Earning a Living in PNG: From Subsistence to a Cash Economy

  • George N. CurryEmail author
  • Gina Koczberski
  • Joachim Lummani
  • Sean Ryan
  • Veronica Bue
Part of the Schooling for Sustainable Development book series (SSDE, volume 3)


This chapter addresses the question of how individuals and families in rural PNG respond to major livelihood threats as they make the transition from a subsistence mode of life to become increasingly integrated into the global economy through export cash cropping. Two case studies are presented: cocoa farmers on the Gazelle Peninsula of East New Britain Province (ENB) and oil palm migrant farmers residing on the Hoskins Land Settlement Scheme in West New Britain Province (WNB). The cocoa farming community of Gazelle Peninsula began growing cocoa on their customary land in the 1950s with encouragement by the Australian administration. Since 2006 they have been confronted with an introduced cocoa pest, Cocoa Pod Borer (CPB), which is devastating their cocoa crop and livelihoods. The migrant oil palm farmers voluntarily took up State agricultural leases of 6 ha blocks in the late 1960s and early 1970s and are now experiencing population and resource pressures as their children marry and begin raising their own families on their parents’ blocks. By examining the pressures emerging among farming households as they make the transition to a market economy, the chapter highlights some of the key challenges and pressures of contemporary rural life for people in the Global South such as declining access to land, increased dependence on cash, fluctuating cash crop prices and changing lifestyle values.


Cocoa Production Cocoa Farmer Customary Land Local Marketing Food Gardening 
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This chapter addresses the question of how individuals and families in rural PNG respond to major livelihood threats as they make the transition from a subsistence mode of life to become increasingly integrated into the global economy through export cash cropping. Two case studies are presented: cocoa farmers on the Gazelle Peninsula of East New Britain Province (ENB) and oil palm migrant farmers residing on the Hoskins Land Settlement Scheme in West New Britain Province (WNB) (Fig. 10.1). The cocoa farming community of Gazelle Peninsula began growing cocoa on their customary land in the 1950s with encouragement by the Australian administration. Since 2006 they have been confronted with an introduced cocoa pest, Cocoa Pod Borer (CPB), which is devastating their cocoa crop and livelihoods. The migrant oil palm farmers voluntarily took up State agricultural leases of 6 ha blocks in the late 1960s and early 1970s and are now experiencing population and resource pressures as their children marry and begin raising their own families on their parents’ blocks.

Oil palm and cocoa farming communities in the two provinces (Fig. 10.1) share similar local economic conditions in that non-farm livelihood options are constrained, formal sector employment opportunities are limited and government services are difficult to access or non-existent. The case studies show that both communities have pursued various livelihood options in response to the challenges they face, although it is clear that food gardening for home consumption and sale at local markets is a critical livelihood activity. In this uncertain environment, food gardens are safety nets which, like kinship networks or cash savings, can be drawn upon when livelihoods are threatened by, for example, the vagaries of export cash crop production (falling yields or prices).
Fig. 10.1

Papua New Guinea

Despite food gardens providing a safety net, risks remain. For example, oil palm growers are experiencing land shortages for food crops and are now compelled to cultivate gardens on environmentally sensitive land or on land over which they have insecure tenure. Also, the local marketing of food crops by cocoa growers to offset lost cocoa income is limited as CPB spreads and local markets become over-supplied with food crops. Moreover, the kinship networks which were once a dependable safety net for cocoa farmers are becoming less robust as entire communities across the province fall victim to the effects of CPB. The two case studies describe the various ways rural Papua New Guineans are responding to rapidly changing demographic, economic and environmental circumstances. The chapter shows that rural Papua New Guineans are not passive victims of change but are active in shaping their own destinies in what are sometimes severe economic and environmental stresses.

Before presenting the two case studies a brief overview is provided of PNG and export cash crop production.

Papua New Guinea

PNG, which achieved political independence from Australia in 1975, lies to Australia’s north, and is characterised by rugged mountain ranges, high rainfall, large rivers, swamps and many hundreds of islands. Its physical geography presents major constraints on the provision of basic infrastructure and services such as roads, health and education services, and shapes spatial patterns of agriculture, diets and nutritional status and income disparities in the country. Only a quarter of the country’s landmass is suitable for agricultural production (Bourke et al. 2009), and cash cropping, one of the few opportunities to earn a regular income in rural PNG, for example, is generally unavailable to those living in remote, high altitude and high rainfall areas, where land quality is poor. Thus, spatial patterns of rural poverty are closely associated with environmental constraints (Allen et al. 2005).

The population of 6.5 m is culturally and linguistically diverse and the majority (81%) live in rural villages. While urbanisation is relatively recent, the country’s annual urban population growth rate of 4.5% (Storey 2010) over the last decade has been amongst the highest in the Pacific and has outstripped national growth rates. Many of the growing urban population are migrants from remote, poorly serviced and disadvantaged rural areas and small islands.

Most of the rural population live on land held under customary tenure and rely on agricultural-based activities to meet their everyday needs. From 2002 to 2007, agriculture accounted for one-third of average annual economic growth (Warner and Omuru 2008). Whilst the mineral boom since 2002 has underpinned the recent strong performance of the national economy, for most rural villagers there are very few cash earning opportunities outside of agriculture. The formal sector employs less than 9% of the working age population (McMurray 2002).

Export Cash Cropping

Nearly 90% of cash income in rural areas is from export cash crops and the local marketing of food crops and betel nut (Allen et al. 2001), with over two-thirds of this income from export cash crops. The three export crops of oil palm, coffee and cocoa are the primary sources of income for nearly half the nation’s population (Curry et al. 2009; Collett 2009; Orrell 2009).

The adoption of export cash crops has led to major agrarian, social, and economic changes and exacerbated pre-existing social and spatial inequalities in income (Finney 1973; Donaldson and Good 1988; Curry 1992; Allen et al. 2005). For example, when commercial smallholder agriculture was introduced into PNG, women experienced new forms of inequality as the new sources of wealth were captured largely by men (Strathern 1982; Sexton 1986; Johnson 1988; Overfield 1998; Koczberski 2007). Other studies have shown that the development of commercial agriculture in PNG has altered customary land tenure regimes. Evidence suggests that the introduction of perennial export cash crops has led to usufruct rights being vested in the same family or individual for much longer periods than was usually the case with subsistence food crops, with the result that individuals and households now claim exclusive rights of access to, and inheritance of, these crops (Salisbury 1964, 1970; Epstein 1968; Grossman 1984; Hooper and Ward 1995; Curry et al. 2007b; Koczberski et al. 2009). These changes to customary land tenure have been accompanied by changes in peoples’ views and attitudes to land, with the commercial potential of land receiving greater recognition.

While there has been considerable change in rural society following the introduction of cash crops, there has also been an element of continuity as villagers seized opportunities to use the income from commodity crops to expand their participation in local indigenous exchange systems and processes of social reproduction (Strathern 1979; Gregory 1982; Nihill 1989; O’Hanlon 1993; Brison 1999; Koczberski 2002; Curry 2003). For example, traditional “big men” leaders directed money from cash cropping to traditional activities to further strengthen their status and prestige (Strathern 1979). Traditional, or indigenous socio-cultural activities continue to influence levels of cash crop production. As Curry (2003) observed for village cash crop producers in WNB and Oro provinces, many traditional cultural activities are now timed to the seasonal cocoa flush or oil palm cycle of payment, rather than the seasonal gardening cycle of earlier times. Thus the way smallholder producers engage with commodity production continues to be shaped by pre-existing socio-cultural frameworks and non-market exchange considerations.

Case Study 1: The Response to Cocoa Pod Borer in East New Britain Province

Smallholders have been producing cocoa on the Gazelle Peninsula since the 1950s. Until the arrival of Cocoa Pod Borer (CPB) (Conopomorpha cramerella)1 in the province in 2006, cocoa was the primary income source for over 23,000 smallholder households, representing 70% of the province’s total households. It was the largest source of income for the province, generating K144 m in export revenue in 2007–2008 and accounting for almost half of national cocoa production. The cocoa farmers of ENB, like the oil palm growers in Case 2, pursue a range of livelihood strategies in addition to cocoa. While cocoa was by far the dominant income source prior to the CPB incursion, farm households also engaged in production of food crops for home consumption and sale at local markets, production and sale of vanilla and copra, and managing small village businesses such as poultry and village tradestores (Fig. 10.2).
Fig. 10.2

Cocoa farmer livelihood sources

Cocoa farmers, like most rural Papua New Guineans, also attach much importance to activities that are not directly related to earning cash income, but which depend on cash and are central to maintaining social and kinship networks and community cohesiveness. For example, villagers devote much time, labour and money to church, community, traditional activities and socialising (visiting friends and relatives). Thus, cocoa smallholders engage in a diverse range of livelihood and social activities that are important for maintaining the economic and social well-being of families, extended kinship groups and village communities, and these activities require cash for their fulfilment.

This case study draws on research undertaken in November 2008 in three council wards of Kareba, Tavilo and Vudal in the north-west of the Gazelle Peninsula, and examines how cocoa smallholders responded to this threat to their livelihoods.2

Impact of CPB

CPB was first detected in ENB near Keravat in March 2006, and following a failed eradication program has since spread to most parts of the province.3 The impact on cocoa yields and incomes was sudden and dramatic: of a sample of 152 family cocoa holdings there was over 90% loss of crop (with an average of less than one healthy ripe cocoa pod per tree available for harvesting). At the provincial level, cocoa production fell by over 60% to approximately 8,000 t in 2009. Preliminary data for 2010 indicate that this downward trend is continuing. CPB is the single largest threat to the economy and society of ENB, and is causing enormous hardship to families and communities by undermining people’s capacity to earn a living, to meet their education and health needs and to maintain their general quality of life. It is contributing to crime, conflicts and anxiety in the family and community as villagers lose their main source of income.

For many smallholders, the initial response to the CPB incursion was one of bewilderment, and they were at a loss of what to do. As one farmer stressed:

We are like foreigners now [arriving in a new land] with CPB. We are starting again and surviving on garden foods. Our lives are finished now. We don’t know what to do or what road to follow. (CPB-affected grower, Vudal, November 2008)

Village families have found it difficult to cover their living expenses and many have reverted to a cashless, subsistence-like way of life. Local village businesses that depended on patronage from the village community have struggled to remain viable, with around a 75% reduction in turnover and many of them closing. To cater to the greatly reduced incomes of villagers, most village tradestore proprietors had switched to selling goods in smaller quantities (Fig. 10.3).4 With much higher levels of outstanding credit to customers, restocking became a major problem. Town businesses were not immune from the effects of CPB. Stores in the nearest town of Keravat reported a significant drop in the stocking requirements of village tradestores in CPB areas, with more than a 50% reduction in the amount spent during each restocking trip and less frequent restocking trips. Wholesalers in Keravat estimated that stock purchases by village tradestores fell by 75%.
Fig. 10.3

Tradestore proprietor showing “repacks” for rice and salt

Cocoa Smallholders’ Response to CPB

Cocoa farmers and their families responded to the livelihood crisis brought about by the CPB incursion in a range of ways, including:
  • Reducing household expenditure.

  • Changes in cocoa production strategies, especially the abandonment of cocoa.

  • Expanding production of garden crops for home consumption and sale at local markets.

  • Establishing new livelihood activities such as the cultivation of new types of crops or the rearing of livestock such as pigs.

  • Increased reliance on remittances from relatives living in non-CPB areas or working in town.

  • Harvesting the cocoa of relatives in non-CPB areas.

Each of these responses is discussed below.

Reducing Cash Expenditure

The most noticeable response to the drastic fall in cocoa income was a sharp reduction in expenditure. Consumption of store foods fell markedly with almost half (48%) of families saying they rarely purchased store foods; only 3% of families — those with a wage earner — reported not cutting back on store foods. All families interviewed said they were spending significantly less on travel to town, and 87% of families reported cutting back on medical services. Some farmers said that they increased their use of traditional bush medicines. On a more positive note, women reported less domestic violence and other crime associated with drunkenness because men could not afford beer, though other types of crime such as theft of garden foods and burglaries increased.

Although education is one of the highest priorities for parents, CPB has eroded the capacity of parents to educate their children. Eighty-one per cent of families with school-age children said they were struggling to pay school fees. All five schools visited in November 2008 reported higher levels of outstanding schools fees for students from CPB areas than for students from non-CPB areas. One high school reported that of the 285 Grade 9 students, 36% of them had not paid their 2008 school fees by November 2008 and a primary school reported that 60% of students enrolled in Grades 6–8 were in arrears. For most parents, education is seen as a route out of poverty and a path to advancement. The fact that so many of the school fees of children from CPB areas are in arrears indicates the financial stresses affecting these families. Undoubtedly, the economic futures of children from CPB areas will be compromised as educational opportunities are eroded.

Of considerable long-term social significance was the reduction in the amount of financial support given to the extended family to meet social and cultural obligations. Only 17% of growers were still striving to meet financial social obligations to the extended family while 61% claimed to have stopped supporting their extended families. Although these growers had ceased supporting their extended families, they still sought support from relatives in non-CPB areas (see below). The loss of cash income, therefore, not only affects the material aspects of life quality, but also the social aspects of life quality and well-being that are less amenable to measurement.

Changes in Cocoa Production Strategies

Since the incursion of CPB many smallholders have either abandoned or partially abandoned their cocoa holdings, that is, they no longer harvest cocoa. The abandonment of cocoa production can be largely explained by highly labour intensive farm management techniques required to contain the pest. This new management system, which is currently being promoted among smallholders, requires weekly harvesting of all mature cocoa pods, removal and burial of all CPB-affected pods, regular pruning and shade control, weed control and insecticide spraying.

The high labour requirements of this intensive CPB management strategy is in sharp contrast to the low labour input system typically practised by smallholders. Low labour inputs into cocoa production, especially block management and maintenance, have been reported consistently since the 1980s (e.g., Nicholls 1989; Yarbro and Noble 1989; Ghodake et al. 1995; Omuru et al. 2001; Curry et al. 2007a). In ENB, most family cocoa holdings are managed like a forest resource, or what could be labelled a “foraging” production strategy, whereby labour is largely limited to harvesting and some occasional weeding to improve access for harvesting. With the many and competing economic and social roles of village life, most smallholder families limit the time they spend on any one livelihood crop activity to avoid undermining other socio-economic aspects of their lives (see Curry et al. 2007a for further discussion). Whilst the low labour input system of cocoa production was sufficient to maintain satisfactory yields (though well below potential yields) to meet household needs and aspirations in the pre-CPB environment, it is now ineffective for controlling CPB.

For farmers who have abandoned or partially abandoned their cocoa blocks their capacity to implement more intensive cocoa production is constrained by household labour shortages, financial constraints, lack of access to training and information and a reluctance to make the lifestyle adjustments and labour investments required for more intensive management of their cocoa holdings (Curry et al. 2009). Most growers value highly the diverse range of social and economic activities in which they are engaged, and to cut back on these permanently would be seen as undermining their quality of life and the food and income security that an array of livelihood strategies offers.

A small proportion of growers have successfully made the transition to high input farming necessary for living with CPB. These farmers tend to be more business orientated, better educated, have access to other cash incomes and are more likely to embrace agricultural innovations earlier than other farmers. Some of these farmers have replaced their old cocoa with smaller, more manageable stands of high yielding hybrid clones, which gives them a higher return per unit of labour invested in their cocoa blocks (Curry et al. 2009, p. 53). Most farmers, however, have not made the transition to high input farming to control CPB, and it is likely that a significant proportion never will. Instead of intensifying cocoa production, these farmers have pursued other livelihood avenues in response to CPB.

Diversification and Expanding Production of Garden Crops

One fifth of farmers who had not switched to a more intensive cocoa management system were planning to replace all or part of their cocoa with new hybrid cocoa or with other cash crops such as coffee, balsa (Ochroma lagopus), galip nuts (Canarium ovatum), coconuts, food crops and other unspecified cash crops (Curry et al. 2009, p. 53). Farmers were also expanding existing livelihood activities or developing new ones to try and recover some of the income losses from cocoa. These included intensifying garden production for sale at local markets, rearing livestock such as pigs and chickens, baking scones and bread for sale, and, to a lesser extent, seeking waged employment (Fig. 10.4). Sales of produce at local markets dominated livelihood activities and had increased greatly following the arrival of CPB. The main items sold at local markets which had increased since CPB were sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), Chinese taro (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), pawpaw (Carica papaya), peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) and a variety of green leaf vegetables.
Fig. 10.4

Changes in the relative importance of different livelihood activities following CPB incursion (excluding local markets)

The rise in importance of local marketing of garden produce was revealed in the surveys. Before the arrival of CPB, cocoa was the highest ranked income source for both men and women; after CPB, both sexes reported local markets as their main income source (Figs. 10.5 and 10.6). Many growers were removing cocoa trees from sections of their cocoa blocks to make more land available for food gardening (Fig. 10.7). While income from local markets is now the top ranked income source for men and women, total household incomes are very much lower than when cocoa was the primary income source.
Fig. 10.5

The top ranked source of income for men before and after the arrival of CPB. *The vast majority of sellers at local markets are women. These items are produced by men but marketed on their behalf by female members of the family

Fig. 10.6

The top ranked source of income for women before and after the arrival of CPB

Fig. 10.7

Part of a cocoa block cleared for a food garden

Increased Reliance on Remittances

While farmers in CPB areas reduced their financial support to the extended family, in the initial phases of the infestation, these farmers drew on their social and kinship networks to maintain their incomes. Many farmers visited relatives living in CPB-free areas and were allocated cocoa harvesting rounds to assist them financially. However, this practice inevitably led to the rapid spread of the pest as new colonies of CPB became established away from the original infestation site. Other families, with kin in formal employment and living in urban centres, reported that they had become more dependent on relatives for remittances (Fig. 10.4). On the one hand, social networks provided an important safety net for CPB-affected growers, but on the other hand, these same networks facilitated the rapid spread of CPB to other areas of the province as growers inadvertently transported the pest in their clothes or baggage.

In summary, while farming families reduced cash expenditure (on store foods, travel, education and health), gave up on cocoa production and drew on social networks for resources, their most significant response was to increase food production for household consumption and local markets — a strategy they understood well and had the land resources to implement. The income from local marketing was well below the level of their previous cocoa incomes which therefore induced a switch to a more subsistence based lifestyle.

Case Study 2: Oil Palm Land Settlement Schemes

In 1968 the Hoskins oil palm land settlement scheme was founded on the nucleus estate-smallholder model that had proven successful in Malaysia (Hulme 1984). This entailed the establishment of private estate plantations and smallholder land settlement subdivisions serviced with a centrally located mill to process oil palm fruit from the company estates and smallholder settlement subdivisions. The estate company serviced smallholders by supplying oil palm seedlings, extension services and transport to cart smallholder fruit to the company mills.

The Hoskins land settlement scheme (LSS) was populated by farmers who were recruited voluntarily mainly from other provinces of PNG, especially densely populated regions (Curry and Koczberski 1999). Migrant families were allocated land holdings of about 6–6.5 ha under 99 year state agricultural leases to be planted with 4 ha of oil palm, with 2 ha at the rear of the block reserved for food gardening (Hulme 1984). Farmers were provided with oil palm seedlings, a permanent house, a rainwater tank, tools and a loan to tide them over until the oil palm came into production. As the industry expanded, customary landowners from surrounding villages were encouraged to join the industry by establishing 2 ha plots of oil palm as part of the Village Oil Palm (VOP) scheme.

Over the past 20 years, the 6 ha blocks allocated to settler families on the LSS are proving to be insufficient to support the livelihoods of the growing population. This case study explores how oil palm smallholders are adapting and responding to the various pressures associated with population growth. We examine these responses to population growth within the wider geographical context of limited opportunities for land-use change, lack of non-farm income sources and fluctuating prices for export cash crops.

Population and Demographic Change

When the LSS blocks were first settled, a 6.0–6.5 ha block was considered sufficient to meet the food and income needs of a nuclear family. However, over time the population of the LSS block has more than tripled from the early 1970s to an estimated 18.44 persons per LSS block in 2010 (Table 10.1) (Ploeg 1972; Curry et al. 2007b). Today, these blocks are typically occupied by two or more households spanning three generations as the offspring of original settlers marry and raise their own families on their parents’ blocks. Now several households rely on the available food gardening area and oil palm income earned from the block.
Table 10.1

Numbers of persons per LSS block and population density on Hoskins LSS from 1971 to 2010


Population per LSS block

Population density per km−2

c 1971












Adapted from Curry et al. (2007b)

For second generation migrant families, long-term residential options beyond the LSS are limited. Settlers or their children are not able to move “home” either because their access rights to village resources have weakened during their long absences from the village (more than 40 years): their children were born in WNB and learned Melanesian Pidgin rather than their home languages, and many of the original settlers were recruited from land-short areas where land pressures have continued to build in their absence (Curry and Koczberski 1998, 1999; see also Carrier and Carrier 1989 on long-term urban migrants returning home). Provincial government opposition to informal urban settlements (Koczberski et al. 2001b; Connell 2003) and the lack of employment opportunities in urban centres also means that it is difficult for the adult offspring of settlers to establish themselves away from the LSS. Whilst some second generation settlers are acquiring “customary” land in WNB (see below), most depend on the resources of their parents’ 6 ha block.

The residents of multiple household LSS blocks are often under intense social and economic pressure, particularly when oil palm prices are low. Unlike oil palm farmers living on their own customary land in nearby villages where land is generally in adequate supply and can be put to a range of uses, opportunities for land use change on the LSS are limited. The agricultural leases of the LSS block are over fixed land areas (the leasehold block), and regulations specify the areas planted to oil palm (4 ha) and reserved for food production (2 ha), though as discussed below, this latter restriction has not been enforced in recent years. Compounding their situation, oil palm prices fluctuate significantly through time depending on world demand for palm oil. In response to such population and economic pressures and uncertain and fluctuating oil palm incomes, smallholders have developed several strategies to strengthen their livelihoods, including:
  1. 1.

    Diversifying incomes to reduce economic risk.

  2. 2.

    Maintaining food gardens as a safety net against fluctuating prices.

  3. 3.

    Expanding the area under oil palm production.

  4. 4.

    Seeking additional land for food gardens and oil palm.

  5. 5.

    Adopting new ways of managing and organising household labour in oil palm production.


The first three strategies are discussed below. The last two strategies are discussed elsewhere and so commented on briefly here. Under Strategy 4, some LSS families have been given permission by customary landowners to establish food gardens on customary land bordering the LSS (Koczberski et al. 2009). Using Strategy 5, many densely populated blocks have established a monthly rotation of oil palm production and income amongst co-resident families, which gives each family a larger, but less frequent oil palm payment (Curry and Koczberski 2007).

Income Diversification Strategies

The economic pressure resulting from population growth on the LSS blocks is reflected in the strong association between number of livelihood activities and population (Table 10.2). The most common sources of non-oil palm income include the local marketing of garden produce, the cultivation of high value crops and trees (e.g. bananas and betel nut), small business enterprises, and, to a very limited extent, off-block employment. If LSS settlers are compared with village producers it is evident that the latter, with greater access to land and less restrictions on what they can plant, have more diverse income opportunities such as cocoa, coffee and copra which are not available to settlers (Fig. 10.8).
Table 10.2

Mean block population by numbers of non-oil palm income sources at Hoskins LSS

Number of non-oil palm income sources per block

Mean population per block

One non-oil palm income source


Two non-oil palm income sources


Three or more non-oil palm income sources


Source: Koczberski and Curry (2005)

Fig. 10.8

Non-oil palm income sources for Hoskins LSS and village oil palm growers (VOP) in 2000

A limited amount of diversification of non-cash crop income is occurring. Commercial enterprises operated by smallholders vary in size and turnover, and include transport (small trucks and minibuses), small tradestores, kerosene sales and the raising and marketing of poultry and pigs (Fig. 10.8). However, like CPB-affected cocoa growers, the most important supplementary income activity is the production and local marketing of garden produce to which we now turn.

Maintaining Food Gardens

Despite the importance of oil palm income, nearly all smallholder families maintain food gardens. When the LSS was initially developed it was envisaged that smallholders would reduce their reliance on food gardens as they became more integrated into the cash economy. Production of food crops contributes to livelihood security by providing both food and supplementary income because all or part of the crop can be sold at local markets. Many households, cultivating food gardens primarily for their own consumption, have established additional food gardens to generate cash incomes (Table 10.3). The latter are often planted as monocultures of high value crops such as peanuts and sweet potato. Fruits such as pineapples, pawpaw, watermelon and banana are also grown for sale at local markets (Fig. 10.9).
Table 10.3

Proportions of food gardens reported by smallholders to be for home consumption only, local marketing only, or both purposes in May 2010 (n  =  118)

Purpose of garden

Per cent

Home consumption only


Local marketing only


Both home consumption and local markets


Source: Bue (unpublished data source)

Fig. 10.9

The per cent of LSS sellers marketing various categories of items in October–November 2000 and in October–November 2008

Food gardens continue to be an important safety net for families during low oil palm prices. Access to land for food gardens therefore reduces smallholders’ vulnerability to fluctuating oil palm prices because they can increase food production during periods of low prices. In 2000 when oil palm prices were low, 100% of LSS blocks surveyed earned income from local markets and 62% of them reported another income source in addition to oil palm and income from local marketing. Oil palm farmers vary garden food production and local marketing depending on the price of oil palm. Two examples follow.

A labour allocation and dietary recall survey undertaken from September to November 2000 when oil palm prices were depressed (K50–70/tonne; K1  =  US$0.34, 18 October 2000) revealed the importance of subsistence production for food security (Koczberski et al. 2001a). Smallholders allocated more time to food production than to oil palm-related work, especially women who allocated almost 2.5 times as much of their labour to food gardening than to oil palm (men allocated about equal amounts of time to each activity).

The dietary recall survey revealed that settler families on the LSS were much more dependent on household food production than neighbouring villages who had adequate access to land. Almost 80% of the ingredients of settlers’ meals were from food gardens compared with approximately 50% of meal ingredients at a nearby village. Furthermore, villagers tended to have a more varied diet than settlers and consumed more meat and fish and store bought foods (19% of all village meals contained either “fresh meat/fish” or “tinned fish”, compared with only 6% of settlers’ meals). The differences in diet quality between settlers and villagers partly reflect the latter’s greater access to land thereby allowing them to cultivate a wider range of export cash crops and thus generate higher incomes for the purchase of store foods. Settlers, by contrast, were confronted with falling per capita oil palm incomes resulting from very low oil palm prices, exacerbated by population growth which increased their dependence on food gardening.

Similarly, during the low oil palm prices of 2000, surveys were conducted at six local fresh food produce markets in and around the LSSs and the main town of Kimbe. The majority of LSS women sold food at local markets at least once a week, and 53% of women sellers at town and roadside markets were from the LSS scheme. In a repeat survey of local markets in 2008, Ryan (2009) reported that the proportion of market sellers from LSS blocks had decreased to 22% of the total number of sellers, but they remained the dominant group of sellers at the main town (Kimbe) market (approximately 47% of all sellers in 2000 and 2008). The decrease was most evident at the smaller, weekday markets rather than the large weekend food market of Kimbe, suggesting that LSS sellers were not bothering with the weekday markets which have a smaller customer base. Ryan attributed the decline to the high oil palm prices (K200–220/tonne) prevailing at the time of his survey. Growers were putting more emphasis on oil palm to take advantage of the higher prices.

Income diversification and adjusting combinations of livelihood pursuits such as oil palm and food production demonstrate the adaptability and capacity of smallholders to modify their labour and land use strategies to respond to livelihood threats and to exploit economic opportunities as they arise. Despite the rigid institutional and commercial framework that governs the LSS, smallholders exhibit a considerable degree of agency in developing new combinations of livelihood strategies. However, as the next section reveals, for some smallholders their livelihood choices are constrained and they are sometimes compelled to adopt strategies that offer short-term gain at the expense of increased long-term vulnerability.

Expanding the Area of Land Under Oil Palm Production

To respond to the rising demand on the oil palm income by the growing number of co-resident families, an increasing number of blocks are establishing an additional 2 ha of oil palm (6 ha in total) in the 2 ha reserve food garden area. This trend has been encouraged by high oil palm prices during 2007. Over 90% of blocks at Hoskins now have 6 ha of oil palm, and Ryan (2009, p. 48) reported that 83% of LSS women selling food at local markets said their blocks were fully planted to oil palm.

However, the increased emphasis on oil palm production is not without risk, and may increase vulnerability as less land becomes available for food gardening. There is some evidence that such a situation is emerging. While garden items, especially staple root crops, green leaf vegetables and other vegetables, constitute the largest proportion of what sellers from LSS blocks sold in both 2000 and 2008, there was a significant decrease to 2008 in the proportion of LSS women selling green leaf vegetables, other vegetables, banana and garden fruit (Fig. 10.9). In contrast, there was a significant increase in the proportion of LSS women selling the non-garden items of betel nut/betel pepper, cooked/baked food and store goods, items that do not require much land for their production (Ryan 2009). For instance, betel nut palms (Areca catechu) are planted in dense stands around houses and therefore do not remove land from oil palm production (Fig. 10.10). Until recently, these palms were grown by settlers for home consumption. Betel nut is now viewed as another cash crop by LSS growers.
Fig. 10.10

Dense stand of betel nut palms established near house site

More importantly, the trend to planting 6 ha of oil palm is significantly reducing per capita land area available for food production and decreasing settlers’ long-term food security. A 1975 study of the gardening practices of 140 LSS blocks reported that 0.42 ha of cultivated garden area per block was required to meet the needs of the resident population (Benjamin 1977). Gardens were cultivated for 12–18 months, with a fallow period of 6–9 years. Based on the mean garden area of 0.058 ha cropped per head in 1975, the cultivated food garden area per block required in 2010 to meet the needs of 18.44 resident family members is 1.069 ha. However, in 2010, with 6 ha of oil palm the norm, the effective area of gardening land available per block across the LSS has fallen to 0.61 ha per block.5 This leaves a shortfall of gardening land of 0.459 ha per block (1.069 less 0.61  =  0.459).

With staged rotational planting of each 2 ha stand of oil palm, 2 ha are available for food gardening for 6 of every 22 year cultivation round which is more than sufficient to meet the needs of smallholder families in the 2-year period after the poisoning and replanting of a stand of senile palms. For 16 of 22 years there is insufficient land on the block to meet the food gardening requirements of block residents and they therefore must rely on off-block access to land. Figure 10.11 shows that in 2006, 54% of 314 gardens belonging to 39 LSS blocks were located on 2 ha replant sections of smallholders’ own blocks (Dewhurst 2007). This suggests a major replanting program was in progress (on a regular replanting schedule only 27% of blocks at any one time would have land available on their own blocks for food gardening). Land availability could be anticipated to contract sharply once the shade cover closes on new oil palm plantings and the replanting program slows.
Fig. 10.11

Garden Locations on LSS blocks (Source: Dewhurst 2007)

Figure 10.11 also demonstrates the importance of social networks for accessing land. When land is unavailable on a smallholder’s block for food gardening, gardens can be established in the replant sections belonging to other growers (18% of gardens as indicated by Dewhurst (2007), and 21% of gardens according to Bue’s unpublished Ph.D. data collected in 2010). This is now a relatively common practice and highlights the importance of social networks for accessing resources.

It is likely that presently there is little if any fallowing of land after cultivation of food crops. During Benjamin’s study in 1975, most gardens had a fallow of 6–9 years. With most blocks almost fully planted to oil palm, gardens in replant sections, have a life of 2 years after which they are succeeded by oil palm. Any remaining land on settlers’ blocks not planted to oil palm would likely be under permanent cultivation or very short fallows. Indeed, during the 2000–2001 surveys, no growers reported the use of fertiliser on their food gardens but by 2010, instances were noted during surveys. Also, anecdotal evidence from settlers suggests that they are now planting less yams and sweet potato and relying more on bananas, taro and cassava, crops that can tolerate less fertile soils. Further evidence of land pressure is the fact that settlers are now cultivating food gardens on state or private leasehold land surrounding the LSSs (Fig. 10.11). Twenty-five per cent of gardens were on state land bordering the LSS, some of which is environmentally sensitive buffer zones along creek lines. Also, some settlers (3% of gardens) are making arrangements with neighbouring customary landowners to cultivate food gardens on customary land. These tend to be informal arrangements but the cultivators may occasionally give gifts of food to the landowners or small amounts of cash as goodwill gestures. Usually the agreement is for the cultivation of food for household consumption only. Gardens for the sole or main purpose of growing crops for sale at local markets are generally not allowed.

Overall, almost half (46%) of all gardens were located away from the family oil palm block. Distant gardens means more travelling to and from food gardens, and for gardens cultivated on state or customary land, tenure security is lacking and theft of food crops is common. In a sense, the gardening strategies that are emerging on the densely settled LSS may be increasing the long-term vulnerability of the settler population as they become more dependent on off-block access to land for food gardening.

In summary, oil palm growers, like the cocoa growers in Case 1, have been able to increase food production for home consumption and sale at local markets during low oil palm prices. However, continuing population growth, limited off-block livelihood and resettlement options together with recent rises in oil palm prices have induced many settlers to expand their oil palm holdings to 6 ha thereby leaving less land available for food gardening. When the canopy closes on recent plantings of oil palm there will not be enough land available on-block to meet the food gardening needs of the resident population, and, if unable to access land off-block, many will have to intensify oil palm production to survive, a strategy requiring even greater engagement with the cash economy.

Discussion and Conclusions: Sustaining Livelihoods Among Smallholders

Since the 1950s, the promotion and uptake of export cash crops like cocoa and oil palm have been viewed as the principal way to initiate rural development in PNG. Many rural people enthusiastically adopted export crops which they saw as the pathway to economic development. The strengthening engagement with the cash economy did not simply involve the introduction of new crops and farming practices, but also required changes in the lifestyles and values of the people themselves. New ways of managing and regulating access to resources such as land and tree crops have led to more exclusive forms of resource tenure such as the de facto excision from communal tenure of land planted to perennial cash crops. In addition, greater engagement with export cash crop production has introduced new livelihood threats and uncertainties as the two case studies have demonstrated. In response to such challenges, access to finance, social networks, land and local economic opportunities have proven important in shaping the choices people make. Through all these changes, food gardening for household consumption and sale at local markets has remained a fundamental component of the diverse set of livelihood strategies pursued by the vast majority of PNG smallholders. It appears that until the urban and industrial sectors of the economy develop further in PNG, the long-term viability of the smallholder sector depends to a large extent on the food and income security provided by access to land for food gardening.

The intensification and expansion of food gardening for household subsistence and local markets by cocoa farmers following CPB incursion and by oil palm families during low oil palm prices in 2000, partly reflects the fact that smallholder families are familiar with food gardening and continue to have access to land for this purpose. For farmers, the most cautious and rapid way to respond to an income squeeze on export cash crops in such an unpredictable environment was to turn to food gardening which offered some security and certainty. Such a choice has created a degree of income stability, but is indicative of how few alternative income opportunities are available to PNG rural households, especially off-farm and non-agricultural opportunities. This is in contrast to the situation in some parts of Southeast Asia where rapid industrialisation has created attractive off-farm employment opportunities, especially for young people to the extent that labour shortages are emerging in the agricultural sector (Fold 2000; Kelly 2000; Rigg 2005). For the foreseeable future, most rural Papua New Guineas will continue to depend on various livelihood combinations based on agriculture and land-based resources.

However, the heavy reliance on local marketing as the dominant response to the challenging and unpredictable environment in which smallholders live may not provide them with long-term economic security. In the case of cocoa, the market for local garden produce is limited and is likely to become over-supplied as more cocoa farmers expand local marketing as CPB spreads. Income from local markets is already insufficient to sustain cocoa farmers’ pre-CPB levels of engagement in the cash economy and as a result they have become more dependent on subsistence food production and other bush resources for their survival. Without a major intervention to tackle CPB or to promote alternative export crops, smallholders may have little choice but to move more firmly into a subsistence-like economy until viable new income opportunities emerge or CPB is controlled. Fortunately, the communal system of land tenure remains largely intact in ENB, so the majority of farming families still have this option.

For oil palm settlers with 6 ha of oil palm, the land situation is much more constrained. Growers responded to population pressure on income by opting for stronger engagement with the cash economy by planting an additional 2 ha of oil palm thereby reducing the area of land on the block available for food gardening. As the current oil palm replanting program is completed, the land available for food gardening will contract sharply forcing a greater dependence on oil palm income for their livelihoods. Growers have traded short-term income gain through expanding of oil palm production at the possible long-term cost of reduced food and income security. With almost all of their blocks under oil palm, another period of low oil palm prices, could have a significant impact on the food security situation of many smallholder families. They may have little choice but to intensify production of oil palm through greater inputs of labour and other farm inputs.

There is limited acknowledgment in the cocoa and oil palm industries of the diversity of livelihood activities of smallholders. Indeed, extension strategies remain focused on the single cash crop like cocoa or oil palm with other livelihood activities typically viewed as distractions drawing smallholders’ time and energy away from the main business of export cash crop production. Alternative livelihood strategies like food gardening provide a buffer against low prices or the failure of export cash crops, and add to food and income security during high price periods. Income from most export cash crops tends to be lumpy and earned during short seasonal flush periods, so the maintenance of other livelihoods can provide critical income during non-flush periods. Also, supplementary income such as local marketing tends to be women’s income and is therefore more likely to be spent on ­family needs. So, there are strong arguments for maintaining a diversity of income sources (for examples from Africa see Francis (2002) and Whitehead (2002)). It is probable that as population and land pressures continue to rise on the LSS, and as new environmental threats emerge like CPB, perhaps induced by climate change, an increasing proportion of smallholders in the longer-term will be driven to intensify alternative livelihoods, both on and off-farm. Relevant provincial authorities can play an important role in facilitating this process.

The process of income diversification could begin by strengthening the informal economy and reinforcing livelihood diversification in extension messages as well as by promoting new forms of non-farm employment. Such strategies might include the upgrading of facilities at roadside markets, training in book keeping for small business, and, where appropriate, the intercropping of export cash crops with food crops and quick growing high value cash crops.

Finally, the transition to a modern market economy through export cash cropping is not an easy one, and requires an adjustment of people’s values and social practices. What the two case studies reveal, however, is the resilience and adaptability of rural Papua New Guineans in responding to rapidly changing demographic, economic and environmental circumstances. The general picture that emerges is one of smallholders actively seeking solutions and finding new ways to maintain their livelihoods and well-being. The challenge for extension services and provincial development authorities is to develop innovative policies that facilitate and strengthen this process of diversification through, for example, appropriate extension, credit for farm inputs and improving market access.


  1. 1.

    CPB has a lifecycle of about 1 month. The moth lays its eggs on immature pods and after 2–3 days the larvae hatch and burrow into the pods where they feed for about 2 weeks. Larval feeding causes crop losses from several effects: clumping of beans making removal from the pod difficult or impossible; appearance of premature ripening so immature pods are harvested; and reduced weights and quality of beans (Day 1989 cited in Beevor et al. 1993, p. 134).

  2. 2.

    Interviews were conducted with 152 smallholder growers and their families. Each interview took between 30 and 45 min to complete, and questions covered such topics as the impact of CPB on harvesting, processing, cocoa block management and livelihood strategies. Interviews were also held with town business owners and operators, school teachers and principals, police and government and private sector stakeholders in the cocoa industry (see Curry et al. 2009).

  3. 3.

    Since then, CPB has been detected in Poro, West Sepik Province (June 2006), Bogia, Madang Province (April 2008), Bougainville (2009), New Ireland (2009).

  4. 4.

    One strategy is called “repack” whereby the store owner buys items in bulk (e.g. rice, sugar, salt) and repacks the goods into smaller quantities to meet the lower budgets of village families.

  5. 5.

    Smallholders practice rotational replanting of 2 ha sections of their oil palm every 22 years. Each 6 ha block has three 2 ha phases which are replanted when each stand reaches 22 years of age. For up to 2 years after replanting, sufficient light reaches the ground for intercropping of immature oil palm with food crops. This means that a typical family oil palm holding with three, 2 ha stands of oil palm has 2 ha of land available for food gardening for 6 years of 22 years. An average size block of 6.07 ha therefore has 0.61 ha of land available for food gardening per year (6 years/22 years  =  0.2727  ×  2 ha  =  0.54 ha  +  0.07  =  0.61 ha).



Numerous people assisted with fieldwork. In cocoa, research assistance was provided by Nick Mangu and Julai Walaun (both from NGIP-Agmark), Esley Peters, John Thomas, Jack Pundu, Andrew Roboam, Sharon Roberts and Simon Mele (all from CCIL), Joel Mormor and Kapinus Tande (both are cocoa farmers), Scott Kimpton (Curtin University), Mary Bongare and Joeashton Dauwa (both students from Vudal University).

In oil palm, research assistance was provided by Merolyn Koia and Pauline Hoare (both from PNGOPRA) and extension officers from the Oil Palm Extension Corporation.

The research would not have been possible without the many cocoa and oil palm growers and their families who gave their time to be interviewed.

Fieldwork was funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • George N. Curry
    • 1
    Email author
  • Gina Koczberski
    • 1
  • Joachim Lummani
    • 2
  • Sean Ryan
    • 1
  • Veronica Bue
    • 3
  1. 1.School of Social Sciences and Asian LanguagesCurtin UniversityBentleyAustralia
  2. 2.Socio-economic Research UnitPapua New Guinea Cocoa and Coconut Institute LimitedEast New Britain ProvincePapua New Guinea
  3. 3.Department of AgriculturePNG University of TechnologyLaePapua New Guinea

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