Rice in Papua New Guinea

Rice is the most controversial agricultural crop in PNG. Rice imports have been in the range 120 000–208 000 tonnes per year between 1990 and 2005, mostly from Australia. In contrast, domestic rice production has been in the range 60–2200 tonnes over the period 1962 to 2000, and has averaged about 400 tonnes per year since 1980. This is around 0.25% of rice consumed per year in PNG in recent years. Claims are made for significant local production from time to time, but these are political statements rather than realistic estimates. Production in 2006 was estimated as 300–800 tonnes.

PNG leaders accuse the former Australian colonial administration of discouraging domestic rice production in PNG in order to protect an important export industry in Australia. Since Independence in 1975, plans for a domestic, import-replacement rice industry have been a feature of every government white paper on agriculture. Yet, since 1977, domestic rice production has never exceeded 1% of the amount of rice imported.

Rice growing in PNG

Rice has been grown in many parts of PNG. Before 1900, rice was grown, mainly by Catholic missionaries, in the Bereina area and on Yule Island in Central Province, at Aitape in Sandaun Province, and probably at other places. In inland Finschhafen in the Sarawaget Mountains of Morobe Province, Lutheran missionaries introduced rice growing in the early
1900s and it is today the only place in PNG where it has become a ‘traditional’ crop.

After 1918, rice growing in Papua (the Southern Region) was a compulsory village activity under the Native Plantation Ordinance (1918). The Papuan colonial administration sent an officer to India, brought Indian instructors to Papua and established a ‘fully equipped rice mill’ in an attempt to ‘make the Territory self-supporting in rice’. For example, the colonial administration promoted village rice cultivation in the Cape Vogel area of Milne Bay Province in 1923–1926. When this initiative failed, it was concluded that rice growing was too labour intensive and the environmental conditions were unsuitable. Cassava was then promoted and successfully adopted in the Cape Vogel area. In New Guinea, rice growing was promoted at Talasea in West New Britain and in East New Britain. On the Gazelle Peninsula, enough rice was produced for a steam-driven mill to be imported. Rice was grown on Umboi Island in Morobe Province until 1941.

During World War II, Japanese troops grew rice on the Gazelle Peninsula in East New Britain, and on New Ireland, but appear to have concluded that sweet potato was a more productive and reliable crop. For example, in Sandaun and East Sepik provinces (then one province), Japanese troops grew sweet potato and Chinese taro, rather than rice, in an attempt to feed themselves after they were cut off from Japan. In Papua, the Australian military administration made rice growing compulsory at Bereina and introduced a mechanical harvester.

After the war, in 1947, the New Guinea Nutrition Survey Expedition studied village food production in five locations and concluded that the ‘wider cultivation of crops such as peanuts and rice, which can be easily stored and transported, would help eliminate regional and seasonal food shortages’. W. Cottrell-Dormer, who was the agricultural officer on this survey, later became the Director of Agriculture in PNG. He was so convinced that rice could be produced satisfactorily at Bereina that he resigned his post as director to personally supervise the Bereina project. At Bereina, machinery was introduced and tractors were used to cultivate relatively large areas.

In the Sepik provinces, in particular around Maprik and Nuku, villagers began growing rice within the traditional shifting cultivation system in the 1950s as part of an indigenous rural development movement led by Pita Simogun at Dagua. Simogun had visited Australia during the war and observed Australian farmer rice-growing cooperatives in the Riverina. Similar movements occurred in the Markham Valley and in Oro Province. Some of the villagers involved in these movements brought cargo cult elements into the growing of rice. The colonial agricultural extension
service attempted to respond to this movement with the introduction of Rural Progress Societies, handpowered hullers and subsidised purchases. During this period, village rice production was also promoted by government extension services in Morobe (at Finschhafen), Milne Bay, New Britain, Bougainville, Gulf and Central (at Bereina and Kupiano) provinces.

Rice growing since Independence

Domestic rice production in PNG has fluctuated from year to year but has been less than 1500 tonnes per year since 1975 (Figure 1). Most production has been unirrigated. Rice has continued to be grown spasmodically at Bereina in Central Province, as various aid and agricultural investment projects have attempted to make production there sustainable. In the late 1970s the East Sepik Rural Development Project, funded by the Asian Development Bank, made a large commitment to upgrading rice growing and increasing production to 4000 tonnes. However, production in East Sepik Province had almost ceased by 1987.

Figure 1 Estimated rice production, 1962–2000. Note: Production figures were not available for 1963, 1965, 1967 and 1977. Sources: 1962–1976: Hale (c 1978); 1978–1990: DAL (1992:51); 1991–2000: Blakeney and Clough (2001).

Small irrigated rice projects have been undertaken near Rabaul using Japanese aid; at Gabmazung near Nadzab in the Markham Valley by the Lutheran Mission; at Bubia with Taiwanese aid; at Cleanwater Creek in the Markham Valley by Trukai Rice; at Erap Research Station, also in the Markham Valley, by DAL; and at Bau near Madang by a Philippines non-government organisation. Rice was grown in Bougainville Province during the civil war (early to mid 1990s), but by 2002 rice growing there had virtually stopped.

From about 2000, production increased in some locations, including in parts of Central, Oro, Morobe, Madang, East Sepik, Eastern Highlands and Simbu provinces. This was in response to the rapid rise in the price of imported rice. The peak of the recent expansion in rice planting was in about 2001–2003, but production appears to have declined since then. For example, rice production in Madang Province was about 80 tonnes in 2003, 60 tonnes in 2004 and 40 tonnes in 2005. There was little rice being grown in the highlands by 2005. The Trukai Rice depot at Erap in the Markham Valley was able to purchase only 4 tonnes of locally grown rice in 2004 and 7 tonnes in 2005.

Thus locally grown rice remains a minor supplement to the traditional diet in a limited number of locations. At the national level, domestic rice production is still only a small proportion of rice imports and the level of production is a tiny fraction of that of the root crops, sago and banana.

One thought on “Rice in Papua New Guinea”

  1. Rice is a household name and has become a staple food in PNG. Successive Governments must support the program in the provinces to grow and produce rice domestically to feed its own population as import replacement under the food security program. The country is spending millions of kina every year importing rice into the country since Independence to feed its people. These funds can be saved and spend in the country on impact projects on infrastructure development such as roads and bridges.

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