Coffins and Choppers

PNG landscape (1 of 1)

I am waiting in the shade at Daru provincial airport, Western Province. I am on my way to Kiunga – imagine a map of PNG and Irian Jiya (West Papua), put a finger at a point right about in the middle. That’s Kiunga. To the south of Daru is the northern tip of Australia, only a few hours by boat. To the north, up past Kiunga, is the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine. Western Province is home to PNG richest mines, and to some of its poorest communities.

While the plane is refuelled cargo is unloaded and moved to a bench next to me. A huge, heavy piece is hoisted over by four men. Only when it is placed down carefully and the men move away do I realise it is a coffin, wrapped in black plastic. Next to the coffin are piled white boxes of medical equipment, all labelled for the TB department at the provincial hospital. The plane also brought in the daily newspapers, which are sitting in a pile at the head of the coffin. Some people can’t wait, and walk up to the vendor to buy a paper immediately. The newspaper vendor cuts the tape holding them all together and starts accepting money.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a deadly yet curable disease which thrives on poverty and overcrowding. By some estimates TB is already PNG’s deadliest infectious disease. Since new equipment was installed in May, about 50 per cent of TB-positive sputum tested in Daru Hospital are showing multi-drug resistant TB. A report by the Burnet Institute estimates registered incidence of TB in Western Province at around 500 per 100,000 people, much higher than the PNG health department estimate of 150 per 100,000. The true incidence of TB is likely to be even higher, due to poor access to testing in rural areas.

Back on the plane again I peer through the low clouds trying to get a feel for the landscape. I have travelled widely in PNG, but this is my first visit to Western Province. Through the clouds I get a glimpse of the huge Lake Murray system, which is just to the south of Kiunga. It’s big enough to get noted on any decent map of PNG. The plane flies over an endless swamp, large rivers snaking through the trees. It’s wet season, so the rivers have spilled over their banks and into the jungle. I can’t see any roads. I can’t see any villages. Suddenly an airstrip looms into view – we have reached Kiunga.

My host isn’t at the airport to meet me, so I sit in the tattered departure/arrivals “hall” and watch life going on around me. A white Troop Carrier pulls up to the edge of the tarmac, followed by a truck full of people. Most are dressed in white, some carrying plastic flowers in lurid colours. I can hear women weeping. Slowly a coffin is dragged out of the vehicle, the crowd surrounds it and the weeping is louder. Only the men carrying the coffin are allowed onto the tarmac. The family members crowd around the gate and we all watch the men walk slowly to the cargo hold of the small plane.

As they walk the sound of weeping is drowned out by the arrival of four helicopters (yes, four). As soon as they touch the ground white Land Cruisers are driven over to collect the big white men who alight from the choppers. Most of them are big figuratively and literally. They are loaded up and whisked away to wherever big white men go in this town. Later I find out that the helicopters have been really busy the past two weeks. Something is going on at the mines. Ok Tedi Mining Limited is the biggest mining operation in PNG. It was due to close in 2014, after over two decades of operation.  Now the company has plans to try to keep the mine going for another 10 years. After acknowledging that the environmental damage done by the mining operations was much worse than expected, Ok Tedi created a $1.4 billion fund, the Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Program (PNGSDP). When the government of PNG decided to keep the mine running, the establishment of the PNGSDP indemnified BHP against future legal liabilities. The organisation that has brought me to Western Province is implementing a health project with the local Catholic Health service that is funded with PNGSDP cash.

I have been traveling for two days. My body is tired and I don’t want to process the juxtaposition of realities that are in front me at the airport. My host finally arrives and takes me to the relative peace of the Catholic Mission. Over dinner that night in the “Men’s House” we talk about AFL (one of the Brother’s was born in Victoria and is an avid Essendon supporter, apparently they lost on the weekend). We also talk about Prime Minister Rudd’s “PNG Solution” for asylum seekers that arrive by boat. During my flights today I had read my own copy of the daily newspaper. As in Australia, many educated people in PNG are deeply unhappy about the “PNG Solution.” One article I read described how more than one third of the rural community health posts in the southern part of Western Province are closed. Another article talked about the high level of maternal mortality in PNG (an estimated 733 deaths per 100,000 live births).

As I get ready to sleep I am grateful for little things, the shower that was warm when I expected cold water, a clean bed in a private room. I shut all the louvers against the night (stuffy, but malaria is the other major killer here) and sit in the dark, listening to the rattle in the motor of the ceiling fan. PNG desperately needs solutions, desperately needs some hope. A little story in the newspaper came to mind; for the first time ever two women were elected as Local Level Government councillors in a highlands province. A man was quoted in the article saying: “Well we voted them in, so now they have to prove that women can do it.” A small step in a country where in some areas 100% of women have experienced violence, but maybe a small step of hope.

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