Splendid isolation


May 18th 2009
From Economist.com

Dispatches from the most diverse country on earth

OUR flight to Port Moresby, the capital city of Papua New Guinea, touches down at Jackson International Airport. We drive out amidst aircraft hangers and signalling towers. The Air Niugini planes used to be painted in dazzling bright crimsons, oranges, yellows and greens to depict the plumage of the bird of paradise, the national symbol. “Land of the Unexpected” was emblazoned on the fuselage: a sales message that was supposed to emphasise the country’s quirky unpredictability, but principally succeeded in making passengers nervous. The airline has instead adopted more demure and conventional markings.

On a hill overlooking the runway, the Airways Hotel, where I am staying, is a bolthole for arriving expatriates, a citadel surrounded by barbed wire where even internal access doors and lifts need to be operated by card keys. The Cypriot owner of the hotel was killed earlier this year by Port Moresby’s “rascals”—the local term for gang-members—after he tried to run a road block. His mistake, I am told, was to not surrendering his car, money and all his other property. The chief of police demanded that the people living in the nearby settlement surrender the culprits. When they did not, mobile forces razed their houses to the ground.

AFP “Fort Shit-Scared”, looks down on the Motuan stilt houses in Hanuabada village near Port Moresby

It is for this kind of incident that Port Moresby is usually ranked as one of the world’s most unlivable cities the Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability index. Foreigners and wealthy Papua New Guineans inhabit fortified apartments on the top of the hills open to the cooler sea breezes, hidden behind high fences bristling with razor wire and spy cameras. Private security guards are everywhere, and police armed with machine guns man key intersections around town.

But is the threat to life and limb any greater than in, say, Lagos or Baghdad? I doubt it. And are global tastes so uniform as to allow the world’s capitals to be effortlessly scaled by their liveability?

Anyway, Port Moresby has its charms. It is an urban island in a sea of rural villages. It is a headquarters of government in a land where the state matters little. It is a magnet for the ambitious, the footloose and the renegade. It brings together people from across a country of 6m and 820 different languages.

For those expats who speed in big four-wheel drives between their barbed-wire-encircled apartments on the breezy hills and “Fortress Shit Scared” (as the Australian High Commission compound is called), life outside the safety zones seems tough. For the adventurous, however, Port Moresby has more to offer, as do the remote hinterlands beyond and the scattered islands that lie north-eastwards into the Pacific Ocean.

Besides, I am told that Port Moresby is getting better. The streets are safer than they used to be, a minibus driver assures me, because the police now shoot to kill. And a former student radical, Powes Parkop, has become governor of the National Capital District. His Yumi Lukautim Mosbi (“We look after Port Moresby”) project has helped to clean up the city streets and to restore some sense of civic pride.

We arrive at the University of Papua New Guinea, where Puka Temu, the deputy prime minister, is speaking articulately and sensibly. He says Papua New Guinea is subsidising the carbon emissions of the rich countries, and that if the polluting nations paid at today’s prices of US$30 for every tonne of carbon dioxide, earnings would exceed the country’s receipts of development aid. He is referring to the REDD scheme (“reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation”) under which industrialised nations that cannot meet carbon reduction targets can buy carbon credits from countries like PNG, which has the world’s third-largest intact tropical rainforest.

PNG is a leading member of the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, of which Dr Temu’s boss, Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, is co-chair. At last year’s climate conference in Bali, Kevin Conrad, PNG’s representative, advanced the REDD plan for paying villagers to leave natural rainforests untouched, gaining global notoriety for challenging the United States to “lead, follow or get out of the way”.

To preserve the forests, Mr Somare set up the Office of Climate Change and Environmental Sustainability (OCCES) which hopes to make intending traders register officially, so as to avoid the carbon cowboys striking lucrative deals with unsuspecting landowners. Oddly, other parts of government are marketing rival carbon trading schemes, and the East Highlands governor, Malcolm Kela-Smith, challenges the rights of the OCCES to appropriate any earnings from land under customary tenure. Although keen to embrace potential carbon earnings from leaving forests untouched, the governing party, Mr Somare’s National Alliance financed much of its 2007 election campaign through payments from logging companies.


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