Porgera: Hope in a challenging environment

By Carlo Demaio, TDi Senior Consultant

October 2019

As we drive to the office complex to begin our final day’s work, I reflect on the beauty, challenges and hospitality that we have observed over our previous four days in Porgera, PNG.

The day is cool, crisp and there is a stunning mist blanketing the valley. Our drive is not long; approximately 15 minutes takes us from our razor-fenced sleeping compound, through Porgera township, past the bustling illegal market and black-market gold dealers, along a series of winding, corrugated dirt tracks to the office.

We take the Highlands Highway, passing numerous large-scale infrastructure projects (including a police barracks, school, church and state-of-the-art general hospital) paid for by Porgera’s gold mine as part of a national tax credit scheme. There is an eclectic mix of new multi-storey residences, aging commercial infrastructure and traditional settlement homesteads dispersed throughout the landscape. Poverty levels in the area are staggering and illegal mining is becoming increasingly common and violent. We hear of 30-40,000 illegal miners living beyond the horizon in extreme conditions.

As we continue our journey in the armoured vehicle, Mount Paiam stands tall, beautiful, elusive and with an air of danger. It has a commanding presence throughout a valley that I liken to memories of Jurassic Park. As a hiker I am longing to explore it, but we are told it is unsafe to venture outside of the gated compounds for risk of tribal conflict and in-migrant violence. For now, I will admire its beauty through the bars over my windows and hope that one day the valley finds peace.

As we arrive at the office compound we are greeted by a warmth, generosity and positivity, that contrasts the challenges facing Porgera. We are meeting with the Directors of an incredible not-for-profit charged with building empowerment for local women in the region. The association represents the interests of 6500 women, and within this challenging environment develops and delivers local programs and activities that provide economic empowerment and employment pathways, health and wellbeing and education.

The Directors are powerful women, strong community leaders and respected champions for women of Porgera District. They are grounded by their history and current context but look to the future with an impressive sense of optimism, enthusiasm and urgency. They are genuinely living their mission to impact the lives of their members and do so with complete understanding of the challenges they face.

We have been invited to help them build out a viable model for an existing social enterprise that they run; to ensure that it is both sustainable and impactful and can fund a broad range of local community programs. We will also help to explore and commercialise alternative micro-business ideas, to deliver greater value across the Highlands. The opportunity to create value in Porgera is real and significant. We are excited about the potential for this project to drive sustainable change for generations to come.

For me personally, Porgera is one of the most challenging environments I have worked in and at the same time one of the most welcoming and rewarding. I feel privileged to have been invited into this world and look forward to a lasting relationship with our new “family”.

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