In the Field: Papua New Guinea
When a fact-finding mission to Papua New Guinea was first proposed to me, the only issue that lit up in my head was the two-day APEC summit of world leaders last November. I recalled there had been a dispute over the wording of the final communique between China and leaders aligned with the United States, that US V.P. Mike Pence stayed overnight in Australia and that foreign journalists were billeted on a cruise ship anchored in Port Moresby’s harbour. Plenty of publicity too about the many millions spent on the summit (estimated at A$1.3-billion over three years, including 40 Maseratis and two Bentleys used to ferry VIPs around Port Moresby) though the returns were questionable for a country as impoverished as PNG.
It’s not easy to get to PNG from North America. The usual transit ports are Brisbane, Manila, Hong Kong or Singapore. And once you do reach this nation of 7.8-million people and 600-plus islands, getting around is expensive and time-consuming (though with 6% of the world’s biodiversity and the third largest tropical rainforests in the world you’re bound to see some amazing sites). Many of our days began in the pre-dawn hours and involved bone-shaking rides for several hours over bumpy roads, trails and river beds. There were times I turned to focusing on the dashboard digital clock of the 4x4 just to forget about the mind-numbing back and neck pain. (For a sense of what we experienced, watch this video).
Arriving to PNG with the baggage of the critical APEC coverage - topped up with plenty of discussions in-country with diplomats, experts and ordinary people - made me quickly realize that this former Australian colony is caught in a real time, unenviable tug-of-war over its vast resources between China and allies aligned with Canberra - with Beijing seeming to have the upper hand.
Two realizations here: most of that mineral wealth is not trickling down to the people and that PNG will continue to be plundered by large companies as long as there are huge resources to extract (one estimate by Bloomberg values the copper and gold in Bougainville alone at almost $60-billion!).
Now Chinese and Malaysian companies are cutting down large swaths of the country’s pristine tropical forests and converting them into palm oil plantations - but that’s a story for another time.
In it’s December 2017 economic update on Papua New Guinea, the World Bank had some sage advice for the current government: “Papua New Guinea will be unable to finance the investments needed in education, health and infrastructure to make a meaningful impact on poverty levels of this sector of the economy continues to contribute only marginally to government revenues.”
Prone to Natural and Man-made Disasters
Collaborating with the UN eased much of the strain around the logistics of moving around PNG. Around the time of my arrival in mid-February plans were well underway to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the M7.5 earthquake which slammed the isolated highlands region of the country in February, 2018. Although the apparent physical damage came nowhere close to what I’ve seen in Pakistan and elsewhere, it managed to exacerbate the troubling situation for many people. And it dealt a strong blow to the economy: real GDP growth slowed from 2.8 percent in 2017 to 0.3 percent in 2018.
It’s not only acts of Mother Nature which destabilize people’s lives: the highlands region has been suffering for years from ongoing and sporadic tribal warfare. Gender-based violence - or violence against women - is at astonishing levels. And poor access to food and proper sanitation means that many children suffer from malnutrition. Add to that a neglected health system and a broken justice system and you’ve a recipe for many of the things one sees elsewhere in the world.
Human Rights Watch has pointed out that Papua New Guinea is a resource-rich country (mostly gas, copper and gold), yet almost 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.
Not unlike many other countries at its level of development, PNG suffers from a high level of corruption. Money earmarked by the central government often fails to make it - at least on schedule - to the people who really need it. The deplorable state of many of the roads is a good example. So too are remote clinics that don’t even have enough money to power gas-powered vaccine refrigerators.
Indeed, by one estimate, the country’s neglected health system needs between $30-$40 million-a-year of investment in order to get things like routine immunization back on track. That’s a big reason why, after 30 years of being polio-free, the country experienced a polio outbreak last year, resulting in 26 of the global total of 128 confirmed cases for 2018.
The ‘Country Club Prison’
Some of the situations one encounters makes little sense. For example, near the provincial capital of Hela Province, a modern prison has been lying empty for 20 years because there are no funds to complete essential items such as running water, power, watch towers and a perimeter fence. So, for the time being, convicts are let free or sent to facilities elsewhere. And yet, the prison warden still shows up for work everyday! Because the facility sits on a hilltop overlooking beautiful valleys, I called it ‘the country club prison.’ With home-made alcohol, drugs and high-powered weapons becoming more available, the need for a well-functioning justice and penal system is essential.
Although there’s been substantial investment in the health system - thanks mostly to the generosity of the international community - much more needs to be done. For example, in the paediatric ward at the public hospital in Mendi, there’s no isolation ward for TB patients. We met a young boy who’s head was swollen so badly it’s begun to cause pain and disfiguration. Yet there’s no medicine to treat his horrible condition, the doctor on duty, Rose Hosea, told me. In many of the remote clinics we visited, many of the prescription drugs were either expired or stored in high temperatures.
An Under-reported Conflict
Only after a few weeks in the highlands region of the country that the extent of the tribal violence hits you - and the impact it has on people’s daily lives. More than 80 percent of the population live in rural areas. And many of them live on the edge - just an illness or earthquake tremor away from falling off. A large percentage of people are subsistence farmers - just producing enough vegetables to sell at the local market but barely enough left over to consume themselves.
Tribal violence has caused untold disruption to people’s lives. There are as many as 85 current active conflicts in two highlands provinces - with five active in the Hela provincial capital of Tari alone. The daily disruption brought by the violence occurs in a region that has some of the lowest human and economic development indices in the country.
For example, one land dispute over a one hectare piece of land, had been going on for years. Fifty-one people (including six women) were killed, thousands displaced and many businesses and public infrastructure damaged or destroyed. Fortunately a peace agreement has brought an end to that bloody conflict but many others continue to simmer. Making matters worse, I’m told, is that traditional bows and arrows are being replaced by AK47s and M16s, making the fighting even more lethal. It will be difficult to bring development to the region if there’s no peace. And it’ll be difficult to convince young militants to surrender their guns (often a source of money and a symbol of power) if there’s no opportunity for them.
In all, according to one unofficial estimate, the violence has killed over 200 people. Due to the insecurity, some upscale tourist resorts have been shuttered in a region that desperately needs the income.
One of the Most Dangerous Places in the World to be a Woman
Much of our visit focused on the issue of gender-based violence. Women are exposed not only on the streets - because of the lack of market stalls in rural areas women sell garden produce on roadsides - but also in their own homes from their own spouses. Furthermore women and children are often caught up in sporadic tribal violence.
A 2010 UN report cites one study that found that 67% of women had been beaten by their husbands. More shockingly, almost all married women in the Highlands region interviewed for the study said they’ve experienced violence. We aren’t talking here about simple verbal abuse: many of the cases we heard first hand from the female victims go beyond barbaric - with many incidents too gruesome to share online.
In a country where more than 80% of the population lives in rural areas, widespread illiteracy and isolation means that many victims of violence are unaware or their rights and have little access to a functioning justice system. The involvement of spiritualists, or so-called glassmen, in resolving disputes at the local level makes for an even more complicated situation.
Said Human Rights Watch in its 2018 report on Papua New Guinea: “Police and prosecutors rarely pursued investigations or criminal charges against people who commit family violence—even in cases of attempted murder, serious injury, or repeated rape—and instead prefer to resolve such cases through mediation and/or payment of compensation.
“There is also a severe lack of services for people requiring assistance after having suffered family violence, such as safe houses, qualified counselors, case management, financial support, or legal aid. “
There are some bright lights to share.
I was impressed to see a new project in Port Moresby, funded by UN Women, to bring female-only buses on some of the main commuter routes. It was a creative response to women being harassed by men at the city’s bus stops or in mixed buses.
And there’s no lack of bright and energetic young women trying to bring about positive change. One who left an indelible impression was Joanne Apamadeus, 16, who’s a volunteer UNICEF social mobilizer in an urban slum near Port Moresby. Working to change things for the better in her community, she made me feel that there’s a new generation of young people on the fringes who are prepared to take matters into their own hands. Watch her mini interview with me.
And as for the highlands region? I’m delighted that UN officials, with the mindset of turning a tragedy into an opportunity, want to stay in the region after the completion of the earthquake response - and use the partnerships and knowledge accumulated to create a long-term area development plan for the region. Peace building and support for women and vulnerable children would be key components.