DARU - Daru Island has its own honourable and gallant history dating back to the arrival of Portuguese explorer, Luis Vaez de Torres, in the 1600s.
But today it is withering away in misery under the independent state of Papua New Guinea.
Daru is one of the Torres Strait islands in PNG’s Western Province. The town is the provincial capital and is home to the vast majority of the island's population of some 25,000 people.
The language of the people is Kiwai, which is also spoken on neighbouring mainland villages. The name comes from the Kiwai community some 60 km to the north-east of Daru. History upholds that the Kiwai settlement of Daru is fairly recent.
The original inhabitants, the Hiamo, were west-central Torres Strait Islanders originally from the island of Yama. With the Kiwai colonisation, the Hiamo people moved to southern Torres Strait and settled in the Muralag Group.
Daru island is one of the few Torres Strait islands that do not belong to Australia. It is also the most densely populated, although scarcely any original Torres Strait Islanders live there.
The main industry is fishing, but few fisheries are locally owned. The island has an airport and commercial flights service Daru on four days a week.
In 2020, the PNG government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company which intends to build a ‘comprehensive multi-functional fishery industrial park’ on the island.
There is great potential for economic activity in Daru, with the aid of the Fly River. It is adjacent to Australia and Indonesia.
But prosperity is just a dream; the island’s demolition through negligence has been brutal. The streets are submerged beneath crater-like lakes. There roads are channels for putrid water because the drainage systems have long ago been clogged or buried in shrubs.
The almost impassable to the main wharf, army camp, police station, jail, hospital, and the electricity and water utilities are interwoven with detours. So are the routes to the South Fly Development Authority, the Provincial Assembly, shopping centres and schools.
The roads surrounding the airport are craters and there are no public motor vehicles to ferry people to and fro. The deteriorating thoroughfares have taken care of that industry. Public servants and all others of any calling walk – walking is more than reliable, it’s required.
There is no landscaping or any other sign of improvement that might instill confidence in the local people that there is a government that cares for them.
Worse still, PNG Power is unable to provide electricity for the 24 hours in a day so there are no street lights and people use cane torches to maneuver Daru’s streets and settlements, also known as ‘Corners’. Business houses have their own generators in order to ply their trade.
Even the airport has a small generator in the middle of the terminal to provide electricity to the computers used to print tickets and boarding passes.
There are no rest rooms at the airport for indigenous people, but there is a room reserved for ‘international passengers’. I suspect that room may be a toilet and perhaps a massage parlour for foreigners.
Such segregation signals that the colonial mentality is yet to be strained out of this part of PNG. They must assume we natives can answer the call of nature like the dogs in the overgrown bushes with which Daru abounds.
Water PNG brags of providing residents each day with more than 400,000 kilolitres of treated water. The water is drawn from the Binaturi River on the mainland and pumped to Daru through submarine pipes. It is a flow in name only as it is constantly disrupted.
The water shortages thus occurring have given rise to enterprising people in the Corners and even in government residential areas to dig their own wells to sell to others for a certain fee.
If people have clean water, clean homes, clean clothes and three decent meals then tuberculosis is likely to wilt away by itself. This shocking disease is a by-product of poverty.
Over my working life I have visited most towns in PNG but I have never seen a town with such run-down infrastructure.
The deteriorating colonial structures and the stench of poverty is in your face as soon as you jump out of the plane.
Ok Tedi Mining Ltd has been around for many decades and the millions of kina in development levies collected by the provincial and local level governments each year should have supported flourishing infrastructure, education, health and commercial development in Daru. No.
The people think the well-funded PNG Sustainable Development Project operating under the auspices of the provincial government owes them tangible improvements but they wait in vain.
A man told me he thought the modern building in the centre of Daru bearing the insignia of the South Fly District Development Authority [below] is a paradox. He said important meetings are held in the building but the members fly in unobtrusively for them and fly out when they finish.
The South Fly DDA could implement tangible developments in Daru by using its bountiful funds but there is no sign of development except for a sign outside the airport reading, ‘Daru Urban Resilience Program – Daru Town Beautification: Helping You, Help Yourself’.
Other folks said the Western Provincial Executive Council also fly in to have meetings in the provincial assembly building and then quietly disappear back where they came from when the meeting is over.
Daru town must surely get some development even if the government intends to gradually relocate the town to Kiunga. The islanders who live here are rights’ holders and represent the ancestral land and its heritage.
The people say that the deterioration and decay have been here since the 1990s.
All that said, the Daru islanders have also been chained and colonised by Christianity and therefore they have endless optimism.
They are keeping a vigil for the good life that will come in the next life, if this life continues not to serve them well.