It was one of those “pinch me!” moments. Is this for real? Am I really setting foot on the shores of Papua New Guinea (PNG), this small, ancient, obscure, rich, poor, forgotten land of 8 million people just off the north-eastern corner of Australia? I have always dreamt about visiting this place - the rain forests of New Guinea, one of the last intact “lungs” of our exploited planet and the remote villages of the interior highlands where tribal folks paint their bodies in the most outrageous colours. According to the ship’s GPS, yes, I have arrived. Were the two days I spent here enough to satisfy my curiosity? Definitely not!
What our visit to PNG gave me, however, was a motivation to learn about a country that has over 800 tribal dialects (12 % of the world’s languages), practiced cannibalism until not too long ago, has uncontacted tribes in the mountains and is still coming to grips with its role in a modern world. I wanted to make sense of it all.
In so many ways Papua New Guinea has been and is very lucky. For a country that has so much to offer, it has achieved self-determination relatively early and remained mostly unscathed from the brutal forces of colonialism. The PNG can thank its rugged territory and impassable terrain for that. Over centuries, as European explorers approached the island and discovered how difficult it was to slug through dense tropical rain forests and mountain ranges with snow and glaciers, many gave up and moved on. Now, 130 years after the rest of the world started to pay serious attention to a land that has had a human population for more than 40,000 years, dramatic changes are under way in Papua New Guinea. The verdict is still out on how this will all end, but for now the people of PNG are learning to adjust and function in a modern world.
PNG’s nature and eco systems are still largely intact and mineral resources are still waiting to be exploited to the max. But this is about to change. Palm oil, mining, rubber, cattle and logging companies, the mortal enemies of undisturbed tropical eco systems, are increasing their activities. Already, they have started to chain-saw their way through 25 % of PNG’s rain forests. At the current rate of destruction, it is estimated that this number will increase to 50 % during the next decade. The eco systems, which comprise the world’s 3rd largest rain forests, house precious and rare birds of paradise, tree kangaroos, cassowaries and possums. They will disappear forever if drastic changes are not made in time – not to mention the fate of native tribes that live in the forest. So far, enforcement of pledges to reduce logging and curb the establishment of large scale mono culture plantations has been as weak as the country’s government.
Now, the mining companies have set their eyes set on the mineral-rich ocean floor around the PAG. Gold, Copper and oil already make up 72 % of export earnings; natural resources comprise 50 % of the GDP. Lately, a Canadian mining company with the financial backing from Russia and Oman, has been experimenting with a technology that will allow tellurium, a metal used in high performance solar panels, to be mined from the ocean floor. Needless to say, the practice would destroy coral reefs and rich fish stocks. But how can an impoverished nation like Papua New Guinea, where 85 % of the population practices subsistence living and contributes only 30 % of the GDP through cash crops, turn its back on the profit potential from mineral exports? Nautilus Minerals Inc., the Canadian company, is trying to make a point: mining the sea floor is better than destroying ancient forests. I guess that remains to be seen.
Today, when a country emerges from the dark ages to join the contemporary world, the entire adaptation process still feels like a huge experiment. Luckily for PNG, unlike those parts of the world that were colonized and exploited already centuries ago (e.g. South America, Africa), there is still time to do things right in Papua New Guinea: the native population does not need to be killed off, the rights of native tribes do not need to be violated and the forests do not need to be stripped of all life. Unluckily for PNG, though, corruption is rife among government officials in the country. Papua New Guinea ranks 136th among 176 nations on the Transparency International 2016 Corruption Perception Index. It is a well-known fact that government officials siphon funds from the public coffers to pad the businesses they own alongside their public service careers. There are no wealthy business owners in PNG, just wealthy politicians. With all of its natural resources, PNG should be booming. Instead, the very basic services for its citizens (e.g. education, health care) lag well behind other developing nations.
As I walk through Alotau, the provincial capital of Milne Bay Province in PNG, I notice that most men and many women have unappetizing looking red stains on their teeth and around their mouths. Later I learn that the stains come from chewing the popular betel nuts (Areca catechu). More a berry than a nut, Areca is chewed together with lime powder to achieve specific physiological effects like heightened alertness, euphoria and hunger suppression. On average, locals will chew between 8 and 10 betel nuts per day; it's cheaper than eating food. When finished chewing, the bright-red saliva and nut residue is spat out, making sidewalks and public places look like the floor in a butcher house. Because of this, chewing betel nuts is forbidden in some places (e.g. hotels, public squares). To nobody’s surprise, a prolonged chewing habit will have detrimental effects on a person’s health. From mouth cancer to loss of teeth to type II diabetes to a general aggravation of pre-existing conditions – the Areca nut has it all.
Worldwide, over 600 million people chew betel nuts, making it the 4th most prevalent addiction globally. Betel nut chewing, once reserved for sacred events, is now a widespread addiction in PNG - 50 % of the country uses the Areca nut. The chewing craze is an interesting side topic in a country that is full of super-friendly people, political drama and corruption, untouched natural beauty, crime, environmental threats and 40 millennia (!!) of traditions and customs. Is change coming to Papua New Guinea too quickly? I quietly wonder how the people cope. Perhaps the buzz they get from chewing betel nuts gives temporary relief to those New Guineans whose lives and culture have been turned upside down by a modern world.
The story of environmental degradation, corruption, greed and wealth inequality is a global (…and very human) one. When I grew up in Germany, the world had a population of roughly 3 billion. By 2100 the number will be an estimated 11 billion. The mining of scarce resources (commodities) will increasingly strain our beloved earth. There are no simple answers if we want to continue to put tires on our cars, eat beef and install solar panels on our roofs. Some people have suggested that we place 50 % of the planet under conservation protection. Is it an idea that is impossible to implement? I don’t think so, but if we want to save our earthly home, humanity will need to act with greater coordination and become much smarter in the way we deal with corruption and the care of our planet
On a different subject: Some of you may know that Australia has a refugee problem. Misery and hardship in developing countries throughout south-east Asia have prompted people to resort to desperate measures: they pay people smugglers to take them on leaky boats to Australia, the Promised Land. But Australia is spending millions of $$ to intercept rickety refugee boats and turning them around. Many of the asylum seekers are then transferred to “offshore processing centers”, like the one on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. There, the refugees are held for years under in-humane conditions until their fate has been decided. Dirty drinking water, lack of food and electricity, brutal attacks by armed guards and overflowing toilets appear to be the norm. Medical services for the detainees are virtually non-existent. As a result of these terrible conditions, several refugees have died.
New Zealand has offered to take in 150 asylum seekers, but Australia declined the offer. New Zealand offered money to ease the misery in the camps, but Australia declined the offer. From their perspective, helping the detainees would dilute the “stop the boats” deterrent. The official message from the Australian government is this: this cruelty is necessary in order to discourage others from paying people smugglers and hopping into leaking boats. As a consequence of this policy, 800 men, forgotten to the world, linger in Papua New Guinea while waiting to start a life that is better than the life they left behind.
So, when you go to bed tonight, send some loving thoughts to those unfortunate refugees in PNG - and then put yourself in the shoes of Australian leaders. What would you do to stop the flow of asylum seekers?