Thursday, September 30, 2010

Coffee growers and coffee dreamers- an industry governed by complacency

John Fowke
The arrival of coffee into the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where it is the only major source of cash to a fast-expanding rural population, coincided with the arrival of roads, airstrips, Christian missions and the “gavman”.
Sharp, steel cutting-edges, the like of which had never been seen; the concept of saws, hammers and nails rather than bush-rope for building; matches, mirrors and copious quantities of sea-salt as opposed to laboriously-produced salts of potassium derived from ashes and from isolated up-wellings of mineralised mud were magic.
The products of some supernatural place in the sky where white people came from.
Soon, though, the Highlanders, like their coastal cousins long before them, accepted the truth; the reality that all these marvellous things were made by the hands of people like themselves.
 The word of Christ and the new right to walk feely and without hindrance from enemies upon the “rot bilong gavman” were new marvels, also.
And as time passed, they became convinced in large numbers that what the white “didiman” said was true.
That by planting the seeds from the small, red fruit call “kofi”, they might gain a source of the “moni” which was the preferred medium of exchange at the few trade-stores which had opened here and there.
In this way a huge social revolution, the like of which has scarce occurred so dramatically and in such a short period of time anywhere in the world swept the Highlands.
A social revolution, indeed a turning-point in PNG history- nothing since has provided so much stimulation, so much excitement, nor launched so much novel and productive activity.
Today, however, coffee is just something that’s always been there.
Young people, especially those living in peri-urban and highway-side villages know and care little for coffee.
The growers are mostly middle-aged subsistence farmers, who inherited their coffee from a generation now gone.
They are not small businessmen.
Not businessmen who worry about their cash-position and the condition of their fields or their livestock, like dairy-farmers or vegetable-farmers do in other lands where farming is industrialised.
Coffee has an importance, alongside and not superior to their crops of sweet-potato, taro, banana and kumu, and their pigs and chickens.
It is part of a complex system, an inherited system of living which modernity is pressing upon in many ways.
And today PNG’s national coffee-tree population is to a large extent aged and worn out- more than ready for retirement.
In other words, due for replacement by new young, vigorous plants which will do justice to the valuable land upon which they grow and bear fruit.
But nowhere is their any sign that growers, or anyone else associated with PNG’s second-largest agricultural money-earner is awake to the approaching death of what some have called “the money-tree industry”.
 Across the Highlands and the other minor coffee-growing districts something in the order of 160 million- yes, that’s right, 160 million- senile, unproductive coffee trees continue to occupy good land.
This is an emergency situation – one with serious implications as far as social order, health and wellbeing in the Highlands is concerned- and it is a situation which is not recognised, and for which well-based planning is not on the table.
The “think big” politically-driven policies over many years have shown no statistically-measurable result.
Here funds have been wasted on badly-managed central nurseries and in ventures like last year’s “coffee renovation project”.
 Here a rumoured K3 million was spent in buying tools from small, local hardware shops and distributing these to growers with little accountability and no apparent result.
There has been no recognition, in spite of frequent reminders by this writer and others with a genuine interest in the industry, that a massive grower-initiated replanting programme is absolutely essential to the continued prosperity of PNG’s valuable coffee industry.
 No recognition; no mention in the grandiose, “Golden Future” projects and targets which are announced regularly as harbingers of coming PNG-wide wellbeing.  
During the coming 20 years, the present-day middle-aged generation of landowners will pass on, together with their knowledge of coffee, and of all the traditional boundaries and customary usufructary rights to land now occupied by coffee and other permanent tree-crops.
No one is thinking about this so far as is known.
It is a looming social calamity.
All the talk about land registration is so much nonsense until detailed mapping of customarily-recognised landholdings and usufructary rights to bushland, hunting and fishing places, old communally-established coconut groves planted in the 1930s, and standing bush food and fruit trees is accomplished.
The situation which may prevail once the generation which still preserves all this knowledge passes is almost beyond imagining.
 Our extension-services and several generously-funded coffee related aid projects have always treated the coffee-growers as if they were little professional farmers, or persons ready to become such.
They have not taken a more thoughtful, sociology-based / traditional economy-based approach, one in which both the practice and the logic of the subsistence economy and the imperatives which drive it are considered.
 Advisory input has always been a westernised, we-know-best approach.
One where people who have spent years gaining degrees in modern agro-technology attempt to intermesh this theoretical knowledge with systems, thoughts and imperatives which have grown and been practiced successfully in PNG for the past 8, 000 years.   As for the fast-vanishing managed plantation sector, once hailed as the flagship of the coffee industry, this is faced with the effect of many years of widespread mis-management and impossibly high costs in every direction, besides an aging and generally poor treestock.
Producing around 6% of today’s export volume and buying and blending in a further 6% from surrounding village growers, this sector with very few exceptions is on its last legs.
One of the exceptions is the Warawou Plantation of Max Kumbamong, a life-long coffee man of Mt. Hagen.
Kumbamong, who began his career with Angco Development some 25 years ago, bought this abandoned tea-plantation which had literally turned into a jungle.
Already a successful coffee-trader with his own export company, Max has applied common-sense allied with practical, realistic farm practices to renovate more than 20 hectares of old coffee and bring in a further 80 hectares of new trees planted on cleared tealand.
Having restored tea-production over part of his remaining land, and selling the leaf together with bananas which are grown as shade over the newly-planted areas, Max can show all the planners and agricultural experts much which practical experience would have taught them if they had been interested and energetic enough to want to learn.
Aside from the capital purchase, his establishment costs are covered by the sale of tea-leaf and bananas, and rice which he is also growing.
 So much for all those who, like hungry dogs, howl for government grants and loans to help them become coffee kings.
 Coffee dreamers, all!
Very simply, the need is for realistic, keen, idealistic “coffee-evangelists” to carry their blanket, pillow, and a small supply of coffee, sugar and biscuits with them on friendly overnight visits to villagers where they ask for overnight accommodation and spread the replanting gospel around the fire, at night, when people are open and ready to talk and to consider ideas.
Seed might be distributed at the same time, but this writer is not aware of any large quantity of improved variety seed in existence in PNG at present.
Better then that however, being much more expedient and easier and cheaper, growers might be shown how to select and grow new plants using self-sown seedlings from below their own trees.
After all, PNG’s existing coffee, though variable because of the mixed practices of 400,000 growers and far too many badly-managed and uneconomic little factories, is intrinsically, as good as coffee gets, anywhere in the world.

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