Morobe Province consists of the land around the Huon Gulf. Including the bulge of the Huon Peninsula. It is Papua New Guinea’s most populous and most diverse region in terms of both culture and geography. PNG’s second city, Lae, is its capital, and has its own local administration. Morobe Province, which has had to fund much of its development itself in recent years as funds from the national government have declined, is an example of relatively successful local provincial government, and is striving to retain its autonomy in the face of the recent administrative changes.
The diversity which informs all accounts of Morobe is truly amazing. In one small area of 34,000 square kilometres – Morobe is a mediumsized province by PNG standards – there are more than 100 language groups, with all that implies for different customs, cultures and life-styles. The people were fierce warriors, and the cause of much of old New Guinea’s reputation as dangerous and hostile. Early settlers stayed on the coast. Now, almost too late, the intrinsic fascination of this complex web of human cultures is obvious. Artefacts from the Huon Peninsula, as seen in museums or shops or in the villages where they are still made , are tantalizing glimpses of lifestyles that are bound to change.
Geographically, Morobe consists of some of PNG’s most jumbled and fortress-like mountains as well as one of its biggest and broadest valleys. It contains both coastal swamps and lakes. Its tallest mountains, at over 4,000 metres or more than 13,000 feet, are not in the Highlands as such, but in the mountain ranges that rise straight out of the sea on the Huon Peninsula. Climatically Morobe includes both some of the wettest and some of the driest areas of PNG. Lae, one of the wetter places, has four times as much rain as the area of its airport, which is only about 50 km away.
While some of the land is too rugged for any sort of cultivation, and a lot of it is covered in rain-forest, the province as a whole lends itself to a variety of agricultural activities, from cattleranching in the grassy Markham valley to copra, cocoa and tea plantations. Cardamom and chillies are also grown.
Rain forest covers much of Morobe . The Wau Ecology Institute in the heart of a forested area is a fund of expert knowledge on all aspects of forest ecology, with recent research to their credit on the medicinal plants of the forest. Together with the University of Technology at Lae, and the Forest Research Institute, also at Lae, it helps to establish the province as a centre of intelligence about the land and its natural reserves.
Forest-based industries in Morobe centre on Bulolo, not far from Wau. Gold was discovered in creeks and rivers of both these places in the 20’s and 30’s, and some small-scale mining goes on to this day. But now the main exploitative industry is forestry. Bulolo in particular is a timber town. A vast quantity of timber has been and continues to be extracted from the forests in this area, most of it still in the form of logs although it is the declared policy of the Government to phase out the export of logs in place of sawn timber, and to achieve this by the year 2000. Bulolo, by the way, was the site of one of PNG’s earliest timber industries. After the gold was exhausted people turned to the trees. The bare, eroded hillsides in the area show the effects of this.
But Morobe does not have to rely on the exploitation of its natural resources as a source of wealth. More than some other provinces, it has the skills of its people to offer. Morobe has commercial, manufacturing and industrial activities. It has nineteen wharves and a coastal shipping industry. It has recently acquired a vast fish canning factory, said to be the largest in the Pacific. Three hundred people work here, mainly women. The mackerel they put in tins in this Malaysian-owned factory comes from the other side of the world. This is Morobe’s role in what has become a global fishing and marketing enterprise.
However the quality of life for the inhabitants of Morobe Province is not determined only by the income-generating possibilities that exist there. The action or inaction of government officials and the kind of public services that they provide, or fail to provide, is equally important. This is a question that exercises the Administrator of Morobe Province, Ainea Sengaro. On his office wall is a whiteboard listing the agreed expenditure on such things as bridge maintenance, road building, and work on wharves, airstrips and the water supply, with a record of money spent.
“Socially, economically and politically Morobe is a province which is doing better than most but which is still far from satisfactory in many ways, ” said Sengaro. “There is really no reason why we should not be able to achieve what we want for the people of Morobe. There is a financial crisis but we raise most of our income right here in the province. The only way I can explain the shortfall between what we want to do and what we achieve is by putting at least some of the blame on the kind of politics we have in this country. I believe that too much energy is used up in political posit ion-taking of one sort or another, and the straightforward skills of administrators are not being given a chance. “
In this way at least, if not in others, Morobe is very like its neighbours, and indeed l ike every province in PNG. All are hampered by the same obscure economic malaise, and all blame the political process, although, in a democracy, that is very like taking the blame oneself. Sengero has a robust response to the question of what he is going to do about the situation in Morobe while he is its Administrator. ” I am going for increased efficiency, with much more frequent reporting procedures, and rigorous checking of actual achievements, ” he said. ” And I shall try to avoid the worst effects of the political process. “