When the last old kiap dies….
The colonial mythology behind West Papua

Realising the promise of the swamps

Anthony Uechtritz and Augustine Mano, managing director of the Mineral Resources Development Corporation


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....





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Philip Fitzpatrick

Laura Tingle, a veteran ABC journalist writes about the proposed Chinese fishery on Daru on the ABC's website today.

Last month, Papua New Guinea signed a memorandum of understanding to build a $200 million "comprehensive multi-functional fishery industrial park" on Daru Island. Google Daru. There isn't much there, including fish.

As Jeff Wall, a long-time adviser to the PNG Government, wrote in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's publication The Strategist this week, "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."

Wall noted that there was little doubt the MOU with China's Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company project was sponsored directly by the Chinese government as 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'."

Federal MP Warren Entsch, whose electorate covers the Torres Strait, is just one figure in Canberra most alarmed at the development, and who questions why you would build such a huge fishing operation in a place where there aren't a lot of fish.

He says there is currently an under-utilised mackerel fishery, a bit of trout and some lobsters. The fishing rights in the Torres Strait are shared under a treaty between Australia and PNG and Entsch says the fishery has been well managed to avoid over-fishing.

His concern is that a big Chinese fishing operation would "just come in and vacuum everything up", putting at risk, apart from anything else, the subsistence living of many of the locals.

The Guardian noted last month that Chinese fishing fleets have devastated local fish stocks in other parts of the world. "In August, just off the Galapagos Islands, an armada of nearly 300 Chinese vessels logged 73,000 hours of fishing in a month, hauling in thousands of tonnes of squid and fish," it wrote.

Entsch believes the issue is on the radar of Foreign Minister Marise Payne, but he has been unable to see her to discuss it since the deal was announced a few weeks ago.

Of course, there may just be a few more strategic reasons than fish involved in the Chinese building a massive port just to the north of Australia.

But even if it were not to become a major naval base for the Chinese military, the idea of a large Chinese fishing fleet in the region poses big problems for Australia.

There is already a substantial Border Force presence in the Torres Strait, based out of Thursday Island, which focuses on illegal fishing (until now particularly by Indonesian fisherman) and on stopping the importation of drugs and other contraband from PNG to northern Australia.

It is part of Operation Resolute, which is the defence contribution to patrolling Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone.

The prospects of encounters, and the complexities of policing the Strait are about to become a lot more complicated.

As Wall, says, "If the project goes ahead, it's reasonable to assume that Chinese fishing boats will be active in the seas around Daru, and in the Torres Strait".

"They may use fishermen from Daru and elsewhere in Fly River Province, something the Chinese ambassador was clearly alluding to.

"It will hardly be ideal for the Australian Border Force, which patrols the strait, to have to decide which fishing boats and crew are actually from PNG and which might be fronts for Chinese operators from the 'multi-faceted' facility."

Wall says that PNG, which was one of the last countries in the region to sign a BRI agreement with China in 2018, is now the scene of intense activity, with China involved in negotiating around $3 billion of contracts for roads in the poverty stricken nation.

Australia has obviously and belatedly recognised the threat that PNG's vulnerability represents: hence our own recent decision to upgrade Manus Island to a naval base.

A $200 million "fishery" investment in an area not known for an abundance of fish but strategically as close to Australia as you can get, surely raises questions about the real agenda.

It seems unlikely that the deal can be stopped. As a sovereign country, PNG would hardly be happy about Australia telling it what deals it can do, or reneg upon.

As a sovereign country, PNG would hardly be happy about Australia telling it what deals it can do.
Daru is the capital of the Western Province of PNG, which is particularly poor, and particularly poorly served by the government in Port Moresby.

There has been considerable aid poured into the area over the years by Australia.

But, just as our relationship with China unravels, the Daru proposal shows how we must seriously escalate our efforts to assist the economic development of poor nations in our region who are so rightly lured by the spectre of massive dollars from Beijing.

Peter Karl Uechtritz

Michael - Thanks for your interest. Yes we have in our proposals for support deliberately pitched for an approach low tech small capital expenditure micro-scale facility.

We are aware that proposals for mechanised sago processing in PNG (Sepik) in the past have gone for the industrial scale factory with US$ budgets of 20 to 50 million.

They never progressed past the initial planning stage. Too big. Too soon. Too Hard.

Whilst mechanised sago processing exists in Indonesia, Malaya and Thailand across every scale and is off the shelf technology we must consider that its introduction into PNG will confront a range of different operating parameters.

These are cultural (land/resource) ownership, logistics (road and shipping), capital establishment costs, transport and product marketing.

It's best to start small.....generate knowledge and acceptance both for the resource owners, the facility operators and those in the food supply chain.

We like to follow the KIS principals....Keep It Simple. Mistakes will be made but they won't kill the project; rather they will be manageable learning experiences to build bigger and better.

Our research and study tour also revealed many value added products that can be part and parcel of micro scale through to Industrial scale mechanised processing.

Briefly they are briquettes (we trialled these in POM and they went well for domestic cooking) and stockfeed (we had inquiries in POM from a live cattle importer who wanted stockfeed for yarded animals. Pig and chicken feedstock is also possible from the waste of sago.

The sago worm is also a delicacy amongst those numerous communities where sago is present. I've even eaten them from a hotel menu in Wewak.

I have imported from Indonesia sago chips (with corn and moringa added) and sago biscuits using cacao nibs - all these products are from a woman's group utilising sago flour from an FAO medium scale facility set up in South East Sulawesi.

They make these products in their kitchens using simple technology. Again the beauty of all these value added products is the simple technology available for their production.

So there you have possible synergies with other agricultural production.

Because of its abundance and distribution, sago - through sustainable small scale production facilities - can be a catalytic enterprise that can generate income directly into the pockets of the resource owners and incentivise other agriculture like cattle, pigs and poultry.

I have read of encouraging agricultural enterprise in the Sepik (see excerpt below). We have not explored in detail this model but it shows promise should sago be considered in the same light.

Today, the YSDDA and its partners, the People’s Micro Bank Ltd [PMBL] and the Sepik Agro Industries Centre Ltd [Sepik AIC] signed an MOA to set up and operate the Kakaruk Credit Scheme for the people of Yangoru Saussia District.

The agreement was signed on behalf of the three parties – Yangoru Saussia District Development Authority [YSDDA], PMBL and Sepik AIC by CEO Jacob Yafai, CEO Anthony DelaCruz and Business Development Manager Gallit Tamir.

What Is the Chicken Outgrower Program? As you’re aware, the Sepik Chicken, Grain & Cocoa Innovation Project is into the production phase and it goes on to explain the model further.

Once the pilot projects get up and running then medium to industrial scale projects can be considered.

Michael Dom

This is a really good opportunity for basic economic development.

I'd be interested to learn more about this project and find out what synergies are possible through other agricultural prospects.

Two references provided by Peter Uechtritz - KJ



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