Kokoda Day: If it’s to be – it’s up to PNG!

 

The bleached bones of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of nameless PNG wartime carriers lie where they fell in unknown locations in swamps, jungles and formidable mountain ranges during the New Guinea campaigns. To this day we don’t know who they were. We don’t know where they came from. We don’t know where they died. There is no record of their existence. No medals were ever struck to acknowledge their service towards the war effort.

It’s time to honour their sacrifice by providing a Spirit Haus for their souls and a day to commemorate their sacrifice.

Australia was unprepared for the war in the Pacific in 1942.  Our faith in ‘great and powerful friends’ coming to our aid in the event of Japan entering the war was shattered with the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse near Singapore on 10 December 1941 and the secret deal struck by UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt for American aid to be directed to the European theatre of operations at the expense of the South West Pacific.

The defence of Australia and its mandated territory of Papua and New Guinea was dependent on untrained militia forces and a small band of New Guinea Rifles as our experienced AIF units were returning from Europe to meet the new threat.

Resources were so scarce in New Guinea that young males were forcibly recruited to support the war effort[i].  Many of these men from remote mountain villagers had no idea of the war and were conscripted against their will.  They were told that men from Japan were the enemy.  For many of these men other villagers living in remote tribal lands were also considered ‘enemy’.  One can only imagine the fear and uncertainty they felt as they were forcibly marched away from their families and clans to fight in ‘our’ war against Japan[ii].

It has been estimated that some 10,000 PNG nationals served as Carriers in support of the Australians during the Kokoda campaign in 1942. A further 42,000 are estimated to have been indentured to support Australian troops in the Milne Bay and the Buna/Gona campaigns.  They were paid 10 shillings per month.

The issue of compensation remains a vexed issue more than 70 years after the war.  While the Australian government paid some compensation for property damage to PNG nationals between 1944 and 1957 the wartime carriers were excluded from receiving any such benefits under the prevailing legislation. In 1980 they were also deemed to be ineligible for the PNG War Gratuity Scheme for ex-Servicemen.

And they were deemed to be ineligible for a medal.  In the eyes of post-war bureaucrats they were both nameless and invisible. (more…)

Time to reign in KTOA bullies on Kokoda

‘What? Provide for the welfare of natives on the Kokoda Trail – you’ve got to be kidding!’

That’s not exactly what they said but the Australian based Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) submission to a review of the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) ridiculed a suggestion that they should have to provide for the welfare of their guides and carriers. This could create an ‘entitlement mentality’ they wailed!

What is really required, according to the KTOA, is a combination of ‘education – hard skills – and thought process’.

They don’t explain how they would ‘educate’ a subsistence villager to carry loads far heavier than the maximum allowed for their ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angel’ forebears in 1942 – or how they would ‘educate’ them to sleep on freezing, wet ground without a sleeping bag or mat in the upper reaches of the Owen Stanley Ranges – or how they would ‘educate’ their bodies to be physically sustained on packets of two-minute noodles.

The KTOA assertion that ‘for successful commerce, all parties must bring something to the table – there cannot be a hand out mentality’ is reminiscent of a colonial blackbirder addressing a native work-party in the late 19th Century.

Whilst their submission acknowledges ‘the legitimate right of landowners to participate in and benefit from the Kokoda Track tourism experience’ they maintain that ‘this right needs to be translated to viable means by which this can happen; education and mentoring is needed to develop the skillsets required and the appreciation that self-sustainable change and development requires a contribution from oneself’.

WTF! This surely takes patronising arrogance to a new level. (more…)

‘Yes Minister’ alive on Kokoda

‘However it seems that DFAT has sought to outsmart Prime Minister Peter O’Neill by appointing a former employee of the Australian Department of Environment as their preferred consultant. A clever ‘Yes Minister’ ploy to transfer responsibility for the managerial bucket-of-shit they created to the PNG Government.’

 

The Review of the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) ordered by PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, is a disappointing academic desk-top study which recommends more of the same under a different name.

Prime Minister O’Neill ordered the review after the collapse of the management system put in place by the Australian Government in 2009.

Despite spending more than $60 million since then Kokoda trekker numbers have declined by 43 per cent; there is not a single management protocol in place; not one of the five key strategies or 33 objectives established by Australian managers for the period 2012-2015 was achieved; and there is still no master plan to protect and interpret our shared wartime history of the Kokoda campaign.

Australian officials were able to cover their taxpayer funded follies for a number of years but they now seem to have run out of academic subjects for consultants to address in regard to climate change, social mapping, capacity building, gender equity, mentoring and a plethora of other Third World causes along the Kokoda Trail.

The only subject they have failed to address is the identification, protection and interpretation of our shared wartime heritage. It would be easy to conclude that the current crop of Australian’s responsible for Kokoda are ideologically opposed to it.

The situation along the trail is now dire. Local villagers we were supposed to help are now mere spectators to a passing parade of trekkers. Once proud women who used to greet trekkers with huge smiles, dishes of cooked vegetables and tropical fruits now sit despondently in village dust trying to sell twisties and coke. The once pristine nature of the trail continues to be degraded by erosion. Battlesites sacred to our shared military heritage have been desecrated.

Back in Port Moresby the management structure put in place by the Department of Environment has been corrupted. No financial reports or newsletters have been published for at least five years. The Ranger system has collapsed; unlicensed trek operators are able to act without fear of detection; local guides and carriers are overloaded, underpaid and ill-equipped by unscrupulous Australian trek operators. Campsite owners are short changed and local villagers have lost all interest in the industry.

The KTA Review was supposed to address these issues and make recommendations to fix it all. (more…)

Why does PNG tolerate ‘blackbirding’ on Kokoda?

Recent articles on the history of ‘blackbirding’ in the Pacific should serve to shine the spotlight on the Australian Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) whose member lead treks across the Kokoda Trail.

The most abhorrent practice condoned by many KTOA members is the ‘student discount’ which allows them to claim a 50 per cent discount for their trek fees.  This effectively means that subsistence villagers along the trail have to subsidise wealthy Australian private school students who trek with them. One can only hope that these school are unaware that they are participating in a modern adaption of blackbirding.

Of more concern is the fact that PNG leaders responsible for the welfare of their people along the trail allow themselves to be bullied into accepting such a practice by the KTOA.

Following is a snapshot of villagers along the trail who are being forced to subsidise wealthy Australian private school students. Why? (more…)

HERITAGE INTERPRETATION OF THE KOKODA TRAIL

‘At the foot of the Owen Stanleys in Papua New Guinea you can look into the ancient landscape – majestic peaceful wilderness, nature in its full glory.  There have been tracks across the mountains for thousands of years; the people who inhabit the region were gardening at the same time agriculture was developing in Ancient Egypt.  The strength of natural and cultural heritage are beyond simple words: fascinating, awesome, daunting – world class.

‘Yet the battles of 1942 and the contemporary interest in ‘Kokoda’ are what have made it Papua New Guinea’s No 1 tourist attraction.  In 1942 it was Australians and Papua New Guineans fighting Japanese for what was then Australian land.  Young men in a bloody struggle for ‘their land’.  The battle has become folklore in Australia – a place of pilgrimage like Gallipoli, Villers-Bretonneux, Sandakan, Passchendale.’[i]

In the lead-up to the 70th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign IN 2012 Network Kokoda commissioned Michael Pender of HPA Projects to develop a Heritage Interpretation Plan and Implementation Strategy for the Kokoda Trail. We chose HPA Projects because of their commemorative heritage projects at Isurava, Sandakan, Hellfire Pass and the Australia National War Memorial in France.

The report was ignored.

The 75th Anniversary of the Kokoda campaign in 2017 offered another opportunity as it was sure to be the last parade for the dwindling number of surviving veterans and its adoption would have been seen as an appropriate legacy to ensure their service and sacrifice would never be forgotten.

It was ignored again.

In view of the complete dysfunction of the management system put in place by the Australian Government during the period 2008 – 2012 and the subsequent decline in trekker numbers it is timely to review the essence of the report as it is still relevant.  (more…)

Blackbirders on Kokoda – BeAware

School holidays offer great opportunities for Australian ‘blackbirders’ operating on the Kokoda Trail.

Blackbirding was a form of slavery which saw Papua New Guineans coerced into working as cheap labour on Queensland sugar plantations in the late 19th Century before it was outlawed.

However the practice has mutated into various forms since then and now involves shady operators who have cashed in on the Kokoda trekking industry over the past decade. Papua New Guinea is a governance free zone for blackbirders who are not subject to the same scrutiny they would receive in Australia.

The current dysfunction and debasement of the Kokoda Trail management authority provides them with free rein to promote themselves as legitimate. They are akin to a malarial parasite running through a quinine free bloodstream. There are no limits to the extent they can exploit local Papua New Guinean guides, carriers and villagers who live in a subsistence economy and are desperate for work.

They are slick and hard to detect. They have established their own ‘Kokoda Tour Operators Association’ to disguise their exploitation and provide a form of self-legitimacy. Their websites boast of emotive ‘passion for our diggers’ amid claims to be ‘historians – explorers – adventurers’ even through there is no prior record of their commitment to these ideals through previous active service or support to veterans’ organizations.

It seems more than coincidence that their faux passion happened to coincide with the opportunity to make a dollar out of it. (more…)

Kokoda: Time for Business

In a recent response to an article published in The Spectator magazine the President of the Kokoda Tour Operators Association, Sue Fitcher, wrote that ‘All KTOA businesses are run from Australia’.

This is the nub of the problem for the Kokoda Trekking Industry.

The current review of the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) should seek to understand why this is so because PNG will never realise its potential as a tourism destination if international operators have to run their businesses from their home countries.

The PNG trekking industry which started with so much promise in the late 1990s is now on its knees because of dysfunctional management and government indifference.

After PNG established a local management authority in 2003 trekker numbers surged by 423% from 1074 trekkers to 5621 in 2008. However since the Australian Government assumed control trekker numbers have crashed by 42% to 3267 in 2017 despite an expenditure of more than $50 million of Aid funding through the Kokoda Initiative.

The numbers indicate that something is seriously wrong. (more…)

KTOA SPIN RE IMMORAL KOKODA STUDENT DISCOUNTS

The Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) – established to protect the interests of a small group of Australian trek operators (11 of the 36 licensed operators) – has advised that in 2017 ‘KTA permit fees were averaged out at K320 as some operators claimed 50% discount on School Student treks’.
 
This is pure spin.
 
A closer look at the KTA trekker statistics for 2017 reveals that of the 371 claims for the 50% student discount – 312 (or a whopping 85%) came from KTOA members.
 
The 50% Student Discount was put in place by an Australian operator when the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) was first established in 2004. It was wrong then – and it is wrong now!
 
This discount means subsistence villagers along the Kokoda Trail have to subsidise wealthy Australian private school students.
 
This is akin to cheating subsistence villagers out of their fair share of benefits from the Kokoda trekking industry – and as we have just seen from the Australian cricket team – Australians don’t like cheats.
 
The current dysfunction of the KTA (which is currently under review) allows unscrupulous Australian trek operators to exploit this loophole by continuing to claim the 50% student discount.
 
If the KTOA wishes to have any semblance of credibility it should make a public announcement that its Australian members will no longer claim this immoral discount.
 
What do you think?
 
http://ktoa.com.au/
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KTOA: FAKE RESEARCH – FAKE ASSOCIATION

The Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) was established by a small group of Australian travel operators to protect their financial interests along the Kokoda Trail in PNG.

The welfare of local PNG porters and villagers is obviously not part of their agenda and their use of fake research to justify their exploitation is contrary to the spirit of Kokoda.

This exploitation includes the overloading of porters; abuse of their welfare; and the claiming of shameful student discounts on trek fees.

Fake Information

The KTOA website advises that ‘Members of the association collectively represent more than 75% of trekker number across Kokoda’.

This is fake information. The KTOA membership represents just 30 percent of the 36 trek operators licensed by the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA). Three of the 11 KTOA members appear to be inactive.

According to KTA records a total of 3267 trekkers crossed the trail in 2017 – 2053 (62%) went with KTOA members.

Overloading of PNG Porters

The most abhorrent practice the KTOA advocates is the overloading of porters by its members and their use of fake research to justify it.

In September 2017 a PNG porter engaged by a member of the KTOA died on the trail – according to the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) Ranger at Owers Corner he was overloaded with a 28 kg backpack. Rather than addressing the problem the KTOA accused the KTA Ranger of altering his records without providing any evidence to support their claim. A preliminary investigation by PNG Police Sergeant, Max Maso contradicts their claim:

‘It is evident that the group on this particular trip . . . engaged by . . . (KTOA tour operator) . . . were all overloaded in breach to Code of Conduct stipulated under this code’.

Rather than accepting that there is a problem with the overloading of porters the KTOA went into damage control after Adventure Kokoda advised that the maximum weight allowed for the PNG wartime carriers in 1942 was 18 kg.

On 26 February 2018 the KTOA posted an irrational response to this fact on Facebook:

‘Any operator[i] continuing to use references to conditions and weights carried by carriers on the Kokoda Track in 1942 is still living in the dark colonial days long past. Clearly the welfare of the carriers of the Kokoda campaign was not of primary concern of their colonial masters.

‘Suggestions made recently that the carriers during the war were restricted to carrying 18kgs is a gross misrepresentation of the brutal conditions in which the carriers worked.’

The reference KTOA quoted to justify their exploitation of PNG porters was an unofficial essay written by a junior summer vacation student at the Australian War Memorial!![ii].

The facts are anything but a ‘gross misrepresentation of the brutal conditions in which the carriers worked’ as stated by the KTOA. (more…)

Proposal for a Commemorative Segment and ‘Spirit Haus’ at Bomana War Cemetery

I propose that our Anzac Day service at Bomana War Cemetery recognise the sacrifice of PNGs wartime carriers through the inclusion of a commemorative segment and the construction of a ‘Spirit Haus’ as a cenotaph[i].

Until now there has never been any formal recognition of the wartime carriers, affectionately known as ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels’ – no honour roll, no certificate, no medal!

Whilst they were not enlisted servicemen they were conscripted for the allied war effort and they served at the front. There was no difference between an army stretcher bearer and a native stretcher bearer on the Kokoda Trail – they faced the same conditions and the same risks.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of them now lay in lonely unmarked places across the Owen Stanley Ranges. Their identities are unknown. There is no record of their service. They have no spiritual resting place or Spirit Haus for their families, friends or kinfolk to gather round each year to commemorate their sacrifice. There is no research into who they were? Where they came from? How they died? Or where?

We can begin to rectify this historical anomaly by including a commemorative segment as a tribute to their service in our Anzac Dawn Service and engaging a heritage architect to design an appropriate ‘Spirit Haus’. (more…)