ONE OF THE OCCASIONAL OFFSHOOTS of my social mapping activities is teaching cultural awareness.
Social mapping tries to provide resource developers with a range of cultural, historical, economic and social data so that they can understand the communities upon whom they plan to impose themselves.
The theory is that with such an understanding they are less likely to breach social protocols and upset people. Good manners, after all, go a long way towards establishing useful working relationships.
At the same time, although they are less likely to acknowledge the fact, it gives them an edge when trying to head off dissent and other costly hiccups.
The various pieces of legislation in Papua New Guinea that make social mapping and landowner identification studies mandatory, such as the Oil and Gas Act, do not explicitly cite the above elements as aims but the assumption of their value seems to be generally accepted by everyone involved.
Also accepted is the proposition that development is inevitable. If there is a resource somewhere to be exploited it is a given that it will eventually be dug up, cut down or otherwise harvested.
The emphasis in the law is more about being seen to mitigate the impact of development and less about actually doing it. It is also largely about identifying the correct people to whom royalties will be paid – the people that both the government and the company need to suck up to and cultivate and get on side.
So pervasive is this need perceived that universities in Australia and overseas now offer courses in social impact analysis. But don’t kid yourself that they are about helping the locals; they are all about making the developer’s road as smooth as possible.
Cultural awareness teaching sometimes follows social mapping. It is generally an informal and hit-and-miss process that might involve a one-off session with company bosses in an air conditioned conference room somewhere with the usual power point presentation featuring colourful snapshots and impressive pie charts.
At another level it might be simply talking informally to a bunch of scruffy riggers in a bush camp out in the jungle.
In either case it can be guaranteed that the participants will forget everything they’ve been told within a day or so. Either that or their innate hard-nosed corporate attitude will cause them to dismiss everything you’ve said because they really know better.
The technical term for this attitude is ‘going through the motions’. In these situations you come away with a sense of hopeless inevitability and a vague but disturbing gratitude that they’ve found time to humour you, if only for an hour or so.
There are very few companies that have incorporated cultural awareness into their corporate make-up in a meaningful way as they have incorporated other elements, like occupational health and safety.
Occupational health and safety has tangible economic benefits, such as reduced insurance premiums and the minimisation of lost production time but cultural awareness is too subtle and less easy to place a dollar value on.
This all makes you wonder why you bother. Because they pay well, I guess and because it fulfils their need to feel good and gives a meaning of sorts to the motherhood clause in their company mission statement about community inclusion that they’ve paid some high-priced consultant to fabricate.
Such is the cynicism that one develops in this game. But I’m not knocking cynicism, it is often a healthy asset. What a lot of resource developers don’t appreciate is the fact that cynicism can be very useful if used selectively and in a timely way.
A good dose of cynicism at the right time can identify the many hidden traps that might otherwise screw things up.
But surely there must be a better way?
There is, of course; but perhaps not so much a better way, as an alternative way. This is to turn the cultural awareness process on its head.
I’ve been informally trialling such head-standing for a while and so far it seems to work.
It involves upending the whole shebang and tackling it from the perspective of the community, which is going to be suddenly thrust into the industrial age whether it likes it or not through no fault of its own, beyond the fact of sitting on a great lump of buried copper and gold or a sandstone strata bubbling with oil and gas.
Instead of talking to bored corporate heavies and scruffy and uninterested riggers I’ve found that it can be just as useful to go into the villages and explain to the grassroots people the upheavals that will shortly be visited upon them and the mentality that drives it.
I’ve discovered that instead of trying to teach the developers about the exotic traditional cultures upon which they are about to wreak havoc it is sometimes handier to teach the locals about the exotic modern culture that is about to be imposed upon them. In short, to teach locals how white people think and behave rather than teaching white people how locals think and behave.
What I’m talking about is something more than just sending a couple of smiling community affairs people into the villages to wheedle a diplomatic toehold before the carnage begins but something more academic - something that allows the villagers to work out how to deal with and manage the corporate invaders by the simple expedient of understanding how they think.
This approach owes something to the way in which past traditional communities dealt with the warlike clans from over the hill when they came looking for heads and long pig - by understanding their mentality and motives - the know thine enemy approach.
As Martyn Namarong’s favourite sage, Sun Tzu, said in his The Art of War, “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win”. It’s something that a lot of local communities faced with the prospect of imminent and potentially destructive development desperately needs to apply.
Such a process involves, among other things, explaining how white people too, once upon a time, lived in villages in extended families and clans and also grew their own food. That is, until everything was rudely interrupted by a thing called the Industrial Revolution.
Explaining how the ruthless machinery of this revolution magnified those fundamental human traits of egoism, greed, destruction and aggression to new and uncertain heights to produce such endearing qualities as individualism, wage labour, nuclear families, the Protestant work ethic, paranoia, self-interest and the unhealthy worship of celebrity helps prepare them for the onslaught.
If they don’t run screaming into the deep green forest never to come back they can at least be prepared for what is to come. Indeed, some of them might welcome it; stranger things have happened.
By the same token the approach also mitigates the need for harried company executives to sit through boring anthropological lectures for which they can see no useful economic benefit.
By shifting the emphasis in this way they might even find it is possible to talk to the local people, who now understand them, when they come to cut the ribbon on the new production plant.
Moreover, they might find some unsolicited sympathy for their lot in this savage modern world.