KTA echo chamber – deaf ears, silos, checklists written in steam
07 May 2019
BRISBANE – How to best articulate the past eight months of futile dialogue with Kokoda Trail management and subsequent non-results for welfare reform for carriers and guides of the trek tourism industry?
It’s a question I much contemplate my unanswered pleas and the patrician-like silence of the key recipients of Papua New Guinea’s multi-million kina number one tourism activity.
The counsel to ‘write often’ and ‘write from the heart’ motivate my efforts to reinforce the repeated requests of the young Papua New Guinean men of the Trail – guides and carriers (porters) - who are asking the industry to enforce, with strict regulation, lighter-weight 18 kg packs, uniforms, safe sleeping gear, better safety measures and increased wages.
My observation and first-hand experience have been characterised by the uncomfortable reality that this is an industry that is controlled commercially by Australians and functioning relentlessly irrespective of Papua New Guinean decision-making and conflict-resolution. The time-rich, and I would argue more appropriate, Melanesian Way having been cast aside.
What is also evident is that poor engagement with Trail communities contributes to perpetuating the challenges that mar trek tourism.
Those Papua New Guineans – guides, carriers, communities – who contribute so much to the Trail experience are the least rewarded. Companies and trekkers do well, but not so those who contribute so much and whose livelihoods are often dependent upon Trail tourism.
For change to occur in the system, these Koiari and Orokaiva people – or their representatives - need to be on the inside not the outside. Indeed, it is a desire that community leaders from Isurava to Kokoda Station recently proclaimed, and not for the first time.
The carriers and guides, the Papua New Guinean labour, also need to be included and their welfare assessed and acted upon. This was the key motivation for my Trail of Woe series that caused such a stir when it was published, but has so far had no concrete results.
In an open letter to the Kokoda Track Authority’s interim CEO, I relayed a request from carriers and guides for them to be included in this month’s KTA tour operators forum in Port Moresby. They won’t be. Eight months after my letter there has been zero commitment, hardly acknowledgement, to a request to include carriers and guides in dialogue.
My own experience of the previous Kokoda Track Authority forum last November left me with strong feelings of frustration. I was privileged to have been invited by Adventure Kokoda’s Major Charlie Lynn and been there with the company’s general manager and staff.
I couldn't help eyeing off the ivory steam-pressed tablecloths bearing white china tea sets, glistening silver coffee urns, trays of warm pastries and mason jars of bircher muesli. But the well-stocked buffet in the corner of a plush Brisbane hotel conference room was only a backdrop to the forum (Australia-based operators only), also supported by the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority.
My attendance was an opportunity to broaden my understanding of the industry, to deepen my knowledge about the roles of the agencies heavy with acronyms and, I hoped, to participate in dialogue to raise the concerns relayed in Trail of Woe. But the series, despite its wide circulation, remained an unmentioned elephant looming over a room filled by the very people it addressed, and sought responses and action from.
I thought to myself that perhaps concerns conveyed by Papua New Guineans are not seen as credible, or relevant, or useful. They certainly weren’t seen as palatable through a white Australian lens.
Two significant things struck me.
First, the alphabet soup of PNG-agencies involved (KTA, TPA, CEPA and NMAG) made a lacklustre attempt at asserting their sovereignty, seeming in the thrall of Australian presence in the industry. Reform for the welfare of carriers and guides depends on the ability of Papua New Guinean decision-makers to take the lead. They didn’t.
Secondly, a degree of cohesion would be expected in an institution that has opted for a multi-agency management approach, but silos were what I observed.
The new (but interim) KTA CEO said he had prioritised finalising all outstanding payments to Trail landowners by January 2019. His also suggested paying landowners solely with revenue from fees and permits. Undoubtedly this will be of concern to trek operators who opted to forgo these payments when leading their clients along the Trail.
Fantastic was a presentation by PNG’s Conservation and Environment Protection Authority about its remarkable research and comprehensive documentation of Trail biodiversity, intended as a communication tool which ideally will target trekker tourists and fill the gap in flora and fauna education along the Trail.
PNG’s Tourism Promotion Authority outlined a 2019 highlighted by forming partnerships with trek operators to deliver joint campaigns to promote the Trail as a tourism product. I hope this will include a move away from perpetuating conditions endured by wartime carriers as acceptable for their modern-day counterparts.
The PNG National Museum and Art Gallery then stepped up with a PowerPoint presentation detailing a whirlwind of activity which had seemed to bypass consultation not only with the audience of trek operators but also with Trail communities.
An image of a galvanised steel box-like structure on short stilts was introduced as a community ‘museum’, with a short verandah extension defined as a ‘trade centre’ to alleviate the marginal economic participation of villagers in Trail commerce.
Interpretative panel mock-ups were also introduced as works in-progress that may contribute to countering the Trail’s existing dismal efforts at military history and commemoration.
A representative of the Australian High Commission in PNG spoke on the commitment and activities of the Kokoda Initiative, which in 2019 will apparently undertake projects including improving cooking facilities at campsites and providing training programs for carriers and guides.
It was a welcome update, although familiar, given my suggestions for these very projects in the Trail of Woe series.
Indiscreet were the Australian management personnel in possession of copies of the KTA interim CEO’s plans which had not being made available to Papua New Guinean forum participants. Whilst another Australian spoke on behalf of five projects to be undertaken by Anzac Day 2019, but no details were shared with the forum.
Then there was the muddled response to my question on the current atrocious conditions around Trail toilet facilities. What began as a comical deflection of responsibility became downright irritating as eventually they reached consensus that toilets had been a long-standing (no pun intended) concern, and still were.
Most significant, however, was the manner in which the forum careened past, in a near-mute discussion, the welfare and conditions of carriers and guides. Despite numerous attempts, these backbones of the industry continue to operate without a representative body, although there have been repeated efforts to form an Association.
So they weren’t at this forum bar one individual who had led past attempts and was a regular participant. Allocated just a few minutes, the regular outlined his plans to venture onto the Trail to meet carriers and guides, rehash the objectives of an Association and encourage their membership, and a fee. Mention was made of a corporate dinner to generate funds for the proposed Association and then he resumed his seat.
Then, given a brief window, an Adventure Kokoda staff member’s proposal for a firm decision to be made about enforcing an 18kg pack weight limit for carriers was again brushed aside and attention turned with apparent urgency to a review of Trail airstrip evacuation procedures.
Given the number of commentators, lack of clarity about priorities and absence of resolution in this forum, is it any wonder that carriers and guides have seen no movement towards enforcing welfare requirements to an ethical standard.
And what progress can we expect at the forum in Port Moresby tomorrow?
It seems almost certain the lack of forward movement on these critical issues will keep flowing forward into the future.
If you are finding the complexities of the Kokoda Trail wartime tourism to be overwhelming, I suggest that it is better you bypass the articles I write on this issue.
You have never been under any obligation to read my commentary, nor provide your comments that do nothing to advance the cause of Papua New Guinean men.
Divert your reading time elsewhere on the PNG Attitude blog. You may be of some help there.
Posted by: Rashmii Bell | 09 May 2019 at 11:37 AM
Why is this issue dragging on? As Chips and others suggested the fairly simple approach would be for the carriers to form their own association.
They can withdraw their labour, and negotiate with the trekking companies to get a reasonable rate of pay and reasonable conditions.
If the carriers push it too far, the trekking companies will defer or withdraw their services, thus resulting in a loss for everyone. I think the trekking companies would be willing to pay fair and reasonable conditions. It is to their commercial disadvantage not to.
Forget any involvement with government bodies - is there one which is fully functional and effective in PNG ? I doubt it.
The Kokoda track is slowly fading as the diggers from WW2 are slowly declining from our midst. It will turn into a museum piece in the near future.
I say this not out of disrespect for the WW2 servicemen and women - my father fought in the battle of the Coral Sea as a DC3 pilot.
He never spoke of it, never attended the memorial services, and on the one occasion he did say something (aided by quite a few scotches provided by me to deliberately lubricate his mind) was "I would rather not talk about it Andy - I just want to remember my colleagues who did not come back".
Posted by: Andy McNabb | 09 May 2019 at 10:07 AM
You make a good point Will.
The ills of PNG are manifold and the Kokoda Trail is very low on the list of things that need fixing.
I for one would be happy to see the whole Gallipoli/Kokoda circus put to bed.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 09 May 2019 at 08:59 AM
Robin, Chips and Phil - thank you for your comments. They are suggestions that I can certainly pass on in my communication with the Adventure Kokoda team.
However, my view is that it is of no benefit to the carriers and guides to pursue strike action.
This is based on the dismal industry pay rate, coupled with the fact that the majority average only 6 treks per year. Every toea counts for them, along with their multiple dependants.
The deafening silence of the Kokoda Tours Operators Association (KTOA) on this matter speaks volumes.
The KTOA is the representative body of Australian trek operators, of which the majority have membership.
Hence the irony of some members using images of carriers and guides and trekker testimonials in their social media marketing etc.
Chips, I agree with you. The futile dialogue with the industry management on this issue has come to its end.
Instead, I have shift my focus to those who have actual experience, and most often express their true appreciation of having walked alongside the carriers and guides, or commitment to undertaking the pilgrimage with them. These are the tourists trekkers - past and future.
Specific to this, I have been working on a separate project throughout the past few months with the support and advice from a great team, including Phil and KJ. It is a work in progress and I look forward to sharing with Attitude readers.
Posted by: Rashmii Bell | 09 May 2019 at 07:32 AM
Sounds like you've made a start on informing yourself of the dire situation of the Laloki Psychiatirc Hospital, Will.
How about you have a go at drawing attention to yourself, contribute to being a part of an effective solution and let me expend my energies on the addressing welfare reforms for Trail carriers and guides.
If they have requested it, it is a real enough issue for them to have it addressed. Against theirs, your assessment is of no significance to me.
Posted by: Rashmii Bell | 09 May 2019 at 07:29 AM
Why the hell do you not expend your time on a real issue - like the Laloki Psych Hospital.
Ten years ago the PAC described it in gruesome detail and now we find staff closing it and turfing out mentally ill patients onto the street for want of water and the Minister for Health telling us that he knew nothing.
Yes he did - years ago. So did the deadbeat Secretary for Health. What did they do - nating!
If the carriers are not happy - stop carrying! Strand the trekker trash and draw attention to yourself by getting started on real life and death issues like health - the government certainly will not.
Posted by: Will Self | 08 May 2019 at 09:02 PM
I agree, Phil. But there is one very effective Melanesian remedy to the employment of non Koiari or non Orokaiva carriers, and that is the placement along the Trail of the traditional Melanesian warning signs of "Itambu" or "Taravatu" - enough to scare the living daylights out of carriers "foreign" to the Trail.
Posted by: Chips Mackellar | 08 May 2019 at 10:13 AM
Yes, I think you are right Chips. A grassroots campaign would be most effective.
They could also withdraw their labour selectively depending upon the behaviour of the company.
The only glitch is that many of the carriers and guides have no other source of income. Whether they could sustain a period without that income is questionable.
I can also see some of the companies just employing other carriers and guides in their stead. That's where a big union could be helpful in dealing with scab labour.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 08 May 2019 at 09:35 AM
Apologies - only six treks per year.
Posted by: Rashmii Bell | 08 May 2019 at 06:29 AM
Robin, Chips and Phil - thank you for your comments, and they are all suggestions to be passed on to carriers and guides for their consideration.
The dynamic of the trek operators - carriers and guides is complex, and I suggest visiting Major Charlie Lynn's blog for insight. www.kokodatreks.com
In my view, it would be of no benefit for carriers and guides to go on strike. The industry already pays them a dismal rate, and loss of this income coupled with the fact that most averagemaximum of only treks per year - every toea counts.
It was hoped that Trail of Woe and the various commentary associated with adding to Charlie Lynn's calls for reform for those providing the physical labour in the industry, would inspire KTA to make changes. It hasn't
Neither has the Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) - the Australian association of Australian trek operators of the Kokoda Trail, to which the majority of trek operators are members. Their defeating silence of the push (for reform for the Papua New Guinean men) speaks volumes.
On the issue of carriers and guides welfare reform, I have chosen to to cease attempts at dialogue with KTA et al, and will instead focus my energies at those who have actual experience and genuine interest in walking alongside carriers and guides. I refer to past and future tourist trekkers of the Kokoda Trail. .
This has already begun through another project that I have been working on for some months, with the support of a fantastic group of people, including KJ and Phil.
It is my hope that this activity will have a greater impact and tangible action in reforms for the welfare of carriers and guides.
Posted by: Rashmii Bell | 08 May 2019 at 06:27 AM
Yes, Phil, but if the PNGTUC is dysfunctional why bother with them?
The carriers could do it themselves, draw up a log of claims, and present it to the Trail organisations (Rashmii's alphabet soup acronyms) with the proposal that if the claims are not met, then the carriers will not carry.
There is no need to attend conferences, or enter protracted negotiations, which have already proved to be futile. It can all be done by email, if Rashmii, who knows what the problems are, could draw up the log of claims for the carriers and send it to the Trail organisers.
The proposition should be simple. Log of claims not met, then the carriers will not carry.
Posted by: Chips Mackellar | 07 May 2019 at 09:44 PM
The theory about union representation is sound Chips but the practicalities and realities, in typical PNG fashion, are a bit more problematic.
Unions have the right to organise and bargain collectively.
In PNG the right to strike is protected, while discrimination against union activity is illegal.
The primary national trade union centre in Papua New Guinea is the Papua New Guinea Trade Union Congress (PNGTUC), which has a membership of about 70,000.
The PNGTUC is affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation.
The PNGTUC would be the logical place to seek advice about a union suitable to represent the carriers and other workers on the Kokoda Trail.
I'm not aware that there is currently a union in the tourism field but I may be wrong.
Unfortunately the PNGTUC has been in upheaval for quite a while. It was labelled "dysfunctional" by the high court at one stage.
Following all the upheaval it's leader for the last 26 odd years, lawyer John Paska, retired last year as General Secretary and is now the PNGTUC president. The current general secretary is Clemence Kanau.
He might be the best person with whom to discuss a union for the carriers and other workers.
A comment from the PNGTUC on the Kokoda situation might also be interesting.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 07 May 2019 at 03:09 PM
Rashmii, far be it for me to encourage radical unionism, but in his comment to your report 'The Kokoda Shame' of 4 May, Phil Fitzpatrick suggested that carriers and other concerned people along the Kokoda Trail should form a union to protect their interests.
I agree with him, and in this context I suggest you are wasting your time trying to implore the alphabet soup of track agencies to improve the lot of the carriers and others.
I suggest that your talents would be better employed helping the carriers to form a well organised union because, there is no doubt that conditions for carriers and others along the Trail would immediately begin to improve if these people were suddenly to deny their labour to the track agencies.
Perhaps a little industrial action would go a long way to improve conditions for the Trail communities.
Posted by: Chips Mackellar | 07 May 2019 at 11:53 AM
Well said, Rashmii. You highlight the bureaucratic arrogance of an institution at war with its important constituents: the carriers.
A Biblical phrase, "Muzzle not the ox which treadeth out the grain," somewhat illustrates the spectacle.
At the least, your representations on the carriers' behalf form a body of evidence attesting to the realities of the cause.
Time will reveal how far and how fast outcomes and benefits emerge from the publicity.
Posted by: Robin Lillicrapp | 07 May 2019 at 09:05 AM