TUMBY BAY - From the mid-1980s until about the last five years or so, many ex-kiaps went to work in Papua New Guinea on petroleum and mining exploration projects.
For the exploration companies, the kiaps’ expertise and knowledge of the country, the people and their customs were invaluable assets.
The range of work involved managing camps, communicating with the local people, arranging permits required by the law, scouting seismic and geological survey lines, organising labour and social mapping.
The money was good and it provided an opportunity to get back to a country where happy times had previously been had carrying out innovative and satisfying work.
I went to the country as a camp manager at a geological survey camp in the Southern Highlands in 1997. It was the first time I’d been back since leaving PNG in the 1970s.
Like many returning kiaps I was initially appalled at the way the country had run down and rampant corruption had taken hold.
However, in the kiap tradition, those problems were taken on board and dealt with as required.
Then, after about the fourth or fifth stint in PNG, I was told in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t a kiap anymore and had to work to the guidelines set out by the company.
This followed one of my attempts to extract a few extra benefits from the company for the local people in the area where we were working. As I recall the issue concerned rebuilding an old tumbledown pre-independence aid post.
My attempts at explaining the goodwill that this gesture would accrue with local landholders fell on largely deaf ears. I quietly went ahead with the rebuilding anyway, but from that point onwards took a more cautious approach when company representatives were around.
The old kiap ethos had absolutely no place in the cold and calculating world of resource exploitation. The local people, especially landowners, were largely regarded as the enemy by the companies.
Landowners were especially considered irritants in the exploration process. They were tolerated if they cooperated, didn’t make a fuss and provided the necessary labour, but actively worked against if they showed the slightest hint of causing trouble.
To be in this game one had to have a thick skin. Do the work, take the money and not think about it too much.
This is not to say there weren’t enjoyable aspects. Mixing with people in the villages, especially if they twigged that you were an old kiap, was great and so were the many Papua New Guineans who came to work for the companies.
It also got a lot better when I gave away the boring camp managing, surveying and line cutting work and concentrated on social mapping. That gave me a lot of independence and meant I didn’t have to toe the company line so much.
Nevertheless, I still met a lot of unsavoury characters. Not least were the obsessive company people whose raison d'être was squeezing the maximum effort out of everyone and everything at the least possible cost.
These people lived for the company and were busily scrabbling up the hierarchy no matter what cost and people they had to trample in the process.
Another bunch of unsavoury types included local landowners and ‘claimant landowners’. These people were hell bent on extracting as much as possible out of the companies for themselves and bugger anyone else, including other clan members.
Their currency was deception, deliberately created confusion and outright lies. They were, in most cases, petty village politicians on the make.
By the time the prospecting boom began to diminish I had developed a healthy scepticism about the whole business.
I was glad about the work it provided and the income it generated, which knitted very nicely with similar but more rewarding work I was doing in Australia. It did, however, harden my view of the cut throat corporate world and I’ve tried to avoid contact with it ever since.
No doubt a lot of ex-kiaps who worked in the industry had different experiences and have a contrary view to mine and I’ve got no problem with that at all.
A few of them did very well out of it and some even made their way into the upper echelons of the industry and good luck to them.
However, unlike my first shot at kiaping, it’s not something I would want to do again.