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.
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.
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.
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.