Bumps on the road in the push for equality
Ageing kiaps worry about their legacy

Reflections on the borderland dilemma

Boat harbour  Daru (The Guardian)
Boat harbour, Daru (The Guardian)


ADELAIDE – I’m reading the fascinating, ‘Too Close to Ignore: Australia’s Borderland with PNG and Indonesia’, by Mark Moran and Jodie Curth-Bibb, recently reviewed by Stephen Howes for DevPolicy Blog.

This whole subject of borderland relations is of increasing importance to both Papua New Guinea and Australia and Howes’ review was republished in PNG Attitude.

The South Fly region of PNG is growing as an area of geo-strategic importance: Indonesia is next door and, in recent days, we read of China seeking to establish a presence in Torres Strait, with a proposal for a fisheries plant in Daru.

But the South Fly remains very much underdeveloped by all the important measurable, including education, health, employment, income and life expectancy.

Just four kilometers away in Australia’s Torres Strait Island villages, the conditions are first world.

The average wage in South Fly is about K500 a month compared with K7,400 a month earned by Australian Torres Strait Islands residents.

Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that we see increasing cross-border restrictions imposed by Australia on traditional cultural exchanges between the South Fly and Torres Strait people as well as trade opportunities and health support from the Australian side.

Too Close to Ignore’ suggests in its concise and elegant Conclusion:

“The increasingly strict interpretation of the treaty by Australia is neglecting the local socioeconomic dynamics in the borderland, and the declining level of human development on the PNG side.

“Australia’s stance has been to harden the border between the two countries, which has had the effect of alienating and disempowering South Fly communities, restricting their livelihood opportunities and access to cash-earning activities. 

“Rapid change is evident in the borderland region, exhibited by escalating poverty, rapidly growing demand for marine products in the Asian economy, and resultant over-fishing and economic collapse.

“In parallel, traditional kinship and trading relationships have been evolving across the PNG-Indonesian border, and consequently fishing and trading practices among PNG traditional inhabitants have changed significantly since the ratification of the treaty. 

“To address this mismatch, solutions based on systems understanding are proposed that address the root causes and symptoms of this problem.

“New forms of adaptive governance of shared marine resources and their exploitation and trade should be explored in combination with innovations aimed at empowering people in the villages, who experience and understand the issues first-hand.

“Solutions should aim to improve the sustainability of livelihoods in the South Fly and decrease their dependence on exploitative relationships, especially with the end-buyers/financiers in Asia.

“Ideas should be co-developed with people of the South Fly. Options that should be explored include the alternative livelihood activities based on less exploited natural resources, alternative enterprise models and implementation of agreements that would permit free trade across the broader region, such as integrated economic zones or free trade zones.”

MapWhen reading Howes’ review I was initially concerned about his pessimistic, but probably correct, response to the book’s core findings.

He predicted that Canberra would have little real interest in addressing the concerns and advice advocated in the book. Why? It would create expectations and highlight shortcomings on the PNG side, which are usually addressed with Band-aid project support.

In addition the Australian Torres Strait Islands villagers would have little enthusiasm for less restricted borders, as the people flow would be one-way - south - sailing past their islands. I also doubt the traffic would just be ‘fishing vessels’, and this would also be true for foreign vessels.

So, it seemed there would be few real results in reviewing the Torres Strait Islands Treaty.

But, even as I was contemplating this, news came through of a proposed Chinese fish cannery in Daru!

In covering this issue, The Guardian reported:

“Inside Australia’s zone, PNG boats may take 25% of the permitted tropical lobster catch and 40% of Spanish mackerel. To date PNG has not had the capacity to commercially fish its share of these quotas, but the deal could attract Chinese funding for PNG-flagged vessels.”

I thought the local PNG folk will get nothing out of this….maybe a fish-gutting job in a majority Chinese-owned fish factory.

This province is so poor, the locals will agree to any cash generating enterprise. One might say, ‘Welcome your new mastas’.

So China is entering with a message of helping out poor PNG folk living under terrible conditions.

This should focus Canberra’s limited vision. I can almost hear Scott Morrison musing, ‘Hmm, a Torres Strait step up’.

Australia’s commercial fishermen will be vociferous in expressing their concern, and the Canberra brigade will be wringing their hands, leading from behind.

Some deal with PNG will probably be inked - special project funds to upgrade health, water, sanitation, housing and serviced land in Daru. But there’s no assurance that real jobs can be generated in the short term.

Meanwhile, China will march on.

Mark my words. The treaty will come under serious pressure very soon.

In contrast to this dismal prospect, you have admire but feel sorry for the hard-working folk of PNG’s Western Province.

These people sure know about hard work. Slave labour rates, getting paid $1.50/kg for rubber!

The South Fly Rubber co-operative could present a timely and relevant idea for the fishing industry in the Torres Strait which would benefit both PNG and Australia.

After all, if a cooperative can work in rubber, maybe it could work in fishing.

Finally, the more I read ‘Too Close to Ignore’, the more profound and clear its facts, statistics and implications for Australian policy in the Torres Strait.

The research findings should be like gold to Canberra. They remind me of the acuity and deep local knowledge of Bill Brown’s ‘Kiap Chronicles’.

This book should be compulsory reading for all who have an interest in border security, caused by endemic poverty, neglect and grievance on Australia’s doorstep.

A looming failed state is staring us in the face.

Tighter border security is not going to solve this festering mess.


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Harry Topham

Those in Waigani should take a deep breath and realise that the K200 million on offer is small bickies compared to the large dollar amount bestowed upon PNG by Australia in aid.

Is it worth the gamble one might ask?

Philip Fitzpatrick

Another article today related to the proposal to establish a fisheries processing plant in Daru. Typically it reports that the people of Daru have not been consulted.


This one mentions thepossibility of an increased presence of the Australian Border Force (I wish they'd change the name back to Australian Customs) if the proposal goes ahead.

This could create a scenario of Australian and Chinese interests literally standing toe to toe and facing off in the Torres Strait.

The potential for escalation would be very high.

Lindsay F Bond

Perhaps an indication of closer attention by Australian media.


Lindsay F Bond

All those Australians huddled in southern cities and crowding coastlines south, so quarantined from torrid swamps and tropical seaways, may be hard to stir into realisation, but journalist Laura Tingle has taken up this tough tackle.

See: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-12/australia-recognised-threat-png-vulnerability-represents-china/12974846

Blink, blink, and before eyes open, will a strip of territory be spied and some seaway tied, be trawled as never bipor?

Coastal PNG folk have history of participation, navigating their Torres Strait access way, exercising freely as permitted by their wind of good fortune known by the Motu word 'Laurabada'.

Laura Tingle rings the bell not at the approach of the coming storm season but at what likely might ensue as a major storm on consciousness of citizens claimant at lands bordering coasts of the Torres Strait.

So about your holiday lunch, will that come with a border sauce?

John Greenshields

I’m reminded of a recent WhatsApp message to me on the proposed Daru cannery.

It came from a licensed buyer of seafood products in PNG:

"Poor fish! So many [overseas plunderers] and all so crazy about seafood. We see them here paying top price for sea cucumber.

"The government put an export tax of K15 per kg for all species but they don't care. They just chuck what they have on a log ship and laugh at us trying to run a legit business in PNG.

"Anyone starts checking and out comes the brown paper bag...no worries!"

Philip Fitzpatrick

The announcement that the Chinese are planning a mega $200 million "comprehensive multi-functional fishery industrial park" on Daru more than anything else creates a great sense of despair.

We know from many reports elsewhere that over-fishing is rampant in all of the world's major oceans, including the Pacific and that the Chinese are among the worst exploiters.

We also know what a devastating impact a development of that scale can have on small communities that exist in places like Daru and the Fly River delta.

Added to that is the fact we know that PNG is effectively unable to regulate or police such enterprises.

And finally we should be worried about the establishment of a Chinese outpost right on Australia's border.

Peter Karl Uechtritz

Further commentary on Daru, the Fishery Industrial Park, and the the general lack of real economic developemnt in Western Province by Jeffery Wall in The Strategist.



"The town of Daru is the closest PNG community to Australia. Even though it is around 200 kilometres from the Australian mainland, it is very close to the islands of the Torres Strait that are within our northern border. Daru is the capital of Western Province (also known informally as Fly River Province), but it is a small community that’s beset with numerous health and social issues.

"Last month, China’s Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company signed a memorandum of understanding with the PNG government and the Fly River provincial government to build a $200 million ‘comprehensive multi-functional fishery industrial park’ on the island of Daru.

"Any doubt that this project is sponsored directly by the Chinese government is put to rest by the fact that it was announced by China’s Ministry of Commerce, supported by Beijing’s powerful ambassador in Port Moresby, Xue Bing, who declared that the investment ‘will definitely enhance PNG’s ability to comprehensively develop and utilise its own fishery resources’. Really?"

Read the full article and it becomes apparent that this development has large implications for Australia and even PNG. It is a reiteration of the assessment by the authors of ‘Too Close to Ignore’.

Peter Karl Uechtritz

Phillip - I replied to Michael's comment as written below. To answer briefly your queries.....

Yes surplus sago product (wet cake) would complement rubber - freight, distribution, transport of product the most crucial of requisites in marketing produce of any kind.

As we all know volume and scale bring down transport costs. Sago could join with the rubber network and both products would benefit.

Those same rubber producers would most probably be sago resource owners as well (see my other commentary re sago products and other complementary agricultural enterprises).

I agree with you re the rice project, a very good example of an introduced crop with specific husbandry requirements alien to the peoples of Western Province.

Small scale dryland rice varieties grown by the Hmong Lao peoples here at Innisfail would have been a better introduction to rice growing than trying to emulate TruKai and Sun Rice varieties best suited to large industrial scale farming.

Contrast sago - it exists already, requires very little husbandry and no fertiliser or herbicides. You don't have to remove existing vegetation and level the land and most importantly it is embedded in the cultural knowledge of the peoples of Western Gulf and Sepik.

In future, science and modern management techniques could be introduced to select high yielding sago varieties planted in plantation form to rehabilitate the land devegatated by logging.

Furthermore putting a real monetary value to sago will elevate its status and provide an alternative to selling raw logs to the Malaysians.

Another primary driver to mechanise sago is the emancipation of women and girls. They do the hard work of processing extracting the starch from the pith of the log.

Microscale machines (~AUD$3,000) can process a standard log in a couple of hours releasing the women and girls from beating the pith for five or six days.

Also the recovery rate of starch produced per log is increased by factors of 100% to 150% greater than by manual effort.

So 'yes' from those in the Gulf who have seen our machines operate and tasted the clean raw wet cake product and who love the concept and want to embrace it as soon as possible.

However we must proceed cautiously get LLG, provincial and national government support before we proceed past out pilot facility.

James Marape is a convert already. Augustine Mano presented him with 2kg of wet cake sago from the facility in Wabo and he wanted to come out immediately to see the facility for himself.

All arrangements made and dates set but politics intervened and he hasn't visited yet.. Once the politics is out of the way then sago and the government's tilt towards agriculture will manifest itself.

Currently the sago wet cake is being transported out of the facility by barges servicing the Total Herd Base camp and returning to Moresby. That wet cake is available in markets in POM...small start but big step for the women of Wabo.

Philip Fitzpatrick

That sounds very encouraging Peter and is a cause for optimism.

Perhaps the farming of sago might fit into an economy which includes several other avenues of income, including things like rubber.

The rice project may have failed because it wasn't a crop that was familiar to the people in Western. The stuff grew well enough but people didn't really know what to do with it or how to grow it on a large scale and market it. Sago is probably different even if commercial production of it may take some work.

It fits in with James Marape's pivot to agriculture.

What do the people in Gulf actually think of the idea, are they genuinely enthusiastic?

Peter Karl Uechtritz

I've read the book and while I agree with its general drift I can't help thinking that the authors are being a little optimistic with their possible solutions.

"Options that should be explored include the alternative livelihood activities based on less exploited natural resources, alternative enterprise models...."

What exactly does that mean?

Finding a "less exploited natural resource" in the South Fly will take some doing unless someone finds a market for mud and water.

As for "alternative livelihood activities" I wonder what that exactly means.

I have taken this text direct from Phil Fitzpatrick's commentary. I wish to join with the authors in their optimism about possible solutions and alternative enterprise models.

I worked in the neighbouring Gulf Province in 2015/16. My younger brother Anthony has worked in Gulf (upper Purari) for nine years.

We have seen the topography, geography and major vegetation groups which lead to both the Gulf and Western Provinces having the lowest population densities and poorest socio-economic indicators within PNG.

We saw the collapsed provisions of health, education, policing and the almost complete lack of government service delivery everywhere outside the major towns.

Even there, those services were poorly administered or delivered.

We wondered what could provide a catalyst, a driver of change of economic opportunity and activity. We pondered this as we traveled by dinghy and chopper throughout the Purari, Pieh and Kikori river deltas and their tributaries (exactly the same as the Fly river delta).

We saw the poverty, poor health, lack of schools, inoperative aid posts. We were amazed at the vast expanses of water bodies and swamps.

And then it clicked - hundreds of thousands of hectares of sago palm and nypa palm - both food sources and building materials. Natural, sustainable, renewable resource.

We embarked on research into the mechanised production of sago. This took us to a study tour of Malaysia, Indonesia and West Papua.

Here we witnessed the production of 100's of thousands of tonnes of sago flour for both domestic and export consumption.

Every conceivable scale of mechanisation from micro through medium to industrial scale were evident. This was in 2018. Early 2019 we brought a container load of small scale Indonesian equipment to Port Moresby, set them up and processed sago from Kerema.

Our PNG helpers were ecstatic at the possibilities and the low capital expense of owning and operating these machines. We delivered a presentation (facilitated by IFC). Representatives of Sepik, Gulf, Western and the national government were there.

So were Oil Search, Total and Exxon community development teams, DFAT, MFAT. We had post presentation meetings with the Gulf Province executive. Everyone was positive.

Anthony finally managed to get support from Total and our first pilot project was built and commissioned near Wabo on the Purari.

We hope that with support from oil and gas majors, NGOs the likes of DFAT, EU, FAO, IFC, national and provincial governments that we can roll out similar micro-scale processing factories in Gulf and Western.

These small scale and appropriate facilities are a sure way to monetise an incredible resource in those mud and water dominated landscapes.

They are a way to include and embrace the poorest families, villages and communities in a real local economy where they own the resource, have intellectual property in the resource but can share it with monetary gain with the rest of the better off sections of the PNG nation.

Read the chapter https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-10-5269-9_3
or download the book Sago Palm: Multiple Contributions to Food Security and Sustainable Livelihoods https://books.google.com.au/books/about/Sago_Palm.html?id=pCFHDwAAQBAJ&source=kp_book_description&redir_esc=y

We believe that utilisation of sago in a sustainable way fits the suggestion of "options that should be explored include the alternative livelihood activities based on less exploited natural resources, alternative enterprise models" as defined in in ‘Too Close to Ignore: Australia’s Borderland with PNG and Indonesia’, by Mark Moran and Jodie Curth-Bibb.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I forgot one other failed enterprise in the South Fly - growing rice.

I first came across a patch of it behind the trade store at Awaba on the Aramia River. It measured about 10 metres by 10 metres with a dozen or more plants still surviving in the damp ground.

The plants belonged to the local member who had been an enthusiastic promoter of rice as a cash crop.

It reminded me of a conversation I once had with a Malaysian logger in Gulf Province. He opined that once all the trees had been cut down the area would be ideal for rice growing.

All the trees have now gone but there are no rice fields. Just orange scars and grass with a few patches of remnant forest.

Stephen Charteris

Yes Phil – optimistic. But aren’t we conflating two things here?

At the bare minimum we have the obvious complications arising from a Chinese conglomerate operating a fishery out of Daru with potential downsides to PNG, TSI and Australian fishermen.

On the other we are talking about livelihood opportunities for remote South Fly communities.

It strikes me that in relation to the first matter the ball is firmly in both Waigani and Canberra’s court.

Does this not play into an issue that could possibly be viewed as an extension of the “great game” some 200 years after it began only this time in the Indopacific with a different bogy man.

In relation to this I expect we will be near the front of the queue to knock on Biden’s door.

In relation to the second matter a couple of thousand square kilometres of flood plain with no roads doesn’t offer many obvious avenues for improved incomes.

However, agronomically and from a postharvest perspective, cup lump rubber is an excellent fit for partially nomadic hunter gatherer communities.

There is no need to change lifestyles that have served people for time immemorial and even at AUD $1.50 per kilogram plus an end of year bonus, rubber is an excellent option.

What they would like to see are improved health and education services and as previously discussed in this forum I believe there are viable delivery models that could work without costing the PNG government or DFAT an arm and a leg.

There is enough experience tied up in North Fly Rubber and its client famers to facilitate the delivery of health and education services in partnership with the National Development or MiBank.

I believe that the provision of reliable economic support to offset the cost of rubber transport until small holder production reaches critical mass would open sustainable pathways to essential service delivery.

The time has come to explore a genuine partnership delivery model with the communities and test it.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I imagine Mutton Dutton is on the case as we speak - he won't miss a chance to monster another bunch of poor, defenceless people if he can help it.

I've read the book and while I agree with its general drift I can't help thinking that the authors are being a little optimistic with their possible solutions. "Options that should be explored include the alternative livelihood activities based on less exploited natural resources, alternative enterprise models ..." What exactly does that mean?

Finding a "less exploited natural resource" in the South Fly will take some doing unless someone finds a market for mud and water. As for "alternative livelihood activities" I wonder what that exactly means. There are rubber nurseries up and down the Fly and Aramia Rivers but no one makes a decent living out of them. There used to be crocodile farms at Lake Murray but all the crocs escaped. The Gogodala carvers once had a museum and commercial outlet at Balimo but it collapsed years ago. Bensbach Lodge is still going but Covid-19 has killed its trade. All the tradestores up and down the rivers are run by New Chinese. The industrial park at Wipam seems to have disappeared from view and on it goes.

Fishing grounds in PNG are being plundered by Asian operators and the Torres Strait looks like the next cab off the rank. If you want to see how that will work check out the fish factory in Wewak. All the locals seem to have won is a very unpleasant fishy stink wafting over the town.

Logging and fishing both need to go on James Marape's "take back the farm" list I think.

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