Sago beating: An example of a timeless innovation at work

In the Kurti language group area of Manus Province, producing sago is hard work. This is because it involves numerous processes, each containing smaller activities requiring the use of skills, innovation and utilizing available resources. Take for example, the first process which is the cutting down of the sago palm tree. You first have to identify the tree, make sure it has matured, then decide where the sago tree will fall when cut. This is important because failure to place it correctly will mean the tree palm tree falls and breaks into several pieces. It doesn’t break off but the outer shell covering is broken making it very difficult to remove the outer covering of the palm tree. Even when you are actually beating the sago, the sago pulp will fall through the crack and be lost. Losing sago means loosing food. Even the crown of the fallen tree must be intact as some of it’s parts will be used to create the basin for washing the sago. This is only the first part of the other processes that need to be done but you can already see the type of work that must be done to make sure the work of producing sago is easier to manage.

In the Kurti language group area of Manus Province, the men stand upright alongside the fallen sago palm and beat the sago with the wooden bow.

Some of the processes involve men and some processes are for women. For example, after the sago tree is felled, the outer hard bark like covering of the sago palm must be removed with an iron digging bar. It requires that a man must be physically strong to handle and maneuver the steel bar and must be experienced enough to plow the outer bark off. Meanwhile another process is that of the sharpening of a bamboo piece to put at the end of the sago beating bow. In this process, a man must go into the bush, look for right bamboos, cut them and bring them back to the place where the fallen sago is.  He must sharpen the bamboo and place it on the end of the wooden tool used to beat the sago. Even the intricate part of sharpening the bamboo takes time and skill to master the right edge required for beating the sago. Another process is that actual sago beating. One must stand beside the sago and swing the wooden bow to ‘beat’ the sago flesh into pulp. Improper stance will make a person swing the wooden sago beating bow awkwardly resulting in the bamboo piece breaking. Striking the sago with the bow is a repeated process so one must adjust themselves into a stance that enables them to strike in a rhythmic cycle. Then men pack the fine pulp into bags and then bring them to where the women will be washing the sago. This is just three processes so far for the men.

Some of the processes involve women. The women also have their own work cut out for them. They have to manually build a filtration system using some parts of the crown of the the sago palm, matting of the sago palm, maybe some pieces of a mosquito net and sago leaves. The decanting part of the sago washing system needs to be a place where the water for the washed sago is captured. This may include a dugout canoe or a collection tray made up of canvas. After the decanting process is done, the sago is placed into bags and placed on a stand to allow more water to drain out. Then the fresh sago is taken to the house and fried to eat. These numerous processes take place each day until the whole sago palm has been beaten.

In my view there should be around 5-7 different processes that are carried out to make sure a sago production is effectively carried out. Here is my list: 1) Identification of matured sago palm tree and cutting down 2) Removing outer shell/bark of sago using a digging bar 3) Collecting and sharpening of bamboo 4) beating the sago 5) cutting and packing the sago and transporting sago to wash area 6. Washing the sago using a filtration and decanting system 7. Packing and transporting sago bags home.

Although it seems like hard work, it is essentially a show of basic innovation on display. You see, the numerous process all use bits and pieces of the objects found in the natural environment. The individual objects have been picked out from the bush, trialed and practiced over many decades and have proven to be reliable in getting the job done. Our ancestors have used these to innovative practices to develop a system of processes that work together to produce sago. I have done this video to only show the beating sago (Process part 4) where the bow is used to beat the sago. In the Kurti language group area, the men beat the sago and the women wash the sago. This short video explains and shows the process of beating sago done by men. It does not show the next process where women wash the sago. I hope I can be able to record all the steps to develop a longer more informative video. In the meantime, here is a video of myself and my male relatives beating the sago.    

Local Manus rubber farmer perseveres to make an honest living.

In the last Papua New Guinea census in 2011, a total of 7.2 million persons were enumerated in 1.3 million citizen households in the country. This gives an average household size of around 5.5 persons per household. Manus province had a population of 60,480 people with 10,360 households but now ten years has passed since and the population would have certainly grown. According to the 2021 National Budget Volume 1 document, COVID-19 had an impact on the PNG economy in 2020 leading to a job loss of 35% and both the private and the public sectors, including the agriculture sector, declined by 12%. However, farmers all around the country have not given up with major strides taken in industries relating to Cocoa, Coffee, Vanilla, etc. Rubber has been one such industry that has gone through a lot and has still maintained a stronghold as a key cash crop in PNG’s economy. Published research by Hirohata (2017) point out that natural rubber has had a long history in Papua New Guinea since the early 1900s because the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis has been planted here since 1903. There are two Technically Specific Rubber (TSR 10) factories in the country, one natural rubber estate in Doa, Central province while another, privately owned in Western Province and they export some 300,000 to 400,000 tonnes every month.

Individual farmers are doing their bit too to make sure they maintain, harvest and sell their rubber too. One such farmer is Mr. Mark Patlau, 59, of Liap village in Manus Province. Liap village is on the northern coastline of Manus and is situated in the Pomotu Ndrehet Kurti Andra (PNKA) Local Level Government area. According to the last PNG National Census in 2011, PNKA holds around 12.2% of the total Manus population of 60,480 with an average household of 6.4 people. Mr. Patlau is a humble and hardworking smallholder rubber farmer who has 500 trees on his land. Mr. Patlau, according to the Department of Agriculture and Livestock (DAL) website, is one of around 60,000 rubber farmers growing rubber in eight provinces in the country. These include Central, Gulf, New Ireland, Manus, Oro, Western, East Sepik and Sandaun provinces respectively.

Mr. Mark Patlau standing amongst his 500 trees on his customary land in Liap village.

He first planted his rubber trees in 1987 but did not utilise this cash crop. However, in 2012, the Manus Division of Agriculture and Livestock initiated a training for 15 farmers and gave them 200 cup holders each and a tapping knife. Using this, he begun harvesting his rubber trees. He explained that it took around 2 hours for the latex to collect in each cup. He harvests what scientists call as a natural rubber polymer known as ‘cup lump’ rubber. Cup lump is a coagulated rubber that is produced when the latex is left uncollected and allowed to coagulate under bacterial action. Once collected, he stores the rubber in the plantation area. He cannot take it home as the smell emanating from the latex is foul, like rotten fish.

He is making sure the latex falls into the cup correctly.
Mark Patlau stands besides his multiple rubber trees.
The latex seeps from the freshly cut tree into the cup

After a few weeks, he collects all the rubber that has dried and carries them from his plantation back to his house. It is rigorous work carrying the harvested rubber from the plantation area to home as he has to go back and forth multiple times carrying heavy sacks. His family and extended family provide a helping hand. His first harvest in 2012 was 50 kilograms and then over subsequent years his harvests grew. He has never looked back, with his minimum of 120 kg and maximum of 360kg harvests since. He always transports the cup lump rubber to Lorengau where he sells it at the Manus Division of Agriculture and Livestock at Tamat for K3 per kilogram.

Mark Patlau (right side with orange vest) together with his nephew Ari Longowei, showcase the rubber they have harvested from his plantation and brought back to store at his house before taking it to Lorengau.
Mark Patlau shows two samples of the rubber he has harvested, dried and ready for sale in Lorengau
Mark Patlau with family showing the harvested rubber

It hasn’t been an easy job harvesting the rubber for this father of six children but this year he has gone to another level. This year, Mr. Patlau and his nephew Mr. Ari Longowei, 35, spent three months harvesting close to two (2) tonnes of latex from 300 of his 500 trees. He couldn’t harvest from all his trees due to the shortage of cups. It is a mean feat considering it was only a two men operation. But the journey is not complete as he now has to bring the rubber to Lorengau town to sell. While Mr. Patlau continues this labour intensive work, his challenges are even greater. Most problematic has been the lack of cups in the province to capture the latex and secondly, high transportation costs when he has to bring his rubber to Lorengau town to sell. He has to hire a boat to transport his rubber to town, further digging into his costs. At the national level, rubber nursery development has been allocated K1 million under the 2021 National Budget but that money has not trickled down to farmers like Mr. Patlau in Manus. Even to make matters worse, earlier this year, money meant for Agriculture in PNG was squandered such as the recent revelation in the mass media that K22.7 million that was misused.

While rubber is a viable crop for farmers in PNG, in my opinion, there needs to be more government funding allocated to finance rubber nurseries, processing infrastructure developed or provided to small holder farmers, extension efforts improved and maybe small loan programs initiated to assist framers establish proper rubber blocks on their customary land. Only then can smallholder farmers living in rural areas like Mr. Patlau truly experience the true value of their work, add cash flow to the local economy and support their families as well.


Ps. The story was published in The National newspaper on 7th January 2022.

New beginnings, new gardens

So I started my new project which was a garden. My parents have planted kaukau, tapioca, bananas and pineapples all over the place. There are some gardens here and some gardens there. So I decided that I should do mine as well and contribute to the household as well.

There is this mountainous area beside the house. It is very steep but it would be a great place to plant something. I first started by cutting the shrubs at the edge of the mountain and then into the smaller trees. Although this mountain looks like a forest, it isn’t. In 1997 during the El Nino season, fire raged through much of the forests here. I used to live on the coast and during evenings, we would look up to the mountains and see fires on the mountain tops. In the distant, the looked like fiery orange embers like eyes of something malevolent lurking, waiting for an opportunity to strike. The fires burnt through the old trees and now, new ones have grown. Most are softwood so it was easy to chop down using an axe.

After chopping down the shrubs and trees, we left them for a while to dry up. After a couple of days, when some of the shrubs and leaves were dry, we burnt them. As the place cleared up, I began cutting the fallen trees to clear the place. The idea is that once we clear the placed the place and removed the debris, we can start planting something.

Chopping the small tress after burning some of the shrubs
Dad already surveying the area….maybe thinking about placing his new pandrol…hehehe
So we filled the bag with pineapple heads….
…..and now planting some of the pineapple heads in the ground.
Standing where the garden is and looking back to the house. Its not even far at all

My father has already decided that one part of the mountain should form a road from the top of the mountain down to the bottom of the mountain. I don’t know what he is up to but there is no use arguing with an old man. He has already planted pineapples to mark his road. I’m doing my bit to clear the fallen trees and shrubs and hopefully start planting some banana trees. Hopefully when my kids come for the holiday break, they will have some kaukau and pineapples by then.

I will keep up updated on my progress.    

A call for technical advice: Resilient Manusians having a go with Agarwood but need technical assistance

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.

Michael Ngai Popen and wife Christine stand in the middle of the plantation

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.

Mr. Michael Ngai Popen explaining how he looks after the trees.

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. Michael Ngai Popen and his wife Christine stand in front of their garden hut while the Agarwood trees are in the background

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.