A recent proposal to mine part of the Kokoda Trail caused a public outcry that resulted in the Australian government entering into a ‘Joint Understanding’ with the PNG Government to protect the track and its environs from possible mining or logging activity. Among the objectives is an agreement is to assist the PNG Government in undertaking a feasibility study for a possible World Heritage nomination.
The Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts was assigned responsibility for Australia’s role and responsibilities in regard to the ‘Joint Understanding’.
Whilst I believe the pursuit of a World Heritage listing is a noble goal it should not be at the expense of the historic military significance of the Kokoda Trail.
I believe the Kokoda Trail should be developed as a national memorial trail that reflects the military significance of the Kokoda campaign.
This should be separated from the feasibility study for a World Heritage nomination for the broader Owen Stanley Ranges and be reallocated to the Office of the Australian War Graves Commission.
The Kokoda Trail had been virtually ignored by successive Australian governments since the end of the war in 1945. It was not until former Prime Minister Paul Keating attended the 50th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign in PNG in 1992 that it resonated again in our national consciousness.
Unfortunately the Department of Veterans Affairs had no vision and no plan for Kokoda at the time. On 18 February 2001 the Minister for Veterans Affairs, Bruce Scott MP, wrote: ‘It will come as no surprise to you then that the ‘Government Master Plan’ of which you inquire ‘for the development of the Kokoda Track as a national memorial park’ does not exist ‘.
In spite of this official apathy public awareness increased with the publication of a number of best-selling books on Kokoda and the screening of television features.
Villagers along the track soon began to agitate for increased benefits from the emerging trekking industry. Prior to 2002 they did not have a co-ordinated forum to express their concerns so they took direct action and blocked the track in various places.
During negotiations to re-open the track after a lengthy blockage at Kovello a trek permit system was implemented and a trek fee of PNGK200 was introduced. The purpose of the trek fee was to ensure that villagers received shared benefits from the emerging trekking industry.
The PNG Kokoda Track Authority was established in 2004 and an Australian expatriate and former Kiap, Mr Warren Bartlett, was appointed as Chief Executive on a salary of A$13,000. He was not allocated any staff.
A Board of Directors was appointed but they were not qualified for the role. The Board quickly became dysfunctional and more than a $1 million was misappropriated.
Neither the Australian nor PNG governments displayed any interest in the dysfunction of the Authority until a proposal to mine a section of the Kokoda Trail became public.
The resultant outcry caused an over-reaction from the Australian government. It was obviously decided that the best protection against any future applications to mine or log any part of the trail would be to have it listed as a World Heritage site.
The Heritage Division of the Department of Environment, Heritage and the Arts was allocated responsibility for working with the PNG Department of Environment and Conservation to bring this about.
A new Board was appointed by the PNG Government and Australian representatives from the Department of Environment, Heritage and the Arts were assigned to work with the Authority and the PNG Department of Environment and Conservation.
A Joint Understanding covering ‘both the sustainable development of communities along the Kokoda Track corridor, and protection and sustainable use of the natural and cultural resources of the broader Owen Stanley Ranges region’ was signed on 23 April 2008.
The first hint of our ‘big brother’ approach is our refusal to use the official name as recorded on the statute books of the PNG Government i.e. ‘The Kokoda Trail’ (PNG Government Gazette No. 88 of 12 October 1972, page 1362, column 2. Notice 1972/28 of the PNG Place Names Committee refers).
Of more concern is the fact that the Joint Understanding does not contain any references to the military significance of the Kokoda Trail. The words ‘Kokoda campaign – military history – memorials – battlesites – etc’ do not rate a mention in the entire document. I regard this as a serious omission.
From my viewpoint – as a trek operator, a trek leader with 55 crossings of the trail over the past 18 years, the son of a New Guinea veteran, a Vietnam Veteran with 21 years army service, and one with a long term interest in the preservation of the military history of the Kokoda campaign – the process seems to be seriously flawed thus far.
There has obviously been a lot of activity at the departmental level as representatives have been assigned to PNG and others have flown into villages by chartered aircraft to familiarise themselves with their needs.
There has also been much talk – a conference with academics in Canberra, superficial meetings with trek operators, and discussions with other ‘stakeholders’. To date these have not yielded any identifiable outcomes along the track.
For example one of the objectives in the Joint Understanding was to ‘address immediate needs for the 2008 trekking season and create interim Kokoda Track management arrangements’.
I have trekked Kokoda six times since April 2008 and I can report that not a single outcome has been achieved in this regard – and we are now well into the 2009 trekking season!
Another objective was to conduct ‘an economic participation study to cover such options as agriculture, food services for trekkers, and participation in delivering development programs’.
Nothing has happened in this regard!
I have advised of the availability of an agricultural scientist who is fluent in Tok Pisin and Motu and has worked extensively in Melanesia. That person has written extensively on the needs of the Koiari and has previously worked for the (now-defunct) Koiari Development Corporation. He is currently living in semi-retirement in Australia and is willing and able to live in villages for extended periods of time to assist them with agricultural development and value-adding activities. He would also be able to provide valuable feedback on the cultural and environmental impact of the current trekking industry.
My requests to engage this person over the past 18 months have been ignored.
I understand AusAID has completed a survey of the Kokoda Trail but this has not been distributed to trek operators or villagers for comment. This is not conducive to an atmosphere of trust between the key stakeholders and the Department of Environment, Heritage and the Arts.
I could go on!
Whilst there has obviously been a great deal of departmental activity in regard to the Joint Understanding I can report that, after 15 months, there has not been a single outcome on the track. For example:
• There is no credible Trek Permit system in place
• There is no campsite booking system.
• There is no trek operator accreditation system.
• There is no standardised medical clearance form for trekkers.
• There is no co-ordinated system for medical evacuations in place.
• There is no campsite accreditation system in place.
• There is not a single environmental toilet between Owers Corner and Kokoda.
• There has been no attempt to identify clan leaders and landowners along the track.
• There has not been a single workshop in either the Koiari or Orokaiva areas on the track to identify villager needs.
• There is no minimum standard of pay and conditions for PNG trek guides and carriers.
• There is no training or development system in place to assist villagers to ‘value-add’ to the opportunities presented by trekkers passing through their villages.
• No action has been taken to identify (and make safe) unexploded ordnance along the trail.
• There is no plan to upgrade the road between Sogeri and Owers Corner to a safe all-weather standard.
The Australian Trekker
Australian trekkers make a significant commitment in both money and time when they decide to trek Kokoda. In return for this investment they need to be assured they will be safe and that they will learn about the military history of the Kokoda campaign; the culture of the Koiari and Orokaiva people along the track; and the physical environment.
They also expect to have hygienic toilet and ablution facilities at campsites along the trail.
Trekkers are the basic building block of a sustainable trekking industry along the Kokoda Trail. Without them there are no benefits for villagers to share. Unfortunately their needs have been ignored thus far.
The Koiari/Orokaiva Villager
The land in question is owned by traditional Koiari and Orokaiva landowners. The tracks connecting villages between Owers Corner and Kokoda have special significance to our military heritage because of the desperate campaign fought across it during the period 27 July to 2 November 1942.
Clans along the Kokoda Trail are the custodians of land sacred to our military heritage. They will protect and nurture our battlesites provided they receive benefits for doing so.
Villagers are currently missing out on significant potential earnings because they are yet to be taught the concept of ‘value-adding’.
Teaching them to wash and dry trekkers gear, brew coffee, bake scones and produce village billum bags is not PhD stuff. This year they will miss out on the opportunity to earn at least PNGK 1 million because of a lack of basic training in these areas.
The construction of interpretative memorials at significant sites on their land will also provide them with an incentive to further ‘value-add’ to a trekkers Kokoda experience.
There are many people and organisations of goodwill who want to do good things as a result of their Kokoda experience.
If this is harnessed in a co-ordinated way the PNG government would not have to spend any funds along the trail for education or health services. This would allow them to work with Provincial and Local Level Governments to support Koiari and Orokaiva villages in remote areas off the trail.
Currently there is no plan – and there is no co-ordination. The end result is that inappropriate memorial structures have been erected; inappropriate structures have been build for health and education purposes; and village children are showing signs of tooth decay because of the amount of lollies handed out.
Two recent examples indicate the state of planning flux in the Department of Environment, Heritage and the Arts:
• During the last two weeks of this month a team from the Kokoda Track Foundation was dispatched to Kokoda to do a ‘livelihood study’ in villages along the track. It seems that the PNG Kokoda Track Authority did not know they were doing it until they arrived in country. The Kokoda Track Foundation is a registered charity – their lack of experience with villagers along the track means they were ill-equipped for the task. Nobody seems to have been consulted on the tender process, the terms of reference; or the desired outcomes for the study.
• On 31st March we received a request to assist a company who has been asked to tender for a ‘Condition Analysis’ of the 96 Km Kokoda Trail. We do not know if the tender refers to today’s popular eco-tourist track; the wartime trail, the original route of the 39th Battalion; the eastern side of the Yodda Valley where the 53rd Battalion fought; or the connecting tracks to and from Lake Myola 1 and 2. We do not know what the terms of reference are, or the required outcomes. The company has been given 5 days time to submit their tender!
These studies are a sham and are obviously motivated by the need to spend money before the end of the current financial year. Neither study is related to an assessment of the military heritage of the trail; the needs of the paying customer i.e. the trekker; or the needs of villagers who will shortly be getting fed up with the number of inexperienced and ill-informed consultants asking banal questions about their needs and lifestyles.
Non-government, community and charitable organisations not involved in trekking should also be encouraged to direct their goodwill to village areas remote from the Kokoda Trail as part of a strategy to ensure shared benefits are more widely spread.
The Kokoda Honeypot Effect
I first trekked Kokoda in 1991. In 1994 I submitted a paper on the need to develop Kokoda as a national memorial park. In 2000 I founded the Kokoda Track Foundation to develop a strategic plan for Kokoda. This was completed and presented to Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare and the Australian Minister for Veterans Affairs in 2006.
My purpose has always been to develop Kokoda as a model that could be used for other Pacific War battlesites in PNG – the Black Cat Track, Shaggy Ridge, Buna/Gona, Rabaul, etc.
Unfortunately everybody has flocked to Kokoda. There are now more than 30 trek operators and a myriad of other stakeholder organisations seeking to do ‘good things’ along the trail. It risks being overwhelmed with goodwill while nearby villages off the track are neglected. This has the potential to lead to dissent and disruption in the longer term. For example landowners on Mt Victoria are continually sabotaging the VHF communications tower.
We therefore need a strategic plan to get a proper balance in our approach to honouring the legacy of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and coastwatchers throughout New Guinea during the Pacific War.
In the latest budget an amount of $10 million was allocated to the Office of Australian War Graves Commission for the development of an interpretative trail in France and Belgium to honour the sacrifice of our veterans in WW1.
The same approach needs to be adopted for Kokoda which is our interpretative trail for WW11.
Kokoda is a national shrine. The trail between Owers Corner and Kokoda contains battlesites sacred to our military heritage. The expertise gained by the Office of Australian War Graves in the development and management of the interpretive trail in France and Belgium should be applied to Kokoda.
The Office of Australian War Graves should establish a close partnership with the Department of Environment, Heritage and the Arts who administer the Act that has Kokoda listed as an Overseas Area of Special Significance. The Department of Environment, Heritage and the Arts s also responsible for the broader long-term goal of working with the Government of PNG to achieve a World Heritage listing.
The Office of Australian War Graves should also work in partnership with PNG Tourism to develop models for visits and treks to other significant military historical sites throughout PNG.
I recommend that responsibility for the development of an interpretive trail between Owers Corner and Kokoda be transferred from the Department of Environment, Heritage and the Arts to the Office of Australian War Graves.
PO Box 303