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.