The Money Tree: Coffee in Papua New Guinea

The Money Tree: Coffee in Papua New Guinea – book reviews

Scott MacWilliam

This large book, of over 500 A4-size pages, provides a detailed and up-dated version of the Papua New Guinea coffee industry’s development during the 20th century. That version largely explains the establishment and subsequent development of the country’s major agricultural export as a function of the expatriate European presence. Although this is not an original story-line, already well-published author James Sinclair provides a vast amount of new information as well as many photographs with which to revitalise one particular version of coffee’s development.

The book is divided into three parts, with 30 chapters. The first part deals with the initial phase of coffee production and marketing, from 1890 to 1945. While the five chapters of this part are brief, nevertheless they rightly emphasise the initial primacy of expatriate-owned largeholdings as well as the largely defensive role of a colonial administration anxious to shelter the indigenous population from unrestrained commercialisation.

The second and most substantial part of the book, titled `The Plantation Era 1946-1975′, contains 17 chapters, totalling over 260 pages, or approximately half of the book. The final part covers the period since independence. Unfortunately Sinclair appears uncomfortable with his role as an expatriate in describing events over the last 20 years (see especially p. 348). The result is a third section with little in the way of unifying themes, divided mainly by `events’ – plantation redistribution, 20 hectare scheme, coffee rust crisis and the privatisation of the Coffee Industry Board.

The real strength of the account lies in the second part, which is mainly concerned with the planter experience, although dealing also with marketing and the administration’s role in encouraging indigenous growers. The recent interviews with many of the European planters as well as important merchants and government officials make Sinclair’s story worth reading. While the presentation of these interviews could have been greatly enhanced by skilful editing, nevertheless they are most informative. It is to be hoped that the complete texts are deposited in a well-maintained archive.

Sinclair accurately represents important features of expatriate existence in the Highlands, in particular key aspects of settler self-conceptions. He effectively shows how the planters, generally with little prior agricultural experience, took part in a brief land-rush into the Easter and Western Highlands. Most depended for survival upon relatively high prices, loans from trading companies and off-farm employment. As Sinclair states (p.91): `Almost all the coffee plantations in the Highlands were established on the cheap, by men and women with very little money but very high hopes’. Once prices fell, from the mid- 1950s, centralisation and concentration drove out many of the owner-occupiers. Most largeholdings subsequently were owned and run by expatriate corporations and international firms, then from the early 1970s increasingly became the property of indigenous-owned Development Corporations.

Unfortunately, the strength of the story is also its major weakness: against Sinclair’s depiction of the 30 years after World War II as the plantation era, this was the period when largeholdings became less, not more, significant, even as their output expanded. The initial post-war increase of European planters was not a new beginning, but the last twitch before this form of production was largely extinguished world-wide.

Contrary to the self-image of free-wheeling pioneers establishing a new frontier, planter existence in the Highlands was highly controlled and confined. Their presence was permitted, even cautiously encouraged, by the colonial administration almost entirely to extend commercialisation among smallholders. So successful was this development strategy that by 1959, indigenous planting of bushes already surpassed the area planted upon largeholdings. in 1964 smallholder output exceeded that from largeholdings, and within five years had reached 70% of total output. Over the next 27 years, the proportions have not changed to any significant extent. For less than 250 expatriate owner-occupiers, many of them with little agricultural knowledge, limited finances and only a few acres of coffee planted, to be central and many thousands of household producers marginal, suggests a particularly myopic view of coffee’s development.

The book was first envisaged, commissioned and financed by three senior managers employed by Angco, for over 30 years the most important and frequently innovative coffee trading company. The three, Arthur Jones, Craig McConaghy and Brian Greatheed, have worked in the coffee industry in Papua New Guinea for more than 75 years. Their financial support and concern for recording the history of coffee in PNG is unprecedented: with historical research in and about the country in a major crisis, it can only be hoped that their example will be contagious. However when funding research, private company officials like university authorities need to ensure that they are not simply trying to perpetuate already outdated stories, even if these are tenaciously investigated, well told and have some appeal.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Carfax Publishing Co.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group