Papua New Guinea’s predominantly agricultural society widely practices agroforestry (the cropping of useful fruit and nut trees with understory vines, shrubs, and vegetables in a forest-mimicking system). The 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 allows the community of Gildipasi the additional luxury of putting aside nearby areas of forest for conservation: 2,000 hectares 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, ranging from cockatoos to bandicoots.
GILDIPASI— After a short walk from his community on Papua New Guinea’s northern coast, Yat Paol (pictured with edible pitpit flowers) clears away dried leaves from a shady patch of ground and sits calmly to chew on buai, 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.
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.
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 eight million, the United Nations Development Program expects this number to double again by 2050.
With 85% of the country’s population living in rural areas, 80% 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.”
“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 utilise 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.”
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.
PNG contains the third largest rainforest in the world and is home to 7% of the planet’s biodiversity. Approximately 95% 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.
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, Paol’s older brother…..
“The [community] leaders have been challenging us to make do with the blocks that we already have,” Paol 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.