Tigaso oil: David Marsh

Firstly, congratulations to Doug Robbins on his association with Tubo Environmental Tourism Lodge (Una Voce, March 2010). I worked with him years ago and he was always enthusiastic.

I’d like to comment about tigaso oil which he mentions. This was a traditional means of trade with the people of Kutubu. A hole would be cut in the base of a tigaso tree and the sap or oil would collect there before being taken off and stored in long bamboos, about 15’ long, which had had the nodes knocked out. What was left of the nodes acted as baffle boards to stop the oil being sloshed about too much. They would trade this over long distances: through Tari and up through Mendi. Tigaso oil, same as pig fat and coconut oil, has been used to oil the body to stop the skin drying out. More importantly it stops the spread of, and drowns, any scabies, a very common ailment in the tropics. Putting oil on the body of any sort tends to keep the scabies at bay.

In the mid 1960s the people at Mendi complained that the tigaso oil they had been getting was contaminated. I had a look at this and certainly it smelled of kerosene. I organised with the Patrol Officer at Kutubu to get oil samples taken from various places to the west of Lake Kutubu. It turned out that they had mixed this oil with tigaso oil to bolster it up, and instead of soothing their skins it ended up burning their skins and leaving them quite uncomfortable.

Tigaso oil is a very fine oil and far superior to pig fat or coconut oil used in other parts of Papua New Guinea. I always felt there might be some future in cosmetics for it. Perhaps by increasing the bulk or adding some perfume it could become a much more valuable form of trade. Perhaps the bamboos could be replaced by small plastic containers. A further point is that by growing tigaso trees in the villages, people would be able to harvest it as they age, providing some form of income. I tried to encourage the people in the Abau area to plant teak trees in their waste land so that as they aged they would have something to sell. Teak can be quite easily harvested and transported to the sawmills of Port Moresby.

My other thought on tigaso was that, through liaison with the Department of Forests, seeds from existing trees could be harvested and a nursery established. The seedlings could then be distributed to those prepared to plant small areas as security for the future. I feel confident that if tigaso is commercially used it could have an economic future for Papua New Guineans and an alternative to pensions for village people.

A couple of the samples of mineral oil we sent to Port Moresby were quite thick and dark but most of them were very clear indeed. I remember we put some in a small engine at Mendi to test it out and it ran this engine as it was. When we dismantled it there was no carbon build up in the pistons.

In response to the samples sent to Port Moresby I received a letter back which was quite funny at the time—and I am quoting it in full really: “Nowhere in the world is oil of this quality found, not even in Texas. It has obviously been taken from an army dump.”

It was signed by one of the departments and I still have the letter. As is the nature of these things, a leak occurred and, the next thing, there were seismic parties and helicopters in the area and they drilled and found oil. I’m talking now about roughly 1965 or maybe 1966, so it’s likely that some people will remember that it was the tigaso polution that prompted the mineral oil search in that area.

I first went to Kutubu with Ivan Champion in 1945 in a Catalina and, while Ivan Champion had been posted there before the war, the people hadn’t seen anyone since. When we landed they abandoned their villages: women and children were pouring out of the villages and taking to the scrub so we didn’t stay because there was no point. We just went to see if things were much the same which they appeared to be.

I think that apart from the present oil and gas (and I don’t doubt the gas will last a long time but the petroleum is, generally speaking, a short term exhaustible resource) some better form of cash economy is required and so I applaud Doug Robbins’ contribution.



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