Kokoda Trail World Heritage: Fact or Fallacy?

The review of the Kokoda Trail for a World Heritage listing by the late Mr Peter Hitchcock, Dr Jennifer Gabriel and Dr Matthew Leavesley has exposed the myth of its relevance to our shared wartime heritage associated with the Kokoda campaign. The authors of the 2nd Joint Understanding should be called upon to explain why they were not aware of the review – or why they chose to ignore it.

‘Kokoda Initiative’ – Reporting from a parallel universe to the Kokoda Trail!

The 2019 ‘Annual Review’ of the ‘Kokoda Initiative’ is largely irrelevant to the Kokoda trekking industry.

The review does not address the dysfunction of the management systems put in place by Kokoda Initiative officials since they assumed control of the Kokoda Trail 2009 and the lack of governance within their surrogate PNG organisation – the Kokoda Track Authority. This is evident in their failure to ever publish an audited financial report which is in breach of both Australian and PNG legal requirements.

The review also fails to address the issue of ‘commemoration’ which is evident in their ongoing refusal to engage an accredited Australian military heritage architect to develop a Master Heritage Interpretation Plan for the trail.

Our comments are included under each section.

2019 Annual Review Report Papua New Guinea–Australia Governance Partnership

Quality and Technical Assurance Group –  Final Report – September 2019Kokoda Initiative Partnership (KIP)


The Kokoda Initiative Partnership (KIP) is delivering a broad range of activities, on a small budget, in a logistically challenging environment, while adapting to political needs. Over recent years the program has focused to a large extent on direct delivery, including infrastructure projects, and the KIP team describe the program as having needed to be reactive to public diplomacy imperatives. The ability of KIP to act strategically has been constrained by weak capacity in the Kokoda Track Authority. Institutional relationships were weak between relevant GoPNG and private sector entities and little joint work took place. However, recent personnel changes within the Kokoda Track Authority have led to a sharp upturn in relationships, offering potential for greater partnership and joint planning to build institutional structures to support Kokoda in the long term.

It is disingenuous to blame the ‘weak capacity’ of the PNG Kokoda Track Authority for the failures of the Kokoda Initiative because it is due to their own failure along with Australian DEWHA/DSEWPC/DFAT officials to establish an effective management system for the Kokoda trekking industry when they assumed control of it in 2009.

The direct delivery of infrastructure projects into villages without prior consultation with local communities leads to attitudes of Aid dependency and is destined to fail in the longer term.

Establishing partnerships through the conduct of workshops in local communities is a time-consuming but necessary part of the process of transferring ownership to them. These partnerships must include a commitment to the training and development of teachers and health workers and the provision of adequate educational and medical supplies.

The failure of the Kokoda Initiative to conduct a single village workshop across the trail since 2009 is the primary reason for the ‘weak capacity’ they refer to.

The Long Green March through our Kokoda Heritage

The long Green march through our Kokoda Heritage began when responsibility for the Kokoda Trail was allocated to the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) in 2008.

Since I wrote this letter to the First Assistant Secretary of DEWHA in 2009 trekker numbers have declined by 46% from 5621 in 2008 to 3033 in 2018 despite the expenditure of more than $50 million of taxpayers funds – not one of the issues we raised (apart from the upgrading of the road to Owers Corner) has been addressed.

Their failure to include the Department of Veterans Affairs and to engage an accredited Military Heritage Architect to develop a Military Heritage Interpretation Plan for the Kokoda Trail is indicative of their ideological opposition to commemoration.


Kokoda: The Fallacy of World Heritage

The review of the Kokoda Trail for a World Heritage listing by the late Mr Peter Hitchcock, Dr Jennifer Gabriel and Dr Matthew Leavesley has exposed the myth of its relevance to our shared wartime heritage associated with the Kokoda campaign.

The threat to mine a $3 billion gold and copper deposit on the southern slopes of the Kokoda Trail in 1996 caused the Australian Government to head off a public backlash against the destruction of an iconic part of our military heritage.

For some inexplicable reason the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) was ignored and the task was passed to the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) to assist the PNG Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) to develop a case for a World Heritage nomination for the Owen Stanley Ranges. According to their preliminary report:


150 Kokoda Porters jobs lost over Anzac period

Up to 600 trekkers will be on the Kokoda Trail during the Anzac period over the next fortnight.

The Australian Tour Operators Association (KTOA) , established to protect the interests of their members, has refused to adopt the WW2 army standard of 18 kg as the maximum weight to be carried by the PNG wartime carriers in 1942. Instead, the KTOA has adopted a weight of 22.5 kg established by an Australian bureaucrat who had never trekked across the trail.

The 4.5 kg difference will lead to the loss of 150 jobs for local Koiari and Orokaiva villagers during the Anzac period (4.5 kg X 600 = 2700 kg ÷ 18 kg = 150).

Porters required to carry 22.5 kg by the KTOA for 138 km over some of the most rugged terrain on the planet will have a limited trekking career due to the heavy physical impact on their backs, hips and knees. Unlike professional footballers who have similar career limitations due to the physical impact on their bodies there is no post-playing career for them for Kokoda porters – just a lifetime dependency on their fellow subsistence villagers for physical assistance.

Shameless exploitation of vulnerable native populations used to be referred to as ‘blackbirding ‘ – a practice that was eventually outlawed in the early part of the 20th Century – it seems the KTOA is shamefully introducing a new strain of this abhorrent practice.

Government apathy towards Kokoda

When we first submitted a proposal for the Kokoda Trail to be proclaimed as a National Memorial Park in 1992 and included some suggestions as to what could be done to develop it is such a way that future trekkers would be able to appreciate the historical significance of the various battlesites we thought it would be readily embraced by the Federal Government.

 Unfortunately we had not reckoned on the limitations of Ministers without leadership or vision or the negative influence of  their departmental bureaucrats.  The following extracts from proposals we have submitted over the decade between the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the Kokoda campaign provides an insight into their indifference towards the Kokoda Trail and everything it represents:

4 November 1992
‘While the proposals you have outlined in your letter of 25 August (1992) to the Prime Minister have undoubted merit, I can give no undertaking that anything of that nature would fall within the scope of the commemorative measures now under consideration’.
The Hon Ben Humphreys MP
Minister for Veterans Affairs

22 February 1995
‘The Government’s philosophy is to commemorate and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War 11 with activities here in Australia. The only specific events relating to ‘Australia Remembers’ planned for overseas are three small pilgrimages of Australian veterans.’
The Hon Con Sciacca MP
Minister for Veterans Affairs

24 June 1997
“As a result it is not possible to award the Civilian Service Medal to the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ at this distance in time.’
The Hon David Jull MP
Minister for Administrative Services

10 November 1997
‘Your suggestion to form a small working group has merit.  However, I do not recommend proceeding in this way at this time.’
The Hon Bruce Scott MP
Minister for Veterans Affairs

11 December 2000
‘Your proposal to develop the Trail is unfortunately outside the scope of the Australian aid program.”
Senator Kay Patterson
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs

7 December 2000
‘With these limitations in mind, I regret I am unable to offer any prospect of achieving the all-of-government approach you seek in the time frame you propose.’
The Hon Bruce Scott MP
Minister for Veterans Affairs (more…)