Surf’s up in impoverished Papua New Guinea

Foreign surfers are flocking but some locals resent efforts to modernise its beaches.

Papua New Guinea Surfing
Surfers are flocking to Papua New Guinea but some locals resent their presence [Ian Lloyd Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Vanimo, Papua New Guinea – Surfers eager to ride Papua New Guinea’s big waves are trying to develop impoverished beach areas to attract tourists and much-needed revenue, but running into cultural obstacles and local resentment.  

The surf movement rose up in Papua New Guinea – in the southern reaches of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Australia – in the 1980s. An Australian pilot landed his plane at Vanimo, a remote village on the northern coast of the country, and spent the weekend riding perfect, endless waves.

Before departing, he gave his surfboard to curious locals who had been riding hand-carved wooden bodyboards for generations, but never fathomed standing up on the waves. The Papuans took to surfing like fish to water and passed their love for the sport to the next generation.

Vanimo had remained off the grid until the 2011 documentary film Splinters was released. Afterwards, though, surfers from as far as Japan and the United States began turning up with surf boards in hand. A few locals rented out beds in their shacks, though it wasn’t until the opening of the Vanimo Surf Lodge by the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea (SAPNG) that surf tourism took off.

SAPGN charges visiting surfers 20 kina ($8.50) per day, which it then passes onto landowners and stakeholder groups in the village.

“We have been letting corruption grow systematic and systemic, making our lives difficult, limiting our opportunities, denying us of our basic human rights and trapping millions of our citizens in poverty.

–  Lucas Kiap, anti-corruption campaigner

“I am really proud of the way surfing has evolved in this town. I have seen some very good contributions made by the surf projects,” Sam Akwi, an unemployed religious studies teacher, told Al Jazeera.

Added his neighbour Brigit Tonte: “Surfing makes people think forget the bad things that happen and think positively about things.”

Poverty and corruption

Despite its postcard beauty and new money pouring into the country because of the booming mining, gas, and forestry sectors, most of Papua New Guinea remains a third-world backwater. In Vanimo, there’s no electricity, running water, roads, medical care, or rubbish removal. There are no stores, no work and not much education either.

Papua New Guineans’ average life expectancy is 57-years old, and 5.5 percent of babies born won’t make it to their second birthday. Only about 40 percent of the people enroll in school; at any time of the day, children can be seen playing in the dirt or surfing those glorious waves.

This poverty is partly the government’s fault. Corruption in the private sector is a major problem in Vanimo’s Sandaun province, where about 25 percent of the forest there has been illegally felled by Malaysian loggers working in cahoots with local contractors and landowners.

“We have been letting corruption grow systematic and systemic, making our lives difficult, limiting our opportunities, denying us of our basic human rights and trapping millions of our citizens in poverty,” anti-corruption campaigner Lucas Kiap told Al Jazeera.

As a result, many people in PNG have become apathetic about progress, and this is no better exemplified than in the surfing community.

Californian surfer Matthew Lemmo, 26, is the manager of the Vanimo Surf Lodge. With the help of US-based NGO Walu International, Lemmo attempted to deliver latrines to Vanimo’s 1,500 residents to stop them from using the reef as their toilet.

Lemmo raised funds internally to ensure the toilets were owned and, therefore, valued by their users. He met this lofty objective with a simple but ingenious solution: Tuesday night bingo.

In six months, he’d helped villagers raise 40,000 kina ($17,000) – enough to build four toilet blocks. But two years later, the toilets still haven’t been built because landowners won’t allow the latrines to be built on their land.

Complicating things further, villagers refuse to help build the toilets – even though they had earlier agreed to do so.

Rampant rubbish

Villagers have also failed to keep the beach and reef clean of litter – their responsibility as outlined in the Surf Management Area Plan, which was developed by the SAPNG in conjunction with traditional landowners and village elders.

Vanimo Surf Lodge [Ian Lloyd Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Some villagers viewed the SAPGN directives as an insult, and also regarded the 20-kina fee imposed on surfers as inadequate.

According to Lemmo, one landowner threatened to spear him if he saw another tourist surfing what he referred to as “his” reef.

“Land rights are an ongoing problem not just in Vanimo but across PNG,” Lemmo told Al Jazeera. “When you look at it from the locals’ perspective, you can understand why … The mines and gas projects make billions. But the difference is this is a surf camp, not a mine ripping up the ground and poisoning rivers.”

When asked about their failure to keep the beach clean and contribute to the toilet project, most villagers shied away from answering.

Florian Dati, a former public relations professional at BHP Billiton’s Ok Tedi mine, said the villagers have an “attitude problem”.

“When it comes to public facilities, very few people are interested in participating because they can’t see any long-term benefit,” Dati said. “”But at the same time, there is a surf industry here that makes money from the waves, which belong to us. Let’s not forget that. It’s our resource: our timber, our gold mine.

“Now, I’ve always said the lodge is a good project, but with the exception of the landowner who leases them the site, there have been no real benefits for the community. What we would like to see is the community becoming a partner in lodge, not just spectators.”

Andy Abel – a businessman based in the capital Port Moresby – is a surf enthusiast who founded SAPNG. He said locals running the surf lodge wouldn’t work because of the country’s pervasive wantok, or patronage system.

“If a local was put in charge, every man and his dog in his clan would come to the lodge and expect to drink for free and in a few days we’d be bankrupt,” Abel told Al Jazeera. “I’ve been working in Vanimo for 26 years, and in all that time, I’ve not met one person there who’s been willing to put in the hard yards.”

Abel blamed the “hand-out mentality” on Malaysian logging companies that lined “the pockets of all the politicians and big men in town”.

“But what are they going to do when all the trees are gone?” said Abel. “In 37 years of independence [from Australia], the government hasn’t done a thing for those people. No roads, no power – nothing. But we have. We’re delivering money. We’re delivering tourists. We’re delivering services and we’re helping them protect their reef. We’ve put Vanimo on the map.”

Changing attitudes

Abel said the rubbish that litters the beaches in Vanimo is a serious problem that threatens surfing tourism.

“In Vanimo, they’ve been using the reef for waste disposal for centuries,” he said. “The only difference is that until recently it was all organic matter. Nowadays it’s plastic bottles and tins. That’s a new thing, an impact of globalisation. It will take time to educate them.”

To expedite the process, Abel intends to use a percentage of this year’s surf levies to help buy a tractor and trailer that will comb the beachfront several times a week collecting refuse.

But it will take more than a tractor to clean up the beaches, said Zack Parker, the San Francisco-based co-founder of Walu International.

“I have a great deal of respect for Andy and for all he’s done for Vanimo. But giving them a tractor, in my honest opinion, is the last thing they need,” he said.

“The problems that are now stopping us from executing the toilet project – the labour shortage and land disputes – they’re not road blocks, they’re speed bumps.

– Zack Parker, Walu International

When Parker first landed in Vanimo in 2007, he tried to implement a number of sanitation solutions to stymie the prevalence of diarrhoea and other preventable illnesses. But his first concrete solution, a series of hand-washing stations, were stolen and vandalised by villagers soon after they were erected.

“In the beginning we had these really audacious goals and thought we we’d just go in there and start building things,” Parker said. “So while the hand-washing basins were initially successful, they didn’t last, and I think that comes back to the fact that the community didn’t own them. We learned that by bringing in money and material, you do more harm than good.”

But Parker said he’s optimistic that attitudes will change.

“The problems that are now stopping us from executing the toilet project – the labour shortage and land disputes – they’re not road blocks, they’re speed bumps,” Parker said.

“We’ve dealt with plenty of them in the past and there’s always a way around them. But it takes time and it takes patience. It takes years of slow-burning work on the ground. You can’t throw capital at a non-capitalistic problem. You need to change behaviour first.”

Source: Al Jazeera