A post by Robyn Kruk, Secretary of the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts:

Dear Charlie,

As a trekker who walked the Kokoda Track with you in 2007, and now as the Head of the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts I would like to respond to the concerns you have recently raised publicly in relation to Australia’s efforts to assist PNG to protect the Kokoda Track. I note that some of these points have already been outlined in other correspondence to you from this department.

Military Heritage

The Australian Government is committed to protecting the Kokoda Track because of its special place in our history and the incredible sacrifices made by our troops. As an example, in 2007 in recognition of the Track’s military significance, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs received $0.9 million to upgrade its Kokoda Track website, and we have commissioned a study (soon to be made public) by the Australian War Memorial to investigate the location of the wartime routes of the Kokoda Track.

Assisting PNG to protect the Track

In addition to protecting the historic value of the Track, we are mindful that the Track is PNG territory and is home to thousands of local people. As such we have agreed with the PNG Government that we will pursue a number of associated objectives including: improving the livelihoods of local communities along the track; building PNG management capacity; and protecting an important potential power and water source for Port Moresby.

We are actively working to assist the PNG Government to: establish and roll out the Kokoda Development Program (KDP) to improve basic services for local people living along the Track (including healthcare, education, water, sanitation, radio networks and transport); reform the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) to improve administration and track management arrangements; develop a Code of Conduct for tour operators working along the Kokoda Track; and build PNG Government capacity to manage this special area.

Supporting sustainable development of local communities

In relation to the KDP, as a result of our efforts, the program has: refurbished the Efogi health centre; vaccinated more than 150 children; trained 23 village health volunteers; distributed health supplies to clinics; completed the first health patrol of the catchment area for more than a decade, with five more patrols planned for 2009; flown teachers to villages for the start of the 2009 school year; distributed curriculum materials to 22 schools; upgraded the radio network in three villages; and completed a water supply system in Efogi. Additional activities scheduled to commence in mid-2009 include: classroom and toilet construction in a number of villages; installation of water supply systems in Naoro 1 and 2; and the trial of a subsidised air transport program.

Sustainable Livelihoods Project

This project, aimed at developing income-generating options for local communities, was agreed by both the PNG and Australian Governments as a key element of the Joint Understanding, and quotes to undertake this work were sought from organisations and individuals identified by both Governments to have professional expertise in similar work in PNG or elsewhere in the Pacific.

While trek operators will be consulted as a key element of the project, it would be a clear conflict of interest to directly engage an operator with associated commercial interests to undertake this work. We also need to ensure that we include the full range of perspectives in such a study, and not only those of tour operators.

The supplier was selected through a competitive evaluation process undertaken jointly by the PNG and Australian Governments. The selected tender team includes Mr Sandy Lawson, who you have highly recommended to the Government for work in this area, and Associate Professor Stephen Wearing, an expert in tourism at the University of Technology Sydney, with whom you have previously worked. The proposed approach, including selecting the villages to be visited, was discussed with and endorsed by the PNG Government.

Improving management of the Track itself

As you are aware, the former KTA was largely ineffective. We have therefore devoted considerable time and money to assist the PNG Government to put in place improved management arrangements. While there is obviously much more work to be done, the KTA and the new KTA Management Committee, with the assistance of the Australian Government funded experts, has focused its initial efforts on establishing effective trek fee collection and permit issuing processes and putting in place agreed arrangements for distributing benefits to land owners and local communities. I am sure you will be pleased to learn that, as a result of these efforts, the first direct payments to local communities have now been made. On 5 June 2009, the KTA deposited K45, 000 into five separate Kokoda Track Ward Development Committee accounts, and has an additional K35, 000 ready to be distributed to the other nine Wards as soon as they register their Committees and open a bank account. A further K70, 000 will be distributed at the end of June and another K70, 000 by the end of September. This is the first time since the KTA was established that funding from trek fees has gone directly to local communities.

Application of Australian Track Standards

In response to your concerns about the potential application of the Australian Walking Track Standards to the Kokoda Track, the KTA (the organisation with responsibility for the management of the Track) has confirmed that it has only considered using these guidelines in relation to track works, and has no plans to use the guidelines in relation to wider issues such as campsites, facilities and publicity. I can assure you that your concerns regarding any intention to close down trekking operators are unfounded – in fact, our efforts are focused on keeping the Track open.

World Heritage

As outlined in the Joint Understanding, the Australian Government is committed to assisting PNG to undertake a feasibility study for a possible World Heritage nomination of the Owen Stanley Ranges and the Track, if and when the PNG Government chooses to do so. Australia has no role in nominating any part of PNG for World Heritage listing – this is solely the responsibility of the PNG Government. Following a request from PNG in 2007, Australia agreed to provide expertise and resources to assist PNG develop a World Heritage Nomination.

The Department’s Heritage Division has a team dedicated to this program. I invite you to contact the Division Head, Catherine Skippington, or the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to Kokoda, Mr Sandy Hollway, if you have any concerns regarding the Australian Government’s involvement. In this way we can continue to provide you with up to date and accurate information in relation to the Kokoda program.

Yours sincerely,

Robyn Kruk AM
18 June 2009