Strengthening livelihoods for food security amongst oil palm and cocoa farming communities in PNG

Food gardening is a central part of the livelihoods of rural Papua New Guineans. The country is considered to be amongst the most food secure nations in the South Pacific. While strongly engaged in export commodity crop production, virtually all of PNG’s cocoa and oil palm smallholders maintain food gardens for household consumption and cash income. This diversification of income and food and cash crop production by smallholders acts to absorb shocks and stressors from environmental impacts and market forces. Yet the situation is changing. There are increasing population pockets that are vulnerable to food insecurity as gardening systems come under stress.

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Amongst oil palm growers, falling per capita incomes and declining access to land for food gardening are emerging because of population pressures.

Among cocoa growers, the pest, Cocoa Pod Borer (CPB) is devastating smallholder production and has significantly reduced people’s capacity to purchase food. In East New Britain, where cocoa provides the primary income source for over 70% of total households, production has dropped by up to 80%.

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The fall in income has undermined people’s capacity to purchase food and has put enormous pressure on food gardening systems as people rely more heavily on garden production for home consumption and as a major source of household income.

Given the importance of food security for household well-being, this four-year project, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), is investigating the status of food security amongst smallholder cocoa and oil palm households, where vulnerability to food insecurity is emerging as gardening systems come under stress.

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The project has four key objectives. These are to:

  1. Assess the status of food security among cocoa and oil palm households
  2. Determine the key factors that enhance or constrain the capacity of cocoa and oil palm households to adapt and respond to food insecurity
  3. Assess and implement a range of strategies to improve the capacity of smallholders to produce and purchase food
  4. Increase the capacity of smallholder households and extension providers to address food and livelihood security through improved access to training, information and ICT innovations

The findings will advance our knowledge on the sustainability of subsistence and commodity crop farming systems and assist in designing interventions to relieve the pressures on farming systems.

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“At the household level, food security refers to the ability of the household to secure, either from its own production or through purchases, adequate food for meeting the dietary needs of all members of the household” (FAO, 2009)

To assess food security among smallholders, Australian researchers from Curtin University and James Cook University, together with PNG researchers from PNG University of Technology, the Oil Palm Research Association and PNG Cocoa and Coconut Institute, carried out village-based interviews and surveys with over 600 smallholder households in five provinces in PNG. Cocoa farmers were selected in nine villages across East New Britain, Bougainville and Milne Bay, and oil palm farming households in the main oil palm growing provinces of West New Britain and Oro were involved in the study. Because the study focuses on farmers and their families, most of our data collection has been at the household level and we have worked closely with village leaders, villagers and community organisations.

A mix of methods was used to gather data on the four main dimensions of food security (food availability, access, utilisation and stability):

  • Baseline household socio-economic surveys
  • Household food garden surveys
  • Household 24 hour dietary recall surveys conducted over a 7 day period
  • Informal household interviews
  • Industry interviews and workshops
  • Fresh food market surveys
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The research findings indicate that although smallholders have faced both short term shocks and long-term stressors on their agricultural systems, they have successfully adapted their farming and livelihood systems to protect their household from food insecurity.

A suite of interacting factors help explain why many smallholders have managed to maintain sufficient access to nutritious food. Generally, these smallholders have:

  • Relatively good access to land
  • Access to a wide range of food sources
  • Regular access to income through the sale of commodity export crops and fresh produce
  • Low dependence on purchased food
  • Strong social and kinship networks which enhances their access to gardening land and other resources
  • Short distances (approx 20-30 km) to an urban town centre. This allows smallholders to access local food markets where they can earn income from the sale of fresh produce as well as purchase foods in local stores
  • With the exception of a few study sites, most smallholders live in areas with fertile volcanic soils and without strong seasonal variations. This allows for the cultivation of cash crops and a diverse range of food crops
  • The household capacity to change their agricultural systems and labour inputs to adapt to land & population pressures and the expansion of cash crops

Smallholders’ success at adapting their agricultural and livelihood systems to protect their household from food insecurity has been achieved through households employing an array of skills and innovative strategies to help them reduce risks in their farming system. These skills and strategies have included adopting new ways of using and accessing land and labour, migration, adapting or using new technologies, livelihood diversification and introducing new innovations and flexibility into the farming system.

Project Leader:

Dr Gina Koczberski (Curtin University); and co-investigators, Prof George Curry (Curtin University)  and Assoc Prof Paul Nelson (James Cook University)

PNG Research Partners:

PNG Oil Palm Research Association:  Steven Nake (Project leader for oil palm)
PNG Cocoa and Coconut Institution:  Joachim Lummani (Project leader for cocoa) PNG Unitech:  Dr Veronica Bue (Project leader)

PHOTO CREDITS: Esley Peter, Jarad Wennal, Emmanuel Gemes, Sean Ryan and Gina Koczberski

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