EAST New Britain’s Cocoa and Coconut Institute will partner with Australia’s La Trobe University in a five-year research effort to help bolster the nation’s cocoa industry.

Funded with A$5 million from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the program 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.

La Trobe department of ecology, environment and evolution research fellow Philip Keane said PNG cocoa production has declined by 80% over the last decade following the arrival of a serious insect pest from Indonesia.

“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 had already developed 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.

“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.”

Researchers will work with villagers in New Ireland, Madang, East Sepik and Chimbu provinces to train cocoa farmers in these techniques, with the farmers to then return to their home villages and train and provide sustained, day-to-day support for other farmers on a fee-for-service basis.

“This is a socio-economic rather than a purely technical project; we already know how to increase cocoa yield ten-fold,” Dr Keane said.

“The main requirement now is to have these innovations adopted widely on farms.”

Another critical aspect of the project was to help farmers obtain financial support through institutions and other companies to enable them to pay for advice, new cocoa clones and farm inputs, Dr Keane said.

“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,” he said.

The project, which will also include social geographers from Curtin University in Western Australia, is supported by the PNG Cocoa Board, the PNG University of Natural Resources and Environment and NGIP-Agmark, the main cocoa buying company in PNG.

Trevor Clarke, who has nearly 40 years experience in agricultural development in PNG and the Pacific will lead the project alongside head of extension and communication services in the Cocoa and Coconut Institute Alfred Nongkas.