A Papua New Guinean governor has criticised Australia’s response to a plan to establish a Chinese fisheries park on PNG’s border, saying Australia wants the “status quo” of poverty in the region to remain.
- A proposal for a Chinese fisheries park at Daru Island has raised concerns in Canberra
- Local governor Toboi Awi Yoto has criticised the Australian Government in a social media post
- He accused Australia of deterring foreign investment that would “alleviate poverty and improve social services”
In November last year, the Papua New Guinean Government signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to look at building a $200 million “comprehensive multi-functional fishery industrial park” on Daru Island, which borders the Torres Strait.
The proposal has raised alarm in Australia about national security and potential overfishing in the region.
A delegation of Australian Department of Foreign Affairs staff from the Australian High Commission in PNG, including the High Commissioner, travelled to Daru this month for a series of meetings and discussions about the proposal.
They met with the local governor, Toboi Awi Yoto, who was a signatory to the MOU.
The Governor has now hit out at the Australian Government on Facebook, saying Australia had no counter-offer to the Chinese plan and that he “was not satisfied with their intentions for my people to remain the same” when many are living in poverty.
“As usual, they came with no alternative plans to counter and deter any foreign direct investment, especially to alleviate poverty and improve social services,” he wrote.
He said that was actually “good” for him “to advance my plans to explore opportunities that are available” in relation to the Chinese bid.
“It’s regrettable that all they want is for us to be subsistence farmers and fishermen and maintain our current status quo.”
The Governor, who titled the post “WE WILL NOT SWAY” said: “We never reached any common ground.
“Those who were with me in that meeting can confirm that they lost the plot and minced their words,” he wrote.
“Yet I am reliably informed that back in Canberra, it has been reported that we had fruitful meeting in Daru when it wasn’t.”
Mr Yoto said he was “aware that Australians are working behind my back to have my people not to support any foreign direct investment”.
Australia is the biggest provider of aid in the region, which has included a $20 million grant for an emergency tuberculosis program in Daru.
The Australian Government has also funded a community rangers’ program for people from local villages in Daru and a program to provide solar lights in the province. Both of those programs have this month been promoted on the High Commission’s social media accounts.
Australia raises concerns
The proposal for the fisheries park is yet to get final approval and many projects in PNG do not progress beyond an MOU. MOU signing ceremonies in PNG are very common.
But Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne told the Senate last month that the Government had already been in contact with PNG to ensure Australian interests are “fully safeguarded”.
Senator Payne said Australian Border Force would be patrolling the Torres Strait to ensure the traditional-only fishing rules in the region, agreed to between PNG and Australia, were enforced.
“Commercial-scale fisheries would not be considered a traditional activity under the Torres Strait Treaty and would not be permitted,” she said.
PNG’s Fisheries Minister Dr Lino Tom released a statement in response to the fallout.
He acknowledged the “growing interests and concerns” and said, “existing bilateral agreements will be respected”.
But he said PNG is “within its sovereign rights” to be considering the project, which he said could “boost economic activity in the area”.
He also thanked Australia for its “its intention to further increase support” to this region.
Governor hits out at ABC
Torres Strait Islander leaders have said they are “incredibly nervous” about the proposal.
It has also sparked concern in local villages around Daru, where people make their living and feed their families from fishing.
Many are worried the Chinese development will “vacuum” up local seafood and deplete fishing stocks and they say they are yet to be consulted on the proposal.
However, some on the island have said they would support the project in the hope it would deliver much-needed jobs and money.
In his Facebook post, the Governor also hit out at the ABC.
The ABC recently travelled to Daru for an upcoming 7.30 story on the proposed development.
The Governor implied the Australian Government had “sent” the ABC to Daru.
The ABC’s trip to Daru was organised independently of the Australian Government and the Australian High Commission in PNG has no influence over what or how the ABC reports in the country.
After flying back from Daru, the ABC team saw the Governor at the Port Moresby airport and approached him to discuss the MOU and to request an interview on the issue.
The Governor declined the interview request. The ABC’s PNG correspondent explained that some people had raised concerns and it would be good to get his response.
“Well, I have nothing to hide but I know what Australian media are up to and what they are capable of doing,” he wrote on Facebook.
“But for a hint, they will use what I say to make my own people turn against me.”
He said all interested parties, including the local villages, would be consulted but he would “not let go of an opportunity to advance the aspirations of my people in my own land”.
The ABC contacted the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs about the Governor’s comments, but is yet to receive a response.