By Wickramasinghe, Upali; Omot, Norah

Land form and land use
apua New Guinea has a total land area of 463,000 km2, which is made up of islands, lowlands (0-1,200 m), highlands (1,200-2,800 m) and higher altitude highlands (more than 2,800 m). About 27 per cent of it is populated (Hanson et al., 2001). The country is characterized by a harsh and rugged terrain and nearly two-thirds of its land area comprises a vast chain of overlapping mountain ranges and steep-sided valleys with many rivers and streams. Swamps are predominant in the south-western part of the country. A significant part of the land (about 70 per cent) is unavailable and has never been used for agriculture, due to the harshness of the terrain. The remaining 30 per cent is used for agriculture (fallows, food gardens, tree crops). Bourke et al. (2009) found that the best agricultural environments are highly populated.

People The estimated population of Papua New Guinea in 2012 is 7 million people. In 2008, the estimated population was 6.5 million (Bourke et al., 2009). The 2008 estimates show that the majority of the population (about 81 per cent or 5.3 million people) live in rural areas, 13 per cent (0.8 million people) live in urban areas and 6 per cent (0.4 million people) live in non-village rural areas. The population growth is about 2.7 per cent per annum. Most rural villagers live in small family units in scattered communities or hamlets and are dependent on subsistence farming, supplemented by cash income activities centred on tree crops, food crops, livestock and non-agricultural activities.

Contribution of agriculture to Papua New Guinea economy
Agriculture contributes about 28 per cent (2.2 billion PGK1) to the total gross domestic product (GDP). However, this estimate excludes agricultural products and services that are produced and traded through informal systems within the country. The GDP would be approximated at 37 per cent (4 billion PGK) if such products and services were considered (Ghodake, 2012). Most of the income earned from agriculture is from commodity crops: coffee, cocoa, copra, oil palm, sugar cane and rubber (Bourke et al., 2009 and Gwaiseuk, 2001).

Smallholder agriculture
Agriculture is predominantly smallholder farming with land under food cultivation usually less than 2 hectares, although a few farmers may cultivate larger areas if producing for the market. In rural areas, farmers practice shifting cultivation but the length of the fallow period is reducing as population increases. For instance, in some parts of the highlands and on smaller islands, there are population densities of over 100 people/km2 (Bourke, 2001). In some areas in the country, land is diverted to cash cropping, hence reducing the amount of land available for practicing shifting cultivation. This has led to both land intensification as well as continuous cultivation on the same piece of land (Hanson et al., 2001).

The farming systems are influenced by local environment, and are different for lowlands and highlands. Gwaiseuk (2001) mentioned four major farming systems. For the lowlands, there are sago and taro-based systems for wet areas; and yam, banana and cassava-based systems for dry areas. For the highlands and its fringes, there are taro and sweet potato-based systems while the high altitude valleys have Irish potato-based systems.

Farms are managed by family units with the family labour divided amongst various farm and household chores. Hired labour is sometimes engaged for the cultivation of larger areas at which the payment for labour is in cash or in-kind. On family farms, women spend more time on food crop production, livestock rearing and household chores. Men avail more labour to cash crops such as coffee, cocoa, copra, vanilla, etc.

Estimates from 2008 by Bourke et al. (2009) indicate that around 94 per cent of (total 5.3 million) rural villagers engage in fresh produce production. Many smallholder farmers also engage in production of cash crops such as coffee (44 per cent), cocoa (26 per cent), copra (16 per cent), oil palm and betel nuts.

Nearly 100 per cent of the food produced for home consumption, and a large amount of fresh produce aimed for the market, is organically grown. Few producers use inorganic fertilizer and pesticide on fresh produce they intend to sell.

Many smallholder producers hardly use any form of mechanization for food or crop production. Most use simple equipments such as knives, spades, etc. Many in rural communities still use digging sticks. A few farmers may own capital items such as a vehicle, wheel barrow, fermentary (for cocoa and copra processing), pulper (for coffee), etc.

Until recently, many smallholder farmers have had difficulty accessing credit/loans from banks as most farmers do not have capital assets and good planning and budgeting skills.

Food crops and livestock
Papua New Guinea depends heavily on agriculture for most of its food (83 per cent of food energy and 76 per cent of protein consumed) (Bourke et al., 2009). About 50 per cent of total agricultural output comes from agriculture of which an estimated 25 per cent is marketed (Gwaiseuk, 2001). The climate and environment are suitable to grow a wide range of food crops. The staple crops grown are banana, coconut, and root crops (sweet potato, taro, yam and cassava). Sago, an important staple, especially in parts of the country that are seasonally flooded, grows naturally in the wild while a few stands are cultivated. Of the staple foods grown, sweet potato is the most important in terms of quantity of production (around 2.9 million tons per year and accounting for 64 per cent by weight of the total production of all staples in PNG in 2000) and consumption (34 per cent of all food consumed by weight by households). Besides staple crops, both tropical and temperate vegetables are also grown, including many different types of green leafy vegetables, both in the lowlands and high-altitude areas. Tropical fruits, such as pineapple, pawpaw, guava and mango, are widely grown throughout the country.

The livestock subsector contributes about 13 per cent to agricultural production in the country (Gwaiseuk, 2001). The most important livestock in Papua New Guinea, in terms of numbers domesticated and consumed are pigs, chickens and cattle. Pig is the most important domestic animal raised for food. An estimated 1.8 million pigs are raised in villages, with relatively smaller numbers on commercial farms. An estimated 1.5 million chickens are raised in villages, but production is usually low compared to commercial production. The cattle population is around 80,000, with 80 per cent commercially maintained and the remainder owned by villagers. Other, less important animals raised for meat are ducks, rabbits, sheep and goats (Bourke et al., 2009).

Farm productivity
The yield of most staple crops and the productivity (feed efficiency and reproduction) of livestock raised in rural areas are both quite low. There is potential to improve productivity of crops, livestock and natural resources to enhance both input and output in existing farming systems. The National Agricultural Research Institute is taking the lead in improving productivity of these resources while commodity institutions are working on their respective commodities.

Cash crops and income
Agriculture is the major source of cash income for most rural villagers and provides informal employment for many people (e.g. middlemen, transport, retailing of fresh produce). It provides about 200 million PGK annually to rural village households. Arabica coffee is the main income earner, providing 32.9 per cent of rural income and involving 44.5 per cent of the rural population. Fresh food crops sold on informal open markets provide 21.7 per cent of income and involve 94 per cent of the total rural population. This is followed by cocoa at 10.9 per cent of income and 26.7 per cent of the population; betel nuts and betel pepper at 9.9 per cent of income and 35.2 per cent of the population; and copra at 8.1 per cent of income and 16.6 per cent of the population. All other crops, including oil palm, provide less than 3 per cent of income to rural people (Bourke et al., 2009). Of all the agricultural products, fresh produce is the most important cash income source for many rural households, even when compared to Arabica coffee. Since 1998, there had been a dramatic increase in the domestic marketing of food due to an increased demand for locally grown food and a coinciding devaluation of the PGK against the US dollar, resulting in poor returns to coffee producers from the highlands. In response to the low returns, many highland villagers increased production of sweet potato and other fresh foods for sale in local highland and lowland markets (Bourke et al., 2009).

Impact of climate change on Papua New Guinea agriculture
A number of changes relating to climate are currently impacting the agricultural sector. These include:

  • changes in dry and wet seasons, affecting cultivation of new gardens;
  • changes in rainfall pattern and intensity, resulting in changes in production patterns;
  • changes in flowering and seasonality of some fruit plants;
  • some traditionally coastal crops now growing higher in the highlands (e.g. coconut, betel nuts, mango, breadfruit);
  • severe damage to coastal locations, including atolls and very small islands (affecting production of food); and greater plant pest and disease incidents with higher temperatures and rainfall (Bourke et al., 2009).

Only 30 per cent of the total land in Papua New Guinea is used for agriculture but agriculture provides sustenance to more than 80 per cent of the population in the country. It provides most of the food as well as employment and cash income. Smallholder farms are small in size and managed by family units. Increases in population are leading to both land intensification and intensive cultivation but hardly any form of mechanization is used. Negative effects of climate change on agriculture are real and pose a threat to the means of survival for the majority of the people.

(References available upon request)

1 PGK (Papua New Guinea Kina) = is approximately 0.5 USD