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Local Businessman Serves As Commercial Conduit To Papua New Guinea



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Local Businessman Serves As Commercial Conduit To Papua New Guinea

By John Voket

Local businessman and former Newtown resident Barry Piesner describes a short ride from Port Moresby to the mountainous outskirts of Papua New Guinea’s capital city as the closest you will ever get to time travel.

“It’s like going from the 21st Century to 14 AD in ten minutes, straight up an almost vertical mountainside to villages with thatched huts, no electricity, phones, or running water,” he said, describing the limited travel opportunities he enjoyed during a December 2004 visit. Mr Piesner plans to return to what is commonly described as the world’s largest island in mid-April to continue his work with another former Newtown resident, Vincent Low.

The pair is engaged in a cooperative economic development initiative with the country’s government that Mr Piesner hopes will result in bringing both financial backing and intellectual resources of Connecticut to this resource-rich but highly underdeveloped tropical nation.

“I’m working with Mr Low to find ways to bring businesses in to develop these available supplies of natural resources,” he said.

Up to now, he said, it has primarily been the country’s extreme geographical characteristics that have hampered mass development.

“The country itself has 14 active volcanoes and mountain ranges that go from sea level to 14,000 feet at an intense incline,” Mr Piesner said during an interview at the Newtown mortgage firm where he works. “Because of this extreme geography it’s almost impossible to get from one to the next easily.”

There are few roads, no trains, and just a few airfields, he said, and moving between points along the more than 5,000 kilometers of coastline is best navigated by boat.

As a result of geographic factors, he said, the hundreds of villages across the country are very isolated and many of them have developed their own language, “not dialect but language.” According to Mr Piesner, this diversity of language acts as an added barrier, which has thus far prohibited western developers who might have otherwise encroached on the rich mineral, petroleum, and natural gas reserves below the lush landscape.

But, he said, in order to survive economically as the rest of the planet moves into the new century, Papua New Guinea must begin aggressively capitalizing on both its wealth of natural and human resources. And he wants to play a role in moving the process along.

“The country is still 80 percent natural rainforests populated with dozens and dozens of species of tropical trees,” Mr Piesner said. He believes with sensitive and creative management, an equitable portion of those native woods can be effectively harvested for lumber while maintaining an appropriate environmental balance.

“Right now you can get a decent-sized mahogany tree, maybe 18 inches in diameter, for about $25 or $30 — and that is New Guinea dollars, which has a better than a three to one conversion rate against US currency,” he said. “If that wood can be processed into planks and other cuts of commercial lumber on the island for another $20 or $30, it can be exported and fetch $15,000 or $20,000 on the commercial market.”

He said many of the companies engaged in this type of industry have adapted more conservative clear cutting policies after too quickly depleting the supply of similar wood from South American rain forests.

“Considering how we destroyed the Amazon, it is vital to enter into the proposition with a plan to sustain and renew the resources,” Mr Piesner said. He said the government is planning huge deforestation projects to harvest tropical woods for the furniture and construction industries worldwide.

But they already have a plan to replant these tracts with fast growing and richly yielding rubber and palm trees, the latter of which will provide sustained sources of palm oil.

And then there is the other kind of oil. According to US government statistics, in 2002 the country offered nearly 350 million gallons of proven reserves and currently is equipped to pump almost 70,000 barrels a day.

This oil supply, along with nearly 386 billion cubic meters of natural gas reserves, makes the country an attractive target for energy development as well.

“We know the government is pretty far along in the process of running a gas pipeline about 90 miles under water to Australia and along the coast to several of the major cities including Sydney,” he said.

During his off hours, Mr Piesner is actively working to identify and attract the kinds of businesses that can jumpstart the export economy of Papua New Guinea.

“We’re looking for the kinds of businesses that can be successful as cottage industries, businesses that aren’t dependent on technology that can operate in the remote villages. That’s where the primary workforce population remains,” he said.

About 60 percent of the 5.42 million residents are in the employable age range of 15 to 64, so as industries begin slowly spreading outward from the few urban centers there will be no shortage of workers to help sustain the commercial expansion.

“There are bright and industrious people who want to work but can’t because of a lack of opportunity,” Mr Piesner said. “But everybody is advanced enough to know they want to enjoy some modern comforts they read and hear about from visitors. And they want the government to bring it to them. But without a business economy, it won’t happen.”

In this early stage of his endeavor, Mr Piesner is actively looking to develop relationships with talented local individuals and entrepreneurs who want to explore opportunities available to them in this relatively young frontier.

“Once businesses start operating there on a larger scale, and the country’s infrastructure begins to solidify, it’s going to be a whole new world,” he said. “But we need to be able to start with things the people can do at the village level, not too sophisticated.”

Mr Piesner said that initiatives with government agencies are already in place.

“We’ve already had some success setting up joint ventures and we’re getting tremendous government cooperation,” he said in closing. “You know the United States has sent most of its manufacturing economy off shore, and we don’t have the resources to harvest things like tropical hard woods and rubber, but we have a wealth of ideas that can translate into commerce. And when I come back from there next month, I’m sure I’ll have plenty more ideas and avenues to put those ideas to work.”

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