WABAG - Nobody believed the people of Enga Province would one day export premium strawberries. To outsiders, it seemed their main achievement was to involve themselves in tribal warfare.
That perception will hopefully be erased now that a market has been established in Singapore for Enga strawberries and possibly other agricultural products.
This is the result of hard work put in by Governor Sir Peter Ipatas who encouraged Israeli company Innovative Agro Industries to partner with the Enga Provincial Government to establish a K23 million vegetable project at Taluma in the Sirunki area of Laiagam.
Many people felt the project would fail because the local Makol tribe was involved in tribal fighting. But now strawberries are produced there for export as well as potatoes for Port Moresby.
To increase production, a second vegetable project has been established at Yogos in the Tsak Valley of Wapenamanda, an area also the scene of intense tribal warfare where hundreds of men died and millions of kina in property were lost including everything the Catholic Church owned at Tsak Pumakos.
It was risky to take multimillion kina projects to fighting zones but this direct challenge to the people has been a trademark of Sir Peter.
Enga School of Nursing, Mulitaka Secondary School, Tsak Secondary School and the multimillion kina provincial hospital under construction at Aipus are other major projects.
Where did Sir Peter draw the strength to provide visionary leadership, maintain political stability and establish projects that directly impacted on the lives of ordinary people?
I’ll go back to the time when Cr Peter Ipatas was president of Wabag local level government in the 1980s, when Enga experienced a dark period of political instability and social tension that nearly tore the province apart.
On 9 February 1984 the provincial government was suspended and premier Danely Tindiwi gaoled for seven years for misappropriation. Tindiwi was re-elected in 1992 but, after being in office for only a year, was suspended a second time on the same charges.
An old kiap, Bill Bates, was appointed administrator to run the affairs of the province, which did not please a lot of people. On 26 March 1993, the provincial headquarters complex was burnt to ashes in broad daylight.
Then people from Laiagam, Kandep, Porgera, Paiela and Maramuni threatened to break away to form their own province. Other people pushed to re-establish the provincial headquarters in a new location at Wapenamanda or Laiagam.
In August 1995 provincial government reforms were introduced and Enga regional MP Jeffery Balakau was sworn in as governor. Tindiwi became his deputy.
On that historic day, all five open members and council presidents were also sworn in as provincial assembly members. Cr Peter Ipatas was one of them.
Jeffery Balakau and Danely Tindiwi, who had been elected in 1992, were not to complete their full terms: Jeffery Balakau was suspended, and later dismissed, by a leadership tribunal and Tindiwi was replaced by Peter Ipatas as acting governor.
In that capacity, Sir Peter moved quickly. He rebuilt the provincial headquarters and invited then prime minister Sir Julius Chan to a ground-breaking ceremony in late 1996.
The following year he was elected by an absolute majority to serve a full term as governor and in the national parliament.
I wrote an account of this turbulent period for Enga Nius in 1993 and here are some extracts that shed light on how the people felt.
The very foundations of Enga Province shook when the main provincial headquarters office complex was burnt down by arsonists in broad daylight on Friday 26 March, 1993.
At exactly seven minutes past four, I locked our office and went for a drive in my bus intending to return to complete some typing. As I drove back after half an hour, somebody at the main market waved me down and said the Bromley and Manton supermarket was on fire.
He warned me not to go in case I might receive injuries in a riot that had started. But I drove on, hoping that the Bromley and Manton shop in town did not burn down a second time.
The company had lost thousands of kina worth of goods when arsonists torched the wholesale building they were renting from the Wabag Local Level Government when late Malipu was shot in Mt Hagen in 1989.
But soon I discovered to my horror that the finance and management services as well as the upstairs commerce office were engulfed in flames. The fire was spreading fast to all parts of the complex which housed almost all government divisions including the provincial government offices, Air Niugini office, two court rooms and two conference facilities. The only divisions saved were social services, the secretary’s office and my own media unit which were housed in separate buildings.
I stood and watched hopelessly for four long hours as the complex burnt to a shouldering ruin. No sane person dared to venture close to the hot flames while the dark smoke never ceased to billow skywards to merge with dark shadows as night emerged to cover the small township as if to conceal the wanton destruction.
It was sort of strange but for a moment I laughed to myself - not the kind which expresses joy and enlightenment but the type that comes with hate and total despair as tears begin to well up in your eyes.
I heard a lone local leader from the Lanekep tribe, one of the original tribes that owned the Wabag town land shout repeatedly: ‘Why are you burning this office which belongs to everybody in Enga?” There was no response from anybody – only the flames roared on.
I came to my senses when I saw a brave men climb to the roof of my office to prevent it from catching fire. It used to be the main colonial administration office building during the colonial administration period located near the Air Niugini office on the eastern end of the PHQ complex now in the grips of a consuming inferno.
I hastily opened the main door of my office and grabbed whatever I could – my word processor, the office type writer and a few files and rushed out. Outside, I saw police beat up two looters who attempted to carry away office equipment from the Secretary’s office which was still safe.
One policeman from the Eastern Highlands explained to me why they were beating up the looters. “I don’t see any reason that prompts these people to loot state property. I don’t know if they realise that with those flames goes Enga Province,’ he said. ‘People don’t seem to see the long term implications for Enga.
“I think what normal people should do is rub mud on their bodies and mourn like they do when somebody is killed in a tribal fight. This province is burning in that fire.” In Enga society one cannot burn or destroy public property like a hausman (men’s house) or excrete near water springs that belonged to everybody.
The crowd kept growing but nobody spoke except some brave men who stood on the roofs to prevent the fire from spreading to the social services building, the secretary’s office and my own office. Most people just stood with their mouths agape staring at the flames doing its destructive work.
The silence was broken from time to time as police fired teargas to discourage looters. I came across one public servant who dared say something and his message was clear: ‘I hate to be an Engan. Everything about this place is always negative...negative. I hate to have been born here.’
With those words lingering in my mind, I left the smoldering ruins, never once looking back.
Now, over 26 years later a more modern office complex stands on the old ruins with the national court house beside it.
An overseas market has been established which will encourage people to produce more strawberries, onions, potatoes and other cash crops which thrive so well in Enga.
And Governor Ipatas has recently announced the provincial government will promote tourism as the next major step to boost economic activity.
He continues to challenge the people, seeming to say: “Either you keep the projects, look after them, benefit from them or destroy them again. It’s all yours to keep or lose. I’m just doing my duty.”