Friday, 16 May 2008

FAREWELL TO NEW GUINEA

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Kieta 1976... Now derelict and abandoned

FAREWELL TO NEW GUINEA

Part 1


The day started normally enough on Bougainville Island. Our office in Toniva, a suburb of the small coastal town of Kieta opened for business at the usual time and I sat down at my desk after checking the telex, (remember telex?), for overnight messages.

A call from our Papuan store manager from the main cargo wharf was the start of what turned out to be the beginning of the end for B F Darcey & Company, and the signal for our exodus from New Guinea.

"Customs say we can't ship that two tons of trocas for Japan"

"Why not? The export entries are in."

"Something about no more shell exports by non-nationals"

I drove to the wharf and found our shipment of bagged trocas shell resting on pallettes with a small crowd of locals gathered around it.
Manager Jim was glowering at two unsmiling customs officials, one of whom had a proprietorial foot placed firmly on the nearest bag of trocas.

"The law has changed", I was informed. "Dealing in trocas shell is now only for Papua New Guineans and your business can no longer buy, sell or export it".
A check with Port Moresby confirmed this, and was swiftly followed by an offer from an anonymus caller."Just heard about your problem. I'm a citizen and I'll be happy to buy the trocas from you…..". A price of less than half the market value of the shell followed.

30 years on, a similar situation would present no problems. In today's New Guinea a discreet bundle of money in a plain envelope would result in removal of whatever the impediment was, but in those early post-independence times, bribery was unheard of.
It was 1978. Three years after a reluctant Papua New Guinea had been pitchforked into independence, ready or not, by the Australian Government, and things were rapidly unravelling.

The more prescient private business owners had already either sold up and moved out of the country or converted their firms to a partnership with one or more of their native staff as majority shareholders. This made the business no longer "foreign" and it could theoretically continue to trade, unhindered by the increasing number of restrictions on business for those now labelled "non-nationals'.

Finance for the new part-owners was obtained by way of a government-guaranteed bank loan. The more prudent of the former sole owners lost no time in transferring their money out of the country and usually followed it, leaving the business to be run by what was,more often than not, inexperienced and untrained new management
We had not done this and continued to run our Company as a fully owned family business.

We traded in Cocoa, Coffee, Trocas Shell, Crocodile Skins and other tropical commodities. We owned several commercial buildings at Toniva near the port of Kieta, a fleet of 4 wheel drive vehicles, and a twin engined aircraft which I flew. We ran a retail store which sold everything from artifacts and carvings to women's clothing and jewellery, and we lived in a house which we had built on the beach at Toniva, a short walk away from the office and stores.

'Head in the sand' accurately describes the mindset of the Darceys and many other expatriates in those post-independence years. The children, especially our young daughters, in the years immediately before our departure, had been increasingly exposed to aggressive and intimidating behaviour from young males in the streets and elsewhere and they were ready to leave long before their parents.

We were constantly getting unwanted and unpalatable advice to "sell out and get out" from former residents of similar places to Papua New Guinea who had moved there after their lives in Africa and Southeast Asia had been made uncomfortable, unsafe, or both.
We did not listen to them. New Guinea had been home for over 30 years. All four children had been born there, and life was prosperous and enjoyable. Where would we go ? Australia was fine for holidays and a good place to send the children for their secondary education, but not a place where we wanted to live.

Those who did move were easy targets for sellers of all kinds of fringe investments in Australia. Macadamia plantations, Ti Tree farms, Avocado orchards and other trendy investment schemes were only some of the means used to separate returning New Guinea residents from their money.

We stayed on; coping with an every increasing level of interference from the new Papua New Guinea Government, and a studied refusal to continue anything other than a benevolent 'hands off' by the Australian Government while it continued to send millions of Australian Dollars in untied annual grants to its former Trust Territory.

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