BANGKOK – The recent visit by an Australian diplomatic team to meet the Western Province governor in Daru resulted in another flare-up in the a chronic, complex and damaging sore that has long been festering away four kilometers from Australia’s northern border.
It will take cool heads with real vision and a genuine sense of shared purpose to tackle this.
Western Province, at nearly 100,000 square kilometers is Papua New Guinea’s largest province by a considerable margin and is home to one of the world’s largest copper and gold resources.
But, for the majority of its inhabitants, it is also notable for its lack of basic services, infrastructure and opportunity for human capital development.
This province in 2004 supposedly inherited the benefits of a K4.9 billion sovereign wealth fund bequeathed by BHP Billiton for its part in the ecocide of the Fly River system - the world’s seventh largest by volume which discharges fresh water and mine pollution alike into the Gulf of Papua.
To date, the fund remains locked up and fought over by politicians and their international enablers while the long-suffering people, particularly the riverine communities along the Fly and its tributaries, wait for the promised benefits.
In 2011 the total number of Grade 12 graduates from Western Province secondary schools accepted into tertiary institutions for further training (about 20) was less than the number of Grade 12 graduates accepted that same year from Gordons secondary school (about 28).
This was a point of discussion I had with the then Catholic education secretary at his office in Kiunga, about 400 kilometers up the Fly River. At the time we were both trying to find ways to get more Western Province students accepted into nursing courses throughout PNG.
As for health statistics, it is probably wise not to go there. These types of development indicators, well known to planners in Waigani and Canberra, are now threatening to turn into something rather more unsavoury.
Lack of opportunity coupled with poor health and education outcomes has long been fertile ground for the type of brinkmanship now on display.
While PNG must look to itself for much of this, I also hold a wholly moribund and incompetent PNG desk in Canberra responsible for what is a disastrous failure of intelligence, foresight, vision and will. As if Bougainville and Honiara were not warning enough.
It defies comprehension that Australia cannot foresee that Western Province is not a nightmare waiting to happen.
A very fragile, resource rich territory, characterised by an under-served and desperately poor people who share cultural and social ties with Australia’s northern most communities as close as four kilometers across an imaginary border.
There is absolutely none of the health services and first world education with real time interactive communication available to their contemporaries just a short distance away.
There are ways forward, but if the account of his meeting given by the good humoured Western Province premier - at least for now - is even halfway correct, then I am flabbergasted by the cultural incompetence on display.
I am truly sorry but clearly the representatives from Australia know very little about PNG and sadly rather much less about Western Province.