BUSINESS ADVANTAGE PNG
The cause is the cocoa pod borer pest, which has hit many cocoa producing regions around the world. According to the PNG Cocoa Board, production in East Sepik Province and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville ‘will likely crash’ over the next two years, all due to the pest.
Receipts from cocoa exports halved between 2011 and 2012, but with cocoa prices expected to rise, the revenue lost will become even more apparent. In the season ended 30 September, world demand outpaced production by 160,000 tonnes. As a result, analysts now predict cocoa prices may rise to US$3,090 per tonne by January next year, a US$200 per tonne rise.
The cocoa pod borer will never be eradicated, but its impact can be overcome, says Professor George Curry from Curtin University, Perth. Curry and his Curtin and PNG Cocoa Coconut Institute colleagues are currently researching the success of training programs for growers initiated by Agmark, the PNG cocoa buying and exporting company.
The research, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, seeks to identify strategies that allow growers to produce cocoa in a cocoa pod borer environment.
As well as providing high-yielding varieties of cocoa, Agmark trains growers in such things as pruning, good block sanitation and cocoa pod borer control techniques like weekly harvesting and pod burial, which break the life cycle of the pest. These measures can eliminate as much as 98% of cocoa pod borer infestation.
‘It’s probably been the most successful strategy to overcome cocoa pod borer,’ Curry tells Business Advantage PNG.
Just over 1,000 of East New Britain’s 23,000 growers are taking part in the trial and most of them are getting higher yields now than they were even before the pest arrived.
‘Typically, before cocoa pod borer they were getting 300-400 kg of dry bean per hectare. And then with cocoa pod borer hitting, it almost went down to zero but under the Agmark strategy, a lot of growers are getting a tonne per hectare; some a good bit higher than that.’
‘The big problem with cocoa pod borer is that it requires a high input system of production to control it,’ says Curry. ‘The thing with most smallholder production in PNG, including oil palm and coffee, is that they operate in a low-input, low-output system of production.
Curry says growers need to put more time into maintaining their crops. ‘Even with basic pruning, you can really rack up the yields because cocoa responds really well to pruning and shade control.
‘However, it requires a fundamental change in the way people live their lives, so it’s a difficult thing for growers to do. The farmers who’ve made the transition in East New Britain are getting good returns. In fact, a lot are amazed at how much cocoa they’re getting.
‘The ones that haven’t made the transition are trying to make up for lost income by spending a lot more time growing food crops for home consumption and sale at local markets.
‘So they’ve gone back into a subsistence agriculture system, but the income from food crops sold locally doesn’t come anywhere near compensating for the loss of cocoa income.’
Despite the success of the trial, all that could be lost if the 500-hectare Tokiala plantation where most of the trials and training takes place is sold.
‘Because of the massive drop in total production for the province, the company’s been adversely affected,’ says Curry.
‘In my view, it would be a national tragedy for the cocoa industry if that was lost because it is operating as a national training centre which could be really scaled up.’
The industry is pinning its hopes on a World Bank project in East New Britain and Bougainville to help farmers deal with the outbreak. Using a similar strategy as Agmark, they are hoping by the end of 2013 to involve 18,000 farmers in training partnerships with a range of service providers.
By the end of 2013, it should be clear whether or a not a viable cocoa industry will survive in PNG.