Remote Daru could be a regional flashpoint
21 January 2022
TUMBY BAY - There’s a loose and exotic fraternity of expatriate mud-puddlers who served in the Western Province who exchange occasional emails when something of interest about their old stamping ground surfaces in the media.
A recent report in the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier about a development plan for Daru, the provincial capital, is currently stirring their interest.
Many of us puddlers thought the whole thing was pure pie in the sky but it seems there might be more to it.
According to journalist Gorethy Kenneth, the Chinese proponents plan to build a K37 billion city on the island, including seaport, industrial and commercial zones, a residential area and a resort.
The two companies involved, WYW Holding Ltd and AA Oil and Gas Corporation, plan to send representatives to PNG this year to get negotiations moving with the government, which has yet to respond to the proposal.
“This is a project not to create animosity among both national and provincial leaders and neighbouring countries,” the companies state somewhat defensively.
“We want to genuinely help Papua New Guinea and create more jobs for the locals apart from developing the area.”
One of those neighbouring countries is Australia, whose mainland is 200 kilometres south but with plenty of islands in between.
The other is Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populated country, 250 kilometres west.
In PNG Attitude recently, Bri Olewale, who knows the area well, pointed out that many people in Western Province see their future with Indonesia.
“Western Province people can't wait for a border road to be built so our people can benefit even more from trade and education opportunities in Merauke and other parts of Indonesia,” Olewale wrote.
“Make a trip to the border villages in Western Province and you will surprisingly find that the Indonesian independence day celebrations are bigger than September 16th (PNG Independence Day).”
It’s tempting to speculate how much a future Indonesian linkage to Daru has to do with the Chinese proposal.
As mud-puddler Ray Moore says: “To a great extent we [Australia] are to blame as we have done very little to assist the coastal area of the Western Province. We have left a void that either Indonesia or China will fill.”
Given its paranoia about its maritime borders, you would think the Australian government should be paying a lot more attention to this area and what is happening there.
Geo-political concerns aside, however, you would consider Australia might be more concerned about the Torres Strait as a conduit for drug running and infectious diseases like HIV-AIDS and the particularly nasty MDRTB (multiple drug resistant tuberculosis).
The Australian government and its foreign policy mandarins always leave action too late and only seem to move when a situation reaches crisis point.
Its next step is usually mismanage the crisis and look for someone to blame.
Dick (Skunge) Randolph points out: “Australia will regret its disregard of Papua and its demonising of the Kiwai, Daudai and Trans-Fly people in the eyes of the Torres Strait people over the last 50 or 60 years.
“When I first went to Daru,” Skunge recalls, “the waterfront was gunwale to gunwale with tinnies.
“These were Torres [Strait] Islander dinghies; they all did their shopping on Daru.
“Virtually all Daru people had Torres Islander blood, Daru residents were closely related to Mer, Masig, Erub, Stevens, Saibai, Duan and Boigu.”
And Skunge adds: “The Australian government are the ones who pulled down the Sago Curtain”.
Peter Walsh agrees but believes any Australian paranoia about China establishing a military presence on Daru is probably unfounded.
“Strategically, the proximity to Australia matters little from a military point of view,” Walsh says. “Missiles and subs count for more.
“To me it is the cultural and environmental catastrophe that is looming.
“As any student of history can attest, two things define a town: clean water and sewerage.
“Daru, from my memory, lacks the former from any natural source and, as to sewerage, well Perfume Point [known for its crab-eating mangrove snakes] will turn into Putrid Point pushing the shit all the way into the Torres Strait and Gulf.
“Desalination must be in the plan somewhere, so energy must also be added to the list,” Walsh adds
Warren Dutton, a former PNG government minister and MP for North Fly, points out the region is very sparsely populated.
“The total population of the whole Western Province would not fill even one small suburb of such a city [the Chinese are contemplating],” he says.
“Hence most of its residents would have to come from some foreign country, or other. We can all guess where that might be.”
Dutton also endorses Skunge’s point about the unnecessary division by national borders of people on both sides of the Torres Strait.
He recognises it as a serious problem and suggests it is not one that it is too late to reverse.
The timing of the planned visit by the Chinese company representatives to PNG will be governed by the Covid situation.
The timing itself is curious as there are national elections in both Papua New Guinea and Australia which almost coincide in April and May.
Perhaps the Chinese are hoping for regime changes.
In Australia the Labor Party believes it is possible to deal with the Chinese without the damaging theatrics employed by the Liberal-National Coalition for domestic political purposes.
And in Papua New Guinea, you never know, it’s entirely possible that the China-friendly Peter O’Neill might regain the leadership.
Reading this revelatory piece, I could not help but think of Singapore and Shenzhen. Both were nowt but small fishing villages 'back then'. And look at them now.....
Chris points out, rightly, the many challenges - and expense of developing a Daru metropolis.
China, however, has already ably demonstrated - in Shenzhen, in the islands of the South China Sea and elsewhere on mainland China - that if there is a way, they have the will and the financial and other necessary resources to secure their goal(s).
Moreover, in the context of the Communist Party of China's 100-year plan, they have the time.
Posted by: Ed Brumby | 28 March 2022 at 04:43 PM
The first wealth of a nation is health, the second is education.
Thirty-eight years have passed since BHP commenced extracting gold at Ok Tedi in the Star Mountains of Western Province.
The ownership of the mine has since passed into the hands of the PNG government, however there is precious little to show in Western Province for the vast wealth extracted from the mine.
Schools, health facilities and economic activity are largely non-existent or conspicuous by their absence.
With the exception of the North Fly Rubber Growers Cooperative (NFRL) founded by Warren Dutton in the mid-1960s, economic opportunity for local people is essentially nil.
In 2011 more graduating Grade 12 students from one high school in Port Moresby (28) were accepted into PNG tertiary institutions than all the Grade 12 school leavers who applied from Western Province (11).
This sad statistic sums up the dilemma. If local talent is not selected for further training, how can you build your society into the future.
And when this was discussed in some circles there was a palpable hit to local pride.
In short, there has been an enormous void in vision. The vision needed to implement activities to complement the effort of NFRL to empower Western province communities and enable basic health and education services to be provided.
Development does not mean building mega-city structures or anything approaching them.
The very worst outcome would be one that incentivised people to move away from their land and have them concentrate in peri-urban slums as has happened in Port Moresby and Lae.
It does mean finding appropriate rural based activities to enable the majority to stay connected to their land while still having a stake in the type of development they desire.
If you ask, they will tell you they desire access to basic health services that are staffed and stocked with essential supplies.
And they desire access to schools from elementary to Grade 12, staffed with teachers who are supported and willing to serve in remote settings for part of their careers.
All supported by transport and communication systems that enables local produce to be moved to markets and local talent to become just as well prepared as students in urban centres.
A portion of the great wealth that has flowed from Ok Tedi since 1984 could have been applied to this simple vision of nation building. It wasn’t.
What was done was to dump infrastructure materials in communities bordering the Fly River to buy their acquiescence for the pollution flowing past their communities.
The majority living beyond the Fly simply didn’t qualify for assistance.
As this slow burn tragedy, on Australia’s north eastern border, started by 'The Big Australian', now BHP Billiton, unfolded, it did not attract the attention from successive Australian governments it deserved.
An ounce of vision would have foreseen the ultimate outcomes: angry communities living in the absence of health and education facilities in a resource rich country.
They sent representatives to their parliament who promised quick, inappropriate fixes.
It has all played straight into the hands of strategic competitor. What is happening now has been coming for a long time in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
And it was entirely predictable.
For the Australian political class to talk of 'Our Pacific Family' is an insult to every Pacific Islands citizen, a felt insult.
While we patronisingly pat Pacific nations on the head, we incarcerate people coming to Australia not in Australia but in their countries. Consider how well that would be received if turned on its head.
We ignore and even ridicule their concerns about global warming.
We invite some of 'our Pacific family' to fill labour vacancies that Australians would not - and in too many cases these people, seasonal workers, have been treated appallingly.
There are still people out there who act as if 'blackbirding' and slavery are things.
This has filtered back to Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. None of it has gone unnoticed in states where loss of face almost certainly will result in incalculable relationship damage.
And so now the worm is turning. Politicians in PNG and the Solomons have politely but firmly begun to reject Australia as a partner of choice and, as things stand, this trend is likely to gather momentum.
Bri Olewale is correct. If the Chinese do arrive on Daru they will be welcomed and feted as people with a genuine commitment to jobs, health services and education.
That expectation may not be realistic but it will be there nonetheless.
We are at grave risk of supporting partners in places like Afghanistan and totally missing the action on our doorstep.
I can only hope that the next government has more integrity, understanding, foresight, respect and vision.
It must if the present situation is to be slowly, carefully, genuinely and respectfully turned around.
Posted by: Stephen Charteris | 28 March 2022 at 04:06 PM
According to this report from the ABC Daru is the next cab off the rank in China's invasion of the Pacific. As usual Australia ignored all the warnings.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 28 March 2022 at 10:10 AM
Yes this story has generated much discussion amongst the communities on the island and surrounds, things are desperate enough with the people there that any such news is welcomed and if the Chinese do come they will be welcomed and feted.
But I don't think the figures bandied about are plausible, or the concept realistic. Much of the population in Daru now are village squatter settlers who outnumber the public servants at a rate of 15 to 1 or possibly higher.
You don't have the ingredients (as some have discussed in other comments) to build a technically advanced society requiring a metropolis.
There could be some investment and you can be assured that If there is an opportunity for venal politicians (and not necessarily local parliamentarians) to accrue some benefit then this project will be trumpeted from the highest mud banks (or sand banks) of the Fly River, even if it is not going to happen.
(PNG is littered with the carcasses of such schemes and plans.)
If there is any such massive development then it makes more sense to build on the mainland of South Fly and expand from there. And yes the road link back towards Indonesia would be an important aspect of this.
But no I don't think this is going to happen any time soon, however it would be prudent for the Australians to watch this space as it were, you never know it could be a mask for something else.
The real change for Daru and surrounds will come when we finally have that road link with Indonesia.
Posted by: Bri Olewale | 24 January 2022 at 04:23 PM
We'll have to be very careful Lindsay, otherwise we may well become ex styx'd.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 22 January 2022 at 10:05 PM
Good sports for PNG ports. Some announced as of priority.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 22 January 2022 at 07:59 PM
Paul, sticks tolerably endurable, but not the bounds of Styx.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 22 January 2022 at 06:44 PM
'Beware of Chinese bearing gifts'? Blimey Chris, that just about applies to whole world at the moment.
The old tactic of the carrot and the stick is alive and well and we've been told to obey a list of 'requirements' to keep the CCP on side or else they'll whack us with their stick/s.
One only has to look at what they do to their own people to see what we need to do.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 22 January 2022 at 05:55 PM
This first floated several years ago pre-Covid and was initially coupled with a proposal from the Chinese to develop a fishing industry complete with a fish processing plant and a large fishing fleet.
No doubt dredging would be required to accommodate larger mother ships and sundry 'support' vessels.
As has occurred elsewhere in PNG, development proposals promising massive local employment soon wither away to token gestures as the developers press for a suitably qualified expatriate workforce.
So why would such a large residential development be proposed if it wasn't to support imported workers.
One doesn't have to be a strategic analyst to realise that this part of the Torres Strait is a choke point and it wouldn't take to great a stretch of the imagination to foresee a foreign military presence emerging at Daru to control traffic in the Torres Strait at this location.
Posted by: Ross Wilkinson | 22 January 2022 at 05:07 PM
The old mud puddlers from Daru would have "fond memories of sinking the odd stubby" at the Cerberus Arms Hotel.
As I understand it the old witch who ran the place acquired her stamped cutlery and crockery at auction as a job lot from somewhere and didn't have much choice in naming the hotel.
In 1972 the comfortable rooms cost $10-12 per person per night, including meals.
They had a great dining room with magnificent seafood as I recall.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 22 January 2022 at 03:14 PM
There is no single border in the Torres Strait between Australia and PNG. Instead there are four separate and overlapping boundaries.
These are the seabed boundary, the land boundary, the fishing boundary, and the cultural boundary.
The seabed boundary runs more or less through the middle of the Strait from east to west and defines who gets what from the seabed or below it (oil or minerals, for example).
The land boundary extends right across the Torres Strait from mainland Australia so that every island in the Strait is part of Australia with the exception of Daru and its neighbour Bristow Island.
The fisheries boundary includes all the Australian islands but excludes Daru and Bristow, and the cultural boundary excludes the Thursday Island Group but otherwise extends right across the Strait to include all the other islands including Daru and Bristow and also the adjacent coast of PNG.
The cultural boundary protects the traditional cultural visiting rights of both PNG and Torres Strait islanders with free access to each others territory without immigration, customs, quarantine or health control.
And the reason why I am boring you with all these details is to show that the mere presence of a Chinese enterprise on Daru is likely to cause extreme mischief for Australia.
For although the Kiwais of Daru will have free access to the Australian islands, the Chinese will not. The Chinese enterprise envisioned for Daru is so big it is unlikely to be confined to the island alone.
It will expand in all directions, and any expansion of the Chinese into the Strait would be a nightmare for us in terms of quarantine, illegal occupation and illegal immigration.
So never mind their ban on our barley, lobsters, wine or coal, if the Chinese really wanted to harass Australia they picked the right place to do it from - Daru.
Posted by: Chips Mackellar | 22 January 2022 at 10:48 AM
As a veteran of patrolling in the Gulf of Papua, I am really struggling with the idea that a K37 billion city can be built at Daru.
What on earth is going to sustain such a city?
Building a base for gas and oil exploration and production is certainly expensive but doing so in an era when hydrocarbons are being rapidly phased out in favour of more sustainable options seems foolhardy in the extreme.
As for the logistics of creating a metropolis in a place like Daru, I shudder to think of the potential problems and pitfalls.
Whatever the Chinese companies involved intend or say they intend I do not believe for one minute that such a vast sum would be devoted to a purely commercial venture.
To paraphrase the aphorism coined about the famous Trojan Horse, the PNG government should beware of Chinese bearing gifts.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 21 January 2022 at 09:51 PM