The Mekeo rice project, 1950-54: Allan Boag

Writer’s notes: As it is 60 plus years since the Mekeo Rice Project was conceived, and as it was part of the history of the Administration of Papua and New Guinea of the time, even if it was not particularly successful, I thought it may be of interest for inclusion in Una Voce.

It was at Ilimo the evacuation area set-up following the eruption of Mt Lamington in 1951 that Win and I first met. Win was sponsored by “Save the Children Fund” and worked with Sister Edna Gilbert. Following Ilimo all staff moved to set up a new hospital at Saiho.

The staff consisted of Peter (Fred) Kaad (June was with him), Dr Gibbe-Brown, Bert Speer, Bill Race, Lon Tomlinson, and Gillie Ivani Champion. Janet Chester, Roger Claridge, Geoff Littler (now living in Palmwoods) Ian Wiseman and education officers Grace Moore, Bill Wilson and Merv Moodie.

We still have reunions of people who were involved with the rehabilitation of the local people, but time is taking its toll. I never regretted spending those 12 years in an interesting country. Allan Boag

It was 60 years ago, in June 1952, when I was posted to Inauaia in the Mekeo region of the Central Division of Papua. My wife, Win, and I had returned following leave and marriage in March of that year.

Before going any further it is necessary to go back to the inception of the project. In 1949 I, along with Frank Hurrell, was at Wewak when we both received notice to attend the ASOPA short course commencing in July. Not long after commencing, Frank was pulled off the course and sent down to the MIA (Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area) to gain experience in the mechanised growing of rice.

This project was the initiative of the then Director of DASF, Bill Cottrill-Dormer, with the dream of making the Mekeo area the rice bowl of TPNG involving the local people in a cash cropping venture using mechanisation in all facets of rice production.

To this end two extension stations, Inauaia on the south side of the Ungabunga River and Beipa on the northern side were established along with a plant introduction and experimental station at Epo (Bereina) downstream of Beipa.

Both Inauaia and Beipa Stations had a full complement of machinery consisting of three tractors, one of which was a TD6 tracked unit and all the necessary cultivating and planting equipment: Inauaia was also supplied with a K56 International tip truck. This was just after WWII ended when such agricultural machinery was at a premium.

The Director, Bill Dormer, relinquished that position in the Department and moved down to Inauaia to oversee the whole project with Frank Hurrell to organise the clearing and cultivation of the areas to be planted. I was posted to Inauaia to relieve Frank who was later to join with his brother Lloyd, in a plantation and farming venture in the Wau area.

Jack Lamrock, and later Geoff Angell, were at Beipa. At Epo, Thorold Sorensen was the agronomist whilst Alan Donaldson was the agricultural mechanic.

The alluvial flood plain of the Ungabunga River was flat and the soil fertile with the rice to be planted at the onset of the NW Monsoon in October/November to take advantage of the necessary rainfall to produce a crop. Yields for “up-land rice” (non paddy) were very favourable. The only drawback was the variety of rice was subject to “lodging” which necessitated harvesting by hand. Grain harvesters of the time, of which Epo had such a machine, were not very efficient in coping with lodged or flattened crops.

All was well with the 1951/52 crop and the local people were enthusiastic with the novelty of the use of machinery to produce a crop: machinery that they had never before seen.

However, when the 1952/53 season came, that enthusiasm was starting to wane due to many factors. The tedium of hand harvesting was foremost but also, the local people perceived this as a project foisted on them by the administration with no benefit to their daily lives. The whole concept of the scheme was beyond the comprehension of a people with a culture of generations of subsistence agriculture that provided sufficient food and shelter for a basic existence.

The concept of cash cropping, at that time, on such a scale as envisaged by the Department was years ahead of its time. Also like most New Guineans of the time, the Mekeo people did not embrace the work ethic of Europeans and really who could blame them for that: they were content with their simple way of life and their need of cash was a low priority.

To overcome this declining enthusiasm, it was decided to use the International truck to transport a load of villagers and their produce from each of the three villages in the Inauaia area some 16 miles to a trading point on the Aropokina River (Biotta) to barter trade with the coastal people each and every Saturday. This entailed three return 16 mile trips in the morning and the same in the afternoon.

Of course this arrangement was greeted with glee as it relieved the villagers of the tiresome trudge of carrying their produce those 16 miles each way. It was hoped that this inducement would breathe renewed interest in the project, but however it did little to engender this outcome. With the threat of discontinuing this “taxi service” the 1952/53 crop was planted and harvested.

It was later in 1953 that the Administrator, Sir Donald Cleland, visited the area to see for himself the situation regarding the project by visiting each of the three stations. As the only transport at Inauaia to negotiate the swampy areas of the track to Beipa was by tractor and trailer, there was quite an amusing sequence of events in getting the tractors mobile. Both wheeled machines were not equipped with starter motors and had to be cranked by hand. Unfortunately both had broken cranking “dogs” and had to be “tow started”: the smaller Farmall A pulled by a team of labour line so that it, in turn, could do the same for the bigger Farmall M. Whilst all this was happening, Sir Donald stood watching this charade until, with an exasperated fling of his arms, he stormed off up the track to Beipa, some 8-10 miles distant. However he was caught up with at the start of a large swampy area. The TD6 crawler tractor was waiting to tow the trailer through the swamp allowing the Farmall M to follow along behind under its own power.

With the tractor hitched to the trailer, we all bid farewell to Sir Donald still shaking his head in amazed wonderment at what he had just witnessed.

Not long after this visit by the Administrator, Bill Dormer was recalled to Moresby and later posted to Samarai. Come the day of his and wife Kathy’s departure, it was a highly emotional one for him: he unashamedly had tears in his eyes. He gave it all for the project which he most sincerely believed would benefit the Mekeo people and change their lives. How disillusioned and saddened he must have been when not one of the local people was there to farewell him and wife Kathy.

Soon after the Dormers’ departure I, with Win and baby Michael, moved into the “R” type residence that had been built for them and it had that “treasure of treasures”: a septic system.

It must have been the latter half of 1954 and after the birth of our second son in April of that year, that a delegation of ranking Administrative officers and the Administrator, Sir Donald Cleland, this time accompanied by Dame Rachel, visited Inauaia for an in depth assessment of the whole project. The officers included the Directors of DASF and Department of District Services and Native Affairs (DDS & NA), the Treasurer and, I think, the Government Secretary.

A mass meeting of the people from the three villages, centred on Inauaia, was held to hear of their opinions of the project and their reasons for its non-performance. As a lowly Assistant Agricultural Officer it was somewhat disconcerting and daunting to be accused of being responsible for the failure of the project because I had discontinued the “taxi service” of taking them to their weekly market.

However it was realised there were far more real reasons for its collapse—reasons that have earlier been mentioned. I am sure the learned members of the delegation were well aware of the short comings of the scheme that was decades before its time. Maybe, since those early 1950s, things have changed but at the time the Mekeo Rice Project was an abject failure and a costly one at that. Leave was well overdue, and following the birth of our second son in April 1954, we departed the Mekeo in October of that year with no fond memories of our stay at Inauaia for those some 28 months.


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