An early start was made this morning for the drive northwards through Chimbu Gorge (Chimbu can also be written as Simbu). Three four-wheel drive vehicles were used, one covered Toyota Land Cruiser and two fairly antiquated) PMVs. The drive from Kundiawa to Kegasugl (also known as Kegesuglo) was most spectacular, progressing through many Chimbu villages, through slopes, sometimes 80°, covered in gardens for shifting cultivation. Indeed, ladders were often needed get from one part of a garden to another, and we were told that people have been killed by falling off their gardens into the deep ravine below.
The main crop for the Chimbu is sweet potato (plus some taro, bananas and sugar cane). Each family has rights to land in a number of sections of the sub-clan territory. This means that each family has the right to farm on different soils and at different altitudes and slopes on land suitable for different crops. Thus, each family shares the full range of land types, providing insurance against natural disasters which commonly affect only one land type.
Mixed in with the different crops are brightly coloured flowers and bushes to be used in sing-sings. Like most highland groups in Papua New Guinea, the Chimbu people are swiddeners, or shifting cultivators. The word “swidden” comes from an old English word meaning “burnt clearing”, and it refers to any garden made by a shifting cultivator who has burnt a clearing in the bush for cultivation. (An old term for shifting cultivation was the very descriptive "slash-and-burn" agriculture).
In this system of agriculture, the food gardens (or swiddens) are moved around the district as soil fertility is exhausted. Note that it is the gardens which move, not the villages. The process of “shifting” the garden is a response by the Chimbu people to their very difficult physical environment of steep slopes, high altitudes and heavy rainfall.
Shifting cultivation is a form of subsistence agriculture. This means that the crops produced are for the use of the farmer and his or her immediate family rather than for commercial sale. In a pure subsistence system, trade and exchange would have no part at all in the economy. Obviously, such a pure subsistence system does not exist in reality. Every known example of subsistence agriculture involves exchanges of labour between households, although usually on a reciprocal basis, and trade involving food. In fact, this exchange of labour (reciprocity) is an important basis of Chimbu society peace is largely assured as long as everyone owes labour to everyone else! Exchanges of labour and goods were a traditional part of Chimbu society, and even centuries ago, there was extensive trade over very long distances incorporating some basic commodities such as salt.
Subsistence agriculture does not mean that only a bare minimum of foods will be grown with no surpluses at all. Apart from surpluses which are produced for protection against crises such as droughts, floods and tropical cyclones, surpluses are also produced to cover the adequate performance of unforeseen social obligations. Any surplus which is left over after this will obviously not be left to rot but will be used or distributed in some way. Some of this surplus may be traded or sold, and this would not necessarily indicate a commercial system of agriculture. If the Intention of the cultivator was to use the majority of the crop produced for his or her own needs, then we regard this as subsistence cultivation.
Chimbu shifting cultivation gardens have certain distinctive characteristics. The swiddens are non-permanent, and generally found in forested or brush covered land. Fire is a very important tool in the preparation of the field for planting. The swiddener (usually a “he”) cuts down the trees or woody plants on his chosen plot. When these plants have dried in the sun, he sets fire to them. The planting is then carries out in the ashes (usually by a “she”). There is no harvesting season as such, but daily requirements are harvested (again usually by a “she”) as they are required for each meal.
After some years, leaching of the soil will lead to a reduction of the fertility of the garden. Once this happens, the field will be abandoned to natural re-growth and another plot will be chosen where the process will be repeated. Examples of tools typically used by the Chimbu people include axes, slashers, digging sticks and hoes. The land to be cultivated is allocated to village households by consensus (Chimbu people have no chiefs, or leaders, as such). If a family ceases to work the land that has been allocated to it, then the right to work that land will be re-allocated to another family.
Because of the nature of shifting cultivation, there is little need to invest very much capital or labour in permanent improvements to the land. Indeed, one of the characteristics of shifting cultivation is that it is the world’s most efficient form of agriculture when its energy outputs are compared with its energy inputs. The most common tools we saw being used on our drive through Chimbu Gorge were simple wooden digging sticks – anything more powerful would disturb the soil structure and cause potentially catastrophic soil erosion, or maybe even landslides or mudslides.
The road through Chimbu Gorge ends at Kegasugl (8,800 feet altitude, or 2,680 metres). As we drove into the clearing that constitutes most of Kegasugl, we were immediately surrounded by tens of men, women and children. We had a four-hour trek ahead of us to reach our destination for the day, which was the Base Camp at the foot of Mount Wilhelm, Papua New Guinea’s highest peak. The men, women and children were all wanting to work as our porters, carrying our food, supplies and luggage up to the Base Camp, their one and only source of paid employment and thus engagement with the cash (as opposed to subsistence) economy.
Unlike the porters who are clearly used to the oxygen-starved high-altitude environment, everyone in our group found the four-hour uphill trek very difficult indeed. The track was narrow, often slippery and muddy, following a very steep climb to the Mount Wilhelm Base Camp beside the 11,500 feet (3,510 metres) high glacial Pindaude Lakes. Most of us succumbed to headaches at about the 3,000 metre high mark, and the headaches stayed with us until we descended through the same level the following level.
The lack of oxygen was not the only factor that made us breathless – the scenery on the climb was also breathtaking for its beauty. The climb began on a dirt trail that gradually became narrower and narrower, with some especially steep and slippery sections as it climbed through a zone of dense rainforest. As the skies were starting to darken, the light suddenly returned as we emerged from the forest into a wide glacial valley, most of which was covered in long grass peppered by surreal high tree-ferns.
A final steep climb over the glacial moraine of Pindaude Lakes brought us (with great relief) to the Base Camp, happily arriving before sundown. The Base Camp is a very simple structure, essentially being a simple, elevated timber structure with a kitchen and several dormitory-style rooms with bare bunks for sleeping. The toilets were some distance from the main building and consisted of simple open-fronted corrugated iron A-frames over a hole in the ground with a can above for seating (if required).
Most of us slept quite poorly that night. The bunks were clearly not designed for comfort, our headaches persisted, and if we turned over in our sleep, we inevitably woke up panting for air.