CAMILO MEJIA GIRALDO | Mongabay | Extract
GEMBOGL - In Papua New Guinea’s central highland province of Simbu, residents of the mountainous Gembogl district eagerly await the completion of a long-overdue road upgrade that will seamlessly connect them with the region’s capital and the Highlands Highway, a vital link to much of the country’s predominantly rural population.
Barely passable during heavy rains because of its muddy surface and frequent landslides, the current Kundiawa-to-Gembogl road is a one-lane dirt track that winds a precarious path along limestone cliffs and the area’s main river, the Simbu.
Depending on the weather, the trip along the 29-kilometer stretch of road can take anywhere from one to three hours. At times it is only accessible by heavy-duty, four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Now, with funding from the Asian Development Bank, a Chinese company has been contracted to transform the road into a two-lane sealed thoroughfare that will eventually connect this section of the densely populated highlands with the coastal province of Madang.
“The road is a link to the rest of PNG,” says Steven Yimgin, a local community leader.
Seen as a path to development and improving their livelihoods, the project highlights the hunger rural communities across PNG have for reliable roads, as well as the central government’s current push to open up and integrate remote areas through an ambitious road expansion initiative.
But while the government emphasises the economic benefits of roads, some local organizations and experts have raised deep concerns about this push to pave the hinterlands.
Rather than a path to development for communities around the country, they see the government’s road-building initiative as a mechanism to open up previously untouched areas for extractive industries.
PNG hosts some 7% of the world’s biodiversity and contains a vast swathe of the third-largest tropical rainforest in the world after the Amazon and the Congo Basin.
It is also one of the world’s most mineral-rich nations, with deposits of copper, silver and gold, and has substantial reserves of oil and gas. However, the country remains one of the poorest in the Pacific, with widespread illiteracy and malnutrition.
Aiming to harness the country’s natural wealth to spur development, the government’s 2018-2022 Medium-Term Development Plan envisions expanding PNG’s road network from 8,740 km to 12,000 km in just five years.
This rapid expansion falls within an economic corridor concept that touts the development of infrastructure like roads, bridges and airports as the way to alleviate poverty in disconnected rural areas.
In the introduction to the development plan, prime minister Peter O’Neill says his government aims to grow internal revenue by 50%.
“To facilitate this economic sector stimulus, we are investing in key enabling infrastructures,” the plan reads. “We will construct five new national highways and missing road links to unlock the vast economic potential of our country.”
For John Chitoa, director of the local non-profit organisation Bismarck Ramu Group, the government’s economic strategy and ‘missing link’ road expansion is being undertaken purely to allow extractive industries into resource-rich areas.
“They are basically highways for the government into these areas,” Chitoa says, adding that on-the-ground research by BRG has concluded that the government will combine the corridor concept with special agricultural business leases (SABLs) to extract both land and resources.
The controversial SABLs, initially distributed mostly to foreign companies to undertake large agricultural projects, have been linked to illegal logging, government corruption and human rights abuses of local indigenous landowners.
According to a study by the US-based Oakland Institute on illegal logging in PNG, SABLs have been systematically used by many foreign logging companies to expedite access to land purely for deforestation.
Due to the SABL framework, the study says, PNG has experienced a sharp increase both in logging and timber exports, making it “the second-largest exporter of tropical logs in the world, after Malaysia.”
Although the government has launched official investigations into SABL abuses, little has actually been done to roll back the number of leases.
For Chitoa and BRG, the government’s lack of action on SABLs and its continued push toward integrating the country via the economic corridors points to only one conclusion: “The reason why they are using this [is] to grab land, it’s a land-grabbing mechanism for the government.”
Chitoa adds that although roads are vital to PNG’s future economic development, the current plan by the government, funded largely by foreign interests, is not the way forward.
Officials from PNG’s Department Of Works did not respond to repeated requests for comment by Mongabay on the issue.