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.