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Freedom at the Frontier
Improved feeder roads in the highlands of Papua New Guinea are reducing the isolation of tribal communities in a valley that was hidden from the world until a few decades ago. Better access to markets, schools, and hospitals are giving subsistence farmers greater freedom of choice.
Mount Hagen, Western Highlands—To see the difference a paved road can make to people's lives, take a ride with Steven Pup along the highways and byways around Mount Hagen, a former gold prospectors' camp that still has the feel of a frontier town.
Pup, a strongly built man of 34, is well known among the tribal communities of the Wahgi Valley, a fertile plateau between soaring, forested mountains that hid its inhabitants from the outside world until 1933.
The people of the valley are proud of their native son-Pup is from one of the smaller tribes, the Wali-who, exceptionally, earned a master's degree and is already a "big man" with the Department of Works. He was the engineer and now the director of a project, financed by loans of $115 million from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), to rehabilitate 575 kilometers (km) of mainly feeder roads in five mountain provinces. Many of these roads, including bridges, had been washed away by heavy rain or ruined through lack of maintenance over decades.
In the Western Highlands, one of the newly upgraded roads includes much of a 35-km stretch between Mount Hagen and Kotna Station, a settlement near the foot of a mountain range.
Pup's first stop is at Komaorang village, where members of the Rolgaki clan interrupt a volleyball game to crowd around his Land Cruiser.
Tepra Bimti, a small man with a white beard covering much of his face, has been running a roadside store here for several years. Before this road was asphalted in 2006, he says, he had little competition and could charge higher prices for his wares, which include flour, dripping, cooking oil, razor blades, Dispirin, and cans of corned beef.
Since the road was surfaced, other stores have sprung up nearby, says Bimti, forcing him to be more competitive. On the other hand, he gets more business from the greatly increased traffic, including public motor vehicles that rarely passed by when the road was a muddy track.
A few kilometers further on, at the village of Meti, home of the Kombulga tribe, dozens turn out to greet Pup, bedecking him with a garland of orange flowers.
One tribal elder, Ruk Dat, barefoot and wearing a gray-striped jacket and black hat, recalls how this area was not long ago "a large swamp, cut off from the rest of the world, where many people died of malaria and typhoid-but now the new road is bringing a longer life for my grandchildren."
The road has also brought more cash to thousands of subsistence farmers. For example, Thomas Pana and his wife Lam used to stand by the road selling home-grown coffee beans, as well as fruit and vegetables. Pana, a slim man with a shy smile, sold coffee either as red cherries at 1 kina ($0.40) per kilogram (kg) or as dried beans at 5 kina ($2) per kg, but buyers thinned out when rain turned the road into a quagmire, as it did frequently.
Nowadays, Pana carries a large bag of dried beans in a bus to Mount Hagen and sells them directly to a factory at 7.5 kina ($3) per kg. It is little wonder that locals call coffee "green gold." Similarly, his wife takes cash crops like bananas and pineapples to the market.
Lam also says she was once terrified when their 3-year-old-daughter, Doris, developed malaria-like symptoms, but they could not take her to hospital because the road was in such bad condition. Such fears have subsided now that Mount Hagen is only a 30-minute ride away from the village.
At the end of the smooth gray ribbon of road lies Kotna, a settlement that is growing quickly, partly as a result of improved access. Largely due to the road, says Robert Kauna, headmaster of the secondary school for boarders, more teachers are willing to move to Kotna these days and the enrollment of pupils from the surrounding region jumped in recent years.
Similarly, Reverend James Koi, head of a simple, Lutheran Church-run health center that serves a region of 50,000 people, says the new road can get emergency cases to Mount Hagen hospital much more quickly than in the past. It was not uncommon in the old days for pregnant women with delivery complications to die on the way to Mount Hagen.
In contrast, people living in areas without proper roads still find their lives restricted by rain and mud.
At his home beside a deeply potholed track a few kilometers beyond Kotna, Wakandi Raka watches his workers as they unload bags of red cherries and pulp them before they become dry beans. Against stiff competition from other cherry processors, Wakandi Raka reckons he processes up to 100 bags-each bag weighs 50 kg-a month. "But in the rainy season, I just stay home," he says, because the muddy paths hamper movement of both workers and produce.
Law and Order
Significantly, the penetration of roads into the hinterland has also strengthened law and order among the tribes, says Pup, whose uncle's father was killed in a tribal fight. "Better road access enables peacemakers or the surrounding communities to visit a trouble-torn area easily and quickly, and make peace before many lives are lost in tribal fights," he says. As a result, tribal fighting that was pervasive a generation ago is limited to sporadic outbreaks that are usually resolved by negotiation.
In addition to helping tens of thousands of people living alongside feeder roads in the Highlands-where nearly half of Papua New Guinea's 6.2 million people live-ADB is discussing with the Government and other development partners a multimillion-dollar project to sustain the core road network in the Highlands region by rehabilitating a further 1,400 km of roads, including sections of the Highlands Highway. Crucially, the project will include policy and institutional reforms-including a large capacity-building component-to ensure that the roads are better planned, constructed, and maintained.
The Highlands Highway is a 700-km lifeline that has had a precarious existence since it was first built in the 1970s. In February 2008, for example, the highway was closed in different locations for half the month due to heavy rain and blocked drains that caused landslides and landslips. Some sections of the road simply fell away.
Over the years, roads have been added to connect the Highlands' five provinces to the Highlands Highway-providing access to remote but heavily populated areas-and this core network has grown to about 2,500 km.
"The problem is that the soil is unstable in mountainous areas like Chimpu province, and the mountains get very heavy rain-up to five meters a year or nearly three times more than in Europe," says Antonello Pucci, a consultant working on the ADB road project.
These problems are compounded by capacity issues in both the Department of Works and among local construction companies.
"On the one hand, there is little maintenance and, on the other hand, sophisticated drainage and soil consolidation technology are not available locally, while foreign companies that have the technology are deterred from coming here because of law and order issues, land ownership claims, and the high costs of mobilizing equipment," says Salvatore Garilli, team leader of the ADB project.
Garilli, who has been working in the Highlands since 2003, is referring to cases where traditional land owners demand compensation for areas affected by the road project. Land ownership disputes are frequent in a country that has no land titling office. In one province, adds Pucci, some people have reinforced the compensation claims by digging trenches right across the road. In other areas, bandits or "rascals" can hold up road users.
All these hamper vital exports and imports-the transport of copper, coffee, and tea down the mountain, and fuel, heavy machinery, and food up the other way-and deters investors.
Mike Jackson, general manager of W.R. Carpenter, which has large coffee and tea estates in Western Highlands, observes, "We export 99% of our products through Lae, and when the road is closed, we miss our ship and have to wait another 30 days. This road is a nightmare for investors."
Clearly, the hopes of local communities, as well as overseas investors, are pinned on the Government's top-priority plans to upgrade the highway network and ensure that it is safe and durable.