The Mighty Fly River

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A mother and her kids paddles through the river on a dugout canoe

River of Life

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

I spent most of my recent Papua New Guinea trip in the Western Province  where the lives of almost the whole population revolve around the mighty Fly River.  “The Fly”, which flows mostly through the province and crosses the south-western lowlands before flowing into the Gulf of Papua; is the second longest river in the country, the largest in Oceania, and the largest in the world without a single dam in its catchment.  The river took its name from  the corvette HMS Fly which discovered it in 1842 under the command of Francis Blackwood.

This is the first of my photo essays on Papua New Guinea.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

The Fly River and its tributaries have been providing an indigenous transportation network in the region for centuries.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography Jessie T. Ponce Photography
Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Smaller dugout canoes ply its inlets and tributaries where locals fish in its waters

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Some 120 villages, around 50,000 people, rely on the river and its resources

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Many of them live along its banks

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Storehouses (mainly for outboard engines and other equipment) are built and maintained along the river

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Families refresh themselves from the humid tropical afternoons along the river bank.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Land along the river is mostly flat and covered with thick, fertile alluvial soil.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

The flood plains contain subsistence farms of taro, bananas and sago palm -- the staples of the local diet and main sources of income for local farmers

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Rubber plantations along the river represent the more sustainable form of agriculture. These 'rubber cakes' are about to be delivered to the market.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

But the locals are not alone on the river. Rubber is being transported from the province to as far as Germany.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Huge mining operations upstream also transport copper and gold through the Fly River. The mines account for over half of the entire province's economy and 25.7% of the country's entire export earnings. Mining companies have been responsible for a large amount of the infrastructure in the area.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Transport choppers of these companies are a regular feature of the airspace above the river

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

But development comes at a high price. Mine operators discharge 80 million tons of contaminated tailings into the river system each year. Chemicals from the tailings killed or contaminated fish, causing harm to animal species and indigenous populations. The dumping changed the riverbed, causing the river to become shallower and develop rapids thereby disrupting indigenous transportation routes. Flooding caused by the raised riverbed left a thick layer of contaminated mud on the flood plains where local subsistence farms used to thrive.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

But the Mighty Fly River continues to flow and its indigenous population continues to navigate its waters side by side with the intrepid guests -- both hesitantly acknowledging the environmental horrors that lurk beneath them.

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