Dancers greet new arrivals.

Dancers greet new arrivals. Photo: Jared Lynch

It was after the sixth turtle that Ian Gowrie-Smith burned down the fishermen’s huts. He couldn’t help himself, he said later. The big green sea turtle was dead. It had been killed the night before and was now lying in the sand, half-eaten. Gowrie-Smith was confident he knew who was responsible.

Earlier that day he had caught a group of local fishermen with another half-eaten turtle floating in the turquoise Papua New Guinean shallows, and four live ones – two on the beach and another two under sheets of canvas in their sailing canoes.

Gowrie-Smith says he had made it clear to the men that he did not want any turtles killed. He had bought the 21 uninhabited islands as a personal retreat about a decade earlier. It was one of his few simple rules, he says, the others being not to eat turtle eggs or make a mess. And now here was that same group again.

Ian Gowrie-Smith, entrepreneur and owner of the Conflict Islands.

Ian Gowrie-Smith, entrepreneur and owner of the Conflict Islands. Photo: Jared Lynch

Twenty or so palm frond fisherman’s huts lined the beach where Gowrie-Smith stood. He was certain they had slept in them the night before. It was these huts that he now began tearing down, forming a pile of the wreckage on the beach. Then in full view of the fishermen, who were gathered on another island nearby, he set it alight.

‘‘I stubbed my feet in so many places that in due course they got infected,’’ he said. ‘‘I couldn’t stop myself once I really got going.

‘‘I was just pulling and ripping these houses with bare hands.”

The cruiseship hired by Ian Gowrie-Smith to take delegation of journos to the Conflict Islands.

The cruiseship hired by Ian Gowrie-Smith to take delegation of journos to the Conflict Islands. Photo: Jared Lynch

Now he plans to replace the burnt fisherman’s huts with his own – a boutique eco resort designed to protect the biodiversity of the atoll.

Gowrie-Smith is an unlikely eco-warrior. The flamboyant entrepreneur has made millions from oil and gas exploration in the region. Now he finds himself in a fight to preserve a pristine atoll – aptly named the Conflict Islands – in the Coral Sea, about a day and a half’s sailing off the eastern tip of PNG. The development has ignited a conflict between the competing needs of the endangered turtles and an endangered way of life. It has also pitted Gowrie-Smith against some of the region’s traditional owners.

Gowrie-Smith says he has decided to act now because, he says, ‘‘physical possession’’ is needed to protect the islands’ fragile environment. ‘‘It’s a little bit of a game on at the moment, from their point of view. And game on, therefore I’m changing the odds.’’

So far, changing the odds has meant employing security and surveillance officers at the islands. It will also mean bringing in partners – preferably at least one with a ‘‘big chequebook’’. About $50 million would allow him to commercially develop one of the islands, he says. To this end he has invited a group of journalists to visit his Coral Sea paradise to see it for ourselves.

We meet in Cairns on a balmy evening. About 70 of us – family, friends, potential investors and about 20 journalists, plus Gowrie-Smith and his entourage with concept plans for the islands – assemble at a bar on the foreshore.

The following day he will have us flown on a chartered Fokker 100 to Alotau, the capital of Papua New Guinea’s Milne Bay Province. There a group of bare-breasted men and women will welcome us with a traditional dance at the airport (which would not normally have taken international arrivals had Gowrie-Smith not organised customs officers to travel from Port Moresby). But for now, everything seems to slow in the muggy air of the Cairns bar.

Gowrie-Smith says a friend of his neighbour in Sydney, actor Russell Crowe, has even expressed some interest in the Conflict Islands. "I knocked on his door the other day and that actor ... he was in Something About Mary ... answered the door,’’ Gowrie-Smith says, struggling to find the actor’s name.

‘‘Ben Stiller,’’ I offer.

‘‘Yes, that was him. I didn’t know who it was for a minute.’’

He, Stiller and Crowe had chatted, the Conflict Islands had come up, and Stiller seemed interested, he says.

Gowrie-Smith emphasises that he isn’t selling the islands but is seeking ‘‘like-minded investors’’ to help him develop the atoll.

He looks at my empty glass. ‘‘You can get another drink at the bar if you like. Just show them your nametag.’’

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Gowrie-Smith’s plan follows a trend among the super rich of buying land to protect wilderness areas in some of the world’s most remote areas. In Vanuatu an anonymous French billionaire applied to local elders to “adopt” an island after he visited it in 2005. He has since developed it into the green-friendly Ratua Private Island resort, the profits of which reportedly go back to communities on neighbouring islands, funding projects such as building village hospitals, schools and a fledgling craft industry.

Gowrie-Smith has himself developed a game reserve in South Africa after buying several abandoned farms. He had initially hoped to indulge his passion of trout fishing before realising there was more value in restoring the landscape, which had been devoid of wildlife.

On the Conflict Islands (named after the British naval survey ship The Conflict that ventured upon them in 1886) the Australian-born, London-based businessman is hoping to build upmarket accommodation similar to that in Mustique – a Caribbean island dotted with private villas that are rented to visitors including Paul McCartney and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. There may even be a golf course (although Gowrie-Smith says later he may reconsider that option, agreeing it probably wouldn’t be that eco-friendly).

Gowrie-Smith knows a lot of rich, influential people. He first visited Papua New Guinea in 1966 as Prince Charles' travelling companion while the pair were studying at Geelong Grammar, and in 2012 he abseiled Europe’s tallest building, The Shard in London, with Prince Andrew to raise about $2.8 million for charity. These are the sorts of people he hopes to attract to his island paradise as investors or visitors.

Shortly before noon on the first day of our trip I find myself with Milne Bay’s governor Titus Philemon, a warm man with a broad face and smile, looking across the narrow waterway from which the province gets its name. It was here, Philemon says, arm outstretched, that the Australians decisively defeated the Japanese during World War II, snaring the Allies’ first victory in the Pacific Campaign.

Inside the neighbouring cultural centre, Philemon offers a seat at a table freshly laid with fruit and cakes for the delegation of mostly Australian journalists. There has been tension between Gowrie-Smith and the neighbouring communities over the proposal, he says, but now the locals ‘‘respect that he [Gowrie-Smith] is the owner’’. Still, any development, he says, needs to include the neighbouring islanders, particularly in sharing the economic benefits.

‘‘Tourism is everyone’s business, and thus requires partnership and networking with the different stakeholders to drive the industry forward.’’

Philemon himself is particularly interested in the cruise ship trade. The government has spent $K45 million ($A17.4 million) on extending Alotau’s overseas berthing facility to attract liners. (Docked there is our own ‘small’ cruise ship, which Gowrie-Smith has chartered to take us to the Conflict Islands – a journey that will take about one day and one night.)

Philemon is not the only local willing to explore the tourism potential of Gowrie-Smith’s plan. Jerome Tioti is from Motorina, an island about 40 kilometres south-east of the Conflicts. He is also an international policy adviser for the PNG’s National Fisheries Authorities. He will tell me later that while the neighbouring communities have had a very close association with the Conflict Islands - using them as fishing islands and planting and harvesting coconuts there - traditional uses should not come at the expense of conservation.

He says local people should be involved in the development, which would open up other income opportunities. ‘‘We should give it a chance and see how it goes.’’

Others are far from convinced.

About a week after returning from our all-expenses-paid trip, I speak with Daniel Duncan, the chairman of the Landowner Clans on Panaeati Island, about 40 kilometres north-east of the Conflicts. Duncan is fearful that Gowrie-Smith’s proposal will damage the livelihoods of the neighbouring islanders who live in marginal environments and rely on harvesting the sea to trade for food staples such as flour and rice.

Duncan tells me that although nobody has ever permanently lived on the islands, the Panaeati people have used them as ‘‘gardens’’ for generations. He argues that the islands were in a pristine condition because of the practices of his ancestors, which were still being used to this day.

‘‘Ian is propagating that he is going to come in and do conservation. My goodness, I laugh at that,’’ Duncan says. ‘‘He doesn’t know what he is talking about. He doesn’t know our culture. We don’t have any big industry. The marine environment and the land environment ... we work in harmony with them because if we exploit them it affects our survival and our economy.’’

Gowrie-Smith’s motives may indeed be pure, but his environmental credentials appear suspect to some. He made his fortune through pharmaceuticals then added to it with several Papua New Guinean oil and gas exploration companies. In 2009, he sold Rift Oil to Talisman Energy for £115 million ($A207.5 million), 15 times its market value when it was listed three years before. Gowrie-Smith collected £9.4 million ($A16.96 million) in the deal through his 8.7 per cent stake.

He maintains that his conservation push for the Conflict Islands is genuine, and defends Rift Oil’s environmental record. ‘‘We actually cleared an area about the size of a soccer field in an area about the size of Victoria of forest. In that area we put down two drill bits and we have spent maybe about $20 million into the local economy.”

 

It is not until the third day of our trip that I see the Conflict Islands for the first time. They are beautiful.

The ship is entering the atoll’s lagoon, framed by the rim of an ancient volcano, which is slowly sinking into the ocean floor. Over time coral has grown on the submerged peak in such quantities that new islands have formed that are now covered in a mismatch of vegetation.

Native species have reclaimed land that was cleared a century ago to make way for copra plantations. The ancient coconut trees still stand as monuments of an era long past. (The copra trade had its heyday in the 1920s and by the '70s was almost finished.)

Onboard, I meet anthropologist Jeff Kinch, an Australian expat who lived on Brooker Island, about 40 kilometres south-west of the Conflicts, for about 18 months in the late 1990s. He too is one of Gowrie-Smith’s guests and will make a presentation to journalists during the trip.

He is used to living in the tropics, and is even wearing a loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt, which he jokes about perhaps being a bit loud. Kinch understands the difficulties of weighing up conservation against traditional uses. He now works for the PNG National Fisheries Authority.

Back in Australia he will email me a research paper showing that as long ago as 1996 Milne Bay’s provincial environment officer had noticed village youths and fisherman from a local fishing company wantonly killing turtles on the islands now owned by Gowrie-Smith. The turtles’ stomachs had been removed and carcasses left to rot. The paper added that in territorial disputes turtles had also been killed and left on beaches as a warning by ‘‘rival exploiters’’.

Kinch suspects that nothing much has changed and that turtles are still being over-harvested despite some improved awareness. But Kinch says a blanket ban on fishing in the area would not work. Instead he suggests building a marine research station on one of the atoll’s islands.

“If you had a team of divers that were here doing marine stock assessments continually and then you set up a farming the reef-type situation ... you could carefully build a sustainable harvesting regime,’’ he tells me later during a conversation on one of the islands’ beaches. "If they [Gowrie-Smith and his investors] are wanting to be that sort of altruistic and responsible, then that’s something they might invest in."

Although Kinch agrees a villa-style resort development could generate employment for the neighbouring communities, it wouldn’t completely replace fishing as an income source. The islanders trade fish and marine life, including turtles, for staple foods such as rice and flour. Kinch says “real poverty” could increase if islanders were denied nutrition and access to income opportunities that the marine resources of the Conflict Islands provide them.

"Despite people not being permanently present here, it still is not terra nullius," Kinch says.

"People have been using these areas for millennia and have shared rights of access and this is why they use these areas, and that’s why it’s still important that they be involved in . . . whatever eventuates here.

‘‘You are going to have some sort of careful processes that mediate their use and to make sure they aren’t going to cause trouble for your investors or potential people that are going to reside here.’’

Gowrie-Smith for his part says he likes the idea of a research station. “It is the perfect thing to have there. You can propagate giant clam and troca shells quite easily.”

While he says he can probably fund a giant clam farm, he will need other investors to develop a research station. “It could be a corporate partner. Exxon or somebody like that trying to do some good in the country.”

In the meantime, however, Gowrie-Smith is clear that the land is his and that he is the one who decides what can and cannot happen there. Killing turtles. Leaving rubbish. Not on. "Somewhere along the line you put your foot down and say ‘this behaviour is not good enough’ and you stamp your feet and say ‘this is the way it’s going to be'."

The reality, however, is foreigners have not had much luck here. The first white settler who attempted to make his fortune here was Sir Henry Wickham. In his colourful life he only had one success, stealing about 70,000 rubber tree seeds from Brazil in 1876. The theft crushed the Amazon’s monopoly of the global rubber trade, handing it to the British Empire. But Wickham himself would end up ruined.

His plans to create riches from copra, sea sponges and mother of pearl resulted in him losing his wife and maybe even his mind before his financial backers expelled him from the atoll in 1902.

Then there was the US couple Lu and Mary-Ann Nevels, who bought the islands in 1973 and had their own development plans, until eventually lack of money – and youth – forced them to sell to Gowrie-Smith.

I suggest to Gowrie-Smith that perhaps the islands are cursed. He says this is a bit harsh but acknowledges the islands’ isolation makes development ‘‘tough’’.

On our last night on the islands, we have a barbecue dinner on a sand spit. It was to have been traditional fare, with Gowrie-Smith buying a pig to be slaughtered. But his partner, Elizabeth Spaeth, had her own conflict with local custom. The night before, Elizabeth, who is a vegan, mounted her own rescue mission, freeing the pig from its island pen. Local staff, armed with machetes, scoured the island, eventually finding and securing the beast in what the delegation joked was a secret location.

Elizabeth later assures me the pig was not slaughtered and will be freed on a nearby island where there are wild pigs. She hopes it will survive.

As we eat our dinner – salads, sausages, chicken and fish (no pork) – we watch the sun set over the Conflicts, leaving the stars and a large beach fire as our lights. Before I board the boat that will take us back to the ship, I speak with a local islander. He apologises for being a little tipsy. ‘‘I’m not normally this vocal,’’ he says. ‘‘I’m so happy. We come from different nations but tonight we are one.’’

I shake his hand and get back on the boat. Its lights are turned off as we travel across the black water, away from the beach and its flickering fire. There is a brilliant full moon. I wonder if Gowrie-Smith has organised that too.