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:
More than $5 million has been hijacked from Kokoda trekkers by unaccountable Australian and PNG bureaucrats over the past decade. This money had been paid in good faith to meet their basic needs in the form of adequate campsites and a safe trail. The fees were also meant to provide for shared community benefits for villagers along the trail.
However, since Australian Government officials assumed control of the emerging Kokoda trekking industry in 2008 not a single dollar has been spent to improve campsites, toilets or management systems to meet the needs of the trekkers. Nobody knows where the money has gone because the bureaucrats involved have never produced an audited financial report. Nobody knows what they do because they don’t produce newsletters or answer emails. Not a single resolution from a forum has ever been actioned. Not a single workshop has been conducted at village level to see how the custodians of the land across the trail could benefit from the trekking industry.
In the meantime local PNG carriers continue to be
overloaded, underpaid and poorly equipped. Local campsite owners are
continually short-changed while villagers have been reduced to the status of
spectators to a passing parade of trekkers.
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.
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…)
Hidden away in this newsletter, written by the Australian CEO assigned to the Kokoda Track Authority by the Department of Environment in Canberra, is the following innocuous paragraph:
Following are the Australian Parks and Wildlife Services specifications for Class 4 walking tracks and our response to each one.
Opportunity for visitors with advanced outdoor knowledge to find their own way along often indistinct tracks in remote areas. Users can expect frequent opportunities for solitude with few encounters with others.
Response: This opportunity exists for eco- trekkers to use the Kapa Kapa track across the Owen Stanley Ranges to the east of the Kokoda Trail. Kokoda is not about ‘solitude’ and ‘few encounters’. It is a military historical pilgrimage that should not be restricted to elite bushwalking purists. (more…)
Air Niugini’s Paradise magazine describes a visit to Ower’s Corner, where ‘the road the road becomes a footpath that connects the start of the Kokoda Trail . . . just an hour and a half from downtown Port Moresby’.
Visitors who make the journey are bound to be disappointed. Rather than looking down on a traditional village with interpretive signage, maps and a local market they are confronted with memorial graffiti.
An abandoned campsite acts as a reminder of poor planning and consultation with local landowners.
A purple Ranger’s Hut with a galvanised iron roof stands as a bureaucratic monument to impeded vision. Four large steel girders representing some sort of monument clash with the spectacular vista of the Owen Stanley Rangers beyond. A lone 25-pounder gun under an iron roof without interpretation has been plonked in the centre of the area. Nearby are three panels with a politically correct version interpretation of the Kokoda campaign.
And to round it off Aid funded power poles now encircle the area as a final ‘up you’ to the surrounding environment.
A few locals sit around with some bilums, warm coca-cola and packets of twisties for sale. Visitors cast a cursory eye over their wares but rarely buy anything – they bring their own drinks and snacks and most have already brought bilums from the markets in Port Moresby.
To say they are underwhelmed when they depart is an understatement.
It is obvious that the $50 million spent by the Australian Government on the Kokoda Initiative has not had any impact on improving the livelihoods of the local Owers Corner community.
For reasons known only to Government officials Owers Corner doesn’t rate and the local community doesn’t matter.
But it doesn’t take too much imagination to realise the potential of the area.
Imagine the feeling among visitors on a mini-bus as it crested the top of the ridge at Owers Corner to reveal a gathering of traditional Koiari tree houses in the foreground of the majestic Owen Stanley Ranges.
Imagine an imposing granite wall with images of soldiers and ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels’ with a memorial stone where visitors could lay a wreath or a poppy – and no need to bring them with you as they can be purchased from a stall build from ‘bush material’ in the local market. They could also buy a PNG brewed coffee and scone from an adjacent stall or cold drinks from their solar powered fridge. Traditional bilums with ‘Kokoda Trail – Owers Corner’ screened on them would be popular as would carved trekking poles. Visitors could observe these being made by locals sitting around their stalls.
Imagine a small museum with restored weapons – a .303 rifle; a bren gun, an Owen gun, a 3” mortar, M36 hand grenades, bayonets, mess tins, soldiers uniforms, pictures, etc adjacent to the 25 pounder gun. These could be obtained on loan from the Australian War Memorial as Papua was Australian territory in 1942 so it would be within the charter of the AWM to support it.
Imagine interpretive signs and maps that would provide visitors with an accurate historical understanding of the Kokoda campaign, the Koiari people and the local flora and fauna.
Imagine a traditional gateway through which trekkers pass to the beat of kundu drums as they depart from or arrive at Owers Corner – one that symbolises the arrival or departure of ground sacred to our shared wartime heritage with PNG.
Imagine a signpost that listed all the significant battlesites and villagers with the distances from Owers Corner.
Imagine having the opportunity to trek down to the Goldie River for a bar-b-que – or stay overnight in traditional village huts – or trek to Imita Ridge and back.
Such facilities and opportunities would warrant an entry fee of K15 per person.
Imagine how happy the Owers Corner community would be with that!