TUMBY BAY - For a while I was the kiap in charge of the patrol post at Olsobip in the Star Mountains at the time the copper and gold discovery at nearby Ok Tedi was being developed.
In those days Kennecott geologists carrying out stream sampling from helicopters were encountering groups of people who had never seen Europeans before.
This didn’t stop many of the local Faiwol flocking to Tabubil for work, however, and soon the patrol area was aflood with cash.
One of the most popular items on the workers’ shopping list was a shotgun. In those days usually a single barrel 12 gauge Winchester. The mission and cooperative stores were selling them as fast as they could be shipped in from Moresby.
On most Monday mornings at the patrol post, there was a queue of returned workers waiting to get a permit to buy a gun.
There were certain conditions to be met before I could issue a permit but there was nothing I could legally do to limit the number dispensed.
Instead, I employed a bit of bluff and tried to limit the permits to one gun per hamlet. I also insisted that the potential purchaser show me his fifty dollars to prove he could afford the purchase.
But the canny Faiwol had ways of getting around this and the number of guns in the area proliferated.
What followed was the decimation of local wildlife. Birds of Paradise particularly suffered. Highlanders working at Ok Tedi routinely went home with patrol boxes stuffed with birds they’d bought off the locals for a few dollars each.
It also wasn’t long before we were seeing people with gunshot wounds. The difference between an arrow wound and a gunshot wound is something to behold.
It wasn’t just shotguns that became a problem. Faiwol also started walking around armed with bush knives.
They weren’t your ordinary garden variety machete but were Chinese made African-style pangas with long swordlike blades and deadly points. They are the ones that are now ubiquitous in Papua New Guinea.
Every man, woman and child seems to have one and they can inflict terrible wounds. In the 1960s a razor sharp axe was included in most men’s accoutrements but now the bush knife seems to have replaced it.
It got worse.
When I returned to work in Papua New Guinea in the 1990s, one of the first things I noticed was the preponderance of automatic rifles. You would see them everywhere but especially in the highlands.
In most cases they were Vietnam War era M16s, an inferior weapon that regularly jammed and accounted for many casualties among the Americans in that war.
The last time I did remote area fieldwork in Papua New Guinea I came across Chinese-made AK47s, a much superior weapon. I also saw highlanders with hand grenades and Kevlar flack-jackets and helmets.
The guns are a huge worry but I think it is the humble bush knife that seems to carry the most danger.
For most villagers bush knives are a boon, making many daily tasks much less arduous. Unfortunately, when arguments flare up they also become the weapon of choice.
Just like shotguns, meant to allow people to get a bit of extra protein into their diets, the essentially utilitarian bush knife has been subverted to deadlier use.
One of the saddest turning points in human civilisation was the invention of the repeating revolver in the 1860s. It went on to create warfare and crime on an industrial scale.
In Papua New Guinea the humble bush knife seems to have had a similar effect.
There seems to be a cardinal human rule: give a man a potential weapon, be it a bush knife or an atomic bomb, and sooner or later he will use it.