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PNG DROUGHT

Saturday, September 27, 1997

Villagers urged to avoid burn-offs

Only a trickle left...Mr Harry Namaweng, 50, on the banks of the Fly River in PNG's Western Province, where a refugee camp that was home to more than 600 people was reported destroyed by bush fires yesterday in the wake of PNG's worst drought in 50 years.Photograph by RICK STEVENS.

By LUCY PALMER, Herald Correspondent in Port Moresby

People in Papua New Guinea are being urged not to light bush fires to burn off brush on their crop gardens, ravaged by drought as smoke from massive forest fires wreaks havoc in neighbouring countries.

A refugee camp in PNG's Western Province, home to more than 600 people from Indonesia's adjoining Irian Jaya province, has been reported destroyed by bush fires and there are fears for the extensive rainforest which covers much of the country.

Next week, 120,000 leaflets are to be distributed warning villages against burning-off, which it is said would make matters worse.

The leaflet says: "Village communities must set rules about the use of water, fire lighting and food gathering. Do not eat strange vegetables, roots, leaves or animals."

It urges villagers to look after children and old people first, to boil drinking water and to use food, water and money sparingly.

"The drought may prolong for a long time. Plan for your future carefully."

Twelve Australian disaster relief teams, including medical, logistics and agriculture experts, are now in various provinces helping local government officials to assess the severity of the crisis. A RAAF Hercules has delivered more food and fuel to a Catholic diocese and hospital in Kiunga, Western Province.

A RAAF Caribou will arrive in PNG next week and is likely to assist in transporting relief assessment teams around the Gulf and Central provinces.

An AusAID spokeswoman said: "If really urgent needs are identified by the PNG Government and we're asked to assist, then we'll assess it."

Tea and coffee growers are warning of a massive drop in revenue as drought and frosts destroy Highlands plantations, most of which are run by small village-based operators.

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