The inside view: Give Papua New Guinea agriculture the break it needs
Paul Barker argues for a far greater emphasis on Papua New Guinea’s largest and most widespread economic activity—agriculture.
Lip service is often paid to the importance of the agricultural sector, which provides the livelihoods for over 80% of Papua New Guinea’s population. Concern is also expressed at the level of urban population growth and the limited capacity of PNG’s towns to absorb such numbers.
Yet, for years, successive governments have largely ignored the needs of rural households.
The sector’s institutions certainly need reform to make them accountable, principally to PNG’s own farmers. Some can certainly be merged, and the Department of Agriculture and Livestock converted into a largely producer-controlled, professional and responsive organisation.
But neither agriculture’s prospects, nor other industries’ (including manufacturing or tourism), can be guaranteed unless the economy is competitive.
The O’Neill Government’s commitment and focus on infrastructure, law and order, education and health, and especially shifting funds to the Districts, sustainable development and diversification is a welcome and overdue shift in favour of ordinary PNG households and rural areas, including suffering farmers (if the capacity is there to implement the bold aims).
Whether they are rural or periurban farmers/gardeners, PNG’s producers require:
• land (usually just a few hectares), with adequate tenure security to make long-term commitments
• market access (that they are sufficiently close to market outlets, or a reliable road, air or shipping service to get produce out without it deteriorating unduly) • adequate price, which in turns requires
• suitable and consistent world or local market, which in agriculture is often not the case. Stabilisation schemes were provided hitherto in PNG for some major crops to reduce price/income fluctuations • suitable exchange rate (i.e. that the kina is not too strong against the currency—often US dollars for cash crops—in which the product price is set). With major influxes of foreign exchange into PNG for resource projects, the kina tends to appreciate,
undermining farmer prices and returns.
• safety, security and low risk of produce theft
• availability of quality and pest/disease-resistant planting material
• skills (in production, marketing and business)
• market information and know-how, especially entailing new
material or how to add value • access to improved producer support, through cooperatives,
group marketing and private partnerships • access to savings, credit and advice • risk minimisation through crop diversification, stabilisation or support arrangements when prices fall below a certain threshold, and insurance.
PNG has millennia of agricultural production and skills behind it. It has good agricultural land. The country has no option but to foster its agricultural sector and associated downstream processing and value-adding, both as it provides sound long-term and broad-based opportunities for the majority of the population, and also because there are no options to absorb its fast-growing workforce for the foreseeable future.
The cost of living is extraordinarily high, even for a developed country. Going for top-quality niche products is one way to overcome high costs, but it’s crucial that these overall costs are reduced to really increase opportunities. Many of these costs fall in the category of ‘public goods’ provided by the State. Poor roads, policing, utilities, extension services etc. undermine business and opportunities, but could be addressed if government uses its revenue much more effectively and accountably.
Now is the chance for government to demonstrate that it recognises the critical role of agriculture in providing broad household needs and income, as well as 30% of GDP and sustainable production and exports.
Paul Barker is Director of the Papua New Guinea Institute of National Affairs, a privately funded, non-profit think-tank based in Port Moresby.
‘PNG has millennia of agricultural production
and skills behind it.’
Palm oil is now PNG’s number one agricultural export.