In 1933, Australians Jim, Mick and Dan Leahy were in the highlands of New Guinea prospecting for gold. Even though they didn't find much gold, they came upon an even greater treasure: a million Stone Age New Guinea natives previously unknown to the outside world.
In the 1940s, Jim experimented with a small plot of coffee in the highlands and found conditions perfect for the growing of high-quality arabica beans. His first harvest came just as prices skyrocketed. A New Guinea land rush commenced and by 1955, there were 76 plantations in New Guinea, 55 of them owned by Europeans.
Motivated by the wealth they saw around them, natives began to plant small plots of coffee themselves and set up coffee nurseries with seed supplied by government agricultural extension workers. Everywhere, families and tribes were clearing land for coffee.
Today PNGs coffee industry consists of tens of thousands of small, village coffee gardens ranging in size from twenty to five or six hundred trees. These family-owned coffee gardens produce over seventy percent of the country's annual exportable crop, which has averaged one million bags, or sixty thousand tons per year.
During the 1960s, the infrastructure for todays coffee industry was established. By 1964, the Highlands Highway was sufficiently developed to make trucking a payable proposition and the airplane was no longer the the principal means of transporting freight in and out of the highlands. At the same time, the development of a network of minor roads in the coffee-growing areas enabled easier access to towns. Many coffee growers used their newfound wealth to buy small trucks and began buying coffee from other farmers and selling it at a profit to the mills. Foreigners who made huge profits owned the mills and export companies.
In the 1970s, soon after PNG became an independent, self-governing nation, the disastrous frost in Brazil enabled PNGs coffee growers to experience boom conditions, spawning many new ventures based on coffee or the income derived from coffee. Because of the uncertainty surrounding the newly independent status of the PNG government, the one hundred or so foreign planters who arrived in the 1950s sold out, accepting generous offers from locally formed companies and business groups organized within individual tribes. The mills and export companies, however, continued to be foreign owned and operated.
Because of their independence and inate resilience, the smallholder coffee growers of PNG have been able to survive the fluctuating world coffee prices. However, in the past few years, with the long spell of low coffee prices, their patience has worn thin and they have been driving the foreign managers out of their country. They believe they have not been getting their fair share of the profits. Hundreds of acres of coffee trees have been trashed and/or allowed to go back to the bush. Many processing mills have been burned or otherwise destroyed. The fate of the coffee industry in New Guinea is definitely precarious.
Even so, many of the mills are managed by foreigners and most of the export companies are owned by foreign individuals or companies. The tribes do not have money to repair and/or reactivate the damaged and/or abandoned mills. In an effort to engage the indigenous people in the coffee processes, companies like Highlands Arabicas Ltd are helping the villagers recapture some of the magnificent coffee resources of Jiwaka Province.