I WORK IN THE KARAWARI region of the East Sepik where, for the past seven years, I have been leading a group of Papua New Guinean ethnographers and archaeologists in recording and conserving an enormous cave art system.
It riddles the northern escarpment of Mt MacGregor as it falls down the headwaters of the Arafundi and Karawari Rivers.
Some of the people we work with are amongst the last nomadic hunter gatherers in PNG, and they continue to live in these caves with stencils and images that date back, we believe, 20,000 years.
As yet we haven’t had the expertise to confirm their age, but they are very similar to caves found in Borneo and Western Australia which have been dated to that era.
The National Geographic Society, which assists us with small grants, published a story about the Meakambut people in its January 2011 magazine.
For a couple of years we have been aware of gold speculators travelling through the area and talking about mineral exploration on both the Karawari and the Arafundi Rivers.
Just recently a company called Pristine No 18, which is partly owned by Rimbunam Hijau, applied for an ELA 2008 covering the majority of these historic caves and the rainforest where the Meakambut still live and thrive.
The northern tip of the ELA includes land owned by neighbours, the Alamblak Yimas peoples, who have very little land to expand upon and are apparently happy to have their swamplands explored for gold.
But the Meakambut and the entire Penale tribe are adamantly against the exploration. They know that once Pristine #18 has invested in exploration, they will find it impossible to evict them from their lands and forests.
And they know what is at stake: Our company, Nancy Sullivan & Associates, has spent the past seven years paying all the school fees (and now project fees), establishing a primary school, and bringing health services (in regular patrols by a pediatric surgeon from Wewak) to the area.
Thus far we have received Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Christensen Fund grants, as well as National Geographic support.
Our interest in the region is sincere and longstanding; we have a project that should continue for decades yet and provide these communities with the income from scientists and community development for their future.
We have the support of Ludwig Schulz, the Angoram MP, and a wide swatch of his constituency who have benefitted from our work.
We understand that Pristine #18 has two weeks to assemble an exploration application for the Ministry’s approval.
We seek to circumvent this right away, in the interest of all the Penale as well as the Ewa and Sumariop people whose precious caves and histories will be disturbed by this venture.
Because of our high international profile, we will have no choice but to begin a media campaign in support of our request to keep RH and commercial mining out of these forests and away from the national cultural property within them.
The Ewa people of the upper Karawari have suffered at the hands of art dealers who emptied their caves of carvings before independence and left them with next to nothing as compensation---while their father’s carvings continue to fetch six figure prices on the Oceanic art market and can be seen in museums across the US and Europe.
They too would be victims of this short term greed if the exploration went forward. It is the government neglect of this region for decades that has left the Karawari people so vulnerable to exploitation.
They are growing cocoa and other small crops we assist them with, and we continue to raise funds for development projects that would keep them in their land, where they wish to remain.
In an area where there are virtually no aid posts or schools, and where no provincial or national government has heard their cries for assistance since Independence, we are confident that an international campaign to save the region would go viral quite quickly.
I am loathe to embarrass the ministry by embarking on a campaign like this. But we have no other choice but to reach out to the Ministry now and ask that you oppose the application by Pristine #18 for Ela 2008 in the Karawari.