Nondugl in the 1970s: Ken Woodward

I was interested in the stories on Nondugl in the past two issues of Una Voce. I was there in 1972 with John Munul, a young economics graduate of UPNG, one of the first, who had been recruited by DASF. John was from the Nondugl area, but more on the Jimi than Wahgi side. Our job was to survey the smallholder tea industry in the area.

The flight up was not uneventful. John took a half grown tabby cat for the rels (sic) back home, restrained in a cardboard box and sent with the unaccompanied baggage. However, the cat apparently did not enjoy air travel and didn’t find the cardboard box much of a challenge. So when we landed at Goroka as soon as the cargo door was opened, a tabby ball of fur flew out and galloped down the runway, never to be seen by us again. So the rels had to go catless.

On arrival at Kagamuga we were met by a particularly racist project manager from DASF in a DASF truck. He gave us a lift to Nondugl but wouldn’t let John anywhere near the cab, condemning him to the dust in the back. After a bit of arguing, John urged me to go along with this arrangement as it was obviously not a new experience for him.

We camped at the old Hallstrom residence. It was more or less derelict at this stage but still structurally sound. We had a floor and a roof over our heads. But it was obvious that it had really been something in its day. There were the remains of concrete fish ponds in the elaborate garden, etched and stained glass in the windows and a very solid building overall. Sir Edward would have been very comfortable there during his visits.

There were neither livestock in evidence nor even much sign such as fencing, pasture paddocks or yards to show where they had been. Internal parasites had been a major problem with the sheep and this necessitated a high standard of management which would have been a challenge for smallholders, if not for DASF itself. But probably the main factor in the demise of the sheep was the arrival of coffee and tea in the area and which produced higher returns to land and labour. A sheep project was operated with some success at Menifo in the Eastern Highlands later. This was well supported by the Kiwis but I don’t know whether it has stood the test of time, particularly the inevitable withdrawal of foreign aid.

The smallholder tea farmers were located, but most of the tea was twenty feet or more high. This happens when the tea plant is not plucked or pruned. To maintain a good plucking table, the plantation needs to be harvested regularly and frequently and this is not always easy in a village situation. Transporting smallholder tea leaf to the plantations for processing would also have been a pain in the neck since it would need to be picked up several times a week and got there before it wilted too much or got too contaminated by road dust. Moreover, the tea plantations in the valley had big labour forces which needed to be fed so there was a good market for food crops, as well as the opportunity to grow coffee which is much more forgiving of irregular labour inputs.

So yet again the small farmers had worked out that small scale tea production was not the best option for them long before the learned economists and technical experts of DASF decided not to encourage smallholder tea planting. In hindsight, Sir Edward backed the wrong horse in selecting sheep as an enterprise for the area, but it probably made a lot more sense when it was started than when it was finished. I doubt if anyone in the 1950s could have foreseen how quickly the Highlands economy and new economic opportunities would develop. And he picked a beautiful part of the world for his experiment.


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