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Paynesville Press - February 19, 2003

Minute with Mike

Lessons on road building from PNG

By Michael Jacobson
This community has a big job ahead of it - deciding what is the best future route for Highway 23.

Granted, MnDOT has requirements for capacity and flow of an improved Highway 23, but the wishes of this community would have considerable weight, if a consensus can be reached on the best route.

As the community starts to digest the information from the study, I thought I would share a few thoughts about this important decision. Call this first column a lesson on the value of consensus.

I lived next to the Sepik Highway while in the Peace Corps stationed at Lumi, Papua New Guinea. That's a grand name for a terrible road. When I first got to Lumi in July 1996, the road had not had any maintenance for ten years. A good German farmer in Stearns County would have been embarrassed to have the Sepik Highway as a field road. Lumi lies in the Torricelli Mountains, a lowland range with peaks around 6,000 feet that runs parallel to the coast about 30 or 40 miles away. Since Papua New Guinea is so mountainous and rainy and because money is tight (not only for building roads but for maintenance, too) the country's road system is very limited and, in many cases, very poor.

Papua New Guinea, a former Australian colony, is a parliamentary democracy. The parliamentary district for Lumi includes a 50-mile region of the mountains, where a very large population lives on the landward side of the mountains, and stretches to the coast, where the main city is Aitape. Since the road system is so bad in Papua New Guinea, coastal cities (which can be supplied by ships) like Aitape are always well stocked with manufactured goods. I still remember fondly the first time I arrived by plane in Aitape after three months in the mountain jungle, being so excited to reach civilization, which I judged as a place with a real supermarket!

The dominant political issue in the mountains around Lumi is building a road over the mountains to Aitape, since the Sepik Highway runs along the ridges of the mountains to Wewak, another coastal city, about 200 miles to the east. The 200-mile trip from Lumi to Wewak takes at least 12 hours by truck when weather conditions are favorable and is impassable when conditions are not.

So the dream of most of the people in the mountains is to have a road that runs right to Aitape, which would be much shorter but would have to traverse the mountain peaks. I only witnessed one national election in Papua New Guinea, but the only issue I could ascertain in the Lumi area was the exact route of the road to Aitape. Everyone seemed to want the road to go right through their village on the way to the coast.

Now, there are some good reasons for a road to the coast, mainly for economic development. In the mountains around Lumi it is possible to grow coffee beans as a cash crop, but because transportation is so poor right now farmers cannot get these beans to market. For this reason, coffee trees in the Lumi area - planted years ago - generally are not tended anymore.

The reason why people want a road to Aitape to run right through their village is for the traffic. I think villagers expect their village to prosper by having stores to sell goods to passersby, which also would mean lower prices for the villagers. And they expect it would be very easy to catch rides to Aitape if all the traffic goes through their village.

So the question is not if a road should be built to Aitape, but where. A decade ago, a road was actually completed over the mountains to Aitape, but the first rains washed out the road at the top of the mountain, making it impassable for trucks. The rest of the road is fine; I even met a Australian volunteer who had ridden a mountain bike to Aitape.

But for all practical purposes that road has been abandoned. Neither the money nor the will exists to fix it and to keep rebuilding when landslides wash parts of it away. The next parliament member started a road to his village and then possibly around the mountains to the coast, but it never materialized. Interestingly, an expatriate engineer once told me that going around was the only realistic route of a road from Lumi to Aitape, since the grade at the peaks and the massive amounts of rain would always conspire to wash out any road going over the top of the mountains.

The member elected while I was in Lumi (the father of one of my students) pledged to build a road over the mountains near Lumi. He got money to repair the road to their mountain villages and to start building a road to Aitape. But the money ran out before the new road even crossed the mountain peaks. The last I knew it was still unusable.

The lessons to be learned from all of this are the value of consensus and of weighing each alternative without bias. I never heard this kind of discussion about a road to Aitape. I never heard anyone saying: Let's build any route that is feasible because even if the road does not go right through our village a new road would still shorten a trip to the coast by at least half.

I never heard any debates about the possible disadvantages of a road to the coast: more crime or damage to the tropical rainforest by logging, for example.

We, as a community, face a similar task requiring consensus. But how do we reach one? Well, that requires more space than I have left today. But it starts with getting involved, getting informed, and keeping an open mind. Expect a series of public information meetings this year, starting on Thursday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. at the Paynesville Area Center.

Come and give your input. I doubt that a "perfect" route for Highway 23 exists. It's up to the entire community, after careful consideration, to decide which route is best.

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