people used or had used caves, for example for rock art, burial and hunting.
“Some of my agricultural research gave me an excuse to spend time in villages and to walk around PNG.
“I have worked in all 85 rural districts in PNG and am perhaps one of the few people to have done so.”
After Bourke left Aiyura in 1983, he did a doctoral degree at the Australian National University.
He sought to understand the causes of food shortages in the Highlands and lived in several villages in the Aiyura area and in the Nipa area of Southern Highlands for some months as part of his study.
Bourke’s career in PNG agriculture continued after the PhD was completed as he was engaged in many rural development projects and trained didiman and villagers in improved agricultural techniques.
During the 1990s, he and other colleagues conducted extensive fieldwork in all provinces and rural districts, mapping and describing village agricultural production over a six-year period.
Thelarge database they produced complemented another comprehensive database on the physical environments in PNG, so that PNG now has some of the best information for agricultural development of any developing nation.
Bourke’s comprehensive knowledge of PNG food production was used extensively in both the 1997-98 and 2015-16 major food shortages caused by drought and frosts.
In the former drought, he organised and conducted fieldwork in many provinces.
During the latter drought, he worked closely with the Church Partnership Program, World Food Program and various PNG and international bodies on assessing the impact on food production and how best to provide relief to those short of food.
Between 2009 and 2013, Bourke was the lead for a 20-person agricultural team on the PNG LNG project.
As team leader, he was able to help his PNG didiman and didimeri colleagues to undertake one of the most-effective agricultural development projects done in PNG for many years.
With his colleague Matt Kanua, Bourke also did baseline survey work on village agriculture in remote locations in Western and Southern Highland provinces as preparatory work for the P’nyang LNG project.
He is a prolific author, having published over 360 books, papers and articles, almost all on PNG, with a few on Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and other Pacific Island countries.
This includes 11 books which he edited or wrote, over 20 major technical ‘monographs’, hundreds of scientific papers and dozens of agricultural outreach and caving articles.
Bourke’s organisational skills have not only been useful in cave exploration in remote locations. He has organised many agricultural training courses and workshops.
“There have been four major conferences devoted to food production and human nutrition in PNG between 1975 and 2000,” Bourke says.
“I initiated and helped organise three of these, as well as editing the conference proceedings for publication.
“I remain very engaged with agriculture in PNG.
“He am currently working in three agricultural development projects.
“I continue to help supervise doctoral studies of students working in PNG and Solomon Islands.
“During 2017, I gave presentations at the University of Goroka (on the impact of climate change on PNG agriculture) and at the PNG Update at UPNG (on how to access information on PNG agriculture).
“I am also drafting a major book on the domestication, introduction and adoption of hundreds of crops in PNG.”
Bourke has received several honours for his agricultural work and cave exploration in PNG, including being made a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science in 2001 and an Officer of the Order of Logohu in the PNG Independence Day honours in 2015.
He and his wife Sue live on a small farm east of Canberra in New South Wales where his large vegetable and fruit plots keep him active.
As he approaches his 70th birthday and the 48th anniversary since he commenced work as a PNG didiman, Mike Bourke hopes to continue to contribute to rural development in PNG for many more years.
By MALUM NALU