Food Forests of West New Britain PETER STACE – PNGK June 2021

Food Forests of West New Britain PETER STACE – PNGK June 2021

IN 2017, I had just finished reading a Cosmos Magazine article about archaeology in the Amazon where, over thousands of years, the jungle had become a ‘food forest’ as a result of food trees (especially Brazilian nut trees and others) being left or planted. … Amazon People living there appear to have concentrated on planting tree species that were useful for food or other purposes, such as palms, Brazil nuts, cocoa and other trees to create a kind of ‘prehistoric supermarket’ of useful forest products … (‘Earthworks shed light on secret life of the Amazon’, Cosmos, 22 February 2017)

‘Food Forests.’ I know about that! I have seen food forests before! I saw them in Papua New Guinea, on the Oil Palm West New Britain scheme in 1968.

This article stimulated my memory of the time when I as a young didiman (agricultural officer) at the then isolated oil palm settlement scheme of Tamba, West New Britain. I became aware that the ‘rainforests’ we were felling for oil palms were not virgin forests, but ‘a food forest’ developed by the Melanesian people who had lived there for thousands of years. Also, one of the pharmaceutical products of these forests probably saved my life from a severe attack of malaria.

On being posted to Tamba in 1968, one of my many duties was to supervise the felling of five acres of rain forest on each of the fifteen-acre settlement blocks before the block was allocated to a settler. This job of tree felling was contracted out to gangs of men who would fell the trees for an agreed sum of money. There were approximately one hundred and twenty blocks on Tamba.

 Often felled trees would collapse over the recently bulldozed roads and block the road. These logs had to be cut and rolled away to allow traffic through, a big job! I had a special team to do this work and, in this team, there was a man who was from Mosa Village. His name (for this story) was Joseph Bali.

The people from Mosa Village were some of the original owners of the land on which Mosa Oil Palm Plantation and the settlements were being developed. The land, along with the timber rights, had been purchased from these previous owners by the government to start the West New Britain Oil Palm Project.

Joseph Bali had been allocated a settler block on Tamba settlement, where he now lived and often walked around the roads of Tamba (with his wife and children in tow) as if he still owned the land. He would tell stories about the area, but basically saying, ‘Em ples bilong ol tumbuna bilong mi.’ (This is where my ancestors live). When asked where his ancestors were, he said, ‘Ol i-stap nabaut, sampela i-stap long wara, na sampela long ples bilong diwai, ol i-stap.’  (They are around, some are by the river and some are where the trees are, they are all here.) He said this in a very positive and knowing way.

On one occasion, I came upon a midden of obsidian chips while I was working with this team of road clearers. The midden had been opened and disturbed by the bulldozer while making the road. These chips were black with occasional grey stripes, like glass fragments, and were about twenty-five to fifty millimetres in width and of various shapes. They were very thin and very sharp. I had heard obsidian chips were used to make cutting tools, and spear heads.

This midden had obsidian artefacts on the surface, as well as below a number of pumice layers that could be seen in the road cutting, showing people had been using this place before previous eruptions of local volcanos. I had picked up a few obsidian pieces to look at and was intrigued with what I was seeing.

I had heard about the obsidian trade from Talasea.

Joseph Bali was nearby and observed me looking at the obsidian chips and said, ‘Em i botol bilong ol tumbuna bilong mi, na dispela ples ol i kolim Bamba.’ (That is the obsidian that belongs to our ancestors and this immediate place is called Bamba.) I tried to correct him and said, ‘I thought this place was Tamba not Bamba’.

His reply went something like this: ‘The people who sold the obsidian to our ancestors came from a place called Bamba near Talasea. They are good people so we called this place after them and the good obsidian they sold to us. This is Bamba not Tamba. You Australians called it Tamba, not us. This is my place, I know.’

I stood corrected. ‘So, your ancestors lived at this place you called Bamba?’ I asked Joseph.

‘Yes!’ he answered, ‘We would come and collect fruit from the trees, when it was the trees’ time to have fruit. We would also hunt pigs and cassowaries that would come to eat the fruit.’ Joseph continued and said, ‘Sometimes we made houses, cleared some land and planted gardens. Bamba was an important place to our ancestors.’

I had difficulty in seeing a village of people at this place, as I looked at the jumble of felled forest trees. Huge stumps of harvested timber trees, tree heads with dying saprophytes and orchids within a generally disarrayed landscape. I was in a state of arrogant disbelief. ‘How could people live here.’ I asked Joseph Bali, to which he said (in Tok Pisin) ‘Come and I will show you.’ Walking into the felled forest, Joseph pointed at a tree stump and said, ‘This was a mango tree, and we collected the ripe fruit when they fell to the ground’. The stump showed bright red timber where the chainsaw of the timber getters had cut the tree down. Bulldozer tracks were still visible in the pumice soil. The crown of the mango tree was a jumbled mass of broken branches and dead leaves. Small, shrivelled mango fruit could be seen in the mess of the tree head.

Stone axe heads from Tamba

I remember thinking, ‘Didn’t mangoes came from India not PNG?’

Joseph showed me the ‘towan tree’ and said it had small but sweet fruit. The fruit of the towan tree I found out later is a little like lychees. Towan is also a prized timber tree. There was a strangler fig with its roots wound around itself. A fire had been lit in the hollow centre of the tree and it had burnt the tree down. The strangler fig fruit were prized by the flying foxes and pigs which scoffed the fallen fruit, also pigeons enjoyed the fig seeds. These animals in turn were hunted by the Mosa people for their prized flesh. We saw a galip nut tree lying in a tangled mass as well as a bread fruit tree with immature fruit among the shattered branches.

Within this tangled mass of dead and dying vegetation was a betel nut palm (buai); not cut down and standing clear. The palm showed signs of having grown in the shade, but now it was free and stood out like a green flagpole over the carnage of destroyed jungle. It could now supply buai to the settler who would be allocated this piece of land. The tree-cutting contractors had known a buai palm would be appreciated and had left it standing.

He then showed me four rosewood trees (nar) lying on the ground, close together. They were not big like the other trees and he said they had been used as house stumps and then they had sprouted and grown into trees after the occupants of the house had gone. The house had rotted away but the growing stumps were evidence of someone’s personal space.

Joseph stopped at the trunk of a fallen tree and said, ‘This is the ancestors’ tree,’ as he pointed with his bush knife at the still green log. He continued, ‘If we chew the bark and swallow the sap, we will see our ancestors, also if we have fever, or vomiting or feeling sick it is good for that, but only eat a little as too much and it will kill you.’

At that he took his bush knife and scraped it across the green bark revealing a milky, latex type sap. He cautiously tasted it with the tip of his finger like a customs officer tastes an unknown white powder in someone’s baggage. He then offered me some and I did the same. A powerful, bitter taste like a chewed chloroquine tablet or a Seville orange, with a hint of burnt rubber, flooded through my mouth and sinuses. It was awful, I spat it out.

I immediately supposed that this sap was a hallucinogenic drug, because if the consumers of this stuff saw their ancestors, they were having visions. I was not into that and wanted nothing more of it. The claimed pharmaceutical value I dismissed like any twenty-two-year-old who knew everything. The whole story of the ancestors’ tree I put to one side, but the food and building trees I found fascinating, and like any good agriculturalist, I asked more questions.

During this field trip into the past, Joseph Bali picked up a number of stone axe heads. Two are a dark green colour, the other a typical basalt grey with white crystals. All of them had their cutting edge broken and blunted. Joseph said the owners of these axes had died and the grieving relatives had smashed the cutting edge and then thrown the stone axes away into the bush. He gave them to me and said I could keep them as his ancestors did not need them anymore. I still have them and fifty-two years later they often give me a memory hit.

At that time, I did muse a little over the issue of clearing forests for oil palm, but I was paid to do a job and, due to the urgency of the whole program, I put the issue to one side. We had settlers to settle and oil palms to grow and in 1968 such ethics were not mainstream thought, and I don’t think they are even now. Forests are still being cleared and oil palms planted.

Sometime later, the monsoon came and rain hammered down. Rain, not a storm, but constant rain with storms imbedded in the downpour. Everything was wet and mould appeared on anything made of leather or wood. Clothes got an unforgettable odour, and personal hygiene was difficult as everything became damp. In 1968, the roads into Tamba were only bulldozed tracks, not the bitumen covered roads of today. There were no culverts to direct water away from the roads, and no bridges across small creeks. Within a few days from the start of the monsoon rains, all roads were closed, and walking was the only way to get out.

That was when I was hit with malaria. Maybe I forgot to take my chloroquine, or the background infection was too high but, after a few days of not feeling well, I came down with the fever. 

The day before I came down with the fever, Joseph Bali, with his family in tow, made his regular stop at my house to say hello, to tell a joke or stories of his ancestors. I had met his family previously and this time all were there. His wife could not speak Tok Pisin and was very shy. His eldest daughter, Mavo, was the opposite. She was about sixteen, had been to primary school and was proud of the fact she could speak a little English. She would demonstrate this by saying a few sentences in English then would quickly revert to Tok Pisin, which she spoke very rapidly. She was a bit of a chatterbox. 

They all had arrived at my house, as the fever started to make my quality of life a little confusing.  Due to the way I was feeling, they were not really welcome. However, with the isolation of Tamba and the monsoon rain tumbling down, I braved a timid greeting and welcomed my visitors to take shelter on the small veranda. Joseph soon realised I was not in a good humour and asked if I was okay, and I replied, ‘I think I am coming down with malaria.’ He recommended that I go to sleep and he would be back later.

He did come back some two or three days later with Mavo, carrying a small basket of pepper leaves (daka) and a jar of dirty-looking white liquid, which they told me was from the ancestors’ tree. In the meantime, the malaria had taken hold. I had eaten the four chloroquine tablets recommended for the treatment, but these were vomited out almost immediately. The nausea did not allow anything to stay in my stomach. The advised chloroquine tablets quickly ended up in the bucket by my bed. The promised aid post had not yet been established and the roads were closed by floodwater, so I had resigned myself to ‘sweat it out’, as others had told me of their similar experiences.

I had the standard malaria symptoms of splitting headache, hot and cold events, nausea and high temperature. I had been quite surprised at my temperature of 41ºC. I thought I was going to die. Then Joseph and Mavo came carrying bush medicine and, at that moment, I knew I was going to die! Joseph and Mavo had announced themselves at the door, and just walked in, their bare feet padding across the floor to my bedroom.

Mavo was wearing a bright red hibiscus-print blouse that was held tight around her waist with a thick cowboy belt. In the state I was in, I remember the flamboyant colour irritated me. They said ‘Hi,’ asked about my welfare, and saw I was still sick. Mavo dipped a pepper leaf into the jar of white latex sap, and offered it to me with ‘Peta, bai yu kaikai dispela daka na daunim.’ (Peter, chew this pepper leaf and swallow it). I remember waving it away with an undignified nauseous heave and mumbled something, which was probably very rude.

At that, Mavo popped the leaf into her mouth chewed it well, and then gave me a sloppy French kiss. It was not a passionate or friendly kiss; it was purely a therapeutic one as she pushed the wad of masticated leaf and ancestor tree sap into my mouth with her tongue. Then she put her hand over my mouth so I could not spit it out and said ‘Swallow’. I was too sick to object and when she said ‘swallow’, I did.

The taste of bitter Seville oranges and burnt rubber enveloped my mouth and sinuses; I thought I would be sick but I wasn’t. Soon the sense of nausea vanished, but the hallucinations started. In 1968, Doctor Who had not yet come onto television, but the hallucinations were like the start of a Doctor Who program; a twisting colour vortex of familiar music and images of important things in my life mixed into this moving kaleidoscope of turbulence. Even now, whenever I watch Dr Who shows, I have a memory of this time.

Within the hallucinations there were shelves of books, as though I was lost in a library; shelves of books with no names. They flowed past within this nightmare whirlpool. The rows of no label books flowed past until at last the books I had read showed with their authors and titles. Then there was the music.

During my time at Tamba I had a battery-powered record player and a collection of a few records. There was Beethoven’s ‘Sixth Symphony’, Mozart’s ‘Horn Concerto’ as well as Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood and their ‘Boots’ album and the song, ‘These boots are made for walking’. I often played these records in my spare time when I had batteries to power the plastic music box. The music would blast out across the jungles of Tamba with all the strength of six ‘D’ size batteries that were probably going flat.

These songs and music were the audio part of the hallucinations as the ancestors’ tree sap worked its magic. The fusion of Beethoven, Mozart, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood was interesting! (Does a young man really need drugs to have hallucinations about Nancy Sinatra?)

I had come from a strong Christian family and my personal faith is an important part of my life. The words ‘I will see Jesus in Tamba’ were part of my hallucinating.

The images of books, music and the words of ‘I will see Jesus in Tamba’ in a Dr Who whirlpool were not my only companions during this malaria time, as Mavo stayed in the house. She was either sitting or sleeping across my bedroom door. She was not talking; just sitting or lying down on the floor. This was strange as she was normally a chatterbox. She must have had a bit of a hit of the ancestors’ tree sap too, so perhaps she was spinning out. I gave her a bed sheet and pillow, which she curled up with. She was unaware of me, as I had to step over her to go to the bathroom. But it was good to know someone else was close by.

These hallucinations lasted until the fever left and I knew I was okay, but weak. Not only had the fever and hallucinations gone, but Mavo had also gone, back to her family, her space, and where things were familiar.

I felt a little sad. 

A few days later the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. Joseph Bali and his family were passing by my house and asked how I was. I was sitting on my veranda soaking up the sun like a lizard on a rock, as I was still getting my strength back. I found that sitting in the sun helped.

‘Getting better,’ I said, ‘and thanks for the help, I appreciated it.’ Mavo waved my thanks away and said, excitedly, ‘Did you meet the ancestors?

I was going to say ‘no’ but realised I had been made aware of some of the most powerful ancestors of my culture; Jesus, Beethoven, Mozart, Nancy Sinatra, and Lee Hazelwood, as well as all the books and authors of fame. All have made an impact on me, let alone Western Society! ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I didn’t see yours but I saw mine. They were writers, music makers, and Jesus. They told me to read lots of books, listen to lots of music, and care about others. Did you meet your ancestors?’

‘Oh yes,’ she replied, ‘I met my grandmother; she told me to look after you, so I stayed across the door to stop the ghosts getting to you.’

‘Thanks,’ I called out to her as Joseph Bali his and family moved away, ‘and thank your grandmother next time you see her.’

Suggested Readings:

‘Earthworks shed light on secret life of the Amazon’, Cosmos, 22 February 2017

‘Obsidian Sources at Talasea, West New Britain PNG’, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 90, 1981, No. 3,

Jim Specht 1981


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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