TUMBY BAY - It’s estimated that about 80% of the people in Papua New Guinea are subsistence farmers.
A subsistence farmer is by definition someone who only produces enough to satisfy their basic or primary needs.
It is unclear who actually made the above estimate and what definition of subsistence they used.
As economic anthropologists have shown there is no such thing as a true subsistence economy because in every type of economic system there is nearly always surplus production.
In PNG’s old days this surplus was used in ritual or prestige consumption, communal use or for exchange.
In modern PNG the surplus has become part of what is known as the informal economy, much of it in the hands of women.
Nobody knows what informal activity is worth because it is essentially a cash-based system but experts suspect its value is considerable and a significant contributor to the economy.
So when you hear people in high places conflating the concept of a subsistence farmer as an uneducated bush kanaka living in poverty you have to wonder what they are talking about.
The catch-all phrase ‘subsistence farmer’ might mean poverty in the eyes of a Western elite but when viewed through Melanesian eyes the connotation is quite different and, more often than not, actually means happy and self-sufficient.
This is not to suggest that there is not real poverty in Papua New Guinea. It certainly occurs and by all indicators seems to be on the increase.
The difference is that it overwhelmingly occurs in the cities and towns; in other words, the westernised enclaves of the country.
It is an unpleasant irony that the modernism and sophistication craved by many people is a direct cause of real and dire poverty.
The aspirations that drive people to the cities and towns will, in most cases, lead to poverty.
The distance between being a self-sufficient farmer in a rural setting and a hungry and homeless individual roaming the barren streets of Port Moresby is very small.
At any one time in Port Moresby, Lae and the other big towns there are people who are hungry and starving. Many of them live on the streets and sleep on sheets of cardboard in the open.
Their wide-eyed children, living on a diet of flour balls and Coca-Cola, are stunted and intellectually compromised.
Why do they do it? Why do they come to the towns and cities, see how bad things are, but stay? Why don’t they go home where they can plant a garden and look after themselves?
Surely no one can be so prideful and ashamed so as to let poverty and its horrors sweep over them without doing something about it?
And yet they do. Generation after generation have stayed in the towns until it has become impossible to escape.
Urban migration in PNG started way back in the 1950s and, despite various measures to discourage it, continued through independence in 1975 and after then accelerated.
Overcrowding in cities is a worldwide problem. In developing nations the social consequences are shocking. It breeds both poverty and crime.
In developed nations governments are forced to spend huge amounts of money on city-based infrastructure, ranging from new transport corridors to high rise accommodation.
Apart from a few happy tree changers, very few people wants to live in regional areas.
Sooner or later governments will have to think about how to get people out of crowded and unhealthy cities.
It’s something the PNG government should start thinking about.
Land will need to be acquired where people who cannot return to their traditional areas can settle.
Infrastructure will need to be redefined. No longer can it be another useless building or road in Port Moresby. Infrastructure will need to be rurally orientated.
Financial incentives will need to be considered, perhaps not so much in cash terms but in a system similar to the old resettlement schemes that took place before independence.
Right now, Port Moresby and Lae seem to be on their way to becoming Pacific versions of Nairobi and New Delhi.
If that is to be avoided, plans need to be made and implemented now.