Coffee-growers and coffee-dreamers–An industry governed by complacency: John Fowke

The arrival of coffee into the Highlands of PNG, where it is by far the major source of cash to a fast-expanding rural population, coincided with the arrival of roads, airstrips, Christian missions and the Gavman; and of course, of metal tools and a whole new world of consumable goods. 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, the people became convinced in large numbers that what the white didiman [agricultural officer] 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. A stable, self-supporting subsistence society was soon to become one driven by the same marketing based imperatives as, for better or worse, drives the rest of the world.

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 there 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, one hundred and sixty 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 three million kina 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 program 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.

The 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 8000 years. Coffee-dreamers, all.

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 tree-stock. Producing around 6% of today’s export volume and buying and blending-in a further 6% from surrounding village growers, this sector  is on its last legs.

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 re-planting 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. In fact, upon enquiry, the Coffee Research Institute’s seed-production unit at Aiyura replied: “‘Seed? No, we haven’t got any seed in stock…”

Better than relying on CRI-grown seed, 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 300,000 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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