Opinion: Give Papua New Guinea agriculture the break it needs


Paul Barker argues for a far greater emphasis on Papua New Guinea’s largest most widespread economic activity—agriculture.

An extension officer explaining effective management of cocoa blocks and containing the cocoa pod borer in East New Britain Province. Credit: Paul Barker

An extension officer explaining effective management of cocoa blocks and containing the cocoa pod borer in East New Britain Province. Credit: Paul Barker

Lip service is often paid to the importance of the agriculture sector, which provides the livelihoods for over 80% of Papua New Guinea’s population. Concern is also expressed at the level of urban population growth and the limited capacity of PNG’s towns to absorb such numbers.

The Institute of National Affairs' Paul Barker

The Institute of National Affairs’ Paul Barker

Yet, for years, successive governments have largely ignored the needs of rural households, scandalously raising, then dashing, hopes by setting up overdue sector support funding (notably, the National Agriculture Development Plan) and then largely wasting it.

The farmers’ associations, like the Rural Industries Council, could see this coming and recommended a transparent mechanism, but this was ignored.

Sadly, over the years, PNG’s various reputable agricultural institutions have been undermined or left to deteriorate with inadequate financial support, poor management and oversight. PNG’s farmers’ strong need for sound professional support and advice, provided through research and practical field experience, has not been met.

The sector’s institutions certainly need reform to make them accountable, principally to PNG’s own farmers. Some can certainly be merged, and the Department of Agriculture and Livestock converted into a largely producer-controlled, professional and responsive organisation.

But neither agriculture’s prospects, nor other industries (including manufacturing or tourism), can be guaranteed unless the economy is competitive.

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The new Government’s commitment and focus on infrastructure, law and order, education and health, and especially shifting funds to the Districts, sustainable development and diversification is a welcome and overdue shift in favour of ordinary PNG households and rural areas, including suffering farmers (if the capacity is there to implement the bold aims).

Whether they are rural or peri-urban farmers/gardeners, PNG’s producers require:

  • Land (usually just a few hectares), with adequate tenure security to make long term commitments
  • market access (that they are sufficiently close to market outlets, or a reliable road, air or shipping service to get produce out without it deteriorating unduly)
  • adequate price, which in turns requires
    • suitable and consistent world or local market, which in agriculture is often not the case. Stabilisation schemes were provided hitherto in PNG for some major crops to reduce price/income fluctuations
    • suitable exchange rate (ie that the kina is not too strong against the currency—often US dollars for cash crops—in which the product price is set). With major influxes of foreign exchange into PNG for resource projects, the kina tends to appreciate, undermining farmer prices and returns.
  • safety, security and low risk of produce theft
  • availability of quality and pest/disease resistant planting material
  • skills (in production, marketing and business)
  • market information and know-how, especially entailing new material or how to add value
  • access to improved producer support, through cooperatives, group marketing and private partnerships
  • access to savings, credit and advice
  • risk minimisation through crop diversification, stabilisation or support arrangements when prices fall below a certain threshold, and insurance

Now is the chance for government to demonstrate that it recognises the critical role of agriculture in providing broad household needs and income, as well as 30% of GDP and sustainable production and exports.

PNG has millennia of agricultural production and skills behind it. It has good agricultural land. The country has no option but to foster its agricultural sector and associated downstream processing and value-adding, both as it provides sound long term and broad-based opportunities for the majority of the population, but also because there are no options which will absorb its fast-growing workforce for the foreseeable future.

But neither agriculture’s prospects, nor other industries (including manufacturing or tourism), can be guaranteed unless the economy is competitive.

The cost of living is extraordinarily high, even for a developed country. Going for top quality niche products is one way to overcome high costs, but it’s crucial that these overall costs are reduced to really increase opportunities.

Many of these costs fall in the category of ‘public goods’ provided by the State. Poor roads, policing, utilities, extension services etc undermine business and opportunities, but could be addressed if government uses its revenue much more effectively and accountably.

Now is the chance for government to demonstrate that it recognises the critical role of agriculture in providing broad household needs and income, as well as 30% of GDP and sustainable production and exports.

Let this be on the basis of wide and effective industry consultation, however, rather than driven from above, or by some cronies or lobbyists pushing their own barrel.

Give the agricultural sector a chance, by first listening to those who live and work in it.

Paul Barker is Director of the Papua New Guinea Institute of National Affairs, a privately funded, non-profit think-tank based in Port Moresby.



  1. Ken Muld says

    Agriculture is the most important aspect for many citizens of PNG including other developing countries like parts of America continent. Government has to take initiative to look into the agricultural sectors seriously because almost three quarter of the whole population depends on agriculture.

  2. Asha Arija says

    Well written article. There is so much potential within the agriculture sector in PNG. It needs commitments from the government to looking into it and make it happen. Agriculture is our lifestyle but we need direction in how to turn that produce that we produce daily for self consumption into money making produce. Having access to markets locally and internationally is another thing. There is a huge potential that one needs to careful look into and invest because all the non-renewable resources will disappear tomorrow but agriculture will still remain,simple but the best.

  3. The Government has been planning on policies over the years to improve agricultural sector to help the sector but it seems those policies are words written with out the actual implementation of the policy and its objectives. the government is busy with the non renewable products ignoring the agricultural sector..Vast majority of the Population are dependent on agriculture to meet their basic needs and wants is the government seeing the needs of the people and to serve the interest of the people..What about tomorrow will PNG prosper. Now the Government needs to ethically consider the risks that are involved in decision making that must best suit the interest of the silent majority.

  4. Tony Flynn says

    The only criticism I have is that all the talk is of the “market”. Most if not all people believe that the market is an urban construct. I believe that there is more to rural development than producing for either the local urban markets or the export markets. There should be emphasis on producing local products for local consumption. Money earned for crops sold to urban or export markets should not be spent on buying staples imported from overseas; it should be reserved for capital items, school fees, clothing etc. More efficient methods of producing more crops off less land will give more spare time to enter into crop rotations. These will maintain fertility and less effort will be spent on land clearance for new gardens. Land surplus to gardening could be used for feeding livestock. We need more livestock supplied to local abattoirs, frozen and supplied to consumers. Ian Fraser at Riverside Coffee had a slaughter house and supplied the Wau with fresh meat. Why isn’t there more of this? Garaina and other population centres do not have roads; they could easily have fresh meat markets for local consumption. There are a lot of initiatives on self-sufficiency; there does not appear to be the consistent pressure needed on the follow through. PNG farmers need to see successful ongoing projects operated by people that they can identify with. They saw some European coffee farmers arrive with very little and grow rich; they identified coffee as a good thing to in invest time and hard work. Not much PNG coffee is well maintained because there is a perceived limit on the returns from the extra work. The high price of gold encourages the “ lazy “ villagers to work in the cold water shovelling wet sand and gravel 7am to 5pm. People will work hard for what they consider a good income.
    Tony Flynn

  5. Paul thankyou, a well written article, hope policy makers are reading it.

    Downstream processing is the way forward for PNG, there’s simple technologies available others are using to propel their citizen’s economic empowerment that we could leverage upon. Govt need to wake up seriously and focus on improving its “public goods” service delivery utilities such as rural electricity, roads, bridges, jetties and wharves so value-added products/services are produced at an affordable cost hence bringing the production cost down while maintaining or better the end products price. Our people are subsistence farmers, long before the western contact, they were farmers, it is in our blood, but sadly western civilisation has also introduced laziness and we sit around waiting for food/money to come instead of working the land. No wonder there’s lots of other social issues. I seriously believe pumping more money into addressing law & order will not solve the current surge in law & orders issues, we are only patching the surface, the real issue is economic empowerment, making the people believe in themselves, realise their full potential and dreams of economic well-being.

  6. Very Good write up, thumbs up for Bakers true opinion shared by many of us in this agriculture rural development sector….

  7. Michael Dom says

    “…(if the capacity is there to implement the bold aims).”

    While the call should be made to government to provide the funding required for agricultural planning, I belive that two key components are missing for us to have ‘capacity’ to implement the government plans and spend budget allocations in the most productive manner.

    Firstly, the redundant, ineffective and inefficient public officers need to be retrenched. I’m no economist but I’d suggest to do this at the soonest budget surplus.

    Secondly, we need a recruitment drive for a new, young, energetic but disciplined workforce to be prepared to go out to the rural areas and work there to help build the pathways of progress to their villages. They need to be willing to knuckle down to the realities and be empowered to serve their country.

  8. Max Puritau says

    It is sad to see most of the land been unused in the rural areas in central region – but very true on what Paul speaks about. We are one of the only businesses existing that visions in reducing poverty and it is a long shot to success as a nation but i hope that the proposals that have been thrown in the garbage by the political arena be fixed in at least providing financial assistance and mainly government back up to increase agriculture activities that bring income to the villagers pockets.

    we have seen many people suffer because of ‘no market’ ideas – i think it is time for the govt to give Agriculture the need it requires.


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