Wet, watery Western Province is Papua New Guinea’s largest and least populated province. With the evocatively-named Fly and Strickland Rivers crossing it from top to bottom and famous for its swamps and its floods, it lives in the imagination like the last uncharted territory awaiting its discoverer.
In fact the area itself and the Fly River in particular was ‘discovered’ by western explorers at a relatively early stage in the history of Papua New Guinean and European contact. Named after the ship carrying the French navigator D’Urville, who had noted its potential navigability on his second journey to the area in 1842, the Fly River was followed nearly 1,000 kilometres up towards its headwaters by the Italian explorer Luigi d’Albertis in 1876.
The Fly, at 1,200 km, is Papua New Guinea’s longest river.
Later explorations took place this century, the last great journey being the coast to coast crossing of the country in the 1927-28 expedition led by Ivan Champion and Charles Karius. They set out from Daru, near the mouth of the Fly in the Gulf of Papua, climbed 3,000 metre high mountains to enter the headwaters of the Sepik River, PNG’s second longest, and travelled down it for 1,100 km to reach the coast near Wewak on the Coral Sea.
Many different tribes lived the area now described as Western Province, and the response to some of the early explorers and the many missionaries who followed was sometimes violent. Cannibalism and headhunting were regular practices of people in this area. Naturally this was one of the first parts of their ritual culture to be opposed by every outsider, particularly by the missionaries, many of whom arrived under the auspices of the London Missionary Society. From the late-nineteenth century to this day missions have been active in the area and it is now heavily Christianised.
By all accounts, the culture that Christianity has now replaced was a deeply complex interweaving of beliefs about ancestral and other spirits, mediated by sorcerers and strongly differentiated by gender. Men and women had completely different life experiences. The centre of all power and activity was the men’s house, full of artefacts required by them for the practice of their rituals. The artefacts of the Gogodala people of the lower Fly are particularly remarkable, featuring abstract clan symbols which are painted on canoes, dance masks, drums and statues and often using images of crocodiles and snakes.
Traces of the old life-style still remain in Western Province, if not in terms of religious belief, then at least in the styles of house and the kinds of food that are eaten. Because much of the province is subject to flooding, especially in the delta area, many villages consist of houses built on stilts. People catch fish, but the basic staple is sago.
Sago is the solidified, gel-like starchy extract obtained by first scraping then washing the inner fibres of the trunk of the sago palm. Fortunately there is a plentiful supply of these palms, because sago is eaten every day, in fact to such an extent that nutritionists see it as problematic. A diet consisting predominantly of sago will be deficient in protein. Western Province is not noted for its vegetable gardens, so unless care is taken, vitamin and mineral deficiencies can also occur.
Until recently, Western Province has been relatively untouched by industrial development but all that has now changed, as the massive and controversial gold and copper mine of Ok Tedi lies within its northern borders. Ok Tedi started producing gold in 1984 and copper in 1987. Processing the ore from which the copper concentrate is obtained, creates a vast amount of residue, called tailings, which has increased the amount of sediment that flows down the Fly River and has been accumulating in it and on the surrounding flood plain, together with pollution from elements like mercury which are used in the mining process.
Western Province, like its neighbour, Gulf, is undeveloped compared to the rest of the country. In the main town of this watery province, women have to carry water to their homes. Many hopes are pinned on the benefits that will accrue from the profits of the mine.