World events divert infrastructure funds

Around 550 kilometers (340 miles) to the southwest of this broken link is Port Moresby, PNG’s capital. A quick tour of the city reveals a stark contrast to the realities in Madang and much of the rural countryside. Although much of Port Moresby remains underdeveloped, with nearly half of its population living in informal settlements, there’s ample evidence of investment in upgrades. Numerous slick black roads with nearly fluorescent yellow lines pepper the small city, including the six-lane Independence Boulevard leading up to Parliament House, built by Chinese contractors with Chinese funding.

Having hosted the Pacific Games in 2015 at an estimated cost of 2 billion kina ($593 million), Port Moresby also held the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in November last year. The latter event saw a further round of spending by the PNG government in the city, including the building of six new roads at a cost of 700 million kina ($215 million).

Although international events like the APEC Summit are lauded by the government as a showcase for the country that will encourage investment, the up-front costs have already had an impact on the country’s stretched resources.

PNG remains one of the poorest nations in the Pacific. The country’s economy has been recovering from a downturn that began in 2015, when global commodity prices fell for many of the country’s key exports, including oil, coffee and gold. The government continues to receive large amount of aid from countries like Australia, but has recently taken on a series of concessional loans from China to help reach its infrastructure goals — a move that has concerned both local organizations and international experts.

Problems at the village, provincial and national levels

 Despite this continued influx of foreign money, issues such as the Banab bridge are all too common. Because the bridge is located along a national highway, the national government is responsible for its maintenance and repair.

“It’s their [national government’s] delays. The funds have already been made available, it’s caught up between the national works department and treasury,” says Madang’s provincial planning director, Simon Simoi.

“We can only push the issue in parliament, through our elected MPs. For me, the person in charge of provincial works, I can’t do much.”

According to Simoi, the collapse of the bridge affected more than 700,000 people in northern Madang, most of who depend on the highway for their livelihood, using it to transport their agricultural produce to the rest of the country.

On the southern bank of the Banab, local travelers waiting for the next transport to Madang town cite corruption throughout all levels of government as the main reason for the delays, a familiar narrative echoed in many of PNG’s rural areas.

Bottlenecks of transportation caused by the fallen Banab bridge are a common sight on both sides of the river. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

This point of view is further propelled by the constant state of disrepair of provincial roads and bridges throughout Madang, and indeed the rest of the country.

In 2018, the Banab bridge was just one of three in northern PNG to collapse. According to local media, at least one of these other bridges remains unpassable and is only slated to be repaired this year with funding from the World Bank.

Bobby Mondurafa, a civil engineer with the works and transport department in the neighboring province of Eastern Highlands, says the “misappropriation” of resources combined with the lack of central government funding for provincial budgets hinders infrastructure development in the country.

“You build [a road] up to here and then you find out that the funds meant for the project have been depleted, mismanaged by the provincial government,” Mondurafa says. He adds that numerous road projects in the province have been left unfinished due to the disappearance of funds.

 “Sometimes the contractors are connected to the top level and the money is misused. The misappropriation [of funds] is a big trend. Everybody goes in there; the politicians want to be rich,” he says.

“Misappropriation is a normal thing in PNG politics.”

Wooden pedestrian bridge opportunistically built over the Banab river. For over a year, local people had to make do with this footbridge or small, impromptu ferries. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

According the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, published annually by Transparency International, which ranks countries “by their perceived levels of corruption,” PNG came in 135th out of 180 countries, the lowest in the Asia-Pacific region.

Konopo Kana, a spokesperson for the national Department of Works, did not directly comment on the alleged mismanagement of provincial government budgets, but highlighted the multimillion-dollar rehabilitation project of the national Highlands Highway, launched by the country’s prime minister on Jan. 18. According to a press release provided by Kana, the 10-year project, funded largely by the Asian Development Bank, aims to upgrade and maintain approximately 430 kilometers (267 miles) of the vital road.

Despite ambitious projects like this occurring in some parts of the country, the reality is that funding for the majority of rural infrastructure budgets falls short. According to Mondurafa, the budget provided by the central government to Eastern Highlands province in 2018 allowed for only a few roads and bridges to be maintained, leaving nothing for new projects.

“Just a handful of the roads are maintained, every year. And not entire parts of the roads, because of the funding,” he says.

“The government is doing [some road upgrades] but our complaint is that much of the development is in POM [Port Moresby]. They are doing everything in POM when the whole country — we are underdeveloped and we need infrastructure, maintenance and all this — they are not prioritizing it,” he says.

With no alternative, communities trade forests for roads

PNG hosts a large portion of the third-largest rainforest in the world and has 7 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Due to its rich forest resources and government policies that grant special land leases to foreign logging companies, deforestation has increased sharply in PNG. This is despite the control that traditional clans have over 85 percent of the country’s land, an issue that has caused numerous local and international organizations to raise alarms over corruption, intimidation and land grabbing that occurs within PNG’s billion-dollar logging industry.

Despite this, disconnected communities seeking development often welcome extractive companies that promise infrastructure that the government cannot provide.

In Gildipasi, a conglomerate of communities 30 minutes north of Banab River and its fallen bridge, many inhabitants count themselves lucky to be near the region’s sole national highway. It means they can easily distribute their produce to markets and have access to public services such as schools and hospitals.

For nearby inland communities, however, the story differs. An overgrown dirt track cuts through Gildipasi toward heavily forested ranges to the southwest. Just a few kilometers inland, the track stops abruptly.

An old logging road that terminates a few kilometers southwest of Gildipasi. In the absence of government funds to upgrade and extend the road, some communities have entered discussions with a logging firm that promises to take on the project. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

According to Cornelius Banas, a councilor for the district and one of Gildipasi’s leaders, communities in the ranges beyond the reach of the dirt track have to walk two days through the forest, carrying produce down to the Gildipasi market to sell it or transport it to other parts of the province.

For this reason, Banas says, some of these communities that border Gildipasi have started speaking with the Malaysian logging company Woodbank Pacific Limited to extend the existing track more than 10 kilometers (6 miles) inland in exchange for access to their land. “There are early[-stage] meetings talking to logging companies, but some of us, we are disputing the idea,” Banas says.

Mongabay was unable to verify the details of this proposed project with Woodbank Pacific’s offices in Madang or Vanimo, the capital of neighboring West Sepik province, but a local source confirmed the firm has previously engaged in similar projects with communities in other regions — providing roads and royalties to landowners for consent to log certain areas.

It is also a scenario that has precedent in the country. In December 2018, another Malaysian logging company, Samas PNG Ltd., constructed a new road and a number of bridges linking remote communities in West Sepik, also known as Sandaun, to the north coast. This, media reports state, will give local communities access to both government services and markets.

“Our inland people, we want them to [have] proper roads so they can transport their cash crops, like cacao and copra,” Banas says, referring to the dried coconut flesh used for oil that is widely produced in the province.

“We are telling the people that the concept, the idea of logging, it’s no good. In Gildipasi we have seen what the logging company has done to us. They destroyed our environment,” Banas says, citing the large-scale logging during the 1980s and 1990s that decimated much of their local forests.

Forest lining the Bairaman River in PNG. New Guinea Island has some of the world’s largest and most biodiverse remaining tropical forests. Image by Paul Hilton/Greenpeace.

William F. Laurence, a research professor at Australia’s James Cook University, says logging and mining companies in countries like PNG will often promise roads, medical centers and even schools in exchange for access to land and resources. This infrastructure, he says, can quickly fall into disrepair once the extractive project is complete.

“Often the shell of a building might be put together, but there is no funding [by the company] for ongoing salaries, nurses, doctors, medical supplies. So there has been a huge amount of conflict over so-called broken promises,” he says.

“It’s also very environmentally destructive in many cases to build roads into these remote areas, because really what you are doing is facilitating a loss of habitat destruction. There is a big association of course between road construction and deforestation, poaching, illegal mining activities, and obviously habitat fragmentation.”

Although Gildipasi itself won’t be affected by any logging activities, as the company is focused on the untouched forests beyond its limits, Banas sees the situation as history repeating itself.

The company, he says, “will only grade the road, but they won’t put gravel on it” or maintain it.

“They’ll get on the ground, get all the timber, and move on. Their idea is to get the timber, not to build you a road,” he says. “The government should build our road, it would be much better.”

Maybe next year, he says, the province will actually have the money to do so.

Editor’s note: William Laurance is a member of Mongabay’s advisory board.

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Article published by Isabel Esterman
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