In the years immediately leading up to independence coffee was contributing up to 80% of PNG revenue before the Bougainville copper mine came into full operation.
Names like Enoch Mole, Sinake Giregire, Apele Goso and Sir Akapite Wamiri were the prominent coffee farmers who became PNG’s first national millionaires.
Their white brothers, Sir Danny Leahy, Sir Mike Bromley, Sir Dennis Buchanan and later Malcolm Smith Kela all made their fortunes in the Eastern Highlands from this platform of coffee.
The industry in the highlands was started by novices who were introduced to the concept by the kiaps and didimen (agriculture and livestock officers).
The pioneers built large estates with little technical knowledge, generously cheap labour, loads of sheer hard work and a huge determination to succeed.
Such is the history of the people and the life crop that built the Eastern Highlands to what it is today, with PNG the biggest supplier of quality organic coffee supplying the Australasian market.
These days, however, the plantations are in a sad state mainly because of a booming population and the domino-effect pressure on available land, law and order issues and the resultant tribal wars fought over land.
The once flourishing estates are increasingly being divided into smallholder blocks. Only a small number of plantations have managed to escape the scourge.
There is consensus that there is a serious need for all stakeholders to find solutions on how they can work together to rehabilitate the plantations and the coffee industry.
Most people agree that the issues are many, complex and interrelated. An inclusive view taking in the wider community needs to be embraced if workable solutions are to be realised.
The main issues directly affecting coffee production and quality include:
Law and order
Stealing from plantations by workers, thieves and community members
Land disputes leading to tribal wars
Lack of cooperation and the failure of negotiation and mediation among land owners in community owned estates
Abuse of funds by ‘paper’ farmers in concert with farmers
Lack of basic coffee farming skills and knowledge
No access to the latest information on coffee research
No awareness of quality control by responsible government agencies
Chronic lack of implementation of proposals and technical reports by private or government officers
Lack of a good work ethic
No vocational skills training in the curriculums of rural schools
Increasing costs of labour and agricultural farming equipment and consumables. No tax incentives or government subsidies
Lack of starting capital. Stringent bank requirements chase away farmers
Lack of business management skills and knowledge leading to fiscal mismanagement and abuse of funds eventually resulting in defaulting loan repayments
Poor rehabilitation of existing coffee trees
Lack of supporting infrastructure like roads and bridges, transport and communication technology
Abolition of the national cooperative regulating body - greatly disadvantaging smallholder grower
Smallholder farmers not getting value for their effort and production
Coffee is the lifeline of the Eastern Highlands Province.
As we may never see the return of the big estate coffee plantations, the focus must now shift from bulk exports to high quality organic coffee with better land utilisation and improving existing smallholder blocks.
The local politicians and other relevant officials need to take this matter seriously as there is a very strong link between coffee production and price which impacts directly on crime and associated law and order issues.
Agriculture, and especially coffee, is vital to survival for many rural Eastern Highlanders, as they do not have extractive natural resources. Coffee is seen by many as their green organic gold. The livelihood of a province depends on this cash crop.
Right now middleman (coffee buyers and exporters) are ripping off the smallholder growers, who are not being rewarded for their efforts and production-quality. The conditions for granting export licenses need to be reviewed so that new licences are at least 50% owned by the growers.
Countries like the USA and Australia protect their growers. As farmers have more money to reinvest in their coffee blocks, so production will increase and quality will improve.
The way forward for coffee is by way of harnessing smallholder farmers and growers, whether through cooperatives, associations or small companies. The government should be more aggressive in promoting local brands and developing strategies to target international markets.
That said, there are successful models of local communities organising themselves with assistance from government agencies for quality assurance and certification to secure international markets. This option needs more emphasis and analysis on best models applicable to the industry.
Consumers in the developed world increasingly selective of products they buy; hence the introduction of certification processes. Coffee smallholders can add value and premium to their products through Fair Trade Certification and Organic Certification.
There exist unique hotel, restaurant and other markets for gourmet coffee based on customer preferences for organically grown and grower exported coffee beans - a demand which can be matched by local farmers.
The PNG government is not fully exploiting international markets and more focus needs to be directed to China and India, both emerging powerhouse markets for coffee.
To enable smallholders to participate fully in this export market, the government needs to empower growers with the technical skills, funding assistance and expert advice on certification processes and compliance standards.
The current qualification requirement discriminates against smallholder growers because they cannot consistently meet the quotas required to qualify for export licences.
Incentives such as a merit based reward systems can be used to identify and promote best practice quality control of coffee in line with regulatory standards.
The government could also arrange for small growers to access funds either through the National Development Bank or the commercial banks to raise equity to enable joint ventures with established exporters.
A worrying concern is the abolishment of the National Cooperatives Authority.
This will hugely disadvantage smallholder growers who are already missing out big time on value for their produce.
The coffee cooperatives started off well but have not really realised their full potential. Many were hijacked by businessman or middlemen who abused the system to evade taxes and fees.
There is a need for industry-wide consultation, facilitated by the government, for all stakeholders to identify successful models for land sharing agreements between landowners in plantations or estates.
Utilising village land mediators, Land Courts and defining the District and Provincial governments roles in the model design may provide some solutions to meeting the challenge of a ‘bankable’ model which can be replicated in similar settings-circumstances and at an acceptable risk level.
There is also a need for the Coffee Industry Corporation, as the government regulatory agency, to be more proactive in its extension programs and to take a bottom-up approach (go to the villages and train farmers in the basics of coffee cultivation). The top-down approach has not been fully successful.
There has been an important article published by Wilson Thomson Orlege in the Melanesian Institute journal Catalyst and in the Divine Word University journal Contemporary Studies entitled The demise of the plantation sector in the coffee industry: An overview and alternative.
Mr Orlege states that, “while all stakeholders need to accept responsibility for the state of the plantation sector, the coffee government agencies [should] take a leading role to revitalise the industry, particularly in the areas of extension, management training and advisory services”.
Commitment from the government is needed if the market is to become more robust and competitive to give more options to smallholders and plantations.
So in concluding, let’s rephrase the famous CIC slogan and direct this to national and provincial leaders and to key people in the industry: “Helpim mipla lon lukautim kopi na kopi bai lukautim mipla” (help us look after the coffee and the coffee will look after us).
Don Tapio is the pen name of a health industry professional who works in the Eastern Highlands. His real name is known to PNG Attitude. The article is a condensation of discussions by members of Nokondi Talk, a forum for Eastern Highlanders on the Facebook social media site. It aims to present a community viewpoint to supplement the archives of scientific and related socio-economic collations about the coffee industry with a focus on Eastern Highlands Province