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PNG’s new roads: Paths to progress or devastation?

Road workers
Most skilled work on road upgrades is done by Chinese nationals from China Harbour Engineering Company. Local communities are employed as labourers and sign-holders (Camilo Mejia Giraldo)

CAMILO MEJIA GIRALDO | Mongabay | Extract

Read here the complete illustrated article from Mongabay

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.

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David Craig

I can remember when the only way to get to Gembogl from Kundiawa was to walk. In 1960 I was transferred from the school at Henganofi to Gon School in Kundiawa.

As I arrived well before school started I was asked to accompany a group of police bois as they escorted local men carrying a very large kerosene refrigerator to the Patrol Station at Gembogl. Kiap Peter Hardy was eagerly awaiting his new frig.

Orm Mathieson, the District Officer at Kundiawa, assembled about 20 local men at the district office and they strapped the frig, still inside its large wooden crate, to two large saplings and hoisted it onto their shoulders.

We set off at quite a pace and every few miles one of the men would call loudly ahead to the next village and another 20 men would assemble and take over the frig. It was my responsibility to pay off the carriers with sticks of tobacco, sheets of newspaper, a handful of salt or threepence which ever they requested.

When we had nearly reached Sumburu, a Lutheran Mission, close to Gembogl we discovered a bridge had been washed out the night before in a big storm. I instructed the police to hold the frig at the river whilst I went into the mission to get some building materials to help make the bridge safer.

I was persuaded to have a coffee before going back and whilst relaxing we heard singing and the men came around the corner so pleased they had somehow walked across the river on one large log.

I swore the police to secrecy as I didn't want Orm to know we might have lost the lot in the river. We got to Gembogl OK and Peter was very happy he could now keep his beer cold.

During the next 18 months the first 'road' to Gembogl was completed.

Gangs of village men were given a stretch of road to build with digging sticks and shovels (no machinery). The stretch of road was always quite a distance from their village and they had to finish the stretch before they could go home. This sped up the work.

Bill Seale , the District Commissioner from Goroka, came up to open the road and he was in the first LandRover in the convoy which travelled up the valley after the opening.
Kiap Jim Kent was driving the LandRover and, as they traversed a narrow spot adjacent to a steep drop into the Chimbu River, Bill told Jim to move across to the right as he was so close to the edge.

Jim's reply was that he was scraping the cliff and couldn't go across any further. They got there and back but the road was often cut off with landslides etc.

I walked up and down a few times. One memorable time was to climb Mount Wilhelm with a group of senior school boys and a couple of New Guinean teachers.

Philip Kai Morre

Within a short time the Kundiawa/Gembogl road is almost complete, thanks to Asia Development Bank and the Chinese company that build that road.

The O'Neill government also did well in supporting the rural population with road links.

Now how about the Karamui road, which has so far taken two to three decades to complete. Launch after launch with false openings to get media attention and false service delivery.

Our local contractors are not doing their work properly and consuming most of the funds meant for the Karamui road which is still 70% incomplete.

The MP for Karamui is not doing much by allegedly diverting road funds to his own company which is against the Financial Management Act.

It would be best is engage a foreign company to build the Karamui road, maybe this Chinese company can do well.

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