In the far north-west of PNG, where the ‘sun goes down’ is one of the most unchanged provinces in the country. Sandaun, or West Sepik as it was once known, is a large undeveloped province on PNG’s border with Irian Jaya. It has only two towns, Aitape and the capital Vanimo. In some areas there are no people at all or just scattered settlements.
“Because it is neglected there is a lot of jungle. People live in the style of our forefathers, our great grandparents. I see little of what is talked about in National Parliament benefiting our people,” said Deputy Governor Peien Aloitch. “I see school children in remote areas without any clothes, or with torn clothes. I think we should pay more attention to them”. Certainly Sandaun has one of the lowest levels of literacy and educational attainment of any province. Sandaun people have the lowest life expectancy and the highest death rate for children. It has very limited infrastructure, few roads, no telecommunications network except along the border. But it does have 57 airstrips, a year-round safe anchorage at Vanimo and a very low crime rate. It also has the largest single area of commercial timber in PNG.
Forest and timber dominate the Sandaun economy. The port at Vanimo may see four or five large freighters a week loading logs and cut timber. The logs are stacked high on the wharves. Huge hardwood kwila trees en route for Malaysia and Singapore. In 1992 110,600 cubic metres of logs valued at over 11 million kina were exported from Sandaun. Two thirds of them came from the Vanimo Timber Project. “We know how many logs are being harvested and exported overseas. We know how much forest there is. How can we know how many fish there are in the sea?” queried Peien Aloitch once a fisherman himself. “Better to develop logging and leave fishing to the local people.” A long the coastal strip local people live in well-found wooden houses in large villages.
There is a good road from Vanimo to the border. All but a kilometre and a half is sealed. The last section is awaiting landowner agreements. The border is no longer a problem in the sense that there are no skirmishes or refugees as in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s but it does exercise a powerful pull on Sandaun. Shops and restaurants carry Indonesian foodstuffs. A boat leaves Vanimo every Thursday with shoppers taking advantage of cheaper, more available goods in Jayapura. Anyone living within 14 kms of the border carries a Border Crossing Pass which entitles them to pass unhindered. Those from further afield have visas and customs like any other frontier. The border is a typical colonial slight of hand. A ruler-straight line drawn across a totally unknown area with no regard for the people living on it or near it. On both sides there are families who have intermarried and there are shared cultural customs. There are even shared gardens. There is also the presence of the Australian engineering battalion and a company of the PNG Defence Force – just in case.
The Province is divided into six districts three of which lie on the border and get special funding. Of the others, only Telefomin has a cash economy and that is largely from growing vegetables for the Ok Tedi mine in neighbouring Western Province. The Min people in Telefomin benefit from Ok Tedi to the tune of K1 million a year. It is spent on bridges, water, schools and airstrips. Telefomin is looking forward to the development of the Frieda River copper mine for they can expect a similar deal. It hopes to upgrade its Technical High School to train workers for the mine which will be the first in the Province.
Sandaun has benefited from the National Government’s ‘Look North’ policy. Trade with Malaysia and Singapore, Taiwan and Korea has increased. Pein Aloitch wants to sell Vanimo as the tourist gateway to Asia. There are traditional arts and crafts and numerous war relics to share with foreign visitors. One recent discovery has done more to enhance Sandaun’s international reputation than any other. Ironically, it is a shy forest dwelling creature – a unique species of tree kangaroo. In the local Olo language it is called ‘tenkile’. It is found nowhere else in the world.