Led by Research Fellow in the Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, Dr Philip Keane, the work has been funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).
It will provide critical help for an industry that has accounted for almost 20 per cent of PNG’s agricultural exports and directly affects the livelihood of 150,000 small-holder farming families.
Dr Keane said that over the last decade, cocoa production in PNG has declined by 80 per cent following the arrival of a serious insect pest from Indonesia.
La Trobe Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Keith Nugent, said the work was part of the University’s research into solving global issues of food security, water and the environment.
Dr Keane said cocoa has been the main driver of rural development in lowland PNG since the 1960s.
‘In recent decades most cocoa plantings have become overgrown, resulting in poor management, under-harvesting and heavy losses due to pests and diseases,’ he said.
‘This is a problem world-wide, with cocoa production in low-intensity cropping systems lagging behind the rapidly expanding demand for chocolate.’
Dr Keane said PNG scientists involved in the project have already developed outstanding new cocoa clones that are smaller, high yielding, and resistant to pests and diseases.
They have also devised more intensive ways of management of smaller trees to control pests and diseases, obtain high yields, and new post-harvest processing methods to improve cocoa quality.
‘This is a socio-economic rather than a purely technical project; we already know how to increase cocoa yield ten-fold. The main requirement now is to have these innovations adopted widely on farms.
‘We will work with villagers in four provinces (New Ireland, Madang, East Sepik and Chimbu) to train cocoa farmers who will then return to their home villages and train and provide sustained, day-to-day support for other farmers on a fee-for-service basis.
New farming systems
‘A critical aspect of the project is to help farmers obtain financial support through financial institutions and other companies to enable them to pay for advice, new cocoa clones and farm inputs,’ he said.
‘We are going to test and promote new cocoa farming systems,’ Dr Keane said. ‘These will integrate food crops, livestock, and high-value tree crops such as coconuts, fruit and local nut trees which can provide shade for cocoa trees and additional farm produce.
‘Growing cocoa on smaller trees in association with food crops will also help involve women more actively in cocoa farming, where they can apply the same sort of intensive management they have traditionally applied to food crops.
The project includes social geographers from Curtin University in Western Australia. The main PNG partner is the PNG Cocoa and Coconut Institute, in East New Britain. The PNG Cocoa Board, the PNG University of Natural Resources and Environment, and NGIP-Agmark, the main cocoa buying company in PNG, are also involved.
The project will be managed in PNG by Trevor Clarke, who has had nearly 40 years experience in agricultural development in PNG and elsewhere in the Pacific, and Alfred Nongkas, head of extension and communication services in the Cocoa and Coconut Institute. Other La Trobe staff, Peter Sale, Paul Horne, Pete Green and John Morgan, will also contribute to the project.
Media contact: Dr Philip Keane: firstname.lastname@example.org / 03 9479 2219, or Ernest Raetz, Media and Communications, 0412 261 919.