THE people of Los Negros have major problems. They are subsistence farmers and fishers but the island’s soil is not very good and traditional fish stocks are being ravaged by overfishing and the destruction of habitat by imported nasties like the Crown-of-Thorns starfish.
Los Negros is the island at the eastern end of the larger Manus Island. The two islands are connected by a short bridge.
Los Negros is also the home of the Lombrum Naval Base and the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre for what are now referred to as ‘transferees’. The main airstrip at Momote is also located on the island. The naval base occupies a large area of land, much of it currently unused.
In addition to habitat problems, the Los Negros population is increasing at a prodigious rate and the kids are abandoning the old traditions.
And climate change and rising seas are leading to contamination of groundwater supplies and sago swamps. The people are building dykes in some villages but the pressure caused by the lack of productive land is leading to major social problems.
The Los Negros people are, nevertheless, still a generally a happy and friendly lot. Whether they need the added complication of a detention centre full of asylum seekers is a moot point.
That no one bothered to tell them that the centre was to re-open seems to have been a deliberate case of rubbing salt into their wounds.
Despite all that, they again extended the hand of friendship. But this time it was almost immediately bitten off.
The people running the centre seem to go out of their way to ignore them. Their only concession was to employ a few local people from Lorengau, the provincial capital, to carry out what were largely menial jobs.
An Australian company is building another processing centre for genuine refugees in East Lorengau. With the trucks from that project cluttering up the roads and the increased traffic to and from Lombrum the village, children walking to school are now daily dicing with death.
For one village, the floating hotel at Lombrum (pictured) that houses the hundreds of Australian staff at the centre is scaring away the fish and they have to poach on their neighbour’s fishing areas and reefs.
When they try to protest, their complaints go unheeded and, as a last resort, they tried to undo the mooring lines of the hotel barge and were promptly arrested.
They may be a happy and friendly people but, when pressed, they react. This became evident with the death of one of the transferees.
The gossip in the villages and the streets of Lorengau is that he was the leader of a small group among the transferees who had gone out of their way to be abusive to the local people employed there.
What the motives of the transferees were is unclear but one suspects that it was a way of bringing attention to their conditions at the centre. In any event, their leader was targeted when local people broke through the fence to settle the matter.
Bystanders say the local police, sympathetic and knowing better than to interfere, stood by and watched. Unfortunately the beating the transferee leader was to receive went horribly wrong and he died.
One wonders how much of all this could have been avoided if the local people had been informed about what was going on at Lombrum from day one.
Even the PNGDF was kept in the dark; the sailors who man the four patrol boats at Lombrum have also complained that they were told nothing.
The local members of parliament, including the provincial governor, maintained and continue to maintain a deafening silence about the centre. The extent of their involvement seems to have been restricted to getting some of their friends employed there as part of the PNG Immigration Department presence.
The Australians running the centre, and there are a lot of them, overwhelmingly come from a military or security industry background. They are not the kind of people who are good at interacting with local indigenous communities.
The Australian Immigration officials seem to be pre-occupied with interminable meetings and running around looking for photo-opportunities. Very few, if any, of either group speak Tok Pisin.
The desirability of having a regional processing centre offshore and on a remote and very beautiful island populated by a gentle and friendly people is a matter yet to be resolved.
Those same island people experienced the trauma of nearly a million American troops on their island in 1944 and survived. (The commander of the naval base lives in General Douglas Macarthur’s old house.) Perhaps they can do it again?
That aside, there is a light of sorts on the horizon. The new contractor responsible for Nauru and Manus, Transfield Services, has a different view than the previous paranoid lot.
Their sub-contractor, Wilson Security, is going out of its way to quickly engage with the local people and keep them informed about what is going on. They are also exploring economic opportunities for the Los Negros people and are taking steps, where possible, to assist them with some of their pressing social problems.
To this end they have engaged an experienced PNG company that specialises in community awareness and involvement. Among other things the staff of this company are all fluent Tok Pisin speakers.
For the put-upon Los Negros and Manus people things are looking up a bit at last. The last time they hosted the asylum centre they reaped some useful spinoffs.
You can see these all over the island, especially in the schools. If Transfield and Wilson live up to their promises the same might hopefully happen again.
Where the Regional Processing Centre issue goes, well that’s another matter.