PNG's West Sepik blends into Asia
The PNG province of West Sepik finds itself on the cusp of Asia: increasing ties with Indonesia while living with the legacy of rampant Malaysian logging.
One of the quirks about the island of New Guinea's division down its middle at the 141st meridian east is that Papua New Guinea finds itself on the very edge of Asia.
Of the two PNG provinces directly abutting the border with the Indonesian province of Papua, West Sepik has been the subject of significant Asian influence.
Johnny Blades went to the province and reports that proximity to Indonesia is seen by some as West Sepik's way out from the long shadow of Malaysian logging:
The waft of Asian cigarettes is common around the dusty streets of the provincial capital Vanimo as are huge piles of logs parked up just outside town. West Sepik has huge tracts of forest and is PNG's most accessible forestry hotspot, targeted for decades by Asian, mostly Malaysian, logging companies. The log piles are loaded from a series of wharfs around Vanimo's harbour on to ships, taken to Malaysia and other countries where the PNG tag is dispensed with and the end product often exported under another nationality's name. Despite years of promises, successive national governments have failed to stem the outward flow of round logs. The Acting Governor of West Sepik, Paul Nengai, says he wants the Forest Act changed to provide for more returns locally from logging.
PAUL NENGAI: The provincial government is now seeking from the national government to stop round log exports. We want downstream processing so we will export finished products, value-added products. At the moment we don't know how much is going out. The mere levy that we get is about 250,000 per annum - that's a provincial budget. So that's peanuts compared to the huge voume of timber that's being exported.
The Malaysian logging companies generally operate in the province on project agreements to build roads and establish some health or education infrastructure. But loggers being tasked with building roads has proved as incongruent as it sounds. Little has been done, according to many Sepiks I speak to, such as a local electricity technician, Paul.
PAUL: Yeah, well they do build them but right now for example in Bewani, when they left Bewani it's not like a road to us; there's bush all over the road and there's no more road. Not that it's road. I call it a track myself.
Logging and fledgling oil palm development in Bewani, linked to a controversial land lease arrangement brokered by a local MP, the opposition leader Belden Namah, has left locals embittered. However Paul Nengai is supportive of oil palm development, saying it will bring West Sepik significant revenue. Yet the province's elite do not appear to have converted previous bursts of revenue from forest clearance into community gains. And in terms of the national planning and development, the province remains one of PNG's most remote.
Meanwhile, as local man Antony Walaku explains, Malaysian-owned logging companies like Vanimo Forest Products have done very well off the timber industry for many years and are now making steady forays into other sectors.
ANTONY WALAKU: Going into real estate. But now you can really see that the developers of logging operations, they're really in the province now, more or less very heavily into real estate by building shops and building houses for rentals. This is very wrong.
Walaku says that in his home district of Lumi, the local community are not allowing any forestry development unless it meets their strict requirements - he says forest is their birthright and protecting it of paramount importance. Back in Vanimo, many locals are left to earn their money by selling small items of fresh produce or cheap goods at the roadside stalls. In most cases, these cheap goods are sourced from an hour-long drive across the border into Indonesia.
Up here in Wutung right on the border with Indonesia, there's a lot of traffic. A lot of Papua New Guineans go across into Indonesia just inside the territory there, where there are some markets. There they can buy cheap goods - any number of food items, basic goods, even pornographic videos - then bring them back and sell them for a handy profit in Vanimo and elsewhere in PNG. It's a pretty busy border post and is tightly guarded on both sides, especially the Indonesian side where there is a lot of military personnel and authorities generally don't let journalists in.
There has been a criminal element to the border movement, with the flow of guns, drugs and other contraband into PNG from Indonesia a long-running problem. The elephant in the room is the political issue of West Papuans' integration into Indonesia, which has left a simmering separatist conflict that sees the not infrequent spillover of members of the OPM Free West Papua Movement into PNG, with Indonesian military in pursuit. Paul Nengai says while this is a sensitive area, it should not overshadow the opportunity opening up through West Sepik's closeness to Indonesia. Many people in his province are turning to Indonesia for services. Plenty from other parts of PNG's Momase region too. Paul Nengai says it's hard to compete with Indonesian services such as telecommunications, with mobile phone services for example often preferable to local ones for Papua New Guineans living near the border. He says that a recent trip to Papua was illuminating.
PAUL NENGAI: It was interesting to note that most Papua New Guineans have moved across, those that are living along the border - they have moved across to Indonesian side and they're living on the other side. Basically, they're looking for good services like road network, cheap goods and services on the other side. And as you know, Indonesia provides social services. So for them, it's very attractive
There is a trade imbalance firmly in Indonesia's favour. But Paul Nengai says a new Asian Development Bank-assisted trade centre at Wutung, just inside West Sepik, is expected to open in October and should begin to address the trade imbalance. Furthermore, the PNG government is establishing new border centres for state agencies such as customs and immigration as well as money exchange facilities, to improve the cross-border transactions. There are also joint roading, hydro and power projects between PNG and Indonesia in the pipeline for the border region, as both governments look to economic development to solve the border issues. But mistrust of Indonesia lurks deep in West Sepik communities, and the former Governor Simon Solo for one is not so sure about the joint economic projects.
SIMON SOLO: The national government, they're thinking of getting infrastructure like power supply from Jayapura. But in the long run, we feel that we are not safe for safety risk. In terms of why I'm saying this, because when we got the problem with the Indonesian people, they can automatically shut down the whole operation and we'll have a blackout throughout the province and the country because they control the economy over there.
However Paul Nengai says that building links with Indonesia will be helpful for the indigenous people on both sides. He says economic and educational empowerment are the best tools for West Papuans in Indonesia to forge a solution to their political frustrations.
PAUL NENGAI: I say 'the best way for you to achieve in Papua province, is you promote economic and education. These are the two powerful tools you can use to convince Indonesia to determine your future'.
West Sepik, he says, cannot compete with Indonesia but instead must integrate with it to utilise benefits. More than ever, West Sepik is not just on the cusp of Asia, but steadily blending in to it.
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