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Kokoda: Is world heritage ambition killing the military heritage?

WW2 troops on the Kokoda TrailCHARLIE LYNN | Edited

SYDNEY - Since Australian environment officials assumed control of the Kokoda trekking industry in 2009, trekker numbers have declined by almost 50% from 5,621 in 2008 to 3,033 in 2018 – despite an injection of more than $50 million of aid funding.

The official response to the decline invariably refers to an aircraft crash in 2009 and a couple of deaths around the same period. The reality today is that, whenever the crash site is pointed out to trekkers, the usual response is ‘what crash?’

Prior to the discovery of the $3 billion Kodu gold and copper deposit on the southern slopes of the Kokoda Trail near Mt Bini there was no interest in the area or its people from either the PNG or Australian governments.  The appearance of bulldozers from Frontier Resources in 2006 changed that.

Concerns about the impact on the Trail and all it represents together with a technical hitch in the approval process led to the annulment of the license. A plan was then hatched to assist PNG to develop a case for a world heritage listing for the Owen Stanley Ranges.

Environment officials were dispatched from Canberra to learn about PNG – its people, the place and the Trail. The potential for extended careers and an endless loop of consultancies in pursuance of an ideological agenda was soon apparent.

The wartime history of the Kokoda campaign was sidelined early in the process because military heritage is not a relevant factor for a World Heritage listing.

The rapid increase in trekker numbers posed a dilemma for Canberra-based envirocrats, who had to appear to support wartime heritage while subverting its significance. They were also faced with the challenge of being seen to support trekking while working out how to limit it.

Their strategy involved hijacking the word ‘Kokoda’ to give relevance to their agenda and embedding ‘advisors’ in PNG government organisations including Kokoda Track Authority (KTA), Kokoda Development Program (KDP), Kokoda Initiative (KI), Conservation Environment Protection Authority (CEPA), Office of the Minister for Environment, Conservation and Climate Change (ECCC) and National Museum and Art Gallery (NMAG).

The advisors soon learned that PNG officials would look favourably at any proposal funded by the Australian aid program. This allowed them to respond to any challenge to their agenda by saying ‘this is what PNG wants’.

Their strategy also included the engagement of Australian consultants to generate a range of reports on esoteric environmental cultural and social issues.

These reports are rarely distributed for discussion and are not available on any webpages for review. The few that have been made public do not stand up to critical analysis and most are indecipherable for the average reader.

But after a decade of this, it is now possible to identify the three pillars of the Australian strategy and the indicators of a hidden agenda.

The first pillar was an innocuous notice planted within the May 2009 KTA Newsletter which advised that:

“A track analysis will be undertaken shortly to determine the works program required to repair the Track to Australian standards for Class 4 walking trails.  This is a minimum standard and seeks to provide sustainable use for the Track.  Once this report is complete it will be circulated.”

The report was never circulated. An internet search for ‘Australian standards for Class 4 walking trails’ revealed why.

Class 4 Standards reflect an extreme environmental agenda. They are based on providing trekkers with “frequent opportunities for solitude with few encounters with others”.  The maximum width for such a trail is half-a-metre. Bridges are not to be provided “except for essential environmental purposes”.  Campsites are not to allow for more than four tents.

Toilets “of minimal design are to be provided only where necessary for environmental purposes”.  The recommend trek group size is six but a “party size of four will be encouraged”. Furthermore “all publicity will be discouraged – authors will be encouraged to keep route descriptions vague – photographers and publishers will be encouraged not to identify precise locations”.

But the sting in the tail for the future of the Kokoda trekking industry was their final provision:

“Licenses may be issued on condition that guided parties conform to the recommended party size limit and to the guidelines relating to the publicity of tracks and destinations.”

If these provisions are included in the eventual legislation for a world heritage listing for the Owen Stanley Ranges it will be game over for trekking and for the livelihoods of village communities along the trail.

Unfortunately the first we will find out about this will be when the legislation is proclaimed as there is no provision for public scrutiny via Parliamentary committees or independent reviews in the PNG system. Once proclaimed it will never be revoked because of the cost and complexity of the process.

An interim strategy towards this goal was a subtle tactic to undermine the effectiveness of the PNG management system which had seen a dramatic 255% increase in trekkers from 76 in 2001 to 5,621 in 2008.

What other explanation can there be for the fact that, since Canberra assumed control of the trekking industry in 2009, there has been a 46% decrease in trekker numbers and failure to introduce a single management protocol?

Not one of the five strategies or 33 objectives planned for 2012-2015 was achieved. After a decade it is still not possible to book a campsite. There is no trek itinerary management system. There is no campsite development plan. There is no trail maintenance plan. There is no provision for the welfare of PNG guides and porters.

There is no micro-economic development plan for local villagers. They have not conducted a single village workshop to determine local needs. There is not a single toilet that meets the most basic hygiene standards along the entire trail – obviously in accordance with their Class 4 walking trails standard.

The second pillar of their strategy relates to the military heritage of the Kokoda campaign.

If the name ‘Kokoda’ had not been associated with the proposed Kodu goldmine near Mr Bini it would have been unremarkable and would now be operational.

The Chinese funded $260 million Edevu Hydro project, which will dam the Brown River and flood the catchment area, will guarantee the future water supply for Port Moresby. A study of a map of the Mt Bini goldmine on the southern slopes to the west of the Maguli Range shows that the Brown River catchment would have been well protected from any mining-forestry activity in the area.

Environment officials have never accepted the fact that the wartime history of the Kokoda campaign is the primary reason Australians want to trek the Trail. Post-trek surveys indicate they don’t do it to have an ‘environmental levitation’ or a ‘cultural awakening’ – they do it to walk in the footsteps of our troops, to experience the conditions under which they fought and died, to hear their stories and to challenge themselves.

Unfortunately for the villagers along the trail, Australia’s environmental ideology is opposed to commemoration and pilgrimage.

The ongoing challenge for envirocrats embedded in PNG government organisations is how to create the impression of an interest in the wartime significance of the Kokoda campaign while subtly subverting it.

The fact they have not produced a military heritage master plan to identify, protect, honour and interpret the Kokoda campaign over the past 10 years indicates their disregard for commemoration – as is their failure to develop a single memorial along the Trail during the decade they have been responsible for it.

Their recent attempt to create an impression of interest in the military heritage of the Trail fails the test of transparency and intent.

Why, for example, would they advertise for a ‘National Military Heritage Advisor’ during our peak holiday season (22 December 2017 – 8 January 2018) and only distribute it to a small group of selected institutions? Why was the Australian War Memorial excluded from the distribution list?

The process resulted in the appointment as Australia’s National Military Heritage Advisor in PNG of an American anthropologist with no qualifications in military history.

It simply doesn’t pass the sniff test.

One can only conclude that the wartime heritage of the trail is both an irritation and an impediment to the environmental agenda for a world heritage listing. While the listing will secure the environment of the Owen Stanleys against the potential ravages of mining, forestry, agriculture and trekking, remote villagers will be forever consigned to a subsistence lifestyle – only to be visited at irregular intervals by small groups of eco-evangelists in search of gaia.

The third pillar of their strategy relates to being seen to develop village communities while in fact disempowering them.

Over the past decade schools have been built without any provision for a regular supply of educational materials or teacher development – and health centres constructed without any provision for a regular supply of medicine to meet local community needs.

A million dollar ‘Village Livelihoods Project’ was introduced without any consultation with PNG – it inevitably failed without producing a single vegetable from a local garden or generating a single dollar in additional income for local villagers.

It’s not that Australian officials have been inactive during their lucrative tax-free posting cycles to Port Moresby. There has been an abundance of glossy brochures produced, consultants reports to digest, evasive communiques to transmit, an endless loop of meetings, forums; workshops, capacity building initiatives, social mapping projects, gender equity studies and extravagant PowerPoint presentations – virtually all one without stepping on the Trail to meet a villager or a trekker!

It would be wrong to assume that all Australians working on the Kokoda Initiative are part of the deception. Many of them are dedicated to their jobs and the longer they stay in PNG the more they like the place and the people.

However one doesn’t have to be in conversation with them for very long to hear of a deep-seated resentment for the directions they receive from their environmental masters in Canberra.

It would also be wrong to assume that Australians who trek the Trail are not environmentalists: the pristine nature of the local environment is one of the many treasured memories for trekkers who would be aghast at any activity that denuded it in any way.

Notwithstanding this, veterans’ organisations, trekkers and villagers have every cause to be very afraid. If the Class 4 Standards for walking trails is legislated as part of the provisions for a world heritage listing for the Owen Stanley Ranges it will be goodbye to commemoration, goodbye to trekking and goodbye to any opportunity for villagers along the Kokoda Trail to become economically self-reliant.


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Chips Mackellar

Charlie, who are the Australian environment officials who have assumed control of the Kokoda trekking industry?

If we know who they are, maybe we can impress upon them that it is not the environment, but the wartime history of the Kokoda campaign which is the primary reason why people walk the Trail, and why we should maintain the Trail in trekable condition.

If you are not comfortable naming these people here, perhaps you could email me this information to
[email protected]

Rashmii Bell

Class 4 Standards sound all good in theory but in my opinion, in application to the Trail, the theory is very much detached from reality.

Maybe a survey of past trekkers' experience would prove useful.

Even when trekking with a group of 30+, the ideal of "frequent opportunities for solitude with few encounters with others" is being achieved - with all your mental efforts focused.

You're nowhere else but in your mind trying to climb up to Imita Ridge, Ioribaiwa village and the grind up to the Maguli Range.

A full day out at Lake Myola is enough to make you feel that you are "away" from the Trail, PNG...this world even.

A 0.5 metre wide trail is just unrealistic and impractical, especially if you're with a personal carrier and you're communicating with them, trying to develop rapport with them, understand their culture, their way of life - you know, the kinds of things you might like to learn about when you've paid money to travel to another country for an experience.

That and also heavily relying on carriers for your safety during the safety-measures free, hazardous trek.

"Bridges are not to be provided except for exceptional environmental purposes" and "toilets of minimal design" - well, achieving these targets are on track with little effort or amendments required. ( See 'Trail of Woe' series here on the blog).

If Class 4 Standards are being pursued for final legislation for world heritage listing, then I would expect too that provisions will included detailing how the Papua New Guinean men who've been employed (and receive as their main income) in the trek tourism industry will be supported with transitioning into alternate employment options and human resource development and training.

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