Countdown for Manus Island
The people of Manus Island are used to being pawns in regional politics. Following the Tampa affair in 2001, the Australian government outsourced its asylum seeker processing to Nauru and Manus Island - an arrangement that became known as the Pacific Solution. The Manus Island Detention Centre closed in 2017, the last of 3,127 asylum seekers were processed in November.
Now, however, Manus Island has been elevated to the world stage. A fortnight ago the United States and Australian governments announced a joint plan to develop Lombrum Naval Base at Manus Island. As a countermeasure to China’s growing influence in the Pacific, the announcement makes Manus the latest proxy in the emerging US-China cold war.
Lombrum has a natural deep harbour, it also has an existing naval base, which was used by the Royal Australian Navy up until 1974. Under the joint plan, the current base would be expanded, as would the surrounding infrastructure, such as nearby Momote Airport, to accommodate an increase in troops who would, at least in peacetime, maintain the nearby shipping lanes.
Across the lagoon from Lombrum Harbour lie a string of islands and reefs, all of which face into the North Pacific receiving bread and butter trade swells from the northeast and semi-regular northerly groundswells during the northern hemisphere winter. The waves are of mixed quality, verging from average to exceptional, and to date mostly empty. That will change when troops are stationed at the nearby base.
Manus Island's northern coast is inconsistent but occasionally perfect (Joel Coleman/Saltmotion)
Watching these developments very carefully is Andy Abel, the Co-founder and President of the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea (SAPNG). Thirty years ago, Abel started SAPNG with the aim of avoiding the mistakes of Bali. He saw what happens to a community when surfers arrive and the locals don’t have a plan in place. So he developed the SAPNG Surf Management Plan (SMP) to control the numbers of surfers in each region, ensure appropriate taxes were paid, and importantly, that those taxes reached the “resource custodians” - i.e the locals.
In PNG, the income generated by surf tourism goes towards education of local kids, sustainable development projects, and protection of the environment. Abel has also linked the SMP with regional and international surfing contests, surfboard donation drives, and marketing support from the national tourism authority.
Andy Abel surfing in Papua New Guinea (SAPNG)
Surf tourism is developing slowly in PNG, yet there are now ten regions, from Vanimo in the far west to Bougainville in the east, where the SAPNG SMP has been rolled out with great success. It’s now being copied by other emerging surf zones, and Abel has been asked to give presentations of his plan at various universities.
Which brings us to Manus Island. At present, Abel is liasing with locals in the south and the west of Manus Island to establish SMP sites. The islanders to the north, however, which is where the good waves are, have yet to resolve their own differences and accept the Plan.
“We have found that there is a lot of division amongst those communities based on the fact that land is collectively owned by families and clans, and not one single person,” explains Abel.
The Surf Management Plan requires collective action to succeed, if locals aren’t convinced - or if Western intervention favours one group over another - then the plan won’t work. This is what’s happening at Manus. “Many years on, we are still waiting for them to resolve their differences in a number of key locations,” says Abel.
He first approached the Manus Islanders thirty years ago, but with news of the coming naval base, three decades of indecision will need to be resolved, and fast. “Once this base is built and becomes fully operational,”says Abel, “it will create an influx of military personnel...which will create all kinds of social and economic challenges. This is evident in such military bases around the world.”
When news of the Lombrum upgrade broke no date was given, yet Abel is acutely aware of how the clock is ticking. Should the Manus Islanders choose not to adopt the SAPNG SMP and unwanted social issues do occur, “then” says Abel, “it will be hard for us to come in and take up the challenge of righting the wrongs as we simply don’t have the time, nor the resources and patience to do so.”
But he’s not given up hope yet.
“If they come forward,” says Abel, “we will not hesitate to empower them equally, but it has to be their call and not some bureaucrat from the PNG, Australian, or USA Governments satisfying their social or political obligations of setting up a military base.”