Village women band together in shadow of Papua New Guinea industrial projects

Harlyne Joku
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Village women band together in shadow of Papua New Guinea industrial projects A woman prepares sago on the banks of a tributary of the lower Purari River in Baimuru district, Papua New Guinea, in this photo taken in the first quarter of 2023.
Mula Paul Sireh/BenarNews

Other men often ask Joseph Ka’au why he’s hell bent on helping mothers and daughters form and register a cooperative in Baimuru, their remote district in Papua New Guinea. 

His simple response: “Men are disorganized and I think it is high time we put our women on the forefront.”

Baimuru, which sits on the Purari River in Gulf province, is isolated from urban centers and lacks basic services, but soon it will become the site for a giant natural gas project known as Papua LNG.

Papua New Guinea’s government and its developers signed the gas agreement in 2019 and preparatory construction work has started. 

Baimuru could also be part of the largest hydro-power project in the Pacific island country as an Australian mining company explores the feasibility of damming the Purari. Another Australian company is planning to mine black sands from Gulf province’s coastline.

Papua New Guinea is the most populous Pacific island country, with more than nine million people, but also among the poorest.

After gaining independence from Australia in 1975, it has struggled to attract investment and raise living standards. It faces challenges such as tribal conflicts, corruption and large swathes of the mountainous country accessible only by boat, trekking or small aircraft landing strips.

Pawaia women from the upper Purari River in Baimuru district carry bags of garden produce to their villages, in this photo taken in October 2022. [Mula Paul Sireh/BenarNews]

According to Ka’au, who is from Baimuru and is a land owner, local people have hardly been consulted about how they will benefit from the gas and other projects.

“We know that from past experience of major development projects in PNG, the women and girls will be marginalized most,” said Ka’au, an environmental and human rights campaigner as well as former journalist. 

“We hope to change this by preparing and organizing the mothers and daughters of Baimuru to incorporate their cooperative.”

The reaction from the village women has been positive.

“We have waited since independence for someone or a group to help us. This is the first time that somebody is able to unite all the women in our local level government to address the many issues that are affecting us,” said Julie Ako, president of the Karimai Women’s Fellowship.

The women hope that through the cooperative they’ll be able to trade their sago, crabs and prawns from the Purari River, which is their main source of food, to other parts of Gulf province and to Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby.

‘We cannot just be bystanders’

The gas project is being developed by French oil and gas giant Total S.A. with its partners, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Oil Search Ltd. It is expected to complement Exxon Mobil’s U.S. $19 billion PNG LNG business, which processes and ships Papua New Guinea’s natural gas to Asia.

The hydro project is led by Australian billionaire Andrew Forest’s company, Fortescue Metals Group Ltd., and the black sands mining by Mayur Resources Ltd., whose executives include Darren Lockyer, a former Australian rugby league star with a large following in Papua New Guinea.

“It is against this backdrop that I am getting the daughters and mothers to organize so they can meaningfully participate in these projects. We cannot be just bystanders when foreign companies are exploiting our resources and getting the cream while we get nothing,” Ka’au said.

“Unless the daughters and mothers are organized and speaking the same language and making their voices heard, they will forever be marginalized,” Ka’au said.

He said education and health for women in the remote district is a priority issue and economic activities spearheaded by the women there are very limited and small scale.

Joseph Ka'au.jpg
Joseph Ka’au, an environmental campaigner and human rights activist, rides in a boat on the Purari River in Baimuru district, in this photo taken in March 2023. [Mula Paul Sireh/BenarNews]

Ka’au said he has assisted women and girls in the 21 wards of Baimuru to form groups and register with the Investment Promotion Authority, and will help them to open their bank account when they form the cooperative. Most of the women’s groups are affiliates of major churches, but others outside of the churches have also joined.

“I have filed [registration applications for] 21 of 23 wards,” he said. “The last ward takes two days walking to reach. I hope to get there this month.”


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