Chinese cast net over neglected Papua New Guinea border zone

A fisherman casts his net on the Irrawaddy, seen by many as the soul of the nation. Photo: Pinterest. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

PORT MORESBY, Dec 19, 2020, RNZ. China has dismissed Australian concerns about a planned new industrial fish facility on Papua New Guinea’s Daru Island, while locals are seeking some answers, Radio New Zealand reported.

China’s Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company has signed a memorandum of understanding with PNG’s government to build a US$154 million fishery industrial park off Daru.

The proposed industrial fishing development, only a few kilometres off PNG’s southern border, has garnered the keen attention of Australian media.

With Daru merely 200 kilometres from Australia’s mainland, and even closer to the Torres Strait islands, Canberra is nervous about the possibility of China establishing a port there.

An Australian former adviser to various PNG governments, Jeffrey Wall, has warned about the potential for conflict created by a Chinese presence in the Torres Strait.

A north Queensland parliamentarian, Warren Entsch, has also raised concern about what he suspects are hidden motives by the Chinese, noting that industrial fishing could devastate local reef-based fisheries.

China’s Ambassador in PNG, Xue Bing, rejected the notion that ulterior motives are at play.

“The relevant reports by certain Australian media and institutions lack basic facts, are full of lies and authors’ conjecture, and intend to disrupt and undermine practical cooperation between China and PNG,” he said.

Bing noted that commercial cooperation between the two sovereign states of PNG and China did not require prior consent from a third party.

“We urge the Australian side to take an objective and fair view of the normal business cooperation between Chinese companies and PNG and other Pacific island countries, and focus on really helping the development and prosperity of the island countries, instead of wearing coloured glasses and unreasonably interfering with relevant cooperation.”

The ambassador is touching on something that often gets lost in media reports about growing Chinese influence in the Pacific region – the views of local people.

So what do people in Daru make of it all? For a start, they’ve been furnished with very few details about the potential development.

A social worker from Daru, Ume Wainetti, said it was unfortunate that the government hadn’t discussed the plan with local people.

“People need to understand what this thing is all about, how they’re going to benefit from it, or what’s it about. Are they going to be selling fish to this thing that’s going to be sitting offshore or what exactly is it, we don’t really know,” she said.

Wainetti said she worried that a major industrial facility could overwhelm the local fishery, leaving coastal fishing people unable to compete.

Under the Torres Strait Treaty, people from a dozen PNG villages already have access across the border to fish in Australian waters.

“To place such a thing in the Torres Strait is going to affect the fishing industry, especially the local people who are relying on the fishing industry for their survival, especially the villagers that are in the treaty agreement with Australia,” Wainetti said.

“Because [fisher] people are going to be selling directly to the vessel that’s going to be parked in the Torres Strait – people will not bother to come back to Daru to sell to the businesses which are running the fishing industry.”

Poverty levels are high in Daru, with few jobs available for young people coming out of the ailing local education system.

A teacher’s college lecturer from Daru, Baiyu Olewale, said serious effort was needed to boost fisheries in the area.

He said the Chinese industrial plant proposal could create jobs for locals and get people involved in small to medium enterprises in order to earn an income.

Contrary to Jeffrey Wall’s assertions about a lack of commercial fishing potential around Daru, Olewale said it was a region abundant in fish species.

“I would really love to have a fisheries set-up in Daru. I’ve been to all the provinces in PNG, the coastal provinces… they only fish tuna. But we have a varety of fish, coral fish, it’s plentiful, lobster and barramundi and jewfish.”

Olewale also saw the Daru proposal as a potential fix to the nagging issue of illegal fishing by small fleets coming from across PNG’s nearby border with Indonesia.

“We have these Indonesians coming in here through illegal travel, they fish in our territories. Because we don’t have markets, people just do the things illegally, sell [fish] to the people of Indonesia.”

PNG’s border security has long been weak at the line which seperates the country from Indonesian-ruled West Papua, and local indigenous communities remain vulnerable to external forces.

Down at the south western junction of the international divide, extra personnel from the PNG Defence Force were deployed to the border area earlier this year to counter the spread of Covid-19.

However the lure of opportunity, services and cheaper goods means many PNG people still regularly cross the Indonesian border.

All around South Fly district, communities are crying out for economic development, including villagers whose fishing-based livelihoods were destroyed by the pollution of the Fly River due to mine tailings from the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine.

Australia’s aid programme has contributed significantly in the area of health in a province (Western Province) with myriad health crises that PNG’s government has largely neglected for many years. Despite its efforts, Canberra may have missed a golden opportunity to play a greater role in fostering economic development here.

While Australia is nervous about China getting a foothold in the area, Chinese businesses are already well established.

“Right now all the big shops in Daru town are Chinese shops, seven or eight of them. And there’s still more Chinese coing and building more things,” said Lindsay Inabi, a Daru resident.

According to Inabi, Chinese are also involved in the local fishery too, especially the beche-de-mer trade.

“Our people here just go out and harvest the beche de mer on our reef, bring it here and they locally process it, then the Chinese buy them and take them away from Daru.”

Inabi was hopeful that if the Chinese proposal proceeds, it could at least create much-needed livelihoods for local people.

Still, there is little guarantee the project will materialise. PNG has entered many previous Memorandum of Understandings for projects.

Coastal towns like Madang, Wewak and Rabaul are among the PNG ports once earmarked for major industrial fishing zones or parks that never got off the ground.

The scheme that succeeds in unlocking PNG’s ability to develop its own fishery resources will be the one that gets broad community participation.

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