November 2018

The Nation Reviewed

APEC comes to PNG

By Jo Chandler
Shipped-in Maseratis and single-use venues are a world away from real life in Port Moresby

“What do you think about APEC?” I ask Colin Fred. He’s busy at the wheel of our battered Toyota ute as we set out from the mountain village of Afore for the provincial capital of Popondetta. The route is only 100 kilometres, but it’s so broken that the trip takes around five hours, Colin working two sets of gears and pedalling brakes, clutch and accelerator furiously to keep us out of bogs and ruts big enough to swallow us whole.

He ponders. “We hope the prime minister will make a good decision for our country.” A minute later, he asks tentatively, “What is APEC? People are confused.” I’ve heard the question several times.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, to be held in Papua New Guinea for the first time on November 17–18, will bring together 21 leaders and their hangers-on for the annual regional intergovernmental talks. It will take place in a fortified, custom-built and tribal kastam-encrusted $50 million-plus cocoon of requisite splendour, APEC Haus in Port Moresby.

Outside Mosbi (as the locals know it), attitudes to APEC range from wry cynicism about the distant circus to anguish at the diversion of desperately needed attention and funds from basic services across the nation.

Colin reads the national papers when he’s in town, as so many citizens religiously do, and they are chock-a-block APEC. But the stories are rarely explanatory or questioning and are mostly cheer-squad in tone. With some notable exceptions – an investigation by journalists at PNG broadcaster EMTV last month exposed huge pay cuts to teachers across the country, raising questions about whether they are casualties of APEC overspending – PNG’s mainstream media rarely challenge the political line these days.

There’s a bit of talk about the summit at church – Colin’s community is Anglican – but without much insight beyond suggesting the congregation pray for the best. Pentecostal churches are urging all Christians in the fervently faithful nation to join them in a 21-day fast and “pray for APEC”.

On PNG’s frenetic Facebook scene, discourse on APEC and politics generally is infinitely more pugilistic. When 40 Maserati Quattroporte sedans recently arrived in Port Moresby to ferry APEC luminaries in appropriate style (price range $210,000–$345,000 each), social media went into conniptions, but there wasn’t a whiff of that stink in the dailies. Only around one tenth of the population has access to social media, and Colin isn’t among them. The digital network has been down in Afore for a month. There’s no phone coverage for miles.

APEC, I respond, is a meeting of big men (mostly) from all over doing deals around trade and economics. Now we’re talking his language. Colin ferries customers – villagers piled in the tray of his ute with crops for sale or ailments for attention at the Popondetta hospital – up and down this god-awful road twice a day if he can find the numbers. Today I have hitched a ride too, exploiting local hospitality extended to old white meris to sit up front. The fare is 50 kina ($21), a huge sum for a largely illiterate population sustained by smallholder crops like coffee, vanilla and chilli, which they grow with great success but struggle to get to market. In the past season or two, the coffee hasn’t been worth picking because of poor prices and the transport hurdle. Colin doesn’t own the ute, and by the time he pays for fuel and hire he’s not making much. He has three small children, and his wife is a teacher at the local school.

We edge off the track to allow passage for a vehicle heading up to Afore. Betel nut traders, Colin explains. They will buy 10-kilogram bags for 100 kina, and take them to Lae where they sell for 700 kina, feeding the nation’s chewing addiction. PNG folk love their buai – a vaguely narcotic composition of betel nut, mustard fruit and lime powder. Coffee has its ups and downs, but betel nut you can bank on. “That’s why we call it green gold.”

We pass huts hoisted on long legs over neat gardens of flowers and vegetables. Smoke rises from cooking fires. There are plots planted with coffee trees, many overgrown, and stands of pristine jungle that have withstood the onslaught of oil palm and logging. Last year the Managalas Plateau became PNG’s largest conservation area, after 32 years of negotiations with its 21,000 forest dwellers. It is the habitat of the world’s largest butterfly, the endangered Queen Alexandra’s birdwing, with a wingspan of 30 centimetres.

We push through a wide river where the bridge was washed away by Cyclone Guba in 2007. We pass a young woman hauling herself up from a creek with a huge pot of water balanced on her head. She’s surrounded by children, some holding smaller children. They wave, but the glance the mother gives me is one of utter fatigue.

I’m told anecdotally of many deaths of women in childbirth, a too-familiar story. PNG has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, almost entirely preventable if deliveries were supervised. But services at remote-area clinics and aid posts are crippled due to the breakdown of access to basic medicine, equipment and health workers. The crisis is copping much of the blame for the collapse of child immunisation rates that has now seen the reappearance of polio in a country that was free of that horror for 18 years, and surging rates of drug-resistant malaria, tuberculosis and HIV.

Afore is lucky that it still has a functioning aid post with a community health worker. When I visited, there was a single patient on a mat on the floor, the latest casualty of the tuberculosis epidemic for which PNG is again a world leader for all the wrong reasons. The head of the national TB program was recently reported saying the health system is too weak to tackle the emergency.

Malnutrition is another blight, a recent study finding one in two children is chronically stunted – the fourth highest rate in the world. Along the road I see many children with bloated bellies and too-skinny limbs.

The problem is less about food scarcity than quality. June Toneba, the women’s representative on the board overseeing the Managalas Conservation Area, has been lobbying desperately for an outreach program to provide basic instruction on nutrition, sanitation and food preparation. She’s also been quietly mourning the recent loss of her adult daughter. Imelda was an asthmatic, but the family ran out of medicine and couldn’t source any more. When she suffered an attack, they couldn’t get her down the road to hospital in time.

Rain on the slick red dirt has the vehicle wildly careening. Colin spins the wheel to keep it on track and hollers out the window to his passengers to fasten their (imaginary) seatbelts. We’ve got a plane to catch.

Landing at Port Moresby’s Jacksons International Airport after the flight from Popondetta, I climb into another hard-working vehicle with taxi-driver-cum-tour-guide Kelly Kump. I ask him to take me to APEC Haus via the “red carpet”, the route that will shortly be travelled by the APEC motorcades.

We turn onto Kumul Flyover and it’s smooth sailing on freshly buffed bitumen. The route, decorated with PNG and APEC flags, avoids the grubbier corners of the city. It swings by the turn-off to the National Parliament and past the high fences of the Australian High Commission, aka “Fort Shit-Scared”. Historically, this gag was about fear of raskols, but these days it also neatly enunciates Australia’s diplomatic position in dealing with PNG powerbrokers.

Australia is underwriting the costs of this APEC meeting with something north of $100 million, almost half of it supporting the Australian Federal Police security commitment. It has also, according to the ABC, quietly deployed special forces soldiers on the ground, and will have Royal Australian Navy warships sitting off the coast to protect the cruise liners on which many APEC delegates will be accommodated. The final bill is not yet known.

Australia’s heavy investment is couched as strategic, not least to counter rising Chinese influence. But China has also invested heavily, gifting a lavish $35 million overhaul of the International Convention Centre and upgrading the road we are driving on, where signs declaring “China Aid” are propped on sections still being completed. “They paid for it, they did it themselves – they brought the entire labour [force] here,” says Kelly.

With late apologies from US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin, China’s president Xi Jinping now enjoys unrivalled top billing at the summit, and is capitalising on the moment by arriving early to host a pre-APEC meeting with Pacific Islands leaders. Australian PM Scott Morrison will host a barbecue at the Australian ambassador’s residence in Port Moresby to try to make up ground.

Kelly is also an avid reader of the daily papers, and tunes into the Facebook drums. He’s mildly wounded that Trump isn’t coming but also relieved. Kelly is part of an evangelical community that worries about having all these leaders in Port Moresby – “does it make us a target?” APEC fever brings all these symptoms to the capital: expectation, exasperation (roads have been choked for years by summit preparations), panic, pride and, as in Afore, bewilderment.

Prime Minister Peter O’Neill describes hosting APEC as “a monumental achievement for our country … demonstrating it is able to make a positive contribution to driving business in the Asia-Pacific region”. From now, he says, “everyone will remember where Papua New Guinea is” and not confuse it with an African country.

Economist and long-time PNG observer Paul Flanagan agrees hosting APEC will lift PNG’s profile internationally, “although possibly for the wrong reasons”. The country has gained new infrastructure, he says, but some of it, such as APEC Haus, will have little on-going benefit. O’Neill envisages the latter as a museum for cultural artefacts he would like to retrieve from collections around the world, a tourism drawcard. But industry insiders are cynical – they were promised a tourist bump out of APEC, but if there has been one it hasn’t been felt outside the capital. That the US and the UK have placed “no-go” travel warnings on a couple of highlands provinces – putting them on a par with Syria and Yemen – hasn’t helped.

“PNG is looking to make some big announcements at APEC on future LNG [liquefied natural gas] projects and major hydropower schemes,” Flanagan says. But he’s concerned that rushing such announcements may weaken the capacity to wrangle the sweetest deals.

“For most people in PNG, APEC will have little impact. It will not encourage better policy positions to improve basic service delivery or economic management,” he says. “It represents a diversion of valuable resources from health and education budgets which have been cut severely since 2015.” Putting on the Ritz has also sucked up an enormous amount of public service capability.

Kelly’s not expecting any passing trade out of the summit – indeed, it will cost him. His taxi, and most local traffic, won’t be allowed within cooee of anything APEC. We sail past Gordons Police Barracks, a run-down primary school, fortified warehouses, the colossal SP beer factory, the smart Waigani shopping centre and the Hohola intersection (where my reflex is to triple-check the doors are locked), over Burns Peak and down to the waterfront – airport to APEC Haus in 15 cruisy minutes.

It’s sunset on swanky Ela Beach. Air-conditioners work flat out keeping life bearable for (mostly) expats in subsidised $1500-per-week apartments. APEC Haus floats on a promontory of rocks piled in the bay. It’s a stunning construction of glass and sweeping curves, the architects drawing inspiration from the lakatoi (crab claw sail canoes) of the traders who long plied these waters.

Out of sight of the motorcades, another epic logistical campaign will be playing out this month. Polio vaccine teams will be pushing into every quarter of this city, and every corner of the country, trying to reach some 3.2 million children to quash an outbreak that should never have occurred. The US$18 million offensive (almost all of it from international donors) involves dozens of imported experts working with local health officials, legions of health workers, and foot-soldier volunteers hauling eskies of lifesaving pink oral elixir.

Meanwhile, an editorial in the Post-Courier worried that, between them, the polio and TB crises might damage the nation’s reputation and international attendance at APEC.

On Facebook, blogger and journalist Sylvester Gawi synthesises the fury of many. “APEC will come and go, but the PEKPEK [Tok Pisin for ‘shit’] – debts and a declining economy – will always remain.”

The post is accompanied by a photo, which made international news in September, of an Air Niugini plane, with the iconic kumul and APEC 2018 logos, sinking into the Pacific after overshooting the runway on Chuuk Island.

Jo Chandler

Jo Chandler is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and author.


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