Edited extracts from a submission by Adventure Kokoda on the welfare of Papua New Guinean guides and carriers engaged in the Kokoda trekking industry. Link here to the full submission
PORT MORESBY - The welfare of PNG guides and carriers has been a contentious subject for some years, however the recent death of a carrier who was allegedly overloaded by an Australian trek operator has brought the issue of their exploitation to the forefront of the debate.
A recent forum organised by the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) in Brisbane resulted in the CEO of PNG Tourism calling for a response to the issues raised but which could not be properly addressed due to agenda and time constraints.
This response to the draft minutes of the forum is based on the collective views of Adventure Kokoda trek leaders who have a combined total of 130 years professional army experience and who have led more than 520 expeditions across the trail over the past 27 years.
Our experience in protecting the welfare of our local guides and carriers is in line with the conclusions reached by Dr Geoffrey Vernon, Regimental Medical Officer for the 39th Battalion during the Kokoda campaign of World War II.
The KTA forum was conducted at short notice with insufficient time to prepare detailed submissions for discussion. As it transpired it was more of a briefing session. No notices of motion were provided, none was moved and the only substantive decision taken was to have another forum in May 2019.
The minutes of the previous Tour Operators Forum held in Cairns on 14-15 November were not tabled nor discussed in accordance with normal protocols. These minutes have now been outstanding for more than a year and the fact they have never been produced after trek operators went to considerable expense to attend is indicative of either negligent administration or a cover-up of some sort.
The welfare of PNG guides and carriers was first addressed at a KTA forum in Sydney on 17-18 March 2015. The following resolution was passed:
“The meeting agreed with the provision of a trek uniform unique to each trek operator however the compulsory provision of a sleeping bag and mat was resisted due to the cost and the difficulty in maintaining control of issued stock.
“Mr Martin Pusinelli, a consultant with the TPA advised that he had spoken with many trek operators and some had advised of their negative observations regarding the welfare of PNG guides and carriers. This could lead to a negative image for the trekking industry.”
The ‘resistance’ came from Australian trek operators who later established the Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) to protect their financial interests.
No action was taken on any resolution passed at the 2013 forum and nothing has happened since.
The welfare issue was raised again four years later at the KTA Tour Operators Forum held in Port Moresby on 8 November 2017. The meeting was attended by 63 delegates representing provincial and local level governments, landowners and trek operators. The following motion was passed unanimously:
Pack weights be reduced to 18 kg;
Porters to be provided with proper sleeping bag and ground sheet;
Take home travel allowance of K250 upon completion of the trek; and
Increase minimum wage from K60 to K70 per day.
KTA officials were then required to table the motion for discussion at the Australian Tour Operators Forum scheduled for the following week in Cairns on 14 November 2017.
For reasons known only to KTA officials the motions were not tabled nor discussed. The representative of the proposed Porters and Guides Association who accompanied the KTA CEO and Operations Officer to Cairns did not attend the meeting and the minutes of the forum have never been produced.
This begs the following questions:
Why were the Minutes not tabled or discussed at the Cairns forum?
Why did the representative of the Porters and Guides Association absent himself from the meeting?
Was the motion discussed ‘out of session’ between KTA officials and the Kokoda Tour Operators Association KTOA)?
Why have the minutes of the Cairns forum never been released?
Whatever the reason the KTOA was able to successfully delay investing in the welfare for guides and carriers they engage for another 12 months – a good result for their shareholders but not so good for the subsistence villagers they employ.
The KTOA website advises that “members of the association collectively represent more than 75% of trekker number across Kokoda”.
This is fake information.
The KTOA membership represents just one- third, that is, 29% of the 37 trek operators licensed by the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA). Of the 11 KTOA members one is inactive and one is unlicensed.
According to KTA records a total of 3,267 trekkers crossed the trail in 2017 – of these 2,053 (62%) went with KTOA members.
The most abhorrent practice the KTOA advocates is the overloading of carriers by its members and their use of fake research to justify it.
In September 2017 a PNG carrier engaged by a member of the KTOA died on the trail – according to the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) Ranger at Owers Corner, the deceased carrier was overloaded with a 28 kg backpack.
Rather than addressing the problem the KTOA accused the KTA ranger of altering his records without providing any evidence to support their claim.
A preliminary investigation by the Sogeri police sergeant, Max Maso, contradicts their claim: “‘It is evident that the group on this particular trip… engaged by… [KTOA tour operator]… were all overloaded in breach to Code of Conduct stipulated under this code”.
Rather than accepting that there is a problem with the overloading of carriers the KTOA went into damage control after Adventure Kokoda advised that the maximum weight allowed for the PNG wartime carriers in 1942 was 18 kg.
On 26 February 2018 the KTOA posted an irrational response to this fact on Facebook:
“Any operator[i] continuing to use references to conditions and weights carried by carriers on the Kokoda Track in 1942 is still living in the dark colonial days long past. Clearly the welfare of the carriers of the Kokoda campaign was not of primary concern of their colonial masters. Suggestions made recently that the carriers during the war were restricted to carrying 18kgs is a gross misrepresentation of the brutal conditions in which the carriers worked.”
The reference KTOA quoted to justify their exploitation of PNG carriers was an unofficial essay written by a junior summer vacation student at the Australian War Memorial.
The facts are anything but a “gross misrepresentation of the brutal conditions in which the carriers worked” as stated by the KTOA.
The most authentic research on the history of the Kokoda Trail was published by Stuart Hawthorne in 2003. Hawthorne provides a detailed assessment of the reality of the conditions under which the wartime carriers worked and noted that: “One of Dr Vernon’s first actions was to have the carriers’ maximum load officially reduced from 50 lbs (23 kg), transferred from pre-war days, to 40 lbs (18 kg).”
The maximum weight of 18 kg for wartime carriers is also referred to in a book entitled ‘The Third Force. ANGAU’s New Guinea War 1942-46’: “They and their native police recruited the carriers, organised loads of 40 lbs (18 kg) per man and sent them on their way.”
The KTOA was not deterred by these facts and responded with more fake research on 10 March 2018: “In the Kokoda Museum we read that during the war Porters had to carry up to 27kg. So someone must be right (obviously the KTOA) and someone must be wrong (obviously Adventure Kokoda) about what porters carried.”
The information they relied upon for this quote was an unreferenced extract attributed to Major HD (‘Blue’) Steward, Regimental Medical Officer, 2/16 Australian Infantry Battalion which read: “The Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) recruited carriers for the Australian Army. Although better treated, these ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, as they were affectionately known, worked long hours in tortuous conditions, often carrying loads of 60lb (27 kg).”
This is a fake reference – there is no record of this statement in Major Steward’s book ‘Recollections of a Regimental Medical Officer’. In his published recollections Major Steward wrote:
“Medical care for the people of Papua and New Guinea was usually not a direct responsibility of mine, close though I was to them in their gallant work of carrying out our wounded on the Kokoda Trail. In those days they were grossly overworked and overloaded, as well as being underfed and ill-clothed.
“It was largely through medical advice – including that of old Dr Vernon – that their lot improved. The carriers had their burdens reduced to a maximum of 40 lbs (18 kg), hours of work were reduced to something approaching reason, rest days were provided, and blankets and sweaters were issued to protect them in the cold mountains”…..
The KTA is not a legitimate authority on this issue. The original maximum weight of 25 kg was established in 2009 by the Australian CEO of the KTA who had recently arrived in PNG and had never trekked Kokoda – he therefore knew nothing of the brutal conditions over the 138 km trail.
The CEO accepted the advice of Australian tour operators who were aware of the commercial opportunities of leading treks across the trail and who obviously wanted to minimise their costs. The advice of experienced operators who had been leading treks across the trail for more than a decade prior to his arrival was ignored…..
KTOA members are not required to provide their PNG carriers with sleeping bags and mats. These items are essential for protection from the cold and wet conditions that prevail across the Owen Stanley Ranges. This contravenes Guideline 2 of the Trekking Ethics of the International Porters Association which states: “Above the tree line porters should have… a sleeping mat and a decent blanket or sleeping bag.”
PNG carriers come from subsistence villages along the trail. Those lucky enough to get a job in Port Moresby are paid the basic rate of 60 cents an hour. This means they would have to work for seven weeks to be able to afford a basic sleeping bag and mat of their own.
This is an unrealistic expectation which means they often have to huddle together to endure wet ground and freezing temperatures in the Mount Koiari area of the Owen Stanley Ranges while the Australian trekkers they are supporting enjoy the warmth of a sleeping bag in a sheltered area…..
The KTOA has been successful in influencing/intimidating the KTA to avoid their responsibilities over the welfare issue for the past five years by delaying debate on the issue.
Perhaps it’s time now for the KTA to do a review of the KTOA which was established by a group of Australian trek operators to protect their own interests.
At first glance their website indicates that their corporate ideals are beyond reproach and their “collective desire to see real, short and long term benefits to the Kokoda Track (sic) communities, landowners, Porters, Guides, Carriers and PNG stakeholders” is laudable.
But in reality individual members of the KTOA have been honing their skills at dodging their responsibilities for years.
When the KTA was established an Australian operator successfully ‘influenced’ the new organisation to introduce a 50% discount for students as these made up a large proportion of their clientele. PNG thus became the first and only country in the world to require subsistence villagers to subsidise wealthy Australian private school students.
Another member of the KTOA had previously been caught out trying to sneak 378 trekkers across the trail without trek permits which denied local villages their fair share of benefits from the trekking industry. So much for their ‘collective desire to see real, short and long term benefits to the Kokoda Track (sic) communities!’
The KTOA has been shameless in their ongoing attempts to use fake research to justify their exploitation of the local guides and carriers they engage.
KTOA members have provision in their trek booking conditions to increase the price of their treks in the event of a cost increase by a third party such as the KTA.
The 2019 Kokoda trekking season does not start until April 2019 – this allows adequate time for their members to adjust their prices in order to provide for the basic welfare of their guides and carriers.