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No. 1 April 1996
[Past issues of the Quarterly become available online approximately 12 months after their
appearance in print.
During the next 30 years, a growing population which will demand improved standards of living will place great pressures on Papua New Guinea's land resources. The population of Papua New Guinea was 2 million in 1966, 3.9 million in 1990 and is conservatively predicted to reach 5 million by 2005 and 6.6 million by 2015.
The Papua New Guinea economy will be unable to provide wage employment for other than a very small proportion of this expanding population. In 1990 approximately 9.3 per cent of the population of Papua New Guinea aged between 15 and 64 were in wage employment. Although a mining boom will provide for a 3 to 4 per cent growth in wage employment (mainly in construction and utilities), it is estimated that labor force growth will exceed wage employment growth by 40,000 persons per year for the foreseeable future.
If these extra people are to be adequately fed, and their cash needs met, then food production will have to be increased. About 3.1 million of the present 3.9 million people in Papua New Guinea feed and house themselves, as well as selling crops for cash, from their own land, with their own labor. The increased production will have to come about either by the expansion of the area used for agriculture, or more likely, by increases in the productivity of the existing agricultural area through the intensification of agricultural systems. The expansion of agriculture will be restricted mainly by environmental constraints such as very high rainfall, seasonal flooding, very steep slopes or high altitude. Agricultural intensification, in the absence of any other changes, is commonly accompanied by land degradation. Eventually land degradation will lead to falling crop yields, insufficient food and poverty.
The question arises than, can land managers in Papua New Guinea avoid this downward spiral into poverty by creating new, more productive agricultural systems which will be sustainable into the 21st century? There is much evidence that major changes in both landscapes and agricultural systems have occurred in Papua New Guinea in the past. Some of these changes have resulted in the creation of highly productive and relatively stable agricultural systems. But in other places extensive areas of degraded and largely unusable grasslands are the outcome of an inability to change, or to change quickly enough to avoid severe degradation.
Put yourself in the place of a contemporary Papua New Guinea land manager. You have at your disposal perhaps 15 pieces of family land, between 2 and 3 hectares each in area, in a number of different places in the surrounding forest. You know these places well. They all have names. Your father and mother and their relatives have described the soils and the relative agricultural capability of these places whenever you have passed by them while walking to and from other places. Some of them you can remember your mother and father clearing and cultivating, in the past. At others you have hunted pigs or bush rats in the thick undergrowth. You will need to discuss using them with your late father's brothers, but there should be no problems.
You have to select one of these places to make new gardens for the coming year. You must clear the land of trees and undergrowth and prepare it for planting before the wet season begins. You and your wife need to plant enough land to feed yourself and your children, as well as a sow with five piglets and two young castrated male pigs.
In addition, you need to be able to earn enough cash during the year to pay for school fees and for visits to the aid post if your children become ill. There is no welfare state here. You own about 200 coffee trees, but prices have fallen to a point where it is hardly worth the labor to pick and process the fruit for sale. Your wife gets a better return for her work by selling fresh vegetables in the market at the Government station, where public servants, teachers and police buy food using their wages. Cash is always a problem, but food is still the primary need.
The leader of the opposing half of the village has, in a public meeting, challenged your half to give back the yams his side gave to your side four years ago. He called your side a bunch of lazy incompetents, more interested in sleeping with your wives than growing decent yams. There was no adequate reply. Your side's leader could only blather on weakly about development being more important than custom. Completely irrelevant and everyone knew it. The debt should have been returned last year, but disorganization and dissent within your side meant nothing had eventuated. Now your leader is smarting at the insult and has twice urged everyone on your side to respond by planting an extra area to ensure that, not only can the debt be repaid, but a significant extra number of tubers can be presented to the other side, to shut them up for a long time to come.
There are a number of things to bear in mind when selecting the land. You don't want the new garden to be too far from last year's garden, because you have to transfer plants from the old to the new. You will also be replanting the old garden after the new is planted, so you will want to reduce the amount of walking as much as possible.
The soil needs to be fertile enough to ensure reasonable yields. After two plantings, crop yields fall to unacceptable levels, and weeds and insects become difficult to control. So you need to select a piece of land in which the grass and tree species are those that indicate the soil is again ready again for cultivation. That will mean that the land has been largely undisturbed for about 25 years, and that the natural vegetation growing on it will have gone through a number of stages. There are names for each of these stages in your language and you know where there is land which is ready for gardening again.
You want soils that will grow your staple crops satisfactorily. These are root crops in the main, up to seven different species including yams, taro, Chinese taro, cassava and sweet potato, but cooked bananas are also part of every meal. But you also want soils that will grow greens, perhaps six or seven different species, sugarcanes three or four meters long, pawpaw for the pigs, and pineapples for the market. You will also use, in every meal, the coconuts that grow throughout the village. The sago that your parents planted in the valley floors, near the streams, you can use later in the year, if the new garden is not yet yielding by the time the old garden has been completely harvested.
You will join a group of men, who will move from one member's garden site to another's, felling the larger trees. But when the felling is completed you will have to rely mainly on your own and your wife's labor, and your wife is pregnant. Her mother is a good sort and a hard worker, and she will certainly help, but she has an ulcer on her leg and she will not walk the two hours to the aid post for treatment. Fortunately your eldest daughter is almost nine years old, and will be able to look after the baby while you and your wife work together in the gardens.
Your cousin has suggested that you should join him on land that your respective fathers last gardened in 1950-something, but your wife says you should really use some land that her mother can claim through her brothers in order to establish publicly, that the children can use this land in the future.
One aspect of the decisions made by villagers, like those which have to be made by this imaginary land manager, are that they are idiosyncratic and are determined by local and family circumstances. They are also influenced by a very close knowledge of the local environment. So-called indigenous knowledge has become associated with a mystical New Age in the West, but there is nothing mystical about the knowledge possessed by Papua New Guinea land managers about their local environment. It is the outcome of close observation and first hand experience, by people who from childhood have lived in intimate contact with their environment and their plants and animals. They have spent much of their lives on their hands and knees, in the dirt, planting, weeding and harvesting.
Jack Kloppenburg, an American rural sociologist, observes that this sort of knowledge comes from and belongs to a 'locality' or a 'place', from which it is inseparable and it is embedded in the particular labor process of that place. A woman produces food as her primary activity, and the production of knowledge which occurs simultaneously with food production, is a secondary activity, inextricable from and embedded in the primary production activity. Her knowledge depends on the senses unaided by instruments, accumulates over time, is aggregative and is holistic. In these senses it is fundamentally different from scientific knowledge which is produced by scientist as their primary task, in which they are released from the constraints of daily food production, and so to a large extent from the bounds of the locality of the labor process. Scientific knowledge is as a result immutable and mobile and is uncoupled from places and persons. This does not mean that one form of knowledge is better than another, but it is true that villagers know something scientists do not know and cannot completely know, and vice versa. In Kloppenburg's words, 'The problem is not choosing between scientific knowledge or local knowledge, but of creating conditions in which these separate realities can inform each other'.
The difference in these forms of knowledge is part of the explanation of an apparent paradox: if Papua New Guinea land managers possess such a close and intimate knowledge of their environments, why is it that they have transformed large areas of the country from forest to unused and largely unusable grasslands? Why is there a growing concern about the future sustainability of many agricultural systems in Papua New Guinea?
When the hundreds of thousands Papua New Guinea land managers make their individual selections for sites for next year's gardens, they are acting upon naturally occurring ecosystems. These ecosystems bear the marks of human interference in the past, and some of them are 'managed' to a greater or lesser extent, by their local owners. But much of the land used for agriculture in Papua New Guinea is presently in fallow, or is resting, and vegetation which is growing on it is largely naturally occurring.
Most agriculture systems in Papua New Guinea are variations of shifting cultivation systems. Shifting cultivation systems involve cultivating the land for a short period, and then leaving the site to return to fallow. Fallow times are usually much longer than cultivation times, usually between 15 and 25 years long, compared to one to two years of cultivation. During the fallow, soil fertility levels are replenished. The systems are thus very low input systems, if the energy from the sun is discounted.
In many tropical environments however, the trees growing on the land contain in their living matter (known as their biomass), as much or more of the basic nutrients required by plants (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium), than is found in the soil in which they are growing. The trees maintain themselves by a complex recycling of leaf litter, the leaching of nutrients into the soil and the osmotic movement of nutrients into the roots and back up into the leafy part of the tree.
When a site is cleared for cultivation, the nutrient cycle is broken temporarily. The burning releases the nutrients contained in the felled vegetation into the soil in the form of ash, where it becomes available to the cultivated plants. Burning also helps clear the site of debris and kills numerous plant pests and diseases. Up to a point, the amount of nutrients which become available when the vegetation is felled and burnt is a function of the total amount of vegetation growing on the site (the total biomass). The total biomass is an outcome of the time which has passed since the site was last cleared, plus some environmental factors like rainfall, altitude, slope and the vegetation surrounding the site. After cultivation, the site will re-vegetate itself naturally. It will pass through a number of successional stages, with one set of natural plant species gradually replacing another, and with each preceding set creating the environmental conditions in which a following set can become established and flourish.
If the cultivation period is short, up to 18 months only, and the fallowed site is left undisturbed long enough, and other conditions are suitable, a tall secondary forest will develop. But if the length of time the site is cultivated is extended to say, three years, or the fallow time is shortened substantially, the natural re-vegetation of the site will be affected. The naturally occurring plant successions will not be able to reach the stage where, when felled and burnt, the biomass will provide more nutrients to the soil than were removed by the previous cultivation. So over a number of cycles of cultivation and fallow, the site will slowly suffer a net loss of nutrients. The slowness of this net loss of nutrients must be emphasized. It will occur over tens of years and over many cycles. The rate at which the loss will occur will depend on the slope, the attitude (the direction of the slope) and the rainfall at the site. There is evidence from the highlands of Papua New Guinea that in an area of steep slopes and naturally poor soils, forest can be converted to grassland by cultivation within 50 years, or within one person's lifetime. The first air photographs of substantial areas were taken in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. Comparisons between these images and contemporary photo and satellite images suggest that usually the vegetation changes have taken place over hundreds of years. At this slower rate the changes are all but imperceptible to people using the land. The changes are not viewed as a problem unless falling crop yields and a scarcity of timber for building houses, fencing and firewood becomes critical.
But whatever the rate, the long-term outcome of extended cultivation periods or shortened fallows is a change in type of vegetation which grows on the site. Tall secondary forest will be replaced by low secondary forest, and low secondary forest by scrub and tall grasses. If the process continues, short grasses will invade the site. Grasses are easier to burn accidentally or purposefully than trees. Grasslands burn regularly in Papua New Guinea. Grassland soils are more directly exposed to rainfall than forest soils, and are therefore more susceptible to erosion and leaching and a further loss of nutrients.
The answer to the question, why, if they know their local environments so well, do Papua New Guinea land managers allow it to degrade, has been partially answered. The changes happen slowly enough for there to be no immediate and local environmental response to which people must react. The environmental changes to which they are reacting were usually set in train years before, sometimes two generation ago. That is not to say that people do not know the causes of the changes circumstances that they are now facing. Modern land managers are explicit about environmental change being the result of past over use and pressure on land. But when cause and effect are separated in time so significantly, it is too late to do anything about the past cause.
Successful responses to falling crop yields, declining soil fertility and changing fallow vegetation involve invention, innovation and adaptation on the part of the land managers. New agricultural technologies are invented or are discovered, and are spread. New crops are substituted for others which no longer yield well enough. Soil is completely tilled, the tilled soil is worked into mounds, organic fertilizer is worked into the soil by a number of methods. Legumes are planted in rotations with staple crops, highly fertile but previously unusable swamp soils are drained and tree seedlings, including leguminous species, are planted in gardens after the harvest to encourage a rapid return to a tree fallow.
The other part of the answer to the question, why do land managers allow degradation to occur, is because the food produced from agriculture has many uses other than those related to the nutritional ones. The beginning of this article implies that population increase is the reason that agricultural intensification occurs. Population increases over time and more food must be produced to feed the extra mouths. But there is a lot of evidence that pre-industrial populations, which generally demonstrated high death rates and low birth rates increased very slowly, perhaps at less than 0.5 per cent per year, and that at times decreases occurred. If this is so, why do we see all over Papua New Guinea, the evidence of historical increases in the intensity of land use?
The reason is that agriculture was the most important part of the pre-industrial economy and for most groups was the primary area of wealth production. It was all but impossible to enter into any relationship with any other human being without items of wealth being exchanged. Common items of wealth were agricultural produce, animals raised domestically on food produced from agriculture, or durables like shells, which were acquired by trading with the products of agriculture. In addition, in contrast to the West, where a mark of wealth and status and a source of power in society is the acquisition and accumulation of wealth by individuals, in most parts of Papua New Guinea status is largely still gained by giving away to others more food and other items of wealth than they can immediately return to you. The giving places them, individuals and groups, in obligation to you and your group, and hence at a disadvantage. Exchanges and gift givings were frequently formalized and became competitive. Under these conditions it became important to produce a great deal more food than was required to stay alive, and group leaders harassed men and women who were considered to be poor producers; they were known by derogatory terms such as 'rubbish' or 'stink-bug' men and women.
Until the introduction of modern health services, which lowered death rates, particularly in infants and children, these social pressures to produce were considered to have been more important than demographic pressures as a primary reason to increase agricultural production. In a modern context, while in many ways village life continues as it always has done, populations are now increasing rapidly, social pressures to produce remain important, and people want things that only money can buy; clothing, radios, travel, alcohol and imported food, rice and tinned fish and meat in particular. Nor is it frivolous for people to want some of these things. It is clear that where cash incomes are highest, people are growing taller and the health of children and adults is better than where cash incomes remain low.
Under these conditions of rapid population growth and increased demands for cash, what are the chances that Papua New Guinea land managers will be able to create sustainable agricultural systems? In some environments, such as the floors of the main highland valleys, or the lower slopes of volcanoes on the larger islands, which rank among the best agricultural environments in the world, there will be no immediate problems. But in other more marginal environments, there will almost certainly be difficulties. Areas such as the small off-shore islands, steep mountainous country on the fringes of the highland's valleys and low land hill country with high population densities, are already showing signs of stress: rapid fallow vegetation change and falling crop yields.
A number of things need to happen to avoid land degradation in these areas. Resources will need to be given, or given back, to local communities so that they can bring the decisions of individual land managers into a community consciousness which is wider than a family, or clan or a village. In Papua New Guinea, where the state is particularly weak, reliance on it either to extend new practices to rural people, or to prevent certain damaging practices, such as uncontrolled burning, may be futile. These things will almost certainly fall upon local or area governments to carry out, with help from non-government organizations. The role of the state may be better concentrated on improving the conditions of rural life through the provision of better roads, and improved health and education services. Elsewhere, improved living conditions have been associated with improved environmental care and better land management.
Importantly, a means needs to be found to bring together indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge, so that scientific knowledge can be applied locally, and local knowledge can be used to create a better scientific understanding of regional environmental change. Both local people and scientists need to understand what is happening now. As Charles Blatz argues, there are too many intervening variables and other unpredictabilities for us to pretend that we can devise a means to reach a sustainable yield at some time in the future. 'Sustainability is a property of a series of interconnected uses extending over some periods of time', not a particular use at any one time. We need to know the present and past rates of change before we can begin to approach the idea of a sustainable future.
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