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.”
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.