RASHMII AMOAH BELL
The first of a series of articles about the need to improve the conditions and sustainable development of the tourism industry on the Kokoda Trail. The articles document my observations and conversations with Papua New Guinean guides, carriers, campsite owners and communities as I trekked the Trail from 6–17 August.
ON THE TRAIL - In 2017, I was invited by the Australian-based social enterprise, Kokoda Track Foundation (KTF), to facilitate two rural school book-making workshops in Oro Province.
While designated to act only in as a volunteer, all research, design, delivery and facilitation was assigned to me by the Foundation. On both occasions I achieved the assigned outcomes.
And so, having donated my time and talent to this organisation, it was with disappointment and regret to have it deny my sole and rightful authorship of ‘Butterflies along the Track’, the KTF’s Kokoda75 commemorative children’s book, funded by Australia’s foreign affairs department.
Exacerbated by KTF’s resistance to engage in public dialogue (nor to issue a formal apology) on this matter, my frustration increased at witnessing what I perceived as a conscious act of perpetuating the ‘aid-dependent’ narrative of many projects in PNG.
Perhaps such strategies to insert oneself between aid funder and aid receiver are necessary for institutional survival masked as making a contribution to nation-building activities in PNG.
This incident shifted my attention to examining other activities of foreign entities in PNG. I was particularly on the lookout for acts of exploitation and dispossession of Papua New Guineans, especially in the rural and remote regions.
I saw an urgent need to critique the operations of such entities and the networks in which they function and benefit, specifically alert for activity directly affecting sustainable development, especially for girls and women.
It is this kind of advocacy that underpinned the nomination of the ‘My Walk to Equality’ literary project as PNG’s entry for the 2018 United Nations Girls and Women Education Prize.
So when Charlie Lynn OAM OL penned the scathing article ‘Losing Kokoda’, in Australian Spectator, it captured my attention.
A former Army officer, Australian state parliamentarian and long-time friend of PNG, Lynn has been consistently vocal about the importance of nurturing positive, people-to-people relations between Australia and PNG.
His trek company, Adventure Kokoda, has had a 27-year relationship with communities along the Trail, which he has walked no less than 93 times. Lynn’s commentary was deeply concerning.
The article was another chapter in Lynn’s efforts to highlight his observations of mismanagement and questionable operations of the Kokoda trek tourism industry. Most alarmingly, his commentary raised instances of exploitation of carriers by trek tour operators (many Australia-based). These could be seen as conscious acts of dispossession hindering the development of Papua New Guineans.
Lynn’s accounts illustrate a most troubling scenario, seemingly fostered by a defunct management body and its affiliated Papua New Guinean and Australian agencies, unable to properly discharge its mandated responsibilities including regulating trek operators, overseeing the distribution of benefits and ensuring the continued wellbeing of the Trail’s people.
As a Papua New Guinean who writes and publishes the writing of others to advocate social change, I sought on my own trek to observe first-hand, report and critique such disturbing claims. So I initiated contact with Charlie Lynn.
I was heartened when he responded by encouraging me both to undertake my first trek of the Trail as an investigative exercise but also to be immersed in an experience (regarded as akin to a pilgrimage especially by Australians) that many people had done before.
Lynn suggested I trek with Adventure Kokoda’s annual Kokoda Youth Leadership Challenge (KYLC) group; a 16-member team of young and open-minded Australians from NSW RSL Clubs.
For 10 days I lived with and walked in comradeship alongside 16 Australians on the soil that is my homeland, all of us retracing the steps of the brave men who 75 years ago fought to ensure the freedoms that we near neighbours enjoy today.
With the immeasurable aid of Adventure Kokoda’s team of carriers, guide ‘Big Joe’ and leader Charlie Lynn, we trekked the ever-changing environment along the 138 kilometres from Owers Corner to the Kokoda Plateau.
My own steps were observed closely and guided by De, my personal carrier, who became my lifeline in a setting that swiftly reveals weaknesses, demands unimaginable endurance and is unforgiving of a missed step.
I observed, interacted and listened to the lived experiences of those at the forefront of Trail tourism: the guides, carriers, campsite owners and people living in the villages along the way - all of whom should share the benefits generated by the tourism occurring around them.
I saw the ‘Spirit of Kokoda’ unfold in the individuals of my trek group and the Papua New Guineans in the villages en route. I noted that my positive interactions and ease of access with the people along the Trail was enabled by the long established rapport Adventure Kokoda carriers had established with the communities.
It caused me to consider that whilst Papua New Guinean and Australian bureaucracy muddles its way through strategies to strengthen bilateral relations and improve people-to-people relations, strong relationships are an absolute necessity on the rugged Trail where the Koiari and Orokaiva people have long resided. Seemingly, strengthening relationships it is the only way Kokoda Trail trek tourism will survive.
For trek tourism to thrive, the Kokoda Trail’s management body (including affiliated Papua New Guinean and Australian agencies) have an immense amount of work to do with trek operators, their employees and communities.
Some of the issues raised in discussions whilst I was on the Trail that I’ve submitted through a formal PNG channel include:
- erosion, particularly along steep mountain climbs
- lack of safety measures along the Trail, including safe and secure footbridges and a reliance on guides to construct temporary rope handrails
- disjointed support and communication by operators for trekkers and indigenous communities
- the inconsistent presence of rangers to monitor carriers’ pack weights
- limited access to safe, hygienic and secure amenities for trekkers; on several occasions Australians trekkers opted to ‘go bush’ instead of using the dismal pit latrine and other facilities available
- absence of structured promotion to engage and educate trekkers of the Koiari and Orokaiva people’s cultures
- absence of information (signage) about the fauna and flora of the Trail
- community concern about disjointed engagement, infrastructure provision, program implementation and service delivery by Kokoda Track Authority, Kokoda Initiative and smaller non-government organisations
- the inequitable and blatant imbalance of the benefits between trekkers and trek operators and the indigenous staff and trail communities
- the marked imbalance of participation by indigenous women in comparison to that of indigenous men throughout the trail’s tourism activities and its offsets
- the breakdown of service delivery intended by the PNG and Australian governments and affiliated organisation for communities and lack of responsiveness the Kokoda Track Authority and Kokoda Initiative to suggestions from community members
- inconsistencies in the working conditions of carriers between the well-equipped Adventure Kokoda personnel and other tour operators including terrain-appropriate enclosed footwear, safety wear, adequate sleeping equipment and uniforms
At the core of this series of articles is a demand for responsible, ethical tourism ensuring professional support and strict regulation of operator activity to create a safe and satisfactory experience for trekkers and the well-being of the Papua New Guineans working on the Trail.
It is apparent that the Trail’s management body, including its network of affiliated Papua New Guinean and Australian agencies, needs marked improvements in its operations including enabling transparent dialogue with and accountability to all who access the Trail.