Manus Refuses The Bait

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Manus refuses the bait
The ambitions of Star-Kist, the government of Papua New Guinea and the fisher folk of Manus Island are at odds. Colin De'Ath reports.

Paliau Lucas and his adoptive father Paliau Maloat, also a social reformer. Photo: Colin De'Ath
Paliau Lucas and his adoptive father Paliau Maloat, also a social reformer.
Photo: Colin De'Ath

Paliau Lucas is a Manusian with his feet in two worlds. He has degrees in arts and economics and is a businessmen. He is also a man of his village with ties to the traditional lapan (leader) system. Lucas is best known for his resistance to plans for a tuna cannery in Manus, the largest of 160 volcanic and coral islands clustered in the Bismarck Sea to the north of the Papua New Guinea mainland.

In 1975, with Papua New Guinea independent and the Law of the Sea Conference thrashing out ocean ownership, the Americans, Japanese, Koreans and Taiwanese were worrying about access to the 400,000-tonne Western Pacific tuna catch. Big-thinking expatriate advisers thought Papua New Guinea could use the anticipated 200-mile economic zones to force these nations to set up processing plants in the country. The US and Japan were invited to co-operate.

Paliau Lucas and other 'young Turk' Manusians were in Port Moresby, the national capital, when they learned of government plans to build a tuna cannery at Lombrum, a PNG Defence Force naval base on Manus. Partner in the move was to be Star-Kist, a subsidiary of H.J. Heinz, which already had a major cannery at Pago Pago in American Samoa.

The young Manusians, including Karol Kisokau who is now director of the Office of Environment, reacted strongly. They argued the people had not been consulted; Star-Kist was only interested in quick financial return; the benefits - such as local employment - had not been considered; and environmental problems had not been investigated. It seemed the government's idea was to give 'under developed' Manus and its under-used naval facilities, a cannery built and operated with reluctantly employed US know-how and finance.

The $15 million project included plans for a fishing fleet (with emphasis on Manus being able to provide services - even brothels) to supply tuna to the cannery at a rate of 54 tonnes a day.

Star-Kist promised to get US aid for Manus and overseas scholarships for its brightest students. It began employing Manusians at $30 a week for catcher and mother ships, and a half-hearted attempt was made to start a joint local fishing company. It was important for Star-Kist to maintain good relations because it couldn't operate without Manus baitfish for its pole and line catchers.

The Manus administration and the two Manus members of parliament were not against the project but they had not anticipated the intensity of opposition from Lucas's Port Moresby group or from villagers and environmentalists on Manus.

In 1978 a Canadian teacher and science students did an environmental impact study on the likely effects of effluent on traditional fishermen and their marine food supplies in Seeadler Harbour, the main port. They found the diet of local people was largely fish. Lucas and Kisokau got government permission to do a social impact study, which confirmed their suspicions.

Los Negros island residents, original owners of the naval base, didn't think much of the plans: 'We must think of our children, their food and their waters,' they said. 'This company will provide jobs for only the educated and the young. What about the rest of us? The company is our destruction.'

The Lucas-Kisokau report was widely circulated and meetings were held. A senior government minister, Sir Pita Lus, was invited to inspect the proposed site. He agreed it was a threat to security, could cause pollution and invited shark infestation. He also accepted that the villagers had not been consulted.

The government changed its mind and Star-Kist quickly agreed to an alternative arrangement for a cannery to built in the nearby New Ireland Province. Some Manus politicians, incensed at the decision, immediately stopped Star-Kist from baiting - and therefore from fishing - in Manus waters during 1980.

This year Star-Kist was back with an offer to the provincial government of a small rental fleet. What it was really looking for was access to bait and fish so that it could retain the limited number of fishing licences it already held from the national government.

Manus villagers are still quarrelling about the distribution of $145,000 paid out by Star-Kist in bait royalties. In New Ireland negotiations drag on painfully.

What has become patently obvious is that Star-Kist really doesn't want on-shore processing in Papua New Guinea. Its most profitable route to the hungry American tuna sandwich eater is through its own canneries in Pago Pago (colonial American Samoa), Los Angeles and San Juan.

Professor Colin De'Ath, a PNG citizen, is a Canadian University Service Overseas volunteer with the Manus Provincial Government.

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New Internationalist issue 101 magazine cover This article is from the July 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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