CSIRO in TPNG: John McAlpine

After the Second World War, the TPNG Administration was under considerable pressure to hasten economic development utilizing the country’s abundant natural resources. The first requirement was for a national mapping, inventory and assessment of natural resources. This was a mammoth task and beyond the capability of the existing TPNG resource agencies which were wholly committed to getting immediate development projects off the ground.

In Australia, CSIRO had developed a survey technique to meet similar development pressures in northern Australia, and so the Organization was asked to undertake the task in TPNG. Initially it was reluctant to do so due to lack of staff with experience in the wet equatorial tropics and the likely costs involved. Eventually by 1951 a unique set of arrangements were instituted to enable CSIRO to carry out the PNG Resource Survey. The project was funded wholly from the TPNG budget. For operational and cost reasons the CSIRO staff were based in Canberra but when operating in TPNG became a direct part of the TPNG Administration.

My own involvement with the PNG Resource Survey began as a kiap on transfer to CSIRO in 1956 (as occurred with Paul Healy a little later). It ended as research scientist in charge of the project when CSIRO ceased this line of work at the end of the century. This is a brief account of the survey during the pre-Independence period.

The essential technical tool for the survey was air photography. Initially wartime reconnaissance photos were used. Subsequently Adastra Airways was commissioned to provide high quality air photography with no cloud cover over the whole country. Given the rarity of clear skies in TPNG over reasonably large areas, the initial build up of photography was slow. Each year, from air photography obtained to date, the Administration chose an  area of about 10-15,000 sq km which CSIRO was to survey. The survey team consisted of scientists with expertise covering geology/landforms, soils, vegetation/forestry/plant taxonomy, climate/hydrology, land use, population and cartography.

The procedure for each survey was to firstly carry out a detailed air photo interpretation (API) to map out patterns of natural resources called land systems (e.g. old raised coral reefs typical of the north coasts of Madang, New Ireland and Buka; swamps and floodplains) and secondly their individual components, called land units (e.g. slopes, terraces). The API provided the basis for field survey of soil and other resources.

A traverse plan was laid out for the field survey so that the identified land systems and units could be visited on the ground. The plan made use of all available patrol reports and maps of the area. Patrol maps could be corrected by reference to the air photos. Census data in the reports was also used to compile population distribution maps so that the intensity of use of any resource type could be calculated. This preliminary work took about 6 months and was carried out in Canberra.

The subsequent field survey in TPNG usually lasted about four months without a break (“24/7” in modern parlance). Survey access to well populated areas was straight forward. However one of the problems faced in the traverse planning was that all areas had to be visited, including those large parts of the country which are unpopulated or only sparsely occupied. This created significant logistical problems as the moving survey party consisted of 4 or 5 scientists plus 15 permanent technical assistants from Madang and a mass of scientific and camp gear. In these areas 70 or more permanent carriers were required.

A system was put in place to establish ration dumps to allow for continuous traverses of 6 days’ duration between dumps. A field rule was adopted that the rate of specimen collection (soils, rocks, plants, wood) could not exceed the rate of rations consumption. Main dumps were laid out by utilising the many airstrips that existed throughout the country and occasionally old wartime strips were reopened for that purpose. Subsidiary dumps in “deep bush” were established with the help of DDS and NA kiaps and RPNGC members, a group of the latter being permanently assigned to the team for the duration of each survey (including the famous Corporal Beroro). These logistical problems were largely overcome from 1964 when helicopter-based surveys were commenced.

Some of the kiaps who were directly involved included Jim Hannan, Jack Battersby, Frank Howard, Denys Faithful, Ron Focken, Bob Blaikie, Pierre Donaldson. Particularly supportive in the early period were DCs Ian Skinner, Tom Ellis, Ian Downs and Des Clancy. As could be expected, Treasury and Stores arrangements were somewhat unique but the greatest co-operation was received from local officers such as Ron Storer, Terry Turner and Clive Troy.

When the field survey was completed the preliminary API was reworked with the knowledge gained from the extensive field observations to produce an inventory and maps of the natural resources of the area and assessment of their current and potential use. The CSIRO mapping was based on accurate topographic maps of the area prepared by the Commonwealth National Mapping Office from the air photography.

By 1970 some 20 areas had been surveyed, covering more than half of the country. More importantly, all of the major resource types that existed had been identified. Thus the basis was laid for completing the remainder of the country rapidly. Given the developing political situation this was quite fortuitous. It was agreed that CSIRO would now amalgamate and synthesise all existing information and produce an overall inventory of the nation’s natural resources, and their current and potential uses.

The first step was to produce national overviews of the separate disciplines involved namely, geology/geomorphology, soils, climate/hydrology, vegetation, forestry, current land use intensity and agricultural potential.  A comprehensive set of publications—books, maps, technical reports—was produced and distributed.

Over the years, the traverses covered about 25,000 km, conducted mostly on foot, with helicopter use simply extending the range of traverses. In general, the CSIRO personnel involved stayed with the project for many years. It was an oddly dislocated life, working in Canberra but concentrating on TPNG each and every day, and then undertaking intensive and lengthy field work which ranged from the coasts to Mounts Wilhelm and Giluwe, from the Sepik swamps to the dry zones of Moresby, from the heavily populated Wahgi valley to the vacant rugged karst mountains and high altitude swamps of the Southern Highlands. A number of the staff went on to complete the overall national survey in the period from 1975 to near the end of the century. But that is for a subsequent story: “CSIRO in PNG”.


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