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Agroforestry supports food security and conservation in Papua New Guinea

  • Papua New Guinea’s predominantly agricultural society practices agroforestry (the cropping of useful fruit and nut trees with understory vines, shrubs, and vegetables in a forest-mimicking system) widely.
  • The practice produces a wide array of products for farmers, from betel nut to coconut and cacao, and is seen as a tool to address the country’s issues of rapid population growth and shrinking land resources.
  • The diverse and predictable harvest provided by agroforestry also allows the community of Gildipasi the additional luxury of putting aside nearby areas of forest for conservation: 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) of forested areas and a marine zone have been protected in the last 18 years.
  • Agroforestry also sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provides homes and forage for wild creatures here, ranging from cockatoos to bandicoots.

GILDIPASI, Papua New Guinea — After a short walk from his community on Papua New Guinea’s northern coast, Yat Paol clears away dried leaves from a shady patch of ground and sits calmly to chew on buai, or betel nuts — one of PNG’s most sought-after agricultural products.

Although surrounded by a lush tropical forest, the respite Paol enjoys from the afternoon sun comes from one of the many cacao trees dotting his family’s small plot, planted alongside slender areca palms, the occasional banana tree, Gliricidia shade trees, and an upper story of tall coconut palms.

“Everything grows very well here in Gildipasi,” he says, referring to the area of Madang province that is home to his community of Tokain 1, as well as a handful of other villages where around 3,000 people from 25 different clans depend on subsistence agriculture and cash crops. But the land and environment are coming under increasing pressure from rapid population growth, Paol says.

A kai kai garden. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

As with the majority of PNG’s predominantly agricultural society, Gildipasi’s communities feed their families from intensely intercropped plots known as kai kai gardens, which can contain more than a dozen species of food crops in a single family plot.

For income, families grow cash crops — mostly coconut palms for copra (dried coconut flesh used for oil), areca palms for their nuts, cacao for chocolate, and the occasional vanilla bean vine — often planted together in an agroforestry system.

Agroforestry, practiced in varying ways around the world, is a method of combining food crops and trees that reflects a natural environment rather than a monocultural system. Beyond using a single area to grow both food and products like timber, this practice can improve soil quality and support biodiversity — and it sequesters much more carbon from the atmosphere than conventional farming.

Similar agricultural practices are followed by many communities across PNG’s 600 islands, decreasing the need for some to open up untouched forested areas.

Population pains, agroforestry answers

Although Paol welcomes the list of environmental benefits that this style of agriculture can bring, he also points out the need to improve the practice to help address the countrywide issue of rapid population growth.

According to the latest census (2011), PNG’s population more than doubled since 1980 to 7.3 million people. With figures now estimated to be around 8 million, the United Nations Development Programme expects this number to double again by 2050.

Packing betel nuts at Gildipasi market. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

With 85 percent of the country’s population living in rural areas, 80 percent of whom subsist on agriculture, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill this year commented on the unsustainability of the population growth rate, and experts have warned of the detrimental effects on the environment as rural communities look to maintain their levels of food security.

Mike Bourke, an honorary associate professor at Australian National University who has been working in PNG since the 1970s, questions the accuracy of the official figures but agrees that growth rates are high and putting pressure on communities across the country — specifically on smaller islands with limited land.

“In the lowland and intermediate zones [of the country] people have got away with rising populations in the past because of new crops,” he says, referring to the introduction over the past few centuries of species like sweet potato, cassava, “new world” taro and West African yam.

Although these crops have boosted agricultural productivity with shorter fallow and longer cropping periods, Bourke says they no longer maintain the same productivity levels. “You’ve had a once off [with new crops] that has taken the pressure off, but the pressure is still on.”

Agroforestry in the country, he says, can help.

“It’s more efficient and people [in PNG] have been doing this for a long time. This is in part a response to this population pressure. Once you put different species together, short and tall species, for a start they utilize the light more efficiently. Then you have less weed growth, and, thirdly, they use different nutrients,” he says. “But it’s not the silver bullet.”

John Kuta shows peanuts grown on his land. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

From his patch of shade back in Gildipasi, Paol doesn’t see agroforestry as the complete solution to his community’s future population issues either, but he does feel it can play an important role in managing it.

“Land will not grow, but our population will, too fast in fact, faster than we realize, so we have to manage with whatever we have,” he says. The challenge for him is how his community will deal with this growth and maximize their land’s resources without eradicating their natural environment.

Producing more from less

PNG contains the third largest rainforest in the world and is home to 7 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Approximately 95 percent of this ecologically important country remains under customary control of traditional clans, which allocate land to members through a complex and diverse system.

In Gildipasi, Paol and his family have been given set “blocks” by their clan to grow their food and sustain themselves economically.

Gildipasi is located two hours north of the Madang’s eponymous capital, between the shores of the Bismarck Sea and the foothills of the Adelbert Range. The region is known for its agricultural production of copra, cacao (Theobroma cacao), and, importantly, betel nut (Areca catechu), which is transported on a seemingly endless stream of small buses, vans and trucks to the highlands of the country, where the lucrative palm does not grow.

“For me and my ‘nuclear family,’ this is the few hectares of land that our clan has mapped out for us,” Paol says, motioning to his cash crop block and his wife’s food garden a few hundred meters away. With a few exceptions, these two sets of crops are often grown on separate blocks, mostly due to spacing and different sunlight needs.

A farmer in Gildipasi dries his coconuts for copra. Drying them this way rather than using fire and smoke adds value to the product. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

On the walk to the food garden, Paol points out the blocks of his cousin and brother, each with their own distinct style of cropping.

“It depends on the land. If we have enough land, we can separate them. If we are short of land, we try to manage that land to grow all the things that we can, together,” says John Natu, Paols older brother.

The food gardens themselves, some no bigger than a basketball half-court, are neatly organized areas teeming with dozens of species.

Staple foods found in these gardens include yams, sweet potatoes, taro, sago palms — also used traditionally for roofing — and a myriad of commonly used leafy greens, such as aibika (Abelmoschus manihot), also known as hibiscus spinach, and paddy oats (Gnetum gnemon). Dotted among these are pineapples, corn, sugarcane, banana trees, pitpit (Saccharum edule), peanuts, mango trees, and even papaya trees, which Paol says “spring up by themselves” after the block is burned and cleared by farmers before replanting.

This densely intercropped system, he says, allows his family to harvest foods at different times of the year and improves their food security as some crops are more resistant than others to extreme weather.

Layered cash crops

In a similar fashion to the lush gardens, each cash-crop block is unique in the way species are planted, organized and spaced. Generally, the cacao trees are grown next to copra-producing coconut palms and under Gliricidia (Gliricidia sepium), a fast-growing tree that provides much-needed shade for cacao seedlings.

A food garden teeming with plants. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

Once the cacao has matured and requires additional sunlight, the Gliricidia is either felled for firewood or pruned back and the trunk used to grow the daka vine (Piper sp.). This vine produces a string bean-like “mustard stick,” a key ingredient for the consumption of betel nuts.

Chewing betel nuts is a custom that dates back thousands of years in PNG, the Pacific Islands, and parts of Asia. On any given day, a Papua New Guinean will chew the numerous betel drupes while dipping a daka stick, coated with lime powder from crushed seashells, into their mouths. Much like coca leaf consumption by indigenous people in Latin America, chewing this betel nut cocktail can stave off hunger, reduce stress, heighten alertness, and provide a mild feeling of euphoria. However, the World Health Organization attributes rising mouth cancer rates among PNG’s population to this practice, which is highly addictive.

Combined with an insatiable daily demand for betel nuts from the rest of the country and the ability of many in the Gildipasi community to harvest the crop throughout most of the year, farmers here can earn anywhere from 300 to 800 kina ($90 to $240) per fortnight, depending on the yield and their bargaining power with buyers at the local market.

The buyers, some of whom are community members, act as middlemen who then transport the green drupes to provinces in the highlands, where profits can usually be doubled or tripled.

According to Paol, the same plot of land can produce an additional 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of copra and 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of wet cacao beans on average, which he sells for an estimated 400 kina ($120) each quarter to local buyers. Mostly driven by small-scale producers, the majority of PNG’s cacao is exported to Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, as well as the U.S. and Luxembourg, according to MIT.

The income generated, however, fluctuates depending on demand, weather, and the time and energy each family puts into tending their crops.

In the wider PNG context, Gildipasi’s communities are well positioned to profit from their agroforestry systems. The soil and rainfall are adequate, and, importantly, the communities have relatively easy access to roads and markets — vital in a country in desperate need of basic infrastructure and a reliable road network.

Cacao, coconut and areca palms growing together. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

Bourke says this income can also help ease population pressures on a community’s food security, as it allows them to buy produce rather than having to rely solely on their gardens. This, he says, is becoming an issue in regions like the highlands, where arabica coffee, the staple cash crop, has stagnated in production and dropped in price due to international competition.

Community conservation

The combined land management through agroforestry systems, food security and ability of the Gildipasi community to commercialize their cash crops has eased their need to expand agricultural areas on their land. Importantly, it has also allowed the leadership to maintain a nearly 20-year-long conservation initiative.

Since expelling logging companies in the late 1980s from Gildipasi, the tribal leadership established conservation zones to help regenerate their degraded environment.

“These companies destroyed our environments, everything,” says Cornelius Banas, a councilor for the district and one of Gildipasi’s leaders. “We knew we had to conserve [our land], so we came up with this idea.”

Since the initial agreement in 2000, and a second one in 2003, Gildipasi clans have come together every five years to renew their commitment to maintaining conservation areas, with more clans joining in every ceremony.

In 2003, three clans agreed to protect over 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of their inland forest. As of this year, 15 clans have committed to protecting 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) of forested areas, and a marine zone which is yet to be mapped.

Clans’ conservation areas (green) and former logging zones (yellow). Courtesy of Bismarck Ramu Group.

“The [trees and wildlife] are coming back because of our conservation,” Banas says. Throughout the day, birds like palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) and sulphur-crested cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) can be heard in and around the cash crops. On the ground, wild pigs and bandicoots sometimes forage around the food gardens that are closer to the intact secondary forests — though they mostly stay within these protected zones, as they are still hunted.

Despite these environmental gains, the reality remains that Gildipasi’s population is growing. More land for crops will be needed, and more materials for traditional housing will inevitably be gathered from forested areas.

Additionally, Banas says, land management concerns are increasing, with many in the community deciding to plant only cash crops on their allocated blocks. “They cause problems for themselves. We tell them that money is not for eating, it’s a tool that you use. Save some space for gardening,” he says.

With the sun waning and dinner on the horizon, Yat Paol spots a sugarcane-like clump on the periphery of his wife’s garden. He grabs a handful of the plant’s edible flowers.

“This is called pitpit. It’s a special treat,” he says with a smile, before tying the flowers together with the plant’s leaf.

Yat Paol holds edible pitpit flowers. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

“The [community] leaders have been challenging us to make do with the blocks that we already have,” he explains. “With our ever-growing population, our elders have to start thinking smart. Whilst our population is going up, the land and resources are becoming [ever more] scarce.

“And we need to conserve our land, because we are just custodians that are passing it on to our children. It will be up to them what they do with it,” he says.

This article is part of Mongabay’s ongoing series on agroforestry worldwide. View a subsequent agroforestry report from PNG’s Morobe Province here.

Editor’s note: The main cash crop in the highlands is arabica coffee, not robusta. Gliricidia (Gliricidia sepium) was noted as being a native leguminous tree popularly used to shade cacao, but it is native to the Americas, and widely naturalized outside its home region for use in agroforestry systems. The changes have been noted in the text.

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