BRISBANE – The words were handwritten on a torn white plastic sheet, and the images appeared on Australia’s Channel 9 news on Sunday.
Reason for collection of gate fees
- You trekkers payed K350.00 to KTA, but that never reach the landowners in terms of service for the last 10 years
- For the last 10 years landowners never received ward allocation
- The landowners want KTA chairman to step down before gate will be open
- For that reason, we are collecting half of that K350.00 which is K175.00 for road to pass through
Plis pay K175.00 cash now to walk
On Remembrance Day, journalist Tim Davies presented a disturbing news story even as companion media were beginning to focus on the exorbitant expenditure of staging the APEC meetings in Port Moresby.
Davies succinctly reported on the modern-day battle that is taking place along PNG’s historic wartime Kokoda Trail.
Footage of an expansive lawn, a hauswin and shirtless small children playing were overshadowed by audio of loud voices ricocheting around a quiet village. The camera cut to trek operator Adventure Kokoda staff and several village people engage in strained but peaceful negotiations.
Davies described how the Papua New Guinea government agency, Kokoda Track Authority (KTA), charged each trekker a fee of K350 (approximately $145) to walk the Trail.
Trekkers pay this fee to their tour operator which then forwards it to KTA. The fee is intended to develop the communities whose land is tramped through year-round as visitors from around the globe (but predominantly Australians) undertake pilgrimages along the wartime route and across battle sites.
It was clear from the news footage that not everyone is benefiting from the million kina revenue stream generated. Community members told Davies they have not seen trekker fee payments translated into their daily lives for at least the past three years.
Davies also interviewed long-time friend of PNG and Kokoda Trail communities’ advocate, Charlie Lynn.
Lynn said that in the 27 years his trek company, Adventure Kokoda, has been operating, the dissatisfaction of Trail communities is “the worst it has ever been”.
Standing alongside the Papua New Guinean Adventure Kokoda trek guide, both Lynn and Rowell were filmed engaged in discussion with disgruntled villagers. Their aim was to bring temporary relief to simmering grievances, which have received no effective long-term resolution from the Port Moresby-based joint PNG-Australia management.
It’s a real problem for trek tour operators. The recent barricades at both Kovello and Alolo villages resulted in Adventure Kokoda having to pay an K6,300 ($3,100) to pass through. This was in addition to the K6,300 trekker fees paid by the company to KTA prior to the trek.
This week Lynn informed KTA management of the incidents, of the ensuing dialogue with upset villagers and the additional expenses incurred to his company.
As he has done in past years, Lynn offered his company’s long-standing rapport and open dialogue with Trail communities to support the PNG-Australia management body in reaching a sustainable solution.
He is awaiting a response.
Erecting barricades to demonstrate frustration at inept management is not a new act by Trail communities.
Earlier this year, blockades at Owers Corner, coinciding with Anzac Day pilgrimages, disrupted the onset of the 2018 trekking peak-season. Adventure Kokoda staffer Fiona Foster described how last month her trek group encountered the aftermath of protest when approaching Isurava campsite.
While it was not as confronting as the experience of Bernie Rowell’s group, the young Australian trekkers were unsettled by the tense atmosphere of the encounter.
Foster also spoke of a barricade erected at the Isurava memorial in 2015. Landowners sought an additional cash payment of K50 from each trekker. “I was gutted when I saw this as it is really the highlight for so many trekkers,” she said.
Accounts such as Foster’s and the Channel 9 News crew should be of great concern to the PNG-Australia Trail management, especially PNG’s Tourism Promotion Authority which should be actively involved in addressing the worries of land custodians and people directly impacted by trekking.
Tim Davies’ news story reinforced the questions raised in my recent series of seven articles for PNG Attitude, published under the title, Trail Of Woe.
With an established pattern of the Kokoda Track Authority not delivering funding, Trail communities seem within their rights to demonstrate their dissatisfaction.
I have a small sense of that feeling. The KTA chief executive officer chairman has not responded to my correspondence of August in which I sought feedback on concerns I had raised after trekking the Trail that same month. Three months later, I don’t think he intends to get in touch.
In a September ABC radio interview, the same CEO deflected sole responsibility for his office’s capacity to deliver to Trail communities to other agencies including PNG’s Conservation Environment and Protection Authority, CEPA, and Australia’s Kokoda Initiative.
In the interview the CEO said if there was concern about community development funding, there was an urgent need for an audit of the Kokoda Initiative. He queried its expenditure of K186 million (!) in comparison to the mere K3,000 a quarter (!) he claimed is received by the KTA from trekkers’ fees.
Whilst Trail communities wait for formal resolution of this matter, it is evident that a concerted effort at accountability and redress must be demonstrated to the people of the Trail.
As the Channel 9 news story was broadcast into Australian homes that Sunday night, there was quite a contrast between the troubles on the Trail and the ‘mateship’ displayed between villagers, trek staff and trekkers, working together to ensure the safe passage of Australian trekkers, pilgrims on that sacred route.
It is too easy to take for granted the engaged and respectful dialogue, and the skilful negotiation at times of disagreement along the Trail. Yet, unlike the Kokoda Campaign of World War II, when an existential struggle was being waged, the Trail has been commercialised with many people benefiting from this state.
But some benefit much more than others, and in this discrepancy the interests of the custodians of the land and the guides and carriers are being downplayed.
What is totally unjustifiable is that those agencies and managers mandated to deliver sustainable, safe and equitable development along the Trail sit in relative anonymity, disengaged from and seemingly uninterested in the many problems that beset this iconic track.