In 1951 the Mt. Lamington volcano blew up and killed 2,942 people in the province of Oro. It was the largest natural disaster in the recorded history of Papua New Guinea. The eruption destroyed the District Headquarters at Higaturu and all the town buildings on the northern side of the mountain. Subsequently the capital was shifted to Popondetta, where it remains to this day.
But the volcanic activity which caused such a tragic loss of life at that time is also the reason for one of Oro Province’s main natural resources – its soil. Volcanic soils, renowned for their fertility, cover the whole area and Oro Province at any season is a sea of green, with grasslands, cultivated fields, plantations and virgin forests as far as the eye can see.
Oro Province occupies a large section of the coastal plain sweeping down to the Solomon Sea on the northern side of the Owen Stanley range but with 10 volcanoes and other mountains going up to over 4,000 metres, it includes a variety of terrain. The people of Oro farm, fish and make distinctive artefacts, and because of the potential of the land for agriculture there have been a number of resettlement projects, with persons from outside the area being assisted by the government to set up there. Oro is the home of the world’s largest butterfly. Called the Queen A lexandra Birdwing, it has wingspan of up to 30 centimetres. In fact it is so large that it is said that it was first collected by bringing it down with a shot-gun! The Queen Alexandra Birdwing is unique to Papua New Guinea and found only in Oro Province where there is concern about its survival as its habitat undergoes change. A conservation project has been set up with World Bank money to investigate the situation of the Queen Alexandra Birdwing, starting with a survey to determine the population size. Oro will then take whatever action is needed to ensure its survival.
During the Second World War Oro Province, then part of the separate territory of New Guinea, was invaded by Japanese troops who proceeded to advance towards Port Moresby along the Kokoda Trail. They succeeded in capturing much of the trail before being stopped by Australian troops at Imita Ridge in Central Province and driven back to Oro. American and Australian troops combined to force the Japanese out of Oro in January 1943, seven months after the first invasion. There was an extremely high loss of life, especially among the Japanese. At Popondetta Airport a crashed aircraft has been elevated on a plinth as a memorial to this time and in the surrounding jungle there are many other such remains.
Today the people of Oro live in quieter times and their main concerns are for improvements in their standard of living. The necessity for a cash component in their livelihood is partially met by growing cash crops such as coffee – the robusta variety on the coast, and the arabica variety on higher land – and palm oil, a component of magarine. The fruit of the palm is crushed in a factory at Higaturu before being exported from Orobe wharf in Oro Bay. Cocoa and copra are also grown for export.
Politically, while senior government officers are proud to be able to state that they are the only province in the country that has never been suspended, they also see clearly that, in Oro Province as in every other, there is considerable scope for improvement in the quality and extent of public services, and in the relationship with the national government. “We suffer from this big-man mentality”, declared Arthur Jawodimbari, Provincial Secretary. “Too much time and energy is wasted playing politics.” Premier Douglas Garawa, the Deputy Governor Designate and an elected member himself, agrees. “In 1993 there were three provincial governments in one year alone. I myself have survived five votes of noconfidence in three years. We are beset by pettyminded politicians who are in politics for their personal advantage only, and we do not think we get the co-operation we deserve from central government.”
At the same time, the very fact that some politicians and senior civil servants can see what the problems are and feel free to discuss them must be a good sign for the future.