Poverty in PNG. What did they measure?

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According to Oxfam Australia, poverty has increased in PNG since the mid-1990s. It now stands at 37%. In other words, just over 2.6 million people out of a population of 7.5 million total population of PNG live on less than USD $1.25 per day.

To get a picture of the 2.6 million poor people in PNG – combine the population of the five highland provinces plus Morobe Province.

At today’s exchange rate, being poor in PNG means, having less than K3 at the end of any given day.

Indeed, in an urban setting, a K3 cannot buy the standard daily town meal of rice and tinned fish. A K3 is only enough for an unhealthy lunch of one deep fried flour ball and one boiled sausage. Similarly, at the market, a K3 can only buy a small heap of kaukau or potato for just one meal.

In contrast, in the rural area, a K3 has more value at the market but dramatically decreases at the trade store. At the market, a K3 can buy kaukau, greens and a piece of fruit or a coconut. However, a K3 in the village is not enough to get anything, except a packet of biscuit or two. A rural family wishing to eat both rice and fish need to have at least a US$7 or K20.

The K3 has different value at different places. Economists may explain this as the impact of supply and demand. The value of a K3 is high in the rural market because the demand for vegetables is low where supply is high. Demand for store bought goods however, is high in the rural areas. The price hike is probably because of freight charges as well as the fact that imported stuff including food are luxury items in rural area.

A luxury item is not needed for survival but is acquired for various reasons including to make life more pleasant or as a status symbol. Luxury goods are typically more costly and are often acquired by people who have more money than an average person.

What is money when people maintain their livelihood from the environment at no charge? This reason makes the current definition of poverty irrelevant in a place where cash is irrelevant.  The question now is, who are the 37% poor people in PNG?  What did they measure to come up with that number?

Definitely, the poor people are not the politicians and their cronies, who make up 1% of the population. It definitely is not the 10% working class who get paid enough to eat more than just rice and tinned fish until the next pay day. Because of the reasons above, the 75% rural people are out. The only group remaining are the vagabonds – the village runaways who have left the village for a life in town.

The absence of good data makes it hard to verify the Oxfam data if indeed, vagabonds when rounded up can fill up the highlands region and spill into Morobe province. Current assumption elsewhere put vagabonds at around 15% of the total population. Where then, is the other 22% of poor people as reported by Oxfam Australia?

Making lists and ranking people according to an irrelevant target can affect the psyche of human beings.  When people are made to feel helpless, they stop looking at ways to help themselves. They become dependent, feel impoverished, and disillusioned.

Change your mind and change your life. That is all it requires for us to take our life back from dependency. Since time immemorial, people have depended on their environment to maintain a livelihood. The instinct for turning soil into food is not lost to even the urbanites. Go to any house with a yard and you will see banana, or cassava or even fruit trees incorporated into the landscape. Go to any settlement and you will see people tending any piece of soil they can find.

Therefore, poverty in the PNG context is not about money. Living in poverty in PNG is when households go to sleep hungry because they are not willing to turn soil into food.  Poverty in PNG is when people forsake food security in the village for town where cash is king.

The use of a single currency as the only legal tender has disadvantaged the rural people. If the government cannot support economic activities in rural areas for people to earn money, then it must allow rural people to barter using wealth from their environment. They can barter for food and especially medicine using wealth from the forest when they have no cash to buy those select items.

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Life Giving Water

Water quality is a good predictor of human health. When the water is good, life is good and when the water is bad, you get sick people and sick environment.

Intact forests  play an important role to ensure that ensures there is fresh, clean water for both wildlife and human beings. But deforestation disrupts the water cycle.

The removal of trees results in the groundwater tables getting depleted because the trees lose their function of helping the soil absorb flowing water. The land then becomes unproductive as soil properties responsible for supplying soil nutrients are leached from rain falling freely on the soil. The large quantity of sediments washed away from deforested areas end up in streams and river cause high turbidity and siltation, causing negative  impacts on fisheries further downstream as far as the reefs.

The surest way to ensure a good water supply is to keep forests intact.

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Securing food for uncertain days using “kastam”

Traditional knowledge or kastam is the accumulated wealth of human experiences and adaptations over time. Kastam is closely tied to language, social relations, spirituality and worldview, and is generally held collectively. The evidence of the long interaction between the people and nature can be seen in the detailed rituals based on this knowledge and the specific management practices of natural resources.  Indigenous people show reverence for their kastam because their survival depends on keeping this knowledge alive.

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The introduction of the Western Culture as the grander culture has killed kastam by labelling it primitive and out-dated. However, this knowledge is needed for survival for the three quarters of Papua New Guineans who still live a life style reminiscent to that of their ancestors – a lifestyle that requires an understanding of kastam to live off the land.

What should food security in Papua New Guinea look like? In this essay, I show that aspects of our  traditional knowledge or “kastam” can be used to secure food for the rural Papua New Guineans. Appropriate technology and scientific knowledge and the right legislations by the government can complement kastam to secure food for the people.

Customary Land Tenure

Anthropological work shows that indigenous people relate to the bush and the resources within to be their source of personhood, society and sustenance. There is no distinction between the physical soil, the tribal land boundaries and nature contained on it – all these are generally referred to as land. The land is considered a gift from some mystical ancestor and therefore, there is strong emotional attachment to the land.

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The land ownership arrangement in Papua New Guinea is security against hunger.  Having access to a piece of healthy forest allows people to gather and hunt and share the resources they find to meet their dietary needs and food preferences. When forests are protected, water sources are protected and consequently, the health of the people is protected.

The paradox however, is that within the last three decades, environmentally destructive industries have increased. Tribal forests are being lost to development. This is inevitable because, nature is the “capital” for economic development in Papua New Guinea, often as large scale extractive and environmentally destructive industries. Reports show that logging has changed 48.2 % of forest in Papua New Guinea since the 1970s.  The areas accessible for logging are situated in lowland rain-forest which contains high biodiversity richness and high endemics. The lowlands also contain highly dense human population.

Apart from the loss of land for development activities, crook land deals are also marginalising some landowners, making them beggars in their own land. With no economic power, no land, and no influence and status, these landless people are pushed to the fringes of society as well as fringes of productive land. The food that is grown at the fringes is not enough to support an active life. The money given in compensation is not enough to meet family needs and obligations as well as purchase preferred food which is also nutritious.

The government can secure food for the people by preventing the loss of customary land. This can be done through a Protected Areas system. This ensures the land is protected from outside interests.

Protecting the environment using the Protected Area Legislations can stop the loss of customary land. There are several options for Papua New Guinea, including but not limited to; National Parks, Conservation Areas and Wildlife Sanctuaries. These options, however, are top-down processes that remove the forest owner and make the government the custodian of the Protected Area. The land is locked away by the government, preventing local people access and use.

The Wildlife Management Area under the Fauna Protection Act 1966 is an excellent option. Under this option the local people manage their own resources on their land, they make their own laws to protect land as well as use the resources on the land.

Local laws based on social taboos and kastam has advantages that it is voluntary and costs nothing. The self-imposed management laws are self-monitored and are hard to change as opposed to formal institutions that impose rules that are written, designed and enforced by third party and which costs money to enforce.

Currently, the Wildlife Management Area system is voluntarily done outside of the government authority. By erecting appropriate legislations, the government can support forest communities who wish to protect their land using the Wildlife Management Area system. Further support can be given to the local communities by making available science information that shows the link between harvest and recruitment of wildlife. With credible science information, the local people can sustainably manage the resource in their forest.

Strong local Leadership

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Traditionally, kastam is maintained by elders and passed down the generations. There was respect for elders and the rulers on the land. Strong local leadership held communities together by maintaining communal beliefs and ensuring respect and full community participation in cultural practices and rites; strong local leadership also had the power to solve conflicts arising from disputes.

Strong community bonds ensured that all members of the community were accounted for when it came to sharing food, land and other resources. Relationships forged through marriage ensured that even people without land have user rights in land belonging to their kinsman.  Furthermore, elders and clan leaders knew their allies and used that in times of need. The western styled nuclear family system however encourages estrangement from kin – kin groups however, are the best buffer against food shortages.

When the government or any other well-intentioned group choose to work with communities, they work with committees, or bring outsiders or choose the young educated community members. In doing so, they change the power systems in cultural institutions, generating debate and resistance. What is not understood is that; the peoples’ alliance is with elders in their clan groups not committees and outsiders and the young and inexperienced. The role of cultural leaders and institutions to hold communities together must be incorporated in community projects including food security projects.

Barter System

Less than 25% of the Papua New Guinea adult population engage in a cash economy and live in urban and peri-urban areas. These small numbers of people support the national economy through tax, these people also remit cash back to rural areas to supplement the subsistence livelihood of extended relatives in the rural areas.  This system cannot be relied upon to secure food for people in times of prolonged food scarcity.

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Bartering, a traditional transaction in which people exchanged resources they have in excess with others for something of a comparable value ensured people had a variety to their diet. The currency for the transaction was not limited to just food but included wealth from the forest – bird’s feathers, cuscus pelt, canes, tree bark, bark cloths, shells and necklaces.

The use of a single currency has disadvantaged the rural people who have limited avenues to earn money to pay for services and goods including food.  Rice, flour and tinned-fish cannot be bartered; it must be bought with money. Even with a rich wealth of bird feathers, a person cannot access the easily available store-bought food.  By encouraging economic activities in rural areas, rural-based people can participate in it and earn money to buy food and medicine.

If the government cannot support economic activities in rural areas, then it must allow rural people to barter for rice, flour and tinned fish using wealth from the forest when they have no cash to buy those select items.

Swidden system of gardening

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that food security for people who still depend on the land for food can be achieved through a diversified crop garden containing varied cultivars – a concept consistent with the swidden agriculture system.

The swidden system (also slash-and-burn) of agriculture largely practiced in PNG is a system tested over thousands of years and is suited for the nutrient deficient soil of the tropical environment.

In a swidden system, a forest patch is identified, cut, left to dry and burnt to get rid of the leaves and branches and undergrowth before the land is planted. The burning adds vital micro nutrients like potassium and magnesium to the soil. A variety of crops, from herbs to bigger plants like the banana are grown together in a single plot to take advantage of the differing nutrient status of the garden. Importantly in this traditional method, the forest seed bank is left intact in the soil.

Food crops gradually decline in yield in subsequent usage of a plot of land; to avoid this, the land is allowed to fallow. A long fallow is positively correlated to higher crop yield.  During the fallow period, the forest seed bank germinates and through the process of decomposition, soil development takes place.

The tradition system of gardening secures food for the people. The time in between abandoning an old garden and making a new garden is a time of food shortage. The banana always takes the lifetime of the garden to grow; it is always the last plant in a garden to bear fruit after other food crops have been eaten. People eat banana while making new gardens – this is a classic example of a perfected method of gardening that ensures food security when farmers are in transition between the old and a new garden.

There are some food crops that are used as the last resource to see people through times of food shortage. For instance, the sago – though of lower nutritional value, the high carbohydrate content keeps people through times of food shortage.

Food security for PNG lies in strengthening the traditional agriculture method, complemented by improved agricultural techniques. Together with improved agriculture education, food security programs must integrate health and hygiene in food preparation, food storage, and the protection of water resources.

Food Storage

Traditional methods of food storage are limited to the dry storage of yams, coconut and other nuts and desiccation by smoking. Food preserved by this method cannot be stored over a few weeks for smoked food and a few months for dry storage items

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Technology and new knowledge can enable people to store food for long periods. Downstream processing of local staples into forms that can be stored over time is a food security intervention. PNG can easily process local food like sago, kaukau, banana and cassava into flour that can be stored for long periods of time; or even freezing taro and cassava; drying corn, peanut and beans and appropriately packing that can be kept for a long time.

Such vital information can be made available via advances made in the Mobile Technology and Information Communication Technology (ICT). Positive change will happen en masse when more people access scientific information to help them decide their course of action for their land and resources to secure their own food supply.

Conclusion

Many well-intentioned groups including the government envisage they can bring a total solution for food security from outside. However, it should be acknowledged that the people are better suited to helping themselves. Therefore, effort must go into supporting the existing systems of self-help.

Looking for answers from outsiders breeds a dependency habit that is detrimental to the innovative and self-preservation and innate intelligence of the people that has sustained their ancestors for thousands for years. The people must be encouraged to innovate on existing knowledge – the kastam. In that way, the knowledge generated is relevant and implementable and affordable.  Appropriate technology and scientific knowledge and relevant legislation can then complement kastam in securing food for the people of Papua New Guinea.

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