Hope on the Highlands Highway
The Highlands Highway is used by thousands of people in Papua New Guinea every day. The main route connects the highlands communities with the coast, but, for a long time, it was considered a dangerous route, notorious for criminal acts by local gangs known as the ‘Raskols’.
One particular stretch of highway was long known as the ‘Barola Raskol Hotspot’ because of the high concentration of violent crimes. Car jackings, armed hold-ups, assaults and drug selling were a regular occurrence, causing fear and social instability in the area.
The highway also dissects clan-owned land where tribal war can often lead to road closures, disrupting trade and travel and reducing access to much needed water for crops and fish farming.
In 2015, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) inland aquaculture project team, led by UNSW-GWI’s A/Prof Jes Sammut, began training locals in fish farming at Hogu Village, which is situated close to the Barola Raskol Hotspot. After attracting the attention of the Raskol gang members, project team members and community leaders made the decision to invite the gang to participate in the training.
A/Prof Jes Sammut, said that while initially they were unsure how the invitation would be received, the Raskols embraced the training and have achieved remarkable results.
Just a year and a half later, the Raskols have cleared their marijuana crops to build ponds, abandoned crime and disbanded the gang
A/Prof Jes Sammut, UNSW
“Just a year and a half later, the Raskols have cleared their marijuana crops to build ponds, abandoned crime and disbanded the gang,” said A/Prof Sammut.
“They have generously helped other locals to dig ponds to farm fish, and seamlessly integrated back into the community."
Earlier this year, the former Raskols participated in the launch of a fish farming resource centre, established by the community at Hogu Village with technical support from the ACIAR project. The ACIAR team was invited to cut the ribbon at the opening of the centre in recognition of the technical training and support.
“In a symbolic gesture, former gang members burned drugs and weapons, showing they have turned their lives around,” said Joe Alois from the ACIAR team.
A/Prof Sammut said that the team has also helped to build cooperation between farmers from rival clans, with the benefits felt across many PNG provinces.
“Land and water are often owned by clans, and when there is crime and tribal war, access to water can be cut off, affecting food production,” said A/Prof Sammut.
“Now, not only are we seeing peace, but also the sharing of water resources and labour to farm crops and fish. There is food on the table and people are making an honest living.”
Incredibly, the Barola Raskol Hotspot is now a thing of the past.
“It is now safe to travel through the Barola stretch of the highway, which has transitioned from a crime hotspot to a fish farming hotspot,” said Joe Alois.
The project team is now completing the largest sustainable livelihoods study ever undertaken in PNG, and working on a series of field trials to improve fish feeding strategies and fish husbandry practices.
“We are using high-tech research, including nuclear and microbiological techniques, to create low-tech fish farming solutions for rural communities in PNG,” said A/Prof Sammut.
“Our research is showing we can reduce the cost of fish feed and reduce or eliminate the need for ‘fishmeal’ which often comes from unsustainable sources. We are aiming to help farmers use waste from vegetable gardening and by-products from other industries such as fish canneries to improve the sustainability and cost of fish feeding strategies. We aim to create an efficient, sustainable and manageable fish production system that meets protein needs and creates income-generating opportunities to break the poverty cycle. Fish farming can end hunger and malnutrition in PNG,” said A/Prof Sammut.
The project is funded by ACIAR and the National Fisheries Authority of PNG, and partners include the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), RDS Partners, The Sisters of Notre Dame and the PNG Department of Agriculture and Livestock.