PNG farmers use agroforestry to fight crop diseases and reduce labor

  • Papua New Guinea’s predominantly agricultural society practices agroforestry — the cropping of useful fruit and nut trees with understory vines, shrubs and vegetables in a forest-mimicking system — widely.
  • The practice produces a wide array of products for farmers, from areca nuts to coconuts and cacao, and is seen as a tool to address the country’s issues of rapid population growth and shrinking land resources.
  • Farmers in the eastern province of Morobe are experimenting with different combinations of cash crops and trees to deal with disease challenges and to reduce labor.
  • Agroforestry also sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provides homes and forage for wild creatures here, ranging from boars to bandicoots.

LAE, Papua New Guinea — Across the more than 600 islands that make up Papua New Guinea, the majority of the country’s culturally diverse population relies on agriculture for both food and income.

But issues ranging from global market competition for cash crops such as coffee, to a shortage of manual labor, to waves of diseases that have heavily impacted important crops, have left many communities striving to diversify and improve what they grow.

To do this, farmers in both the country’s rural highlands and lowlands, where 85 percent of the population live, are leaning on a traditional subsistence practice to improve their livelihoods: agroforestry.

Bokson Kilau surveys his cacao crop, planted next to a series of gliricidia shade trees and the odd banana palm. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

A sustainable system

Already used by many communities around the world, agroforestry is seen as an increasingly important method of farming as it combines food crops and trees in a single area of land. By allowing for the production of food as well as things like timber, agroforestry can have a number of positive economic and environmental impacts. The practice supports biodiversity by mimicking natural forests, improves soil quality and diversifies the use of its nutrients, and sequesters far more carbon dioxide than monoculture crops.

PNG’s traditional agroforestry is applied differently across the country and is shaped by a number of factors. These include geography, weather, tribal groups, types of crops grown, and, of course, amount of land available. Historically, more than 95 percent of the land in PNG has been under the control of traditional clans — a number that international organizations say has dropped to 85 percent as the government continues to grant special agricultural and business leases, or SABLs, to international companies.

Despite these ongoing challenges, clans continue to distribute traditionally owned land through culturally diverse systems to members for their subsistence needs.

These rich agricultural systems can generally be seen as intensely intercropped kai kai, or food, gardens, growing sustenance crops from yams to corn, taro, pineapples, bananas and peanuts, as well as income-generating cash crops species like coconut trees (Cocos nucifera) planted alongside cacao (Theobroma cacao), vanilla, and areca palms (Areca catechu), among many others.

While traditional crops and staple foods remain, many have diversified these densely intercropped systems to increase their socioeconomic standing and deal with both external and internal pressures.

In the mountains of the Eastern Highlands province, for example, farmers who previously relied on growing mostly coffee for a living are now cultivating citrus trees and strawberries next to casuarina trees; the latter provide important shade for seedlings in the short term and can be cut for construction material and firewood in the long term.

In the northern Madang province, clans are increasingly looking to their established agroforestry systems to help alleviate growing population pressure on their food security and land, and to conserve their local environment.

Cacao being dried in the Markham Valley. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

But beyond easing the impact of social and dynamic market pressures, agroforestry has also helped communities in certain parts of the country deal with the impacts from nature.

Disease strikes profitable crops

In the vast savanna of Markham Valley, in PNG’s Morobe province, a disease that began sweeping the region in the early 2000s saw many communities lose their most profitable cash crop, the areca nut.

“Back in 2007, insects just came and wiped them out,” says Jim Kelly, a farmer from the small village of Bampu.

From his mother’s home garden, known in Bampu as a gom gain, Kelly points to a struggling areca palm growing next to a banana tree, a papaya tree, and over a series of cucumbers, pumpkins, and leafy greens known as aibika (Abelmoschus manihot).

“We planted [the areca palm] to see how it would go, but I can already see that the nuts at the top of the palm are small. They still get sick,” he says.

Commonly known in PNG as buai, the areca nut is a widely used traditional stimulant that can stave off hunger, increase focus, and impart a mild sense of euphoria. Apart from being linked to the rapid rise of mouth cancers throughout the country by the World Health Organization, the plant’s drupe, which is chewed in combination with a daka “mustard stick” dipped in crushed seashells, is arguably one of PNG’s most lucrative cash crops.

Since the demise of the areca nut in Markham, Bampu and other communities in the area have turned their efforts toward harvesting coconuts, which sell at local markets for around 1 kina (about 30 U.S. cents) each, and cacao for chocolate, sold as either wet beans ($90 per bag) or as the more expensive fermented dry beans to local exporters for the equivalent of $180 a bag.

In Bampu, both of these income-generating species can be found growing either alongside or within dense food crop systems that can include banana and mango trees, taro, corn, tomatoes, pumpkins and watermelons, as well as a fast-growing tree called gliricidia (Gliricidia sepium).

Pineapples grow next to taro, pumpkins and banana trees in a Markham Valley agroforestry system. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

According to Kelly, this agroforestry system has a number of tangible advantages that help the community maintain their incomes and ensure food security.

The shade provided by gliricidia, he says, is vital for the development of young cacao seedlings. Once a cacao tree has matured, the gliricidia is cut down and used for firewood. Because of the time and energy required to manage the cash crops and the shade trees, the understory of pumpkins and watermelons also helps farmers keep down problematic weeds.

The numerous home gardens and cash crop blocks also reflect the few forested areas that remain on the community’s land. The ones located further from the village tend to attract wild pigs, bandicoots and large birds of prey commonly found in the mountains that flank the valley floor.

More importantly, Kelly says, planting different types of crops together ensures a good level of food security throughout the year, even during the intense dry seasons experienced in the 160-kilometer-long (100-mile) valley.

“We like to plant everything in one block. When there is drought one crop dies but others survive,” he says.

A cacao drying oven (“fermentary”). Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

Limits for small-scale farmers

PNG exports its cacao largely to countries like Malaysia, the United States and Singapore, but it also supplies important chocolate-producing markets like Belgium. Although still far behind large producers in Africa, PNG has steadily increased its output of cacao to the world market over the past three years, fueled mostly by small-scale farmers across the country.

“There has been an increase in cacao farming [in the Markham] area, both because of the price as well as the availability of buyers in the valley,” says Nathan Wampe, a forest environment researcher at Ramu Agri-Industries Ltd (RAIL). “There are about three new mayor buyers and previously there was only one.”

Although Bampu and other communities across the Markham Valley have managed to maintain a relatively stable level of income by effectively bringing cacao into their agroforestry mix, their ability to further increase profits is limited as farming is still a largely manual task carried out by the family unit.

According to Wampe, farmers in areas like Markham and the nearby Ramu Valley who are increasingly reliant on their cacao yields can be hindered by the gliricidia shade trees they use.

“Gliricidia provides a good canopy of shade, but one of the issues with [this species] here is the labor. It grows really fast and you have to constantly prune it,” says Wampe, who is undertaking a community forestry project alongside the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and the University of Sunshine Coast in the Ramu and Marhkham valleys.

“If you are just one person looking after this area [of cacao], during the rainy season [gliricidia] just grows out of proportion. You have to trim it continuously,” he says, adding that one of the aims of the ACIAR project — in partnership with RAIL —  will be to promote the use of eucalyptus trees (Eucalyptus pellita) in combination with cacao crops.

An Atzunas community member scrapes away bark from the gliricidia, which dries out the tree and helps farmers manage the fast-growing species. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

This, he says, can ease the pressure on the communities in a number of ways.

“If you look at [eucalyptus], you multiply the benefits of it. You have shade, materials for housing construction, and it’s a good fuel for firewood,” he says.

Both the Ramu and Markham valleys have been heavily impacted by community and large-scale agriculture, including sugarcane, palm oil, and coconut plantations. With forested areas in the valleys and the surrounding mountains on the decline, communities are having to venture further into their remaining forest to gather materials traditionally used for housing.

Buksong Kilau, a community leader from the village of  Atzunas in the Markham Valley, is hopeful that projects like the ACIAR one can help his and other villages in the region develop their agroforestry systems and, in turn, improve their livelihoods.

“Most of our income is from cacao, and [combining] with these new species of trees can help our future,” he says. He adds that members of his community have to walk for an entire day to get strong posts for their houses, while still needing to constantly tend to their food gardens and cash crops.

For Wampe, one of the main challenges of agroforestry projects comes down to understanding the complex dynamics between communities and forestry, in order for adequate systems to be promoted that will provide both short- and long-term benefits.

Jim Kelly in his mother’s diverse food garden. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

“There are two issues: the communities would like income and they want posts [for construction]. The options are there, but the turnover time is quite long [for some tree species], it may take up to 10 years,” he says.

“That’s one of the reasons we are trying out pellita [eucalyptus] with cacao. In a way, that does address both issues.”

This article is part of Mongabay’s ongoing series on agroforestry worldwide.

Banner image: Jim Kelly in the community of Bampu stands next to a young cacao tree within his mother’s food garden. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

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