Maintaining Household Food and Income Security amongst Oil Palm Smallholders: the One Hectare Replant Trial, Bialla, West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea
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Rapid population growth is undermining food security amongst oil palm smallholders in two key ways. First, diminishing per capita incomes are reducing people’s capacity to purchase store foods; and secondly, the area of land per person available for food gardening is also declining. Declining access to land has been exacerbated by smallholders increasing their oil palm plantings from 4 ha to 6 ha on 6.07 ha (15 acres) Land Settlement Scheme (LSS) blocks. The old strategy of maintaining 2.07 ha of land for food gardening (wasblok – reserve area) has been largely abandoned as smallholders began planting 6 ha of oil palm. In response to the reduction in the area of land available for food gardening, smallholders adopted the practice of intercropping newly replanted oil palm with food crops to provide food for their families and supplementary income from sales of surplus garden foods at local markets. Nearly all LSS blocks have 6 ha of oil palm leaving for food gardening only the 0.07 ha wasblok and areas where oil palm has recently been replanted. The standard industry practice of replanting 2 ha of oil palm at a time has enabled access to an additional 2 ha of gardening land for 2-3 years when the replanted oil palms are immature and there is sufficient light reaching the ground for food crops. However, as the oil palm production cycle is approximately 22-25 years, three 2 ha replants on a 6 ha block means that gardening land is available for just 6-9 years out of 22-25 years. To address this shortfall of gardening land, smallholders have developed a system of reciprocal exchange of land through social and kinship networks to secure access to gardening land now and into the future. Replanting 2 ha of oil palm at a time creates a double disadvantage for smallholders, particularly when there are multiple families co-residing on a block. Smallholders are required to go into debt (replanting loan) at the same time as their capacity to service loans is reduced through the loss of income from 2 ha of poisoned palms, or one-third of their palms. This means that the maximum ratio of palms in production to repay each seedling is 2:1. Furthermore, with loan repayments deducted at rates of 30% and 50% of gross income at Bialla and Hoskins respectively, net income is reduced drastically for growers. Thus, the severe financial pressure on growers resulting from this double disadvantage is a major disincentive to replanting and is the reason for most growers postponing replanting for as long as possible. Moreover, this reluctance to replant results in oil palm stands being very old with a high proportion of palms being too tall to harvest or prune fronds. Consequently, under-harvesting and the presence of unpruned fronds creates an environment conducive to pests such as sexava. This results in smallholder oil palm production being significantly lower than would be achieved with timely replanting. Also, much smallholder labour, especially the labour of women and older men, is underutilised on blocks dominated by stands of old and tall palms because only the younger men are able to harvest tall palms. A new innovation developed by the project in association with Hargy Oil Palms and OPIC-Bialla is the 1 ha, or 120 palm replant option. This has multiple advantages over the conventional 2 ha (or 240 palm) replant practice for smallholders in terms of loan servicing, access to gardening land and environmental sustainability. First, the costs of replanting are staggered, making loan servicing less onerous for farmers and replanting much more financially rewarding for them. Instead of a ratio of 2 palms in production to repay the loan for each seedling as under the conventional 2 ha replant practice, the ratio is 5 palms in production for each seedling under the 1 ha replant option. Also, as timely replanting becomes standard practice, there will be six stands of palm at different ages or development stages. This will enable greater utilisation of labour with women and older men able to harvest younger and shorter oil palm stands. Also, food security is addressed not only by increased income from rising oil palm production and more work opportunities for women and older block residents, but it is greatly enhanced through the doubling of the period that residents can cultivate food crops on their own blocks. Instead of replant areas being available for intercropping on the block for 6-9 years in a 25 year oil palm cropping cycle under the 2 ha replant strategy, residents will have replant areas on their own block for 12-18 years of each 25 year replanting cycle. Increased gardening on-block also takes pressure off environmentally sensitive areas such as buffer and riparian zones. Thus the 1 ha replant option adds considerably to the long-term social, economic and financial sustainability of the smallholder sector.
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