The Catholic Agency for Justice, Peace and Development

Growing the future – A Caritas Action for sustainable agriculture & livelihood

By Raymond Ton (National Director, Caritas PNG)

A joint Caritas Sustainable Agriculture & Livelihood (CSAL) programme by Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, Caritas Australia and Caritas Papua New Guinea is making inroads into the rural highland communities of Southern Highlands, Hela, Enga, Western Highlands, and Jiwaka Provinces of PNG. It is touching the very heart of the people’s livelihood. 

Of all the food crops, sweet potato or “kaukau” is getting special attention. This is Phase Two of the Drought Relief & Recovery Programme supported through grant assistance by both New Zealand and Australian Caritas Agencies and their respective benefactors, as well as the Governments of New Zealand and Australia. This is among many current programmes supported by our two Caritas partners in the region.

In this article we feature an activity in the Southern Highlands during the first distribution of seedlings in October 2016.

Mark Alu, 45 of Kundaka village, in Upper Mendi, SHP is no ordinary villager. He says, “NARI and FPDA recognize me as a potato seed grower/supplier in the province.” He makes a perfect fit being a farmer entrepreneur and the trainer of sustainable agriculture program of joint Caritas agencies of Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand and PNG. He continues, “the Caritas Office in Mendi Diocese recognized my farming experience and asked me to join the Caritas Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) Team” through a training conducted by National Agriculture Research Institute (NARI) in Tambul, WHP. Father of 5 children, he is one of the three CSAL trainers of Mendi Catholic Diocese whose role is to visit 8 locations in both provinces and train them through demonstration on how to plant and manage the crop seedlings.

"What can substitute your favourite “kaukau”? Very few, if at all, so it must be saved!"

- Mark Alu

Food is at the heart of human survival. At any typical PNG highlands dinner table, you cannot miss the most inconspicuous fat and starchy sweet potato. Many older citizens still tell tales of “great famine” in their parents’ and grandparents’ time. More seriously, great tribal wars were fought over the scarcity of sweet potatoes, thus compounding the humanitarian crises.

Thanks to the efforts of Caritas partners of Australia and New Zealand a potentially similar scenario was prevented in the 2015-2016 drought and frost.

Eight locations have been identified as a niche nursery hub frmo which further redistribution to neighbouring communities throughout the two provinces will take place. The scientifically tested and proven food crop is capable of yielding 8–12 tubers per potato runner. The crop will take about 7-8 months to mature. But, it will take less than 5 months for redistribution and planting of new potato runners.

The CSAL team members show how the seedlings/runners must be planted and controlled for quality and quantity simply by adopting simple planting and management methods. By this time next year 2017, the second transfer of 10,000 kaukau runners will take place at over 24 locations. Over time, the proliferation of the newly treated kaukau will gain favour among the rural farmers. 

What else apart from sweet potato?

Apart from these there are 7 other crops being distributed throughout so many locations, namely: Irish potato, wheat, corn, rice and piglets. They will undergo the similar training.

Where else are there similar projects?

Similar projects are being carried out in Enga, Western Highlands, Hela and Jiwaka Provinces.

Why give special attention to “Kaukau”?

Sweet potato is what wheat is to the modern world. Better known locally as “kaukau” is evidently the principal diet of the people in all highlands and some coastal parts of PNG. It cannot be replaced with anything, not even rice and wheat. The people’s livestock also feed on sweet potato. This age old food crop which survived through history is under threat of both drought/frost as well as potato blights as scientists at NARI warn us that of the over 500 species we have only 200 surviving. These are the chief reasons why NARI is introducing disease free seedlings which result in prolific harvests.

Mendi Catholic Diocese is distributing 1,000 seedlings of 8 local species of sweet potatoes namely; Waghi Besta, Sinato, Wan Mun, KGKSA, Kalakai, Purple, Mea (Taro kaukau), Korowes). The three significant features of the sweet potato species are firstly their ability to withstand prolonged drought.

Secondly, it has a very high yielding capacity. Thirdly, they are disease free as they have been treated well. It will be a long time before they become susceptible to potato blights. The devastating effects of drought and frost of 1972, 1997, and more recently 2015 gave us enough reason to be fearful of losing our staple food crop.

You remove “kaukau” and effectively, you remove the very source of human survival. We may have taro and other root crops, but they are by no means comparable to kaukau.

In addition, its soft and tender leaves are prone to the harsh effects of drought and frost. They wilt and die easily on first contact. Its tubers are buried only 2 inches below the surface of the mound making them very vulnerable to extreme weather conditions.

Ethics of the Caritas Sustainable Agriculture & Livelihood (CSAL) programme

This programme is guided by strong ethical values which is part of the training the CSA Team impart to the local farmers. Farmers must distribute seedlings to all neighbors free of charge or discrimination. They must be willing to offer training and share their experiences with their neighbors freely. They must be done purely with charity and the respect for the dignity of each other.

Preparing for future emergencies

Caritas Sustainable Agriculture & Livelihood (CSAL) program is a significant project targeted at addressing the core of human life: food, particularly “kaukau” and all the related issues.

This is only a start and has great potential to expand. We invite likeminded organisations and state authorities to understand and prioritize agriculture. While we are experiencing increased frequency and severity of natural disasters, we need to prepare our people to sustain themselves in the event of another one. No state agency or organisation has the capacity to handle large natural disaster emergencies as experienced recently. Therefore, we need to focus on building the people’s capacity to sustain their livelihood such the CSAL programme.

We view that Agriculture should be among the top Government priorities. It has multiple benefits through a doubled edged effect: reduce poverty, lawlessness, urban migration, etc and increase GDP through increased rural economic activities, and improve HDI level. We’ve only begun long journey … and we will return from time to time with more to report.

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Tutu ana te puehu - Stirring up the dust