The most important asset in the development of a sustainable trekking industry along the Kokoda Trail is the client who pays for the journey. Without him or her there will be no trek fees, no employment for guides and carriers, no shared benefits for villages, no campsite fees – no sustainable trekking industry!
Of equal importance in a country with complex traditions regarding customary land ownership are local landowners.
Unfortunately the people in charge of dispensing government aid programs from Australia seem to have little appreciation of these essential basics. Of more concern is the fact that they disregard the advice of those who have invested risk, time, energy and resources to create a wartime trekking industry across the Kokoda Trail. They have achieved this by working at the grassroots level to establish local partnerships based on mutual obligation.
In Papua New Guinea there is a yawning gap between the theory of working with local cultures and the reality of running a business on a daily basis.
Life in village communities alternates between subsistence farming and irregular Government/NGO largesse in the form of ‘gifts’ ranging from buildings they didn’t ask for to training programs they don’t understand. However such is the nature of villagers that they will humbly accept such offerings and oblige with traditional songs, dances and feasts. Everybody feels good at the end of this process.
After the Government/NGO caravan has moved on villagers revert to their traditional ways. Maintenance of buildings designed and built by outsiders is not high on their priority list. They reckon that if the buildings were important to the outsiders they can return and fix/paint them whenever they want. If training outcomes don’t result in benefits their only memory will be a giggle around the campfire.
In days gone by the Australian government had a system of patrol officers or kiaps who lived within village communities. Local needs were discussed and mutual obligations agreed upon. Successful outcomes required daily micro-management as they worked through the phases of discussion, partnership and ownership. Kiaps were a special breed. Their job demanded a high degree of tolerance, great patience and a keen sense of humour. They were nation builders in a country with a population not far divorced from the stone-age in the early years.
They didn’t need ‘social mapping’ strategies to initiate ‘scoping studies’ in order to develop ‘capacity building’ programs based on ‘gender equity’ in order to create ‘sustainable development. They just relied on the fact that they lived amongst the villagers, spoke their language, developed empathy with their needs and discussed issues and outcomes with them.
They have since been replaced by aid-funded consultants who have perfected the fine-art of developing 10-point plans for problems they will never understand and create expectations that will never be fulfilled. Given that there is not a single management protocol in place or a single economic benefit for local villagers in spite of a $40 million investment of Australian taxpayers money there is a strong argument for now declaring Kokoda ‘a consultant free zone’.