Locals in Papua New Guinea speak out as China’s proposed industrial fishing park sets off alarm bells in Canberra | Ralph-Lauren

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The tiny island of Daru in Papua New Guinea has become the latest flashpoint in tensions between Australia and China, after revelations a Chinese company wants to build an industrial fishing park on the island, while another is proposing to spend billions building a city there.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape has told 7.30 that he has now spoken to Australia’s Prime Minister and told him the plans are only “at concept stage”, and aren’t being considered by his national government yet.

But the proposals are still fuelling debate in Australia, and on the ground in Daru.

For 13 years, Papua New Guinean diver Opeta James has been taking a boat out to reefs in the Torres Strait to catch crayfish.

“I dive to sustain my family’s daily life,” he said.

“I pay my children’s school fees, their clothing. Every day I come out and fish.”

After jumping in from the bow of the boat, it only takes a few minutes before he remerges, a crayfish in hand, throwing it onboard before diving back down again in search of more.

A Papua New Guinean man sitting on a boat wearing diving gear.
Opeta James has been catching crayfish in the Torres Strait for 13 years.(ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

This is a way of life for thousands of people who live here, on both sides of the watery border between Australia and PNG.

But the local seafood has now caught the eye of the world’s biggest fishing industry.

Mr James is worried about a proposal for a Chinese company to set up a commercial fishing hub here on the PNG island of Daru, and says the move could “destroy” fishing stocks and the environment.

“We’re still worried about the Chinese coming in because it’s a small reef,” he said.

The plan for the $200 million fisheries park on Daru Island — which is only kilometres from Australia — is yet to get final approval, but local divers aren’t alone in raising concerns.

Australia has been vocal on the issue, both in public and in private.

Several boats docked along the coast as the sun is setting on Daru Island.
Many locals on Daru Island depend on the fishing industry for survival.(ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

The geopolitical concerns have only been heightened by revelations another Chinese company has put forward a multi-billion-dollar plan to build a new city on Daru.

While Daru may only be “just a dinghy ride to Australia” as locals say, living standards are miles apart.

For an impoverished island in desperate need of development, but one where so many people are dependent on the sea for their survival, the discussions around this fishing proposal are complex.

MoU raises questions

7.30 has obtained a copy of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by PNG’s Fisheries Minister, the Governor of Western Province and China’s Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company at the end of 2020 in regards to establishing an industrial fisheries complex on Daru.

The document said PNG’s National Fishery Authority had “recognised the need to select a suitable location” for a “comprehensive fishery park construction project” which includes “fishing, aquatic product processing, cold chain storage, fishery wharf and aquatic product trade to supply domestic and foreign markets”.

The MoU requires Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company to submit a feasibility report within six months and only insists on 50 per cent local employment.

China’s Ambassador to PNG, Xue Bing, attended the signing, saying “this is a very important step for Chinese investors to come into the area of fisheries industry.”

The waters around Daru are not the country’s most prominent fishing territory. PNG has vast maritime territory, with tuna from its waters making up about 10 per cent of the world’s catch.

Two maps showing the location of Daru, south of one of the main PNG islands, and north of Australia in the Torres Strait.
Daru Island is located in the Torres Strait less than 200 kilometres from the Australian mainland.(Google Maps)

There is no tuna around Western Province, where Daru sits, which has prompted concerns from security experts in Australia that the location was chosen for strategic reasons.

When signing the MoU, PNG’s Fisheries Minister Dr Lino Tom said the company was interested in “other fisheries” apart from tuna.

“They’ve done their own investigations and feasibility studies, so I think the good company has realised the potential Western Province has in terms of marine products. The decision to actually go there, is their own decision.”

From Opeta James’ hands to your plate

While the fishermen of Daru may not be supplying the world’s tuna, Australians may have eaten a crayfish caught by Opeta James or one of his friends on the water.

There is a local seafood export industry, shipping frozen — and outside of the times of COVID-19 restrictions, live — catch to Australia, and other international markets.

Meremi Maina buys Mr James’ catch and on-sells it. He’s been in the business since 1985.

The MoU said the new fisheries park should “complement” the existing industry and not “put them out of business”, but Mr Maina was still worried about the possible arrival of an international competitor.

“I am worried about the fish stocks,” he said.

“History has shown areas they’ve worked at have depleted all kinds of resources where they’ve operated in the world, and they are thinking of putting up a big factory here.”

PNG man wearing a hi-vis orange shirt, glasses and a black cap with two assistants behind him.
Meremi Maina has been working in the seafood industry since 1985.(ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

Australia is also concerned about marine resources, with the Department of Foreign Affairs saying it “takes seriously the protection of Australian fisheries, environmental assets, as well as the livelihoods of traditional inhabitants of the Torres Strait.”

A treaty between Australia and PNG governs how fishing is conducted in the shared Torres Strait region, ensuring commercial fishing is “in harmony with traditional fishing”.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne has already suggested the Chinese proposal “would not be considered a traditional activity under the Torres Strait Treaty and would not be permitted.”

The MoU says the Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company will be “encouraged” to look at buying into “established local fishing businesses, in the Province to have majority shareholdings… to harvest inshore fish and fishery resources which are reserved for citizens only” under PNG regulations.

It also flags the company’s interest in “offshore” or deep-sea fishing “to support their shore-based operations”.

PNG villagers call for consultation

Thatched buildings line the shore at the village of Kadawa and people laugh and wave as they walk along the water.

The village is a short boat ride from Daru Island, and is one of the 14 villages that have traditional rights, including fishing, under the Torres Strait treaty with Australia.

People here are disappointed they haven’t been consulted about the Chinese fishing plan yet.

“Our children, and their children to come tomorrow — we have a concern for them,” local woman Wendy Wariba said.

“Every day of our life we earn from the sea, we are the resource owners.”

A young Papua New Guinean boy squats down near an array of live caught seafood.
PNG locals are worried about the impact China’s proposed industrial fisheries complex would have on the fish stocks in the region for future generations.(ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

PNG authorities say everyone, including the villagers, will be consulted before a decision is made, but people here believe they should have been spoken to in the first instance.

“People need to be educated, the good side and bad side, before they make a decision to start their operation here,” said, Murray Dimia the president of the villages’ local-level government.

An older black man with a grey beard wearing a grey shirt stands outside a building.
Murray Dimia, president of the villages’ local-level government, says the locals should have a say in any operations undertaken in the region.(ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

“The people must have their say, that’s how it should be — from the people.”

The local leaders said they were not yet rejecting the proposal but calling for consultation and for procedures to be followed.

Daru is more than just the treaty villagers, however — the provincial capital is officially home to around 20,000 people, but the Mayor thinks it’s swelled to about 30,000 in recent years.

With many people living in poverty and the region in such desperate need of development, he has said there would likely be support for the proposal.

PNG’s Fisheries Minister has said the project would “create jobs for locals” and highlighted the need to increase foreign investment in PNG to “realise the potential we have in the marine sector.”

Pressure on Australia to respond

A delegation of senior staff from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs, based in Port Moresby, travelled to Daru and met with local leaders, villagers and industry members to discuss the plan.

Separately, the PNG Fisheries Minister and the head of the National Fisheries Authority met with the then Acting High Commissioner at Australia’s High Commission in Port Moresby.

After the visit to Daru, the Governor of Western Province, a supporter of the fisheries proposal, hit out at Australia, accusing it of offering no alternative for economic development.

PNG’s Fisheries Minister Dr Lino Tom released a statement in response to the fallout, acknowledging the “growing interests and concerns”.

He said the project hadn’t given final approval, but PNG was “within its sovereign rights” to be considering it.

He also offered his “gratitude” to Australia for its intention to “further increase support” to Western Province.

“I want to see what Australia can offer — counter-offer us with what (the) Chinese are offering and then the people will have a choice. If Australia is not going to offer anything, then definitely the people will go for China,” seafood exporter Mr Maina said.

Australia is already the biggest aid donor to the region, pouring millions in, particularly to health projects.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said “supporting Western Province is a focus for the Australian Government and we are working with the provincial and national government to support sustainable and meaningful development that benefits its people.”

PNG PM James Marape reassures Scott Morrison

PNG Prime Minister James Marape has told 7.30 that he took a call from Prime Minister Scott Morrison about the Chinese proposals in Daru.

“I said this is just someone imagining a project there, someone may be thinking about putting a project there, but nothing substantial has come my way as to what they will do,” he said.

Mr Marape said if there was a “serious, honest” project, it would go through the proper processes to ensure it was “safe” and “good for everyone”.

“Certainly in some hot spots and sensitive areas we’re also mindful of investments that may come under the umbrella of investment but may not be the type of investment we want in certain areas,” he said.

When it comes to the geopolitics, Mr Marape repeated PNG’s often spouted mantra of “friend to all, enemy to none”, but he said PNG respected the treaties and border protocols it had in place with its nearest neighbours, including in the Torres Strait.

Australian PM Scott Morrison and his PNG counterpart James Marape, July 22 2019.
Australian PM Scott Morrison and his PNG counterpart James Marape.(Facebook)

Despite the fisheries MoU being signed by his Minister, Mr Marape said neither the fisheries plan or the city proposal was being considered by the national government yet.

“The MoU is with our sub-national government level, so we will check where we are in as far as the MoU is concerned,” Mr Marape told 7.30

“Depending on the type of investment and its merit, we’ll scrutinise it, but I haven’t been fully briefed on the scope of the project … and I will look into this matter.”

‘Strategic competition’ in nobody’s interests

Former Australian Ambassador to PNG and now Lowy Institute Fellow, Ian Kemish, said he had seen many MoU’s “come and go” in PNG without further progress.

“I think one of the inhibiting things about Chinese influence in PNG is there tends to be an assumption that if you make a deal with the leader, that all else will follow,” Mr Kemish told 7.30.

“Papua New Guinea does not work like that — you have to engage a wide range of stakeholders, including, importantly, the local people.”

A group of Papua New Guinean locals across generations wearing colourful clothing.
Australia is the biggest aid donor to the PNG region, with millions being invested in health projects.(ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

He said “strategic competition” in the region was in nobody’s interests, “certainly not the people of the region.”

“Australia certainly doesn’t need to panic about China in Papua New Guinea. I don’t think it is panicking about China in Papua New Guinea,” he said.

“I think Australia needs to keep a steady eye on developments there, but it can be quite confident in the strength of its own relationship.”

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