Manus, an island province of Papua New Guinea with a land area slightly smaller than the island nation of Samoa, has had its fair share of challenges. Manus, located just two degrees south of the Equator, is often associated with its colourful garamut dancing, unique green snails, fried sago and fish but recently has been in the mass media due to the controversial Australian Government funded detention center. Even now, with the announcement of the Australian Government funded AUD$ 175 million re-development of the Lombrum Naval Base, the Manus name is getting all the talk again.
But away from the all the limelight and the hype these past years, it has been the ordinary farmer, fisherman and market mamas living in rural villages who have been resilient through it all. The simple Manusian is helping himself and herself in the best they can on their land and the sea they live on. I was fortunate enough to meet one man and his wife who consider themselves as ‘mangi na meri ples’ who are making the best of what they have. Mr. Micheal Ngai Popen 52, and his wife Christine, 42 are simple villagers who live in Liap village on the northern coastline of Manus. Liap village is around a 45 minute boat ride from the main town of Lorengau. Most of the villagers live on the coast but have their gardens in the bush and tropical forest mountain areas. Liap is one of ten villages in the Kurti language group area in the Pomutu Drehet Kurti Andra (PNKA) Local Level Government area.
Almost ten years ago, Mr. Popen planted seeds of Agarwood and today he has a plantation of around a 1000 trees. He is part of the Wapomo clan and started planting the trees as part of his clan’s income generating project but over the years everyone’s interest has faded and he and his wife are the only ones who have cleared and tended to the trees all these years. His plantation is among the lush and tropical rainforest of the Manus hinterlands island around 200 meters above sea level.
So what is Agarwood? According to published research (Tan et al, 2019), agarwood is a resinous part of the non-timber Aquilaria tree, which is a highly valuable product for medicine and fragrance purposes. The formation of agarwood is generally associated with the wounding and fungal infection of the Aquilaria trees. The resin is secreted by the trees as a defense reaction and deposited around the wounds over the years following the injury, where the accumulation of the volatile compounds eventually forms agarwood. Published research by Ismail et al (2015) point out that Agarwood oil extracted from the tree is estimated to cost between USD126 to USD633 per 12 milliliters and the wood prices for low qualities are estimated to cost USD19 per kg and up to USD100,000 per kg for superior quality.
Since the Popen family lives on the coast, he and the wife make the three hour walk up the mountains every other couple of weeks to make camp. They stay for a few days to clean, prune the trees and at the same time make their gardens for food as well. The trees are lined in neat rows of 10 and 12 trees spaced 3 meters apart in two blocks of land and a fresh water runs on the side. They are some young trees that you can wrap your arms around but others are much bigger with most trees above 10 to 15 meters in height.
While Mr. Popen and numerous other Agarwood farmers like him in Liap and Manus are eager to cash in on the demand for this ‘wood of the Gods’, issues around sustainability, conservation and ability of trees to produce the valuable resinous wood are also key emerging issues. Mr. Popen and wife have realized this and now wish to move along this path to ensure the tree is protected and sustains the family and clan group into the future.
He said: “Mi mangi ples na mi nogat bikpla save lo displa samting. Mi laikim husat man igat displa ol technical save lo displa Argawood lo plis kam helpim mi, family blo mi na clan blo mi Wapomo. Lo kisim gutpla save em bai cost money tasol mi nogat displa olsem na tokim mi tasol na bai mi wokim” ( Iam an ordinary villager and I have very little knowledge on this process. Whoever out there has technical knowledge on this Agarwood, please come and help me, my family and my Wapomo clan. I know technical knowledge costs money which I don’t have but just tell me and I will do it).
Mr. Popen is a resilient man. To me, being resilient simply means being able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. Manus is a difficult place to do business or even start one. There are high transportation costs, government funding constraints, a growing young population without formal jobs and even rising law and order issues. But amongst it all, there are people in the rural areas who are giving it their best shot. They are resilient because no matter the situation everywhere they turn, they have decided to look back to the land and sea to support them. They are not giving up.
There is very little data on how many farmers like Mr. Popen are in Manus and how many tress there are but they need sound technical assistance. They need technical advice in terms of growing, pruning, infecting, grading, markets, sustainable practices and forest conservation. Like many rural areas of Papua New Guinea, often good and sound knowledge on agriculture, sustainable forestry, environment conservation are lost in the urban areas and do not make their way to where it most needs to go – to the people who are resilient.