| Adventure Kokoda
SYDNEY - A 1,400% increase in the number of Australians trekking Kokoda after the opening of the Isurava Memorial in 2002 would normally be hailed an outstanding result for Papua New Guinean tourism and our shared wartime heritage.
But for Canberra based envirocrats, lurking within the corridors of the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and Arts (DEWHA), it had all the hallmarks of an environmental Armageddon.
The bureaucrats’ challenge was to neutralise the association of Kokoda with the ‘glorification of war‘, which is anathema to them, and find ways to discourage trekkers from ‘wreaking havoc‘ on an environment which few of them had ever seen.
They were also aware of the opportunity it presented for their own army of aid-funded consultants in conservation, anthropology, archaeology, social mapping, capacity building, mentoring, gender equity and a host of other social studies.
The most effective means of neutralising the perceived threat was to seek to offer aid-funded assistance to PNG to help it manage the emerging industry which saw trekker numbers increase from 365 in 2002 to 5,621 in 2008.
That villagers along the Trail were now receiving sufficient economic and social benefits to break the yoke of subsistence living and aid dependency was not deemed to be as important as the enhancement and future-proofing of their own aid-funded careers.
The discovery of a K28 billion gold and copper deposit on the southern slopes of the Trail provided the emergency they needed to derail the mining approval, compensate landowners and offer to manage the Trail on landowners’ behalf.
An aid-funded joint agreement was duly signed in early 2008 and by the end of the year an environmental management team fresh from Canberra was in place.
By this stage Kokoda had emerged as the new go-to place for Australian baby boomers, their siblings and those with an interest in our military heritage.
The lure of adventure in the ‘Land of the Unexpected’ also appealed.
They were soon joined by adventure-seeking bucket-listers and a glut of quasi-adventure companies who arrived to cash in.
The influx created chaotic management problems along the Trail as campsites were overcrowded, local guides exploited, and traditional village life disrupted.
There was hope this would be settled by the arrival of a new, well-resourced management team to coordinate the aspirations of up to 80 trekking companies and the demands of hundreds of increasingly belligerent landowners.
But in the eyes of the new ideologues from Canberra, trekking companies were deemed to be commercial enterprises capable of exploiting vulnerable ‘natives’ for profit.
The ‘natives’ themselves were also deemed to be ignorant of their own needs due to their perceived lack of education and sophistication.
Thus they needed to be made aware that their environment, which they had protected and harvested for thousands of years, had to be defended from any future threats of commercial exploitation.
The engagement of Australian consultants to report on the cultural and environmental diversity of the place was reminiscent of the pre-independence observation in 1965 by author Keith Willey:
“In recent years the academics have discovered New Guinea. Grave, plump, portentous, they swarm north in their hundreds each winter where at times they become so numerous that every bush and stone seems to conceal a lurking bureaucrat or anthropologist.
“After a few weeks or a few months they return home to prepare brisk solutions for all the problems which beset the land. Too often they see New Guinea coldly as an exercise in nation-building to be carried out as quickly as possible, with one eye on the taxpayer at home and the other on some ranting demagogue in the United Nations.”
And so it was with the new regime which self-identified as the ‘Kokoda Initiative’.
It soon extended the geographical boundaries of the Kokoda Trail to include Sirinumu Dam on the south coast, a big chunk of the Owen Stanley Ranges and the wartime beach-head areas on the north coast.
This created a smorgasbord of opportunities for consultant environmentalists, anthropologists, archaeologists, social mappers, capacity builders and gender equalisers.
Port Moresby based ‘wantok influencers‘ were seduced with offers of aid-funded schools and health centres in their villages, enhancing their ‘bigman’ status and ensuring their compliance.
The military heritage of the Trail was downplayed. ‘Mateship’ was formally changed to ‘Friendship’ to be more ‘inclusive‘.
The Australian War Memorial was bypassed. A compliant American anthropologist was engaged as Australia’s national military heritage advisor in PNG in a recruiting process that could be best described as shonky.
An ‘interpretive design company’, with no military heritage credentials or previous association with PNG, was engaged “for the provision of interpretive services” to the grandly titled Australian Government Kokoda Initiative Taskforce. The new arrivals panted:
“We had to hit the ground running.
"Port Moresby is a confronting city and rated as one of the most violent places on the planet. It accosts the senses with its obvious social inequity.
"When the security agency describes recent events of rape and brutal assaults you cannot help but experience fear.”
Despite the accosting of their senses these fearless young hipsters soldiered on and found that:
“….researching and writing for this project was both stimulating and challenging.
"As there was no clear objective, other than some signage at Owers Corner that would portray the World War II experiences of the people of PNG, we had to start from scratch in workshops and engaging with the local communities.”
Eyebrows were raised over the admission that they had ‘no clear objective’ for the taxpayer funded project, and that they felt they ‘had to start from scratch’.
It was obvious they had not made aware of the extensive research material available at the Australian War Memorial and on its internet site.
In the meantime, the law of the jungle prevailed, with trekking becoming more chaotic as the envirocrats now in charge of the Trail failed to introduce management protocols and neglected to invest in campsites, toilets, safety, or environmental maintenance.
No income- earning initiatives were introduced for villagers who became mere spectators to a passing parade of trekkers. The exploitation of guides, carriers, and campsite owners continued unabated.
Negative reports inevitably led to a steady decline in trekker numbers, which have dropped by 46% since the environmental cavalry arrived to ‘help’ more than a decade ago.
The first hint of their strategy came soon after they arrived with an innocuous post in their first Kokoda Track Newsletter on 1 May 2009, which advised that:
“....a track analysis will be undertaken shortly to determine the works program required to repair the Track (sic) to Australian Standards for Class 4 walking trails. This is a minimum standard and seeks to provide sustainable use for the Track (sic). Once this report is complete it will be circulated.”
A perusal of the Australian standards for Class 4 walking trails reveals these gems:
“Opportunity for visitors with advanced outdoor knowledge to find their own way along often indistinct tracks in remote areas. Users can expect frequent opportunities for solitude with few encounters with others.”
“Toilets of minimal design to be provided only where necessary for environmental purposes.”
“Recommended max party size 6.”
“All publicity to be discouraged. Not to be included on maps except for internal management purposes. Authors will be encouraged to keep route descriptions vague (e.g. in accounts of past expeditions). Photographers and publishers will be encouraged not to identify the precise location of photographs taken in areas accessible only by T4 tracks.”
“Licences 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.”
This accounts for why there is not a single toilet that meets the most basic of hygiene standards for trekkers on the Kokoda Trail today.
A maximum party size of six would make it economically unviable for trek operators, leading to the loss of a sustainable income for villagers and consigning them to a life of aid-dependent subsistence living.
The lack of publicity would effectively sabotage PNG’s most popular tourism destination, the Kokoda Trail.
Under Class 4 standards, trekking would be limited to a few mung-bean munching freeloaders and unwashed tree-huggers from the extreme environmental movement.
After 10 years it took the onset of Covid-19 to expose the duplicity of this multi-million dollar aid-funded agenda.
There is nothing left in the bank; villagers have had to revert to subsistence living; and no initiatives have been introduced to commemorate our shared wartime heritage.
Trekkers are no longer disturbing the sensitive environmental solitude and the bureaucrats’ bloated six-figure, tax-free salaries have not been affected.
The English television comedy, ‘Yes Minister‘ has few lessons to teach the Australian officials managing the PNG Kokoda Initiative.
Australian Ministers for International Development and the Pacific tend not to stay long in their portfolio. There have been five over the past six years, one serving for less than six months. The longest stayed for a little over two years.
These minister are hostage to their bureaucratic advisors as they seek to come to grips with the cultural complexities of Papua New Guinea with its ‘Parliament of a Thousand Tribes’ near the top of the international ladder for institutionalised corruption (and bottom of the ladder for human development).
Expatriate Australians who have lived and worked in PNG and the Pacific attest to the fact that it takes many years to understand and empathise with the Melanesian Way.
PNG government officials are fair game for Australian bureaucrats who have little ministerial oversight, a hidden ideological agenda, a large aid budget and the knowledge that PNG officials and influencers will support any initiative that has an aid dollar attached to it.
They can therefore proclaim: ‘I understand your concerns, Minister, but this is what PNG wants!’
Sir Humphrey Appleby would be very proud.