The influx of Australians trekking the Kokoda Trail in PNG has resulted in an increased awareness of the plight of our closest neighbour. Trekkers arriving in Port Moresby for the first time are struck by the squalor of the settlements surrounding the city, the countless thousands of unemployed people, and the forbidding razor wire wrapped around every house in the city.
After spending their first night in a heavily guarded 4-star hotel they catch a charter flight over the Owen Stanley Ranges to the village of Kokoda.
As they move from the airfield, which was a key factor in the decision to send troops to Kokoda in July 1942, they are greeted with shouts of ‘Oro! Oro! Oro!’ (Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!) as they climb the plateau towards the village. ‘Koko’ is an Orokaiva word meaning ‘place of skulls’ ‘Da’ is village. Australia’s first Victoria Cross winner, Private Bruce Kingsbury was buried here. His body was transferred to Bomana War Cemetery after the war.
On the north western edge of the plateau is a large generator installed when PNG was governed as a mandated territory by Australia. It has been idle for more than 20 years and the network of power poles connecting houses and administration buildings are derelict and rotting. A large disused concrete tank is a haunting reminder that the village once had a water and sewerage system.
As trekkers follow the footsteps of the brave back along the Trail, they come into direct contact with remote village communities. On day 3 they arrive at Templeton’s Crossing which is the boundary between Oro and Central Province. The Orokaiva and Mountain Koiari clans in this area have been converted to the Seventh Day Adventist Church. And they stay converted under the watchful eye of local pastors who conduct church services twice daily at 6.00 am and 6.00 pm. Children with angelic voices and swollen bellies sing hymns in perfect harmony.
A noticeable aspect of village life is the absence of young men who are either working in distant gardens or have gone down the Trail to seek better opportunities amongst the bright lights of Moresby. Older men sit around their huts while women care for the village, nurture the young and prepare meals.
Those who venture down to Moresby find there is little work available and are soon reliant on their ‘wan tok’ system for sustenance. Some turn to crime to meet basic needs while others join the fastest growing industry in the country – security!
Thousands of uniformed guards with fierce dogs are trucked into the city before dusk each day to stop their own people trying to breach the razor wire fortresses around Moresby.
Back in the villages trekkers notice basic Aid projects designed to support subsistence living in remote areas. Water systems, classrooms and medical centres are in various states of disrepair due to a lack of recurrent funding for maintenance, a lack of regular school/medical supplies and inconsistent payment of wages.
Despite these daily challenges villages are warm, friendly and generous with their offerings of food and assistance to trekkers. The legacy of their ‘fuzzy wuzzy angel’ forbears is evident to all who trek Kokoda. During their ordeal they establish bonds with local guides who tell them of their daily struggle for survival and of their plans for the future.
On return to our affluent society many trekkers want to help but they soon find this is easier said than done. There is no guarantee that clothing parcels, medical supplies, electronic goods or even letters will reach the intended recipient due to the lack of a reliable distribution service to remote villages. Phone, fax and email communications are out of the question. Assistance with educational programs is almost impossible to monitor as school fees are easily misappropriated and students often substituted.
This may well be the reason why World Vision does not have a sponsorship program for PNG students!
The encouragement of ‘village cooperatives’ should be considered as a means of ensuring benefits gained from the emerging eco-tourism industry are shared for the benefit of all. A ‘Council of Clan Leaders’ from each village could be established to manage the cooperative. Such a system would place the responsibility for the development of the village and the care of its inhabitants in the hands of local leaders
Issues which would form part of the charter of a village cooperative would be the establishment and operation of community schools and health centres, support for students identified as suitable for further education in Provincial schools, training of medics and nurses and the maintenance/development of basic village infrastructure.
There is no shortage of eco-trekkers who will support educational and health programs if they can be assured that their contribution will not be siphoned off by the person with the key to the village mailbox in Port Moresby or misappropriated by influential ‘wan toks’ in local, Provincial or National Government departments.
The establishment of ‘village cooperatives’ would also allay much of the frustration of local landowners who are suspicious that they not be getting their fair share of the benefits generated by the emerging eco-tourism industry.
All the economic and social indicators say the colonial system of government inherited by PNG at independence has clearly not worked in the ‘land of a thousand cultures‘. A reversal of the system whereby local village/tribal communities are empowered through the establishment of village councils may just be the panacea the country needs to attract the support of eco-tourists and well-intentioned philanthropists.