7 Jul 2015

Unease lingers over major project on PNG's Madang lagoon

From , 5:04 am on 7 July 2015

There's increasing local resistance to the planned Pacific Marine Industrial Zone in Papua New Guinea's Madang province.

The planned PMIZ project has been in the pipeline for over a decade without yet having got off the ground.

But the government recently signaled its full commitment to the project which aims to build up to ten fish canneries and other industrial facilities around a port complex on the Madang Lagoon.

Johnny Blades reports.

The National Fisheries Authority bills the PMIZ as a major programme for sustainable development of the fisheries sector.  

Government figures have said the establishment of a Marine Industrial Park within a special economic zone around the Madang Lagoon, would generate significant growth for the local economy.

However, John Chitoa of local NGO Bismarck Ramu Group says the involvement of the Fillipino company, RD Group, in the inception of the PMIZ turned locals off.

He says people have seen the pollution and social problems created by RD's existing fish processing facility on the lagoon and worry that the PMIZ will multiply these.

JOHN CHITOA: At the moment with the current operation that's going on, we have the tuna fishing, and people don't want these kind of actions to continue. So there are lot of concerns about this issue of PMIZ but the government is strongly pushing for it to go ahead.

Apart from clearance of some villages and construction of fencing around a 200 hectare-site, there's very little on the ground to stand for the PMIZ.

But public resistance continues to grow.

In recent months the concerned local Kananam community has held public meetings, staged protests and lodged a petition in opposition to the project to provincial and national governments.

Sir Angmai Bilas, a chief of Rivo village, whose people use the lagoon for fishing, says there is some support for the project.

ANGMAI BILAS: But the problem is that they didn't give any good information or protection of the environment of the people, and to protect the lagoon of Madang so small fishermen can get their fish. They think about if the PMIZ is operating, it will be very difficult to get their own small fishing.

Last month, the department of Commerce, trade and Industry sought a restraining order on all public comments about the PMIZ by a number of landowners and local figures including Sumkar MP Ken Fairweather and resident Dr Nancy Sullivan.

Dr Sullivan says they are challenging the government's move to gag them, as unease grows in Madang about the government's latest push on the PMIZ.

NANCY SULLIVAN: And now kind of a push forward by the government and the Department of Commerce to get something off the ground started quickly, because the five year period on the EXIM  bank loan is coming up so they'll need to repay and nobody has any idea where 95 million US dollars went. We have an assumption but it's not an assumption I can make publicly, but it's presumed the people who initiated the deal have taken big pieces of it.

She says there are concerns about the role of China in the PMIZ, which is being constructed by China Shenyang International Corporation.   

NANCY SULLIVAN: It is the Import Export Bank of China that's enabling it and part of the long term involves the guarantee of 20,000 Chinese jobs so it is a great fear of Chinese and you know it's a special economic zone, it has its own laws, its own rules so it's frightening to everyone.

The PMIZ has been promoted by PNG's government and Fisheries officials as a Pacific regional project of cross-border investment.

Member countries in the leading regional fisheries bloc, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, were invited by PNG to invest in the PMIZ.

The PNA head, Transform Aqorau says there's been only mixed interest.

TRANSFORM AQORAU: Not everyone is going to be necessarily interested in cross border investments in terms of having canneries because there are risks associated with that. I think you're going to find that, yeah, maybe some governments might still be interested, but the package of interest across the region is not a shared national interest in terms of going into processing and things like that, so I think we need to have some discussions.

Back in Madang, concern about the PMIZ also relates to land issues, despite the fact the zone in question is state land, returned to the state by the Catholic Church in the mid-1990s.

John Chitoa says there were forceful evictions last year of people who lived on the PMIZ area, leaving landowners in and around the zone, including islands just off the coast, expecting similar treatment.

JOHN CHITOA: The people that are living just offshore, they say those people have to be relocated elsewhere in some other parts of Madang, and that is the greatest fear that those people have because they are fisher-folk. They live off the sea and the sea is basically their life support system and they don't want to be relocated elsewhere.

Other locals can't wait for the PMIZ to go ahead.

Paul Martin is a resident in the project impact area and believes the PMIZ provides the biggest development opportunity for Madang since the glory days of the coconut and cocoa plantations.

PAUL MARTIN: Those plantations have since been rundown and actually they should mark economic activity appearing in the Madang coast area, [and] mainland Madang. So for me as a local, I see the Pacific Marine Industrial Zone as a very important project for us locals in terms of our development, our economic well being and development aspirations.

The government projects that around 40-thousand local jobs will be directly created by the PMIZ.

Paul Martin says the Minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry Richard Maru is determined to get the PMIZ up and running.

PAUL MARTIN: But at the back of the mind of the government is the social and environmental impact. They're very important to maintaining the environment because that area is a pristine wetland area. We want to maintain very high standards on waste water treatment. That Minister Maru made very clear, the instructions for design by the Chinese to maintain very high water treatment control for water to be treated before its released back into the sea so we have very high standards that the Chinese have to comply with.

Rioting in Madang town last week stemmed from a public march which sought to protest against land grabs and increased domination of local business by Asians.

Madang police say local opposition to PMIZ was not linked to the rioting which descended into looting of Asian-run shops and left one person dead.

But the unrest could serve as a warning to the PMIZ's backers of what could happen if local people's interests are not prioritised.