By JOHN FOWKE
Most of what the nation’s academically-trained extensionists and researchers plus allegedly PNG-experienced Australian planners believe and tell us is not relevant to the village coffee grower today.
The growers’ main problems today are social and infrastructural ones.
Generational changes in attitude; ever-worsening road access to marketplaces; first- and second-generation coffee garden-owners who are old and tired; a large majority of youngsters who are not interested in active involvement.
These are the major problems which culminate in a reluctance to re-plant a national tree-stock which is well past its prime.
The 1950’s/’60s/70’s trees are like their owners- they are tired and old and they have only another 10 years or so of life left to them.
Massive replanting, replanting done by individual growers, is the only answer to the immediate problem.
It’s a question of re-energising society at large - it’s a massive social problem, not a technical one.
The arrival of coffee together with roads, airstrips and the “gavman” in the Highlands some 65 years ago precipitated a social revolution and great excitement and interest in new things- it was a watershed in PNG history- nothing since has provided so much stimulation and excitement and, importantly, physical activity and commitment.
Today coffee is just something that’s always been there.
And our small coffee growers, the backbone of an industry in which they produce 90% of the total coffee crop are subsistence farmers, not small businessmen.
Not people who live, eat, sleep and dream of their business like dairy-farmers or vegetable farmers in other lands where farming is industrialised, part of a sophisticated capital-based system of production.
This needs to be made plain to all who blame the various extension agencies for declining production.
The problem is not the lack of advice.
It’s the lack of energy among the grower population.
Same story with cocoa, copra, rubber.
All the same thing.
Ageing growers, lazy or disinterested young and lack of reliable access to markets.
The much-heralded funding soon to be provided to the industry by the World Bank is to be tied to improved marketing of small-holder coffee via certification as Fairtrade or Utz Kape or any of a number of fringe marketing organisations set up in coffee consuming countries.
This with the object of gaining a premium for programme participants.
Not primarily for expansion of the yield from existing coffee lands, but for the improvement of returns as an incentive for growers to keep growing coffee.
This is seen as the key to ensuring the longevity and communal value of the industry.
As far as this goes it’s fine, but such a big sum as is being provided will far more than cover the sort of programme, I believe the concerned consultants to be planning.
And more importantly, the all-important question of re-planting gets only a vague mention.
Replanting of the 1950's /1960's/1970's coffee-gardens is absolutely crucial to the ongoing health of the coffee industry.
Not repeated renovation pruning of the already aged trees.
Renovation pruning of the present tree-stock, which is 90% senile, is like dressing an old man in new overalls and expecting him to swing a pick and shovel like a young man again.
It’s a complete waste of time, money and energy.
All the old coffee in PNG desperately needs to be replaced- and this is very simple- but growers must be persuaded to it – and this is the hard part- this is what all the planners and pollies forget- its not the agencies’ fault that the crop hasn’t grown over the past 20 years- it’s the fault of the growers themselves……laik bilong ol bai inap, em bai namba bilong kopi bai I moa iet….getting the growers to do anything is hard because those who are not “lapun nogut olgeta” are mostly disinclined because their kids will not help them - they say “ Maski, ol yangpela lain ol no inap halivim wok na lukautim gut kopi, olsem na mipla ol lapun les pinis.”
This is what the industry is looking at - willingness of growers – not the ability of the agencies.
Planting and re-planting and looking after coffee is so simple and so much a part of Highlands culture now that it really doesn’t need advisers or extension specialists at all…what it needs is either a big kick in half-a-million backsides or some very persuasive talking by someone with the charisma of the late Sir Iambakey Okuk.
As for better marketing strategies as an incentive, this is valuable and should be proceeded with.
However, all concerned must clearly understand that they are only fiddling at the edges of a big, well-controlled machine.
A machine powered by the needs and greed of six multinational coffee-roasters and brand-owners and their agencies who, since the lapse of the ICA in the ‘eighties, have gathered for their sector more than 80% of the total value of packed, processed coffee sold around the world.
Growers and exporters and internal service-providers within growing countries such as PNG share between them only 10% of the gross value of their crop as a consumer product in the wealthy parts of the world.
One cannot but remain very sceptical when one knows that the certifying agencies and associated roasters and major charities which retail the certified coffee product are simply part of this huge, selfish complex.
These self-proclaimed do-gooder organisations justify their existence by squeezing out a relatively tiny benefit to farmers whilst selling their fair-trade or organic or bird-friendly or rainforest-grown certified product in the top range of retail prices around the world.
A certified farmer in isolated Okapa in the Eastern Highlands of PNG will get the benefit of about 40 toea per kilo of green-bean equivalent compared with what he might get from a non-certified buyer.
Even this small advantage does not hold true much of the time for reason of local market variances and factors such as roadway collapses and so-on.
His product will be sold FOB by the PNG-based certified exporting agency at a premium of some 50 to 60 toea per kilo green bean, above the ruling average FOB for the relevant grade.
Thus where the average FOB lies at around K7.00 per kilo, the certified exporter will receive a bonus of 50 to 60 toea above this to pass down to the farmer via the certified miller.
Once received, say in
Who is pulling whose leg with all this feel-good stuff about helping the impoverished farmers of the tropical world?
CIC and the growers should make themselves aware of the reality of the coffee-trade, world-wide, and the part played in it by the certifying and fair-trade movement.
Then consideration should be given to using as much as is necessary of the WB project funds towards replanting PNG’s existing coffee-lands with new seedlings, as a main objective.
- John Fowke has spent most of the past 50 years living and working in rural Papua New Guinea