PETER KARL UECHTRITZ
CAIRNS - I've read the book, ‘Too Close to Ignore: Australia’s Borderland with PNG and Indonesia’, by Mark Moran and Jodie Curth-Bibb, 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.
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 have resulted in both the Gulf and Western Provinces having the lowest population densities and poorest socio-economic indicators within Papua New Guinea.
We saw the collapsed provisions of health, education, policing and the almost complete lack of government service delivery everywhere outside the major towns.
Even in the towns, 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 travelled by dinghy and chopper throughout the Purari, Pieh and Kikori river deltas and their tributaries (similar in all respects to 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 nipa palm - both providing food and building materials. Natural, sustainable, renewable resources.
In 2018, Anthony and I 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 hundreds of thousands of tonnes of sago flour for domestic and export consumption.
Every conceivable scale of mechanisation from micro through medium to industrial was evident. Early 2019 we brought a container-load of small scale Indonesian equipment to Port Moresby, set it up and processed sago from Kerema.
Our Papua New Guinean helpers were ecstatic at the possibilities and the low capital expense of owning and operating these machines.
We delivered a presentation (facilitated by IFC, the International Finance Corporation). Representatives of Sepik, Gulf, Western and the national governments attended.
So were people from the Oil Search, Total and Exxon community development teams and Australia’s department of foreign affairs and trade.
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 River.
We hope that with support from oil and gas majors, non-government organisations and the likes of DFAT, European Union, Food and Agriculture Organisation, IFC and 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 and 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.
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’.
Two references for further reading provided by Peter Uechtritz....