The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (July 26) - The country’s generally lackluster economic performance has been due to a significant extent to an inability to increase output and productivity in the agricultural sector. With 80 to 85 percent of the population living in rural areas, gains made in agriculture have the potential to lift millions of people out of poverty.

Governments since independence have largely failed in this task, largely because of inadequate investments and problems linked to land ownership issues. Unlike most other countries, traditional crops such as coconut/copra, cocoa and coffee have been the domain of smallholders and, except in the case of palm oil, the nation has seen the withering away of plantation activity.

The incoming government will have the benefit of the recently drawn up National Agriculture Development Plan (2007 to 2016). This is the first plan of its kind and it was only officially launched in March of this year even though the National Executive Council had directed the National Department of Agriculture and Livestock to develop such as plan in September 2001.

Nevertheless, the NADP now provides an excellent road map for future development, having been drawn up, as it says, "to enhance and improve the quality of life for over 87 percent of the rural population in 89 districts and 19 provinces."

It will be up to the incoming government to ensure that the NADP is adequately funded. It has been estimated that PGK1.2 billion [US$428 million] will be needed for the 10-year period. Governments in the past have not provided adequate funding support for agriculture and important extension services will have to be revived once again.

Smallholders, who are particularly prone to wide fluctuations in world prices, need adequate support to ensure that rising productivity levels and more manageable input costs will keep their operations viable even in a climate of low prices.

But arguably what will prove extremely important is the government’s ability to improve and properly maintain the national infrastructure of roads and transport networks, which has seen significant in recent years after many years of deterioration.

Following the fall of the value of the kina over the past decade, local produce is much more competitive in local and overseas markets. High transportation costs remain a big deterrent.

A window of opportunity in this regard that has opened up recently has been the Australian government’s offer to open up its markets to some agricultural imports from PNG. To make this a reality, improved avenues for shipping and marketing need to be developed.

This is easier said than done because most smallholders like the financial and technical know-how to capture overseas markets. There are already a number of successful exporters of copra, coconut and palm oil, coffee and cocoa and some tax and other incentives could be considered to encourage some of these marketing companies to take on a broader role of exporting produce from local farmers.

This is also an activity that could be undertaken with the assistance of various commodity boards though these organizations have not proved very successful in handling such tasks in the past. Besides the challenges presented by infrastructure and marketing, the government needs to consider a strategy of promoting investment and growth in highly fertile parts of the country.

This is particularly so since John Sowei of the National Research Institute has pointed out that less than 1 percent of PNG’s total land area is classified as "very high quality land" while almost 60 percent is classified as ‘low’ or ‘extremely low’ quality land.

For example, areas that require special attention include districts such as Nuku in Sandaun province, where the land has a very high potential for cash crops although current village incomes from agriculture are very low and child malnutrition is a serious problem.

At the other end of the scale is the challenge of dealing with some three million people who live in mountainous areas, vast areas of swampland or areas prone to seasonal flooding. These people are faced with the dual challenge of having to cope with poor agricultural land that cannot produce cash crops and poor access to public infrastructure and social services.

Even if the incoming government can go part of the way in facing some of these challenges many more people could be rescued from a life of poverty.

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