Revisiting the plains


After more than 10 years, journalist CLIFFORD FAIPARIK retells this account of life in part of the great Sepik Plains. While on a mission funded by then Yangoru-Sausia MP Peter Wararu Waranaka, Faiparik and his team trekked to Kiniambo Village in the heart of this savannah land.
Back then, he had heard of the people’s desire to see a major agricultural venture that would open their part of East Sepik to the benefits of progress happening elsewhere in the province but all linked to urban centres, major markets and good roads. They had put their dreams in a project proposal. Whether that proposal has been adopted or lost somewhere along the paper trail between Wewak to Waigani is unclear. But under current MP Richard Maru, the Sepik Plains Agro Project spearheaded by Innovative Agro Industry Ltd has gotten off the ground and is creating employment and cash income benefits to people in the Sepik Plains. Only time will tell whether Kiniambo villagers can be fully part of this development, beat the tyranny of isolation and realise their dreams.

A Kiniambo mother frying sago at home.

THE middle of East Sepik has an ocean of savannah grassland (kunai grass) with islands of tropical rain forests and swamps scattering within it.
This ocean is known as the Sepik Plains where eyes can stretch to an endless boundary of kunai grass. This flat plain separates the mountains of the Prince Alexander Range from the mighty Sepik River and covers half of the Yangoru-Sausia, Angoram, Wosera-Gawi and Maprik electorates. And the people who live in this spacious area are known as the Sepik Plains people.
Among these people are the Kiniambo villagers from the Yangoru-Sausia electorate and they have plans to convert their 35,000 hectares of the plain into a large scale commercial rice farming area. This is their part to participate in the National Government’s 2050 vision to implement the food security programme.
To get to their village that has a population of about 1,000, one has to travel about 100km along the all-weather Sepik Highway from Wewak to Yehimpole village. From Yehimpole, a feeder dirt road of about 15km links their village with the highway. This road becomes impassable during the wet season.
They live a subsistence life by cultivating various vegetables like taro, bananas, etc. They also, hunt wild pigs, bandicoots, cassowary and other game that abundantly inhabit the kunai grasses and the forests. Within this forests are swamps where sago palms grow wild and various fresh water fish species abound. The sago palms are chopped down to make sago and protein from the river supplements the daily diet of garden food.
However, the people are handicapped to get involved in commercial activities to generate incomes to buy store goods like clothes and access services like health and education.

Locals of Kiniambo coming out to meet the visitors.

“We always struggle to obtain cash,” community leader and the Kiniambo Elementary School teacher Joshua Jinganie said.
“We struggle from selling garden foods, sago and fresh or smoked meat from the game that we catch in the bush and swamps at our village market. But then we don’t earn much because our economic activities are few and cash flow is limited. Thus we tend to sell the goods cheaply whereas at bigger markets at Yangoru station and Maprik town they would fetch twice the price we are selling at the village.
“Most times our fellow villagers don’t buy anything because they have stocks of the same produce in their houses. Neighbouring villagers are over 30km away and are reluctant to come to our market. And it is expensive to hire vehicles to bring our produce to markets in Yangoru, Maprik and Wewak due to the bad road condition and vehicles are reluctant to come here,” Jinganie lamented.
The only commercial activity that brings them satisfactory cash is producing wet cocoa beans and selling them to cocoa buyers. These cocoa buyers’ trucks usually plough their way through the impassable road to get to the village.
However, despite their difficulties they have formed the Kiniambo Co-operative Society and registered it in 2007 with the PNG Co-operative Society to bring in large scale commercial activities.
“Initially we had formed the society to benefit from the cocoa fermentry programme where the PNG Co-operative Society was donating fermentry kits worth K20, 000 to all the society groups,” Jinganie said. “But the provincial chapter is suspected to be marred with nepotism. We were one of the first formed societies yet groups that registered after us got fermentry kits and we have not got ours.”
That setback prompted them to bring a logging company in 2008 to harvest their rich kwila and teak forests. They opted for that project so that part of the agreement was for them to get royalty payments and for the improvement of their road to an all weathered road.
“However there was also a setback to that operation as the logging company harvested their logs and laid waste to some of our valuable timber resource,” Jinganie said. “Also part of the agreement was not being fulfilled by the company. So we have appealed to our MP Peter Wararu to get one Wokabaut sawmill for the society. This will enable us to harvest our own logs in a sustainable manner.
“Currently Wararu is bringing the rural electrification programme into our electorate. Timber will be in demand as people will be vying to make permanent buildings for residential and business purposes to have access to electricity. And the wokabout sawmill will enable us to process the logs to meet the demands.”
Apart from their sustainable logging proposal, their biggest enthusiasm is for a large scale rice commercial farming to utilise the fertile plains.
“We have derived a three-stage plan to get into rice production. For the first stage we will need a basic rice mill. The mill will be used as a training for us to set the foundation to acquire advance knowledge in mill maintenance and marketing before venturing into the second and third stage where sophisticated farm machinery , rice packaging and marketing and experts will be needed.
“We already have the basic knowledge in rice farming as we have planted and harvested rice since 2000. However, the unavailability of a mill has discouraged us as it is expensive for us (given our isolation and remoteness) to hire a truck for K300 to take it to Maprik to use the mobile rice mill. Sometimes we just throw the harvested rice away.
“We are enthusiastic to get involved in this venture as we have a vast landmass that borders with our neighbouring villages. The vegetation and environment is mostly savannah and swamp lands which is conducive for such production. We have given our rice proposal to Wararu and are waiting for his response.”