JOSIE KRITTER | The Catalyst | Edited
COLORADO, USA - Papua New Guinea is often seen as one of the world’s last unexplored frontiers and stereotyped as tribal, underdeveloped, and primitive, says Dr Paige West, Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College in the USA.
Dr West has spent the last two decades working with the people of PNG and her goal is to shed light on a vibrant culture, the effects of decolonisation and their conservation efforts.
She said that Melanesian culture is widely misunderstood and tends to be seen through a Euro-American and Australian lens.
Dr West explained how much of the information filtering through to the world outside comes from “surfers, photographers, economists, and conservationists.” Over the years, she has interviewed and observed each group, along with the indigenous people, to capture a full understanding of where the misconceptions about the country come from.
Dr West explained how surfers acted like it was “the wild, wild west.” In an interview, one said, “One minute you can be in the water right alongside [a local], and then the next they can be slitting your throat.”
She noticed that, as she continued to interview the same tourists over the years, their stories became increasingly “savage” and always emphasised the uncivilised nature of the indigenous people. In contrast, Dr West has found the exact opposite.
“The surfers eventually stopped coming back as the novelty of the ‘savage’ wore off, and they found that they were just regular people,” she said.
The photographers often claim that they are “capturing a dying culture” with their photos of tribal ceremonies and villagers. Dr West explained how this is also misinformation.
From an anthropological perspective, she said the culture we see as Papua New Guinean was created by westerners. Many of the images that come out of this region of “primitive people” are often either staged by the photographer or portray a single, special day of the year when they dress up in traditional attire to celebrate a holiday.
For example, photographer David Kirkland produces stunning photos from this area of the world but they are often terribly inaccurate representations that maintain a visual trope for capital gain. Dr West implored the audience to support local PNG photographers if they truly wanted to see what life was like there.
The issue with economists, Dr West explained, is that they see “money as a means of corruption” for a society “not ready for modernity.” Because of this bias, West found many entrepreneurs in Papua New Guinea struggling to get bank loans to start up their businesses.
In classic colonial style, the world still views these people as infantile and unable to take on the modern world. With their tradition of collective land use, the capitalist economy model that much of the rest of the world uses is not as effective there and results in the industrialized world viewing them as underdeveloped.
In reality, while there are large amounts of poverty, money is fully understood, and there are growing cosmopolitan areas. Simply put, they cultivate a different lifestyle.
Conservationists are another group spreading misinformation. Dr West recalled meeting with representatives from ExxonMobil to plan out where a biodiversity offset fund would be spent after the company’s pipeline was installed.
At this point of her presentation, she began to get emotional as she explained how the representatives dismissed the local scientists’ plans and proceeded to make racially charged comments at the meeting.
Although the Papua New Guineans had PhDs, they were not seen as “capable” of handling the $100 million set aside for the fund. Luckily, this issue was taken to PNG’s parliament and resolved and the scientists of the island were able to allocate the funds properly.
Dr West emphasised repeatedly that “international development was in the business of misinformation.”
The idea of Papua New Guinea as an endless frontier is a dangerous myth that breeds gentrification. In reality, it is a vibrant culture with a strong government that just so happens to have its feet in both modernity and tradition.