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Household gardens and their niche in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Daniel E. Vasey, Chairperson, Department of Sociology, Divine Word College, Epworth, Iowa, USA


In recent years, small-scale urban food production at the household or community level has increasingly attracted the interest of policy-makers, urban planners, and development specialists [20, 25, 26]. With accelerating world-wide rural-urban migration, food pressure in cities and towns will no doubt assume greater nutritional and political importance than it already has. Many national governments face the choice between increasing national food output and importing often costly basic foodstuffs. The policy of importation has two pitfalls: it depletes foreign exchange earnings and it creates a national dependency on subsistence food commodities from the outside.

As efforts are made to promote urban food production, those concerned with policy design should take into account the fact that in many Third World countries urban food production in backyard gardens already exists. A study of these small-scale urban agricultural systems can aid in the formulation of potentially more successful plans for projects. An understanding of locally adapted methods that function well will serve to guide the promotion and improvement of urban food production on a larger scale.

The purpose of this study of urban gardening in Papua New Guinea is threefold: (i) to analyse the economic importance of urban food production in the National Capital District, (ii) to place urban food production within its ecological niche, and (iii) to provide specific information that can be used to derive general principles for the improvement of future household garden programmes in Papua New Guinea and other areas of the world.

Traditional urban food production in Papua New Guinea is of particular interest because it is such a widespread phenomenon [21]. In the National Capital District (NCD), which comprises the Port Moresby wider metropolitan area, about four-fifths of all households take part in some form of food production with a mean area per garden of 372 square metres, which seems considerable for an urban setting.


For the present study a survey was made of 700 households selected at random from the total of 19,000 in the entire NCD. Householders were interviewed and gardens were observed over a three-month period from March to May 1981. Observations and interviews were successfully carried out in 482 households. In 35 of the households I was able only to conduct interviews, while an additional 110 did not have a garden. I was able neither to observe gardens nor to conduct interviews in the remaining 73 households.

Additional information which has a bearing on the present study has come from observation and unstructured interviews which I conducted in a smaller sample of households at various times during 1980, 1981, and 1982. As a basis for comparison, readers may also be interested in several earlier studies conducted by Fleckenstein [5], Harris [6], Hernandez [7], and Thaman [19]. Vasey gives a detailed description and analysis of 1981 survey methods and socio-economic factors [24], and discusses methods of garden management and allocation of labour [22].


According to Norwood [14], Port Moresby is a city "designed by and for car-owning foreigners." Formerly a small colonial administrative centre that discouraged urban migration and settlement, Port Moresby rapidly expanded during the postcolonial period, reaching 123,000 in 1980, with a growth rate oscillating between 5 and 12 per cent [1]. Urban and suburban development was irregular and essentially unplanned, with large undeveloped areas between suburbs of various socio-economic levels. Neighbourhoods of variable size and density arose incoherently, often with large tracts of unused land between them. Outer city planning was minimal, except for household allotments on government housing estates. Today, Port Moresby is a remarkably diffuse city built along the slopes and valleys of a coastal hill range and the adjacent portions of an inland plain.

In Papua New Guinea a subsistence economy survives alongside a commercial one, the latter based on the export of tropical crops, mining products, commerce, and manufacturing, which still consists principally of import substitution and minor processing of local raw materials. The commercial sector is supported in several ways by the subsistence sector [2, 16]. Smallholder cash cropping is an important linkage between the two, with coffee and other export crops as major sources of income. Close to major cities and towns, gardening is increasing in importance as a source of income for smallholders because of the high price of fresh fruit and vegetables in these areas.

A high proportion of present-day residents are migrants from "rural" villages who, in spite of a return flow, must be considered permanent residents of the capital city [10]. Another large contingent of the urban population are descendants of the pre-colonial Koita and Motu, whose tribal areas have been incorporated into the larger metropolitan area as urban villages.

Port Moresby's population includes numerous households whose adult members participate only marginally in both subsistence and commercial economies because of their recent-migrant status. For example, they may have lost rights to tribal land in their home villages and yet are not able to find regular employment in Port Moresby.

Approximately one-quarter of Port Moresby's population is unemployed or underemployed and lives in what are often called "squatter settlements"; some authors prefer the term "migrant settlement" or the non-committal "settlements." Norwood [14, 15] uses all three terms. All of the communities in question are unplanned and in several respects informal, but "squatter" seems a more apt description in some cases. No rent is paid for squatting on unused government land, but is sometimes charged for what is called customary land. Some settlements are occupied by migrants with traditional ties to the landowner community.

Government housing estates, which require one householder at least to be employed, provide homes for over 60 per cent of low-income residents.


Although social and political circumstances largely determine location and size of household gardens, there is some scope for community and individual initiative in finding space. The spatial niche into which urban food production has spread is provided by (a) "bush" gardens, which are village or clan-owned, (b) vacant lots adjacent to settlements, and (c) hillsides.

Port Moresby first spread east along the seaward slope, then to Boroko on the inland plain and west along the inland slope to Hohola, Tokarara, and June Valley (fig. 1). Most recently, settlement has expanded to Cordons, Morata, University, Gerehu, and several other squatter settlements on the inland plain and some isolated inland hills. Within the coastal hill zone, the tendency is to occupy valleys and footslopes while avoiding steeper slopes; only hillsides near the city are built up to a greater extent. Most gardeners in the inland housing estates are far from the boundaries of developed land, but vacant undeveloped land is seldom used for gardens even where it is available. Therefore, apart from household plots, the main areas left for gardening are on fairly steep slopes.

Unfortunately, much excellent gardening land goes uncultivated because of land tenure patterns. Many gardeners have access only to marginally arable land, which means that they are unable to supply a large percentage of family food needs - particularly critical in the absence of secure and well-paid employment. For example, gardeners expanding from housing-estate allotments onto hillsides have to contend not only with slope problems but also with poor topsoil and an inadequate water supply.

Space for household food production was a consideration in the government plans for housing allotments, which provided plots of between 300 and 400 mē. To date, many gardens have grown well beyond the confines of the allotments, while others have been established away from the house - a fact that clearly indicates the insufficiency of the allotted plot size. Also, unplanned squatter settlements allowed themselves enough space around dwellings or close by for family food gardens.

Older squatter settlements on the seaward slope tend to be densely packed, with the notable exception of Horse Camp, which is located on prime, moist bottom soil and contains several houses with large garden plots. There has been some expansion of houses onto larger plots on steep slopes above older squatter settlements in an effort to secure land for cultivation. Newer squatter settlements inland tend more often to be built on, or adjacent to, large garden tracts.

The garden area attached to the lower-income settlements of Port Moresby ranges from zero (for example, the houseboat section of Hanuabada village) to well over 1,000 mē, with a mean of 372 +/- 42.4 mē. Where the intra-community settlement pattern is dense, garden plots tend to be smaller. The largest cultivated areas, "bush gardens," are worked by residents of the urban villages, and are often several kilometres away from the settlement.

Few residents of the housing estates work gardens away from their allotments or immediately adjacent to undeveloped land. However, it appears that in general gardening away from the allotment and the immediate vicinity of the house has become more common in recent years [5, 7]. None the less, a government effort to allocate plots for cultivation away from housing in a densely populated part of the district failed because of the difficulty of guarding against theft and vandalism. Bush gardens, in contrast, appear relatively secure in this respect, being comparatively remote and guarded at times by hired watchmen.

FIG. 1. Some Port Moresby Neighbourhoods


Household gardens in Port Moresby cannot be readily or meaningfully divided into commercial and subsistence categories. Also, it is difficult to draw a dividing line between gardens producing mainly for family consumption, with some marketable surplus, and small market-garden enterprises, which supply a large proportion of family subsistence needs. In general, true market gardens are around 2,000 mē in area, are located in the hinterlands and represent an important source of cash income. How ever, produce from very small gardens may also be sold

Within garden boundaries, this lack of distinction between "pure" market and subsistence crops prevails: physical separation of the two is not a consistent practice. One form of separation that is found in large gardens is to grow a cash crop like peanuts on unirrigated hill land and species mainly or entirely for home consumption on irrigated flatter land near the house.

To assess the relative importance of garden crops, a measure was obtained in a previous study for all gardens in the study by rank-ordering, and a score was compiled for the entire sample [22]. As a result, cassava, banana and plantain (in order of importance) emerged as the most important garden crops, followed by sweet potato, aibika (Abelmoschus manihot), pumpkin, maize, beans, Saccharum spp., yam, taro (Colocasia esculenta), peanuts, various Brassicas, Xanthosoma spp., and other minor crops. Pumpkins are grown mainly for the green tips and beans for their immature pods.

Tree crops were not included in this score. Fruit trees are commonly grown where long-term occupancy is assured, and tend to be more abundant in older neighbourhoods. Carica papaya, which was the most common, was found in 25.7 per cent of the 1981 sample [22]. A composite score was calculated for fruit trees, vine fruits, and vegetables eaten as greens or pods. The measure arrived at is approximate: an average garden might contain 31/2 plantings of trees, vines, or vegetable crops, or one mango tree and 11/2 vine and/or vegetable plantings.

Gardens are multi-cropped with staples predominating; these correspond to the traditional energy crops of rural subsistence agriculture. The emphasis in Port Moresby on staples in low-income gardens should not be seen simply as evidence of a starchy diet; rather, these staples provide much-needed energy as well as other nutrients. For example, some varieties of sweet potato, banana, sweet corn, and, more rarely, taro are rich sources of carotene. Also, fruits and vegetables seem to occupy an increasingly significant place in city gardens, possibly due to nutrition campaigns during the past years [7, 21-3].

The direct contribution of garden production to family food energy consumption is 4 to 6 per cent. This is impressive considering that most of the food consumed by lower-income groups consists of imported rice, meat, and fish. Low-income households without gardens subsist on imported rice with additions of canned meat and fish, a diet lacking in nutrient variation as well as total energy supplied. In a 1978 survey, daily intake for the lowest income docile was found to be 1,435 kcal with 38.1 9 protein, as compared to the NCD average of 3,009 kcal with 92.29 protein [12].

It has been estimated that, given the prevailing methods of management, a garden of 1,000 to 1,300 mē is required to meet the energy needs of one adult male equivalent [241. If the entire garden area were irrigated, that figure could be reduced but would still be considerably above the present mean.

As low-income gardeners have a comparative advantage in the Port Moresby vegetable and fruit market, they are also able to multiply the energy value of home-grown food by selling and using the cash to purchase cheaper imported foods. For example, banana, cassava, sweet potato, taro, and yam can all be sold at a price that will buy rice equivalent to several times their energy, together with canned mackerel to give more protein in the diet.


The coastal ecology of Port Moresby permits the cultivation of a wide variety of tropical fruits and vegetables all year round on rain-fed land. With the lure of urban employment, subsistence and surplus smallholder agriculture declined in the urban villages, and the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables in the metropolitan area quickly outgrew supplies and provided attractive price incentives for home gardeners.

Household gardeners have created their own economic niche within the larger city-wide food distribution system. Beginning in the 1930s, a system of open-air markets appeared under the sponsorship of the city council [3]. This development follows the spread of urban settlement and reflects the degree of neighbourhood food production.

Open-air markets are highly individualized affairs: a member of the productive unit always accompanies and sells the produce. Although other marketing opportunities exist, for example through a government corporation or supermarkets, no one represents a serious challenge to the system of open-air markets. They offer an exceptional opportunity even for small-scale urban growers, as prices are high, intermediaries absent, and the marketing cost low. The equivalent of US$1.37 (1 kina) in 1981/82 would buy one of the following: five bunches of greens, five mangoes; one small pineapple; ten dozen peanuts; 2 kg of sweet potato; or 3 kg of bananas. Consumers must pay these prices or look to their own gardens.

The owners of large gardens tend more often to sell their produce, but small-scale gardeners can also be seen in the markets. Squatter settlements have a higher percentage of sellers (42.1 per cent in 1981) than the housing estates, whose percentage is comparable to the district average (25.8 per cent). Where the owners of large gardens do not sell any produce, one cannot assume that all produce is consumed by the household; it is more likely that informal exchange and redistribution networks are in operation. The majority of gardeners in any type of neighbourhood are not sellers, however, and even sellers unanimously reported retaining for household consumption some of every kind of crop they sold.

Of the 33 gardener-sellers with gardens of 500 mē, 32 lived in six neighbourhoods [24]. In three neighbourhoods, peanuts were the dominant cash crop. During the 1970s, according to informants, peanuts evolved as an urban cash crop of considerable importance for low-income city gardeners, for several reasons:

- they can be grown on rain-fed land away from the house plot;
- they are highly seasonal, allowing subsequent cultivation of another crop;
- they can be sold in quantity on a few trips to the market.

A fourth neighbourhood in the 1981 sample served an institutional buyer, while a grass-roots co-operative in another assisted the marketing of produce in open-air markets by organizing some sharing of selling tasks.

It appears that the increase in garden size noted since earlier surveys [5, 7] is related to the saleability of garden produce. For example, in June Valley, a peanut-growing neighbourhood, mean garden size was reported as 125 mē (N=146) in 1974 [7]. In 1981, mean garden size appeared to have increased to 817 mē (using a smaller sample of N=31). Two further sizeable increases were registered in Morata and Nine Mile Quarry, neighbourhoods with many owner-built houses and ready access to moist soils on low ground favourable to gardening.

Some increase has occurred in seven of the nine neighbourhoods for which there are comparable data [7]. In all neighbourhoods, informants attributed the growth of gardens to opportunities to sell produce; other possible reasons are the extension of the water supply and the trend in many neighbourhoods towards gardening away from house plots where more land is available.

There are indications that household gardening expands as income falls. While the percentage of gardening households does not vary significantly by class of neighbourhood, mean garden size does. Gardens in squatter settlements and government housing estates, neighbourhoods with a high proportion of unemployed or underemployed, tended to average 469 to 513 mē, some 29 to 35 per cent above the NCD mean. Male unemployment in the squatter settlements was 31 per cent in 1974 [1] and has probably risen since, as immigration is believed to occur at higher rates than the growth of employment.


Household gardening in Port Moresby is neither capitalintensive nor energy-intensive and is on a different technological level to the subsistence agriculture practiced in the migrants' home villages, even though some crops are duplicated. In general, adjustments must be made by all gardeners to (i) reduced cropping space, (ii) reduced fallow time, (iii) irrigation during the long, dry season peculiar to Port Moresby's coastal eco-environment, and (iv} the soils of the NCD.

Most household gardeners are unwilling or unable to invest much capital in gardens and the use of industrial inputs is minimal. Mainly hand tools are used, although a few gardeners are able to have their gardens ploughed by tractors supplied by the city council or Department of Industry. Few gardeners use chemical fertilizers. The most important single "industrial" input is potable, piped irrigation water, which is always expensive, especially in Port Moresby where water shortages are often serious during the dry season.

Water is perhaps the costliest resource used by NCD gardeners but ways seem to be found around the regulations and high cost Watering restrictions in periods of critical shortage are often not observed, and either the high cost of water is not passed on to householders, many of whom have non-metered supplies, or the cost is offset by the high price of produce. Those on metered supplies cited cost as a reason for not watering during the dry season, About 71 per cent of the total garden area was within reach of watering equipment in 1981.

To conserve moisture, the Motu and Koita indigenous to the NCD area have long used trash mulching and wide spacing. These techniques are not widespread among migrants from rural villages, who use some mulching, albeit much less frequently than the urban villagers and in quantities too small to be effective.

Soil conditioners are also the only means available to household gardeners for boosting the level of soil organic matter and nitrogen [17]. Increasing the nitrogen content is most important for Port Moresby soils, as it is typically the limiting nutrient. The practice of cover cropping was not encountered. Few gardens are large enough to make it practicable; there is very little ground in Papua New Guinea that would support a cover in the dry season; and the practice is not traditional in the area. Some of the legumes grown, such as peanuts and long beans, are either poor contributors of nitrogen or, like winged beans, occupy little garden space.

Labour allocation in Port Moresby household gardens is determined by a household's socio-economic situation and is much more flexible than in the migrants" home villages In rural subsistence agriculture, women overall contribute the most labour. In urban food gardening, male garden tasks usually consist of clearing and breaking ground, while women do most of the work spread out over the entire growing season. However, regional variations and a complex set of rules govern the allocation of specific tasks and the distinction between "male" and "female" crops [8, 9].

In the urban setting, an individual's role within the house hold and participation in the wage sector is an important consideration in allocating household and garden tasks. A household member who works full-time often takes part in gardening chores but is seldom the principal gardener. Where the principal gardener is not a household head, it is usually a relative or live-in wanton, a person from the household's home village.

In the 1981 survey, women were named as 61.9 per cent of all gardeners and 66.7 per cent of the principal gardeners. This predominance of women working family gardens must be seen as a reflection of their secondary place in the work-force. Accordingly, the proportion of female gardeners was highest in the housing estates in which one household member's employment is ordinarily a condition of residence. Women represented 70.9 per cent of all gardeners in these neighborhoods, 65.6 in the urban villages, 51.4 per cent in squatter settlements, and only 18.7 per cent in Morata. The squatter settlements and Morata have a large number of all-male households, a consequence of the high ratio of male versus female migration - 2.24:1 in 1971, according to Skeldon [18] .


The strength of household gardening in Port Moresby can be explained by:

1. A rapid expansion in urban settlement and the contested ownership of large tracts of land open to settlement.

2. A great contraction in local village subsistence agriculture with a large number of urban migrants of rural background.

3. A shortage of fresh produce in NCD urban markets and corresponding high prices for fruit and vegetables.

4. The economic necessity of low-income population groups to produce some of their own food supplies and find alternative sources of income.

Although household gardens in the NCD make efficient use of many resources, there are a number of constraints including: insufficient garden space; the unavailability and high cost of water; and the unavailability, unsuitability, or high cost of other inputs, such as soil conditioners. An additional and even greater constraint is the factor of theft and vandalism in gardens separated from permanent housing.

Removal of these and related constraints to increased and improved urban food production could be accomplished by:

1. Instituting land allotments. There are large vacant areas of land that would be ideal for gardens, some very near present settlements, the majority along the periurban fringe. Ambitious household-cum-small-market gardeners could exploit these areas if long-term tenancy and security against vandalism and theft could be assured.

2. Supplying water at an appropriate cost. Specialists would need to determine the real cost of water at present used in irrigating gardens, weighing return against production cost. Also, alternatives to present water supplies for irrigation should be investigated.

3. Providing appropriate expanded garden extension and accompanying nutrition education services.

Household-level food production has been shown to be functional in partially feeding the urban centres of the developed world in both normal times and times of crisis [13]. The institution of a full-scale garden allotment programme in the NCD and other growing urban areas could mean improved nutrition for low-income producers, an increased total food supply through direct production or sale and purchase of alternative foods, economic benefits from the sale of garden produce to non-gardening urban consumers, staples of higher nutritional quality than purchased staples, and more fresh produce available for growing urban centres, as well as a more efficient utilization of local natural and human resources.


1. W. K. A. Agyei, "Urban Growth and Its Problems in P.N.G.," in R. Jackson, J. Odongo, and P. Batho, ads., Urbanization and Its Problems in Papua New Guinea "University of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, 1980), pp. 8 - 22.

2. H. Barnes, "Women in Highlands Agricultural Production," in D. Denoon and C. S. Snowden, eds., A Time to Plant and a Time to Uproot: A History of Agriculture in Papua New Guinea (Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, Port Moresby, 1981), pp. 265-284.

3. D. R. J. Densley, Marketed Fruit and Vegetables (Department of Primary Industry, Papua New Guinea, n.d.).

4. M. J. Eden, "The Origins and Status of Savanna and Grassland in Southern Papua New Guinea," Trans Inst. Br. Geogr., 97: 96-110 (1974).

5 F. von Fleckenstein, "Dooryard Food Gardens in Port Moresby: An Original Study of Morata Together with a Comparison of Other Studies Past and Present," Economics Department Occasional Paper, mimeo (University of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, 1978).

6. G. T. Harris, "Subsistence Food Gardening in a Port Moresby Suburb: Gerehu, April 1977," Economics Department Discussion Paper No. 32, mimeo (University of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, 1977).

7. J. Hernandez, Field Report, unpublished (University of Papua New Guinea Archives, Port Moresby, 1974).

8. D. A. M. Lea, "The Abelam: A Study in Local Differentiation," Pac Viewp., 6: 191 - 214 (1966).

9. B. Malinowski, Coral Gardens and Their Magic (Alien & Unwin, London, 1935).

10. L. Morauta, "Permanent Urban Residents in Papua New Guinea: Problems and Prospects," in R. Jackson, J. Odongo, and P. Batho, eds., Urbanisation and Its Problems in Papua New Guinea (University of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, 1980), pp. 290-302.

11. S. Naimarck, ea., A Handbook of Community Gardening (Charles Scribner & Sons, New York, 1982).

12. M. Nakikus, "Urban Nutritional Problems in Papua New Guinea," in R. Jackson, J. Odongo, and P. Batho, eds., Urbanisation and Its Problems in Papua New Guinea (University of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, 1980), pp. 159 - 164.

13. V. Niņez, "Household Gardens: Theoretical Considerations on an Old Survival Strategy," Potatoes in Food Systems, Research Series, Report No.1 (International Potato Centre, Lima, Peru, 1984).

14. H. C. Norwood, "Port Moresby: Pattern of Settlement among Migrant and Urban Villagers," in C. A. and B. L. Valentine, eds., Going through Changes: Villagers, Settlers, and Development in Papua Now Guinea (institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, Port Moresby, 1979), pp- 73 - 90.

15. H. C. Norwood, "Notes on Changes in Port Moresby Settlements, June 1979 to June 1982," mimeo (Planning Resource Centre, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand, 1982).

16. J. Pernetta and L. Hill, "Subsidy Cycles in Consumer/Producer Societies: The Face of Change," in D. Denoon and C. S. Snowden, eds., A Time to Plant and a Time to Uproot: A History of Agriculture in Papua New Guinea (Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, Port Moresby, 1981), pp. 293-309.

17. R. M. Scott, "Soils of the Port Moresby Area," in J. A. Mabbutt et al, Lands of the Port Moresby-Kairaku Area (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Melbourne, 1965), pp. 129-145.

18. R. Skeldon, Internal Migration in Papua New Guinea: A Statistical Description, Institute of Applied Social and Economic Research Discussion Paper No. 11 (Port Moresby, 1977).

19. R. Thaman, "Urban Gardening in Papua New Guinea and Fiji: Present Status and Implications for Urban Land Use Planning," The Melanesian Environment Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1977), pp. 146 - 168.

20. UNICEF, Urban Examples for Basic Services Development in Cities, UK-9 (UNICEF, New York, 1984).

21. D. E. Vasey, "Agricultural Systems in Papua New Guinea," in D. Denoon and C. S. Snowden, eds., A Time to Plant and a Time to Uproot: A History of Agriculture in Papua New Guinea (lnstitute of Papua New Guinea Studies, Port Moresby, 1981), pp.17-32.

22. D. E. Vasey, "Management of Food Gardens in the National Capital District," Sci. N. Guin., 9: 141 - 166 (1982).

23. D. E. Vasey, "Subsistence Potential of the Pre-colonial Port Moresby Area, with Reference to the Hiri Trade," Archeol. Ocean., 17: 132 - 142 (1982).

24. D. E. Vasey, "Functions of Food Gardens in the National Capital District," Yagl-Ambu: P. N. G. J. Soc. Sci. Humanit., 9: 14-36 (1982).

25. I. Wad e, "Cracks in the Concrete," UNICEF News (October 1983).

26. T. Walsh, "Today's Pilgrims," Gardens for All News (January 1982), pp. 1 -2.


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