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The link between an onion and a tree

The link between an onion and a tree


If you want to visit the Gardens of Eden, the highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG) might be as close as one can get. Lush grasslands are interspersed with small houses and woodlands or singular trees. In the background primary rainforests can be seen covering the hills and valleys, hinting at the vast jungle still stretching beyond the few developed parts.


Fig. 1 A tropical paradise

Many people do not know this, but agriculture in Papua New Guinea is not a recent development. Hardly even explored until the middle of the 20th century, the people of the highlands of PNG have been practicing agriculture for more than 7000 years and may even be considered the first agricultural people in the history of humankind. In short, many landscapes in PNG have been under human influence for thousands of years. This does not, however, mean that the pressures on the landscape have remained the same. Along with PNG’s increasing integration into the globalized world, population and the need to provide food have increased, leading to a steady reduction of tree cover in these settled areas. Given how steep the highlands are, this has had dramatic effects: landslides and erosion, together with an increase of degraded grasslands, barely able to provide ground for agricultural crops, have been normal sights now. It is high time to save this tropical paradise from its own downfall.

In Jimbu Province, Yongomugl Subdistrict, right in the middle of the eastern highlands, a small NGO called the Voice of Yongos (VoY) has been working for years to reverse this trend. In 2017, this NGO teamed up with APFNet to expand their original idea and combat a problem they had been facing in the past far too often: the unwillingness of farmers to plant trees as there is no immediate income to gain from it.

The issue, in fact, lies even deeper than just a lack of an income for a few years: aside from a main road winding its way through the mountains, many areas in need of restoration are far off the road, no farmer has time to go to the only nursery in the next larger town 1.5h away just to get the seedlings. Additionally, compared with other tropical economies, the rotation periods in the highlands and specifically PNG are, both due to ecological constraints, market demand, and social customs, far longer. Instead of 5 to 10 years, the average rotation is 15-30 years for most trees. This, on the upside, leads to a landscape boasting with large trees and less erosion due to constant cutting, on the downside this makes the matter of earnings from trees more of a legacy business than a mid-term investment. Money has to be earned in other ways in this subsistence economy.

Over the years VoY recognized these problems and developed this project intending to tackle all of these obstacles. In order to overcome the seedling accessibility issue, the NGO built four nurseries in the area, coupled with purchasing a jeep that can deliver those seedlings right to the doorstep of the farmers. For those farmers living far off the main path, so-called “mini-nurseries”, that is nurseries that had a capacity of raising 10,000 seedlings instead of 40,000 seedlings per nursery, were established on mountain tops to cover as large an area as possible. 


Fig. 2 Mini-nurseries are located far off the roads high up in the mountains

It was clear from the start that ways had to be found to enable farmers to reap some benefits from planting trees right from the start. Fortunately, around this time new crops like the English potato and the bulb onion were establishing new, lucrative markets, crops that many farmers in the area still did not know how to grow. Enabling only farmers willing to plant trees on part of their land to receive training and starter seedlings for the agricultural crops seemed like the missing link to connect reforestation with immediate benefits. Thus, VoY teamed up with Simbu Farmers Market Limited (SFML) to provide training on how to cultivate bulb onion and English potato to farmers that participated in the tree planting training workshop and subsequent planting. This proved to be a huge success, each training attracting around 40 to 50 farmers. Each farmer can earn about USD 450 of additional, immediate income, as it takes only a few months each cycle for the crops to grow. They then sell their products either back to SFML or other buyers in the area.

 “Every small tree you see around here has been supplied by one of our nurseries, we are really changing the landscape here.”, says Joe Kelly Bik, the Director of VoY. And many trees they are, in fact, eucalypt, white pine and patula pine trees are now dotting the valley on both sides and holding it in place. It is truly a testimony to the determination of humans and the abilities of trees to resettle even degraded areas.

“If you think about it, each tree is a bioengineering project.”, says a teacher at a local high school, where through the project students are taught the importance of trees to fight erosion on a smaller scale and climate change on a global scale. Trees, he emphasizes, are the cheapest and most ecological tool to restore the landscape’s functionality.

Papua New Guinea is still at the beginning of its path to restore degraded sites throughout the economy. The national government and the Papua New Guinea Forest Authority, which is also formally overseeing this project, has committed itself to increase reforestation efforts in the coming years. The APFNet “Community Tree Planting Project”, spearheaded by Voice of Yongos, will in this context be a model for how not only the community can be included in reforestation efforts, but how short- and long-term benefits can effectively be connected.