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The end of an era of Kokoda Trail mismanagement

Charlie Lynn
Charlie Lynn OL OAM

CHARLIE LYNN | Kokoda Treks Blog

SYDNEY - The recent departure of the Papua New Guinea CEO of the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) brings an end to a sorry saga of Australian mismanagement along the Kokoda Trail.

Prior to the arrival of Australian officials in 2008, the emerging Kokoda trekking industry was managed by Warren Bartlett, a former kiap on a PNG salary of $12,500.

During his tenure trekker numbers grew from 365 in 2002 to 5,621 in 2008 – a massive increase of 1,440%. Bartlett had no staff but was assisted by a part-time local secretary.

Under a ‘joint’ understanding signed by the Australian and PNG governments in 2008, Bartlett was replaced by an Australian CEO on an eye-watering six-figure salary and with a tenfold increase in staff and multi-million dollar budget.

The department of veterans affairs (DVA), which among other things has responsibility for our World War I heritage at Gallipoli and the Western Front in Europe, was not included in the ‘joint’ understanding apart from the allocation of $1 million for unspecified purposes.

There is no evidence that any of this money was allocated to the development of a master plan to protect and interpret our military heritage along the trail.

It is also remains unclear why DVA are responsible for World War I military heritage at Gallipoli and the environment and foreign affairs departments are responsible for our World War II heritage at Kokoda.

After a decade of environment department stewardship, the results speak for themselves. Despite a conga-line of Australian environmental consultants and more than $60 million of taxpayers’ funds, trekker numbers declined by 36% from 5,621 in 2008 to 3,597 in 2012.

None of the five key strategies or 33 objectives of the department’s ‘KTA Strategic Plan 2012-2015’ was achieved despite numerous capacity building conferences, forums, workshops, gender equity studies and social mapping initiatives conducted in Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney and Port Moresby.

It was instructive that not a single workshop was conducted in a village along the Kokoda Trail as part of developing the plan. It’s as if local villagers were not deemed to be smart enough to understand what they needed.

The $1.3 million ‘village livelihoods program’ conceived in Canberra without any consultation with then PNG community development minister, Dame Carol Kidu, failed to generate an extra dollar in income for local village communities.

The ‘KTA Strategic Plan: 2012-2015’ did not provide for the development of a master plan to protect and interpret our shared wartime heritage along the Kokoda Trail. It was as if The two Australian government departments were ideologically opposed to commemoration.

In 2012 the Australian CEO left without putting a single management protocol in place for the PNG-designate CEO he selected. For reasons known only to him, his successor did not have prior business experience or qualifications and did not receive management training during his tenure. It’s as if he was set up to fail.

As it transpired the PNG-designate CEO inherited an impossible management structure without any legislative support. He was responsible to three PNG ministers (provincial & local level government, environment & conservation and tourism). In addition, he had to deal with complex demands from a myriad of landowners, villagers and up to 80 trek operators with competing interests.

Not a single management protocol by the Australian CEO during a three-year tenure: no database; no campsite booking system; no trek itinerary management system; no campsite development program; no trail maintenance plan; no effective ranger system; nor any development programs to assist local villagers in value-adding to the emerging industry.

Of more concern is the fact that he never trekked the trail until the end of his tenure. The needs of local villagers and the protection of our shared military heritage were abstract concepts to him.

After his departure, the situation deteriorated to such an extent that PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill called for a review of the dysfunctional mess the PNG-designate CEO and his team inherited. Unfortunately O’Neill was deftly ‘left-footed’ by Australian officials intent on maintaining their status-quo. DFAT agreed to fund the review and terms of reference were carefully drafted to shape the outcome.

It was no surprise to Kokoda watchers that the former environment department employee assigned to the KTA, who had since established his own environmental consultancy, got the job, and it was no surprise that his review recommended more of the same with a possible name change.

As a result, the management of the Kokoda Track Authority has been placed in limbo. Local villagers continue to be denied their rightful share of benefits from the trekking industry; guides and carriers continue to be overloaded, underpaid and ill-equipped; and trekker numbers continue to decline.

If Kokoda is to have a future that honours and interprets our wartime heritage and delivers shared benefits to landowners and local communities along the trail the review must be rejected.

In the meantime, an administrator should be appointed for a two to three year period while tenders for a legitimate review are sought from established PNG-based accounting firms to examine alternative management models and make appropriate recommendations for a structure that meets the needs of paying customers, that is, trekkers, as well as local village communities and which honours our shared wartime heritage.

Until then PNG should place an immediate ban on ‘fly in – fly out’ Australian consultants.


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Rashmii Bell

The Kokoda Track Foundation (KTF) funded by DFAT denied my sole and rightful authorship of 'Butterflies Along the Track' - the children's book to commemorate the 75 year anniversary of the Kokoda Campaign.

Instead, KTF chose to place only their badging and use my title for the book's front cover. My name was nowhere to be seen. I was given the consolation of a thanks for "artistic guidance" in the inset page.

Despite my ongoing (+12 months) public requests for a formal apology, Genevieve Nelson has refused to acknowledge KTF's gross error in erasing my authorship.

I was not commissioned, nor was I invited to received royalties when KTF made an attempt to retail the book via their website. I consider this a clear case of exploitation of indigenous knowledge, skill and talent.

The then deputy Australian High Commissioner Bronte Moules was equally resistant when I raised my concerns with her about what I believe to be KTF's unethical conduct.

You can read more on this issue via a series of articles published on PNG Attitude including this:

By the way, "state of the art facility" is misleading. I taught at KTF's college in KouKou in July 2017. Unless they now have full running electricity, septic toilets and showers and chairs and tables for all students in all their classrooms, and an indoor cooking facility for their College kitchen, it remains a very basic compound.

Even Sefoa Primary School (Tufi coastline) has benches for all students to sit on in the classrooms. I taught there in May 2017.

Robert L Parer CMG MBE

Unfortunately most people would not realise that the Kokoda Track Authority (KTF) has no connection with the Kokoda Track Foundation (KTF ).

In 2003 the PNG government established a Kokoda Track (Special Purpose) Authority (the KTA) as a statutory government body of the Koiari and Kokoda local-level governments to manage the emerging Kokoda trekking industry and ensure local villages across the trail received shared benefits from it.

Unfortunately it has not worked out as it was envisaged as you can see in the article.

The Kokoda Track Foundation is an international aid organisation working in Papua New Guinea. The foundation was established in 2003 and supports the indigenous people of that country.

The Foundation provides education, health, and community service programmes such as disaster relief, microbusiness promotion and sustainable ecotourism.

History of the Kokoda Track Foundation

The Kokoda Track Foundation is an Australian not-for-profit organisation that works with the communities living along and around the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Following its formation in 2003, the KTF funded and prepared a Strategic Plan for Tourism for the Kokoda Track. The Kokoda Track Foundation lobbied for, and on 11 June 2003, the PNG government established, the Kokoda Track Special Purpose Authority (KTA).

The KTA's first action was the development of an ecotrekking strategy to enable the people along the track "to optimise the benefits from tourism and enable them to take a leading role in their own development".The Foundation initially started provided young children in PNG with school scholarships.

The chairman of KTF was author, journalist and TV presenter Patrick Lindsay and Dr Genevieve Nelson is the executive director. A board member is Bill James (co-founder of Flight Centre).

The foundation currently works in four main areas: education, health, community development and micro-business.

It has achieved amazing results in all these fields and also Disaster Relief,Teacher Training, Fred Archer Leadership Scholars Program, 5,000 Solar Lights for the villages along the Track and the state-of-the-art training facility Kokoda College based in remote Kou Kou village Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel Scholarships.

The Foundation supports elementary, primary, secondary and tertiary students with Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel Scholarships.

The scholarships cover students' tuition fees, educational resources and uniform, food, and boarding (where applicable). In 2014, the foundation provided more than 450 students with scholarships.

Rashmii Bell

Very disappointed to learn that KTA's CEO has left office without acknowledging or replying to my email regarding my extensive list of concerns following my August 2018 end-end trek of the Trail.

In the same way I am disappointed that today marks exactly one month since I emailed PNG's Secretary for Conservation and Environmental Protection Authority (CEPA) with the same concerns. I had assumed he would be receptive to a PNG trekker's views.

I can only hope that PNG NMAG can take some form of leadership in insisting the voices of the stakeholders (ie Trail communities, PNG Carriers, ethical trek operators, provincial government) are not only consulted but are also included in the implementation of the military heritage plan.

Which, by the way - I am curious to know who in the working group of this plan has actually trekked the Trail from end-end with no helicopter rides in between.

Lindsay F Bond

As when hardy venturers first traversed to headwaters of rivers of Oro in search of ore, the visitors were mining their own business; their goal was gold.

As with all ventures at mining, a question rising beyond the period of ‘carry-out’ wealth, is of whether there is value to be derived from further ‘carry-in’ wealth.

From 1890s, folk living along Oro rivers were and still are unable to entice much of ‘carry-in’ wealth.

From events of 1942, folk identified as proximate to parts of paths between Moresby and Buna have sensed a ‘carry-in’ weald of influence and intrusion, yet little of sought wealth and less that is shared.

As where with Potts an invasion was fought to point of exhaustion, a point made clear by Lynn is that a ‘carry-in’ – ‘carry-out’ contusion is no small bruise of ruse atop misconstrued ideological inroads. Contesting commerce and dismissive dialogue incur injury to the body of concept, inhibiting distribution.

Awaiting entrepreneurial adventure are other Oro treks, peaking at Sumbiripa or crossing its crevassed watercourses or visiting battlefield beaches, walks of a level beyond Kokoda (well…north of), and all accessible via the new Girua airport. Catch a connecting flight at Jackson Airport, thus avoid Moresby.

Chips Mackellar

This is a disturbing situation Charlie, and one which could easily be remedied by a little bit of encouragement from our federal government.

We now have a new hands-on prime minister and a couple of notable ex-diggers in parliament, for example Senator (ex Major General) Molan and former SAS Captain Andre Hastie.

They could go into DFAT and knock a few heads together and get something done. Have you tried contacting them?

Hugh Tavonavona

I was part of a so-called social mapping exercise some four years ago. What I saw and heard from the village people was quite 'interesting' despite millions of kina pumped into various Kokoda Trail programs.

The blame is squarely on the Australian and PNG governments and the bureaucratic system set up with the people (both Australian & PNGeans) who run these programs.

My father lost his father when he was five years old in 1945 (in that war) and is buried at Sangara.

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