SYDNEY - Over the past decade more than $5 million (K11.8 million) has been hijacked from Kokoda trekkers by unaccountable Australian and Papua New Guinean bureaucrats.
This money had been paid in good faith to meet trekkers’ basic needs in the form of adequate campsites and a safe trail. The fees were also meant to provide for shared community benefits for villagers along the trail.
However, since Australian government officials assumed control of the emerging Kokoda trekking industry in 2008, not a single dollar has been spent to improve campsites, toilets or management systems to meet the needs of the trekkers.
Nobody knows where the money has gone because the bureaucrats involved have never produced an audited financial report.
And nobody knows what they do because they don’t produce newsletters or answer emails.
Not a single resolution from a forum has ever been actioned. Not a single workshop has been conducted at village level to see how the custodians of the land across the trail could benefit from the trekking industry.
In the meantime local PNG carriers continue to be overloaded, underpaid and poorly equipped. Local campsite owners are constantly short-changed. Villagers have been reduced to the status of spectators to a passing parade of trekkers.
The wartime significance of the Kokoda Trail continues to be ignored by Australian foreign affairs (DFAT) officials who refuse to engage an accredited military heritage architect to develop a master plan to honour and interpret the Kokoda campaign.
They seem to cling to a misguided belief that people want to trek Kokoda to have an ‘environmental levitation’ and refuse to acknowledge that it is a significant wartime historical pilgrimage.
The Australian ‘strategic advisor’ to the taxpayer-funded ‘Kokoda Initiative’ (on an eye-watering six figure salary) recently informed a perplexed forum that “in one of the fallen old trees at Myola a scientist discovered over 200 types of fungus growing in its trunk; this was recorded in the Guinness Book of Records”.
Whoopee! He made no mention of the desecration of the historic moss-covered mortar position which lay untouched at Lake Myola for 60 years – a desecration funded by the Kokoda Initiative.
The recent review of the Kokoda Trail management system ordered by former prime minister Peter O’Neill has been hijacked by the Kokoda Initiative – the same organisation that created the dysfunctional organisation during the period 2008-2012.
In a classic ‘Yes Minister’ manoeuvre, the Kokoda Initiative assumed control of the process and engaged a former bureaucrat who is now a ‘consultant’. He completed his review without trekking across the trail to better understand the wartime significance of the pilgrimage or the local needs of villagers.
It was no surprise that his ‘desktop study’ recommended an adaption of the status quo. His review is now being reviewed and is well into its second year – this surely has to be a world record for a management office with a staff of just six people.
The Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) office is now beyond dysfunctional and completely irrelevant to the Kokoda trekking industry. The board it reports to has never produced an annual report – or even a set of minutes of its meetings.
Nobody from the KTA - the board of directors, the Kokoda Initiative or DFAT has ever slogged the Trail with a group of trekkers to discuss their needs in situ. As a result they operate in a parallel universe to the reality of the Trail.
The Kokoda Initiative’s contempt for trekkers and villagers was recently demonstrated in their brazen heist of $150,000 of trekkers’ fees to donate to a ‘friendly’ Australian NGO in search of a cause in PNG.
One of the ‘academic influencers’ in the heist did not declare that he was a board director of the Australian NGO. At the same time they refused to assist a young 14-year old Kokoda schoolgirl who requires an emergency life-saving heart operation in an overseas hospital.
Kokoda Initiative officials seem blissfully ignorant of the fact that world class campsite facilities will lead to more trekkers which in turn will lead to more shared benefits for communities along the Trail.
Do-gooder NGOs who spread taxpayer funds and other-peoples’ money like confetti for feel-good causes have the opposite effect by institutionalising aid-dependency.
The 46% decline in trekker numbers since Australian government officials, consultants, environmentalists and ‘strategic advisors’ took control of the Kokoda Trail in 2008 is evidence of this.
One can only conclude they have a different agenda which has nothing to do with the protection of our shared wartime heritage; the development of a sustainable trekking industry for PNG; the environmental protection of the trail; or the economic and social empowerment of villagers across it.
It’s time to end the hijack and return Australian officials, consultants and advisors involved with the KTA and the Kokoda Initiative to Canberra.
The Kokoda Trail is PNGs most popular tourism asset and is economically sustainable – it should therefore be managed on a commercial basis with local incorporated landowner groups as the major shareholders in a Kokoda Trail Management Company.