Book Review: Searching for pekpek. Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea rainforest.

IMG_6511I see James Cameron’s Pandora in my mind’s eye, but behind the scenes – the internal conversations, the private moments, sickness, death, frustrations and many tiny victories – all the little moments that go into informing a great script.

It was a feat to relocate from a jungle of concrete, steel and glass to the forest – with jungle of trees that seem to stretch all the way to the end of the earth, covered with man eating vines, giant waterfalls, steep mountains, misty valleys, flash floods, pre-historical birds, and humans so at home in their environment they seem to possess supernatural powers.

Instead of Jake Sully among the 7 foot tall Naavi you have Andy and Deb among the 5 foot Pawaia.  Roaming the jungle, living, seeing and learning by searching for  “pekpek”.

In the pages of this book lies the proof that we are each built for our respective environment. It is perfectly Ok if in another life you find yourself a Pawaia in a forest or an urban warrior on the streets of New York.

In the pages of this book is also the narration of a life calling. The noblest calling – to defend Mother Nature in this tiny blue marble we call home. Many are called but few are brave enough to walk the path.

In the Avatar of Pandora, the story ends with the hometree burning to the ground, in Papua New Guinea, there is hope for a future because of dedicated people who with brutal honesty share their personal experiences – setting the foundation for greater exploits for science.   And cautioning against capitalists who come dressed in sheep skin.

I was briefly a student in the capacity building course before the program was dismantled. The training program taught me more than my four years of university.  Andy and Deb were mentors and role models.   Conservation was like a religion to them, a conviction that permeated their whole being (as is apparent in this book) – and they were building disciples. Disciples armed with a science knowledge to ensure sustainable management of resources for the forest people.

Much of what has become the basis of my consciousness for nature protection was absorbed from Andy and Deb and the countless visitors they brought to the program and the conversations and importantly, the paper discussions.

In retrospect, their model for building local manpower is working.  Regardless of whose payroll the ex-students are being paid from now, the conservation principles received from Deb and Andy lives on. They have built a cohort of biologists and conservationists who are capable of driving conservation into the future.

The first chapters of the book sounds so romantic – the stuff of adventure tales immortalized around dinner tables. At the turning of the pages, it becomes apparent that this accomplishment was at a great cost. Disease, rascals, “sanguma”, death, estrangement from relationships – a hefty price was paid in the name of conservation.

So what, after all of this?

Indeed, humans have short memory. The only remaining physical evidence of the dream of  a field station may be the metal frames of the proposed research centre and the iron cast oven slowly rotting in the jungle, which are now probably “tumbuna” story among the locals. But for some of us who have walked part of the way, no matter how brief, the place will forever be an altar of sacrifice – where tears, sweat and blood were shed for a cause. It is a sacred site for pondering life and the purpose for being alive at a time such as now when reckless plunder of the earth seems more fashionable than protecting it.

The best gift any generation can leave for the future is telling their story so the future can learn and make better choices.  Andrew Mack has done just that with his book.

The documentation of conservation history in Papua New Guinea in this book is priceless. The lessons to learn from it is universal. I would recommend this book as a reading for any student in the field of conservation in PNG or anywhere else in the world.

El Nino and the Millennium Development Goals

PIC01921.JPGThe current El Nino is showing why Papua New Guinea (PNG) will still struggle to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) into the future.

The MDG is a people based project. It measures the welfare of the people in achieving a certain standard of living . This is a human right of all people in the world regardless  of their status in society, wealth or influence. In other words, the successful attainment of the 8 goals of MDGs will happen when the poorest of the poor in the society achieves an improved life as per the 8 MDG goals.

Who then are the poorest of the poor in PNG?

Most reports identify three groupings. The first class, the working class and the grassroots.But there is actually four groups. The first are the rich who make about 10% of the population. Second, the people who serve the government system also known as the working class – this group makes the next 20%. Third group are the villagers, they make the largest group of about 60%. Last group are the drifters, the so-called vagabonds, the runaways from the village – this last group bring in the last 10%,  but membership in this group is increasing as we speak.

The first group is also the smallest group. The rich have money to buy goods and services required for an easy life. They have the option of going overseas to access better opportunities in education and healthcare.  In this group, one will mostly find political leaders and their cronies, landowners and expatriates who have infiltrated and mixed with the locals in the country.

Second is the working class. This group serve the government system. Teachers, nurses, doctors, bureaucrats to name a few.  Like an assembly line, these group trudge on daily like human robots, unthinking, unquestioning, undemanding, unchallenged, uninterested. The system rewards them just enough to keep them from going hungry and revolting. The minimal care in health system exists to remove unfit humanoids. The education system churns out more robots to quickly fill any gaps that appear.

The third are the villagers and they make the biggest proportion of the population. The government system is designed to serve the villager. In reality, the villager is so far removed from that system. they are invisible and remain the forgotten group. For survival in their little corners across the country, villagers depend on their own system – the most authentic system that has supported life for PNGeans since the dawn of time – family, kin, custom, barter. In good times, the villager has food, family and shelter and is content living a life with less cargo and little money.

The fourth group are the vagabonds, villagers who have drifted into urban areas for a better life.  These people shun the simple village life and desire the bright city lights. But it is not as easy as it looks, and these vagabonds quickly realize that they need money to satisfy their desires. They could work for money, but they most times do not have the qualifications.  They have no proper job, they pay no tax, but they are the most demanding from the government system. The one thing they have is time, and they are mostly labelled trouble-makers for using that time to cause mischief in the society. This lifestyle is perpetuated when children get born into this life.

When put under scrutiny, the third and the fourth groups make the statistics of poor people.  In good times, the villager lives a content life, but the vagabond life is one of constant struggle and hunger because of lack of cash and loss of support from extended kin.

Despite that, the vagabonds are in some way better off than the villager because there are many opportunities to earn money in a city. They may have access to running water and light, even if illegally connected. They can send their child to a school where the teacher is always present. They can depend on church groups and other well-meaning people to help them out, out of sympathy. Importantly, through hard work, these vagabonds have the opportunity to break out of their low status in society and advance in life – an opportunity not available to a villager.

In trying times, the vagabonds are lucky by virtue of their positioning themselves closer to the system so that they can punch a hole in the system to get some form of assistance to trickle down to them.

So what does El Nino have to do with the MDG?

Statistics exists to show that deaths were higher in the rural areas compared to urban areas during the last El Nino. The reason – the villagers were too far away from any government intervention. There was a lack of health services, no health worker, no medicine or the medicine and aid did not reach villagers in a timely manner.

There was also no information on how people could help themselves. There was also a lack of opportunities for the villager to raise the money needed to buy food and medicine.

The El Niño reveals the government shrugging off its obligations to its biggest constituent – the villager. It is a contradiction when money for development is earned from resources belonging to the villager, but no goods or services goes back to the village. The money is stuck in the urban areas to  maintain a system that is of no use to the villager during his hard times.

And so, the villager remains the poorest of the poor. If not for the natural disasters, they would remain invisible.  Instead of expressing embarrassment for failing their duty of care to their constituents, the government keeps on making budgets on how to spend money on new developments in the cities while leaving the charity groups to work with the villagers.

If the government wants to achieve the MDG it must understand this: anything good for the poorest of the poor is good for achieving the 8 goals of MDG and that is why PNG will never achieve the MDG targets until genuine effort is put into improving the lives of the villagers.

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