Australia up in arms over plan to mine site of famous war victory

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The Independent Online

To Australians, particularly old soldiers, the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea is a sacred site. It was where troops fought a bloody and ultimately successful campaign against invading Japanese forces. It has become a place of pilgrimage for Australians of all ages.

Now a proposal to divert the jungle trail in order to mine copper and gold is threatening relations between Australia and its closest neighbour. A mining company – Australian, ironically – wants to exploit its lucrative mineral deposits. The Canberra government is implacably opposed, and is seeking to protect the track through a World Heritage listing.

However, villagers who live along it have been promised 5 per cent of revenues, and are pressuring the PNG government to allow mining to go ahead. They accuse Canberra of interfering in the affairs of a sovereign nation, and recently blockaded the trail, preventing trekkers – mainly from Australia – from walking its 60-mile length.

A village leader, Barney Jack, said: "We have closed the track because we want the Australian government to listen to us."

PNG's Prime Minister, Michael Somare, is in an awkward position, as was reinforced during a visit by his Australian counterpart, Kevin Rudd, this week. Publicly, the two men were all smiles. But they were no nearer, it seems, to an agreement on the track's future. Before being elected last year, Mr Rudd said the plan to move the trail "absolutely stinks".

The series of battles fought on the Kokoda Trail in 1942 resulted in the first defeats of Japanese land forces in the Second World War. PNG was an Australian protectorate until 1975, and Japanese troops sought to take the capital, Port Moresby, through an assault via the track, which crosses a steep mountain range. They were eventually repelled.

Australia lost 625 men, and that figure would have been higher, Kokoda veterans say, had it not been for the "Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels" – villagers living along the trail who carried supplies and took injured soldiers to safety, feeding and caring for them. Now it is the descendants of those Angels who want the mining company Frontier Resources to be allowed to dig up the track. After blockading it, villagers brandished placards stating "Rudd wants fuzzy wuzzies to live in perpetual poverty".

To complicate matters further, some trekking guides claim that the trail has been incorrectly mapped, so mining would not affect the original track.

The locals make money from trekkers, acting as guides and porters, and selling beer and soft drinks. But a stake in the mine, which is expected to reap A$6.7bn (£3.1bn) over its 10-year life, would be a different matter. Mr Jack said recently: "We want development, and we will do anything for development ... If you want to stop it, if you want us to stay in the old primitive ways, it means our independence is meaningless."

In Port Moresby, Mr Rudd – who walked the Kokoda Trail in 2006, on Anzac Day, when Australia honours its war dead – promised to protect the track. But he refused to guarantee it would not be disturbed. He predicted that a deal would be reached next month on a World Heritage listing, while safeguarding villagers' livelihoods.

Some believe that if Japan had triumphed, it would have gone on to invade Australia. Most historians reject that idea, but say Australia's victory ensured that Allied bases in northern Australia were safe from air attack.