Introducing rice to the highlands

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There aren’t that many people that can say they have introduced upland rice into one of the most remote communities in the world, but that is just what Peter Cradock and his wife Janet did in the Simbu province of Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 2002.  Along with having a legacy of over fifty years with VSO, meeting his wife during his time working in the VSO office in London, and subsequently after taking their son back to Borneo where Peter first volunteered, inspired his son to have his own VSO journey in Pakistan where he met his wife; Peter’s is quite the volunteering story.

Peter Cradock isn’t your normal 71 year-old.  He strides around the coastal town of Madang in PNG in a smart shirt and trousers, with his bum bag fastened to his waist and a sheen from the PNG humidity on his skin.  Now on his seventh placement (six of which have been in PNG), Peter is back doing research into technical and vocational institutions for the education team.  Completely at home walking the dusty roads, bumping into people that he has met across over fifteen years working in various roles in PNG, Peter knows that to be successful in your role is to make connections and speak to people and you can’t do that inside an air-conditioned 4×4.

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Raised on dried egg powder during the Second World War in Oxford, Peter’s father’s family were all farmers and this is what appealed to him from a very young age.  He reminisces about his early childhood: “Farming really woke up after the war and agriculture was really exciting to me.  Just as I got into it lots of NGOs started to arise and that awoke something inside of me, the wider need for food and the extreme need in the rest of the world.  By the time I was 20 and I had finished my qualifications in agriculture I was ready to explore the wider world.”

“Just as I got into it lots of NGOs started to arise and that awoke something inside of me, the wider need for food and the extreme need in the rest of the world.”

Peter’s VSO journey began in 1964 when he embarked upon his first placement in Borneo, Sarawak where he was able to combine his passion for farming and apply it in a development context.  He was based in the deepest, tropical jungle close to the Indonesian border where there was a lot of conflict at the time.  He recalls his first placement very fondly: “My introduction to where I was going to be working was when the chief agricultural officer showed me a map, drew a red circle, said that this is the land that they had acquired and that I needed to go and make it an agricultural station.There was about 90 acres of flat land that ran alongside an emerging road with water cascading down but not through the land; it was perfect for agriculture.  Huge trees surrounded the land, with vines hanging down to the ground, and the climate was incredibly humid.  I would go out every day, look around, work out what would be best for where and meet with the local community.”

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From Borneo to the VSO office in Hanover Street, London, where by chance a temporary staff member came from an agency to cover a vacant role, stole Peter’s biscuits and then his heart.  He was straight back to the booking agency to book her again and 48 years later, the rest is history.  25 years after his first placement Peter decided to return to Borneo with his wife Janet and their eldest son: “That glow was still there.I just had to go back to see what had changed and evolved.  I met up with all the people that I had worked with and it really had moved on.  It was a touching experience.  Inspired by what he saw, just two years later, my son volunteered in Pakistan with VSO which is where he met his future wife.”

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In 1999 Peter and Janet decided to volunteer together and the next leg of their VSO journey began, taking them to the highlands of Papua New Guinea.  They both worked together at a secondary school in Simbu, Peter teaching agriculture and Janet language and this is where both had a huge impact: “We arrived just after PNG’s most significant El Niño.  Most of the root crops had failed and as it was bone dry they didn’t survive so a lot of people died.  The tales were vivid of droning airplanes flying over and dropping food.  People hated the thought that they had to be the recipients of aid.  For their whole existence, literally, people in the highlands were among the earliest organised farmers in the world and they had been able to support themselves living off the land.  It was a great pleasure to teach the young people to regain their livelihoods through agriculture.”

“Most of the root crops had failed and as it was bone dry they didn’t survive so a lot of people died.  The tales were vivid of droning airplanes flying over and dropping food.”

It was during this placement that Peter found that the farmers had been told that it was impossible to grow rice on their land.  He was able to share with them that using improved growing methods, supported by good understanding of the rice plant, that land 1500m above sea level in the highlands could provide farmers two tons of high quality, organic rice per hectare.  This was revolutionary for the people living in these communities after such an intense period of food shortage and Janet played the key role of communicating the new ideas and methods to communities far and wide in the very rugged province. Since 2003 he has been back to PNG five times, working with Janet in the national school curriculum development division; with school inspectors designing a new school improvement planning system and is currently making great headway in setting up a project to support 20 volunteers across nine provinces working in technical and vocational institutions around the country.

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Now living in the Yorkshire Dales with his wife and with regular visits from his four grandchildren, it is an incredible testament to Peter’s character that he still finds the time to return to a place that is so clearly close to his heart.  His legacy of introducing rice to the highlands and the latest impact of devising a new, forward thinking technical teacher training programme will benefit the country long into the future.   His story is both inspirational and an example of how VSO can really shape the course of a lifetime.

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