There is a long thin island lying between one and five degrees south of the equator in a north westerly direction. It claims to be one of the most peaceful and law abiding places in the whole of the South Pacific. It is New Ireland, or Niu Ailan (the new island) in pidgin.
New Ireland is no more than 10 kilometres wide at its widest and 350 kms long. A spine of mountains falls straight to the sea in the west but leaves a narrow fertile coastal strip on the east. There is a population of 87,000 most of whom live in the south of the island. There are twenty different languages. While close neighbours might understand each other, language becomes incomprehensible further away down the island.
Many traditions are similar: matrilineal descent, big man leadership, weapons and tools but there are marked differences in house and canoe design, in burial rites, marriage ceremonies and ritual. It has high literacy rates, at least 61% can read. Three fifths attend Church-run schools. There are some famous sons including the present Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan.
New Ireland has the only National Fisheries College in PNG. It was founded in 1977 with the assistance of the Japanese Government. It offers a two year course in tropical fisheries. It has just commissioned a new boat built in Australia. Students take day-trips to gain practical experience of long-lining and trawling. The college takes both boy and girl students from all over PNG though the principal confesses they have had to teach the Highlanders to swim first.
The provincial capital, Kavieng, boasts a good size airfield with a modern airport building. It is soon to be expanded to take international flights and increased traffic for the Lihir goldmine and the Sasemi fresh fish markets of Japan and the USA. Following the Rabaul volcanic disaster Kavieng is bidding for new routes by air and by sea. After waiting for nearly 40 years it is to get a new multi-purpose wharf. The new wharf will also service Lihir, a tiny island off the east coast. The gold is buried in an ancient, collapsed, volcanic caldera.
The Lihir gold mine is without a doubt the biggest thing to happen to New Ireland in its history. Lihir will be the biggest gold mine in the Southern hemisphere. Initially it will employ 7,000 people which is equal to the total of islanders on Lihir. It will have a dramatic impact on their lifestyle and that of all New Irelanders.At present the economy is kept afloat by Poliamba Pty Ltd. Poliamba produces oil palm and cocoa. It was created by the Commonwealth Development Corporation in response to an appeal by community leaders who were concerned at how few employment opportunities there were locally. In colonial times the Germans had planted copra in large plantations along the length of New Ireland. The trees were past their best, the plantations had become derelict and the price of copra had fallen. The CDC suggested rehabilitating the old plantations and a K54 million investment package was put together.
Poliamba is a social programme as much as a business investment. About 500 people are employed directly and another 750 work on contract planting, weeding and harvesting fruit. Contract work allows people time to garden, fish, help with community projects or just malolo. Workers live at home and remain valued members of village society. Poliamba built its own mill, its own tanks capable of storing 4,000 tonnes of oil and its own wharf. The oil is shipped out to Malaysia for refining before being turned into magarine, cooking oil or even ice cream. It is a huge investment but it has not forgotten the small producer. Small landowners are encouraged to plant and deliver direct to the mill.
Key to many local developments is the sealing of the highway. Baron Buliminsky had the highway built down the island seventy years ago. Poliamba sealed a seventy kilometre section to their factory and now New Irelanders are looking forward to the completion of the remaining 130 kilometres as part of the Lihir deal. It is anticipated that local business will triple with the highway and it will open up the island for tourism.
Bilas Peles, the islands of Tranquillity appeal to adventurers and eco-tourists. The New Ireland government is looking for projects which will promote culture and environment and bring maximum benefits to the people. The biggest surprise is the success of cycling. Both coasts offer outstanding cycling with good flat roads, little traffic, plenty of water (fresh and salt) and friendly people. Not so surprising but equally good is the diving. There are wrecks and reefs and over thirty islands which are natural breeding grounds for fish. While between the islands there are schools of barracuda, turtles, rays, dolphins and sharks.
Sharks occur in many of the cultural traditions of New Ireland. ‘Shark calling’ refers to the remarkable ability of certain men to call a shark to their canoe by voice or by a rattle until it can be snared in a noose. Canoes and fishing scenes are the subject of many colourful baroque carvings. Malangan carvings were totemic figures made to honour the dead and used in funerary rituals and soul boats. Malangan art is in museums in Europe and the USA. But the art or carving nearly died out before the son of a famous carver resurrected it. Now New Irelanders can enjoy their own cultural heritage.