November 25, 2017

The two faces of New Guinea

It is doubtful if any of our political leaders have ever seen a political document which actually takes into account social and ecological realities. Such a document would undoubtedly be regarded as ‘politically naive’ as was our Blueprint for Survival, as its implementation would not provide a means of winning votes.

Nor would any of their advisors be likely to write such a document. They tend to be fervent adepts of the Religion of Industrialism which preaches that the world is imperfect, but that man, with the aid of Science, Technology and Industry can create a far better one.

This anti-evolutionary doctrine leads its adepts to wage an all-out war against Nature, and the role of our experts is simply to determine what must be the next stages of this pathetically unequal struggle, what particular processes of the biosphere must be singled out as the target for the next assault, how we should deploy our regiments of chemists, nuclear-physicists and engineers, and what ingenious new weapons can be added to their armoury.

However, a new generation of scientists is arising. It is increasingly aware of the limitations of modern scientific method, increasingly concerned with the problems of values, and increasingly willing to admit that technology does not provide a panacea for all human problems. A few politicians are also beginning to suspect what King Canute pointed out to his sycophantic experts over a thousand years ago, that the forces of nature are indifferent to the edicts of politicians. It may be inexpedient to be politically naive but to be socially and ecologically naive is suicidal.

Unfortunately, the old-fashioned experts who have not yet understood all this are still very influential. In Britain, Beckerman is still convinced that the world obeys the laws of Keynesian economics, Zuckerman told Mr. Heath, then Prime Minister, that Britain does not have a population problem and Lawther still assures the government that air pollution levels are quite tolerable, in spite of the fact that we have the highest levels of bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer in the world. Our politicians are also mainly of the old school. Like the Bourbons they have neither learned nor forgotten anything. The Conservatives still regard free enterprise as a means of solving all our problems, the Socialists nationalisation, and the Liberals go on waffling about ‘human dignity’ and the ‘rights of man’.

Some of the new nation states are more fortunate. Two of them, Zambia and Papua New Guinea actually have Associate Editors of the Ecologist as Government Advisors, John Papworth and Jimoh Omo Fadaka respectively.

The latter was appointed by Maurice Strong as part of the United Nations Environment Programme. His initial report to the Government of Papua New Guinea must be one of the most enlightened political documents to appear since the beginning of the industrial age.

Fadaka accepts that, like all countries today Papua New Guinea wants to develop. The question is how? So far the principal influence in this field has been that of Australia, whose government administered this area for a very long time. This approach is:

“Foreign to the indigenous cultures and traditions of the people of Papua New Guinea.

“For example the principle of the centralised nation-state, capitalist economy, social institutions, capital-intensive or labour-saving technologies are all foreign importations which are difficult to reconcile with Papua New Guinean indigenous traditions and cultures.

“Papua New Guinea should not imitate the Australian pattern of development. It should adopt a pattern of development suited to its traditional cultural patterns. It should pioneer its own way—the rural way as opposed to the urban way—of development which avoids the economic and social pitfalls of the Australian pattern of development”.

The maintenance of New Guinea’s cultural traditions is the first priority. The 700 different societies that constitute this new state must be able to maintain their different identities, they must be “allowed to develop separately without fear of domination of one group by the other”. At all costs these people must not be transformed into an alienated proletariat on the Western model.

To create a Western type economy would be undesirable for yet another reason, and that is that it simply doesn’t work. As Fadaka writes:

“Many industrialised countries are now faced with complete breakdown as a result of these large projects. They are faced with serious social disruption leading to high incidence of mental diseases; suicide and crime, especially in the cities, alienation of people from one another, social and psychological breakdown of their societies; drug addiction, and a sense of hopelessness arising from these huge projects, and destruction of their environment.

“Many people in these countries especially the youth, are looking for a different life-style; simple and humane; completely different from the present atomistic and highly centralised society they have inherited.

“Papua New Guinea should learn from the mistakes of these countries and try not to repeat them. If it tries to imitate their pattern of development, it will end up with the same problems, without having solved its own. The result would be disastrous for Papua New Guinea.

“Large scale schemes such as the Purari Water River Project that are being presently considered should not go ahead until all the relevant facts are known. What for example are likely to be the effects of the project on rural communities; the physical environment, the ecosystem, etc? Is there a viable alternative?

“Papua New Guinea should not attempt to transform its society through such huge industrial projects which would subordinate its rural population to foreign monopoly capital and (perhaps) ultimately destroy the rural population”.

Even if Western Industrialism worked, for Papua New Guinea to try to adopt it would require a very considerable amount of foreign aid. However, aid programmes are unfortunately double-edged; they will make Papua New Guinea even more dependent on the donors. Self-reliance is a pre-requisite of economic stability, and in order to achieve it, dependence on foreign aid should be reduced rather than increased.

The development of the spirit of self-reliance should be an important aspect of the economic policy of Papua New Guinea. It should do things itself, and should, as far as possible, do without foreign aid or assistance.

If aid is necessary at all, it should be related to the actual needs of the country, and not the needs of the donor-countries.

At any rate a good many undesirable things come into a country on the back of aid. Aid often creates a psychological dependence on getting still more aid. It saps initiative and enterprise; or again, aid may foster—as it has been doing in Papua New Guinea—a type of development wholly inappropriate to circumstances.

“Aspirations are created which can never be fulfilled. The Western or Eastern “expert” wants to bring his whole cultural baggage with him and this can include myths about what happens and what is possible in his own country.

“Moreover, no one in a position of power and prosperity can offer such aid as would threaten his own security”.

Trying to imitate the West would also mean attracting foreign capital.

But how is it possible to control a society if it is economically dominated by foreigners? As Fadaka writes:

“It will be difficult for Papua New Guinea to initiate the type of development that will solve its poverty problem when the industrial machine it has to contend with is mainly in the hands of foreign companies. It is unlikely that these can be persuaded to subject their purely economic considerations to indigenous needs.

“They are, for instance, unlikely to introduce labour-intensive small-scale technologies. They seek above all to be internationally competitive, and if local conditions do not permit this, they will simply tend to move off to greener pastures. Many of the companies are involved in activities which by their very nature can only be of short duration, when there is no copper left in Bougainville, for instance, they will move elsewhere”.

Britain is in precisely the same situation today. We can only maintain our industrial society by attracting vast amounts of foreign capital, mainly from the Arab countries, who, with present oil royalties can afford to buy the whole of British industry every few months. But for how long would this country tolerate being owned by the Arab Sheikhs? The Labour Party we must not forget cannot even tolerate its being owned by individual Britons.

What then must be done? As Fadaka puts it:

“The transformation of Papua New Guinea society must come from a common and spontaneous enthusiasm, and not a series of alien directives. Papua New Guinea must strive to control its own destiny within a self-reliant society. Furthermore, self-reliance will encourage the use of the country’s most abundant resource—manpower—as a substitute for scarce capital goods. A policy of ‘turning labour into capital’.

“It is within this framework of self-reliance that Papua New Guinea should reconstruct and control its destiny”.

He then examines in considerable detail different aspects of the development process.


The technology resorted to, he writes, should:

“be a type consistent with the maintenance of a healthy self-reliant, self-supporting, self-regulating and self-financing human scale society at village or community level. It should have the lowest impact on ecosystems and should enhance rather than disrupt the life of rural communities.

“It should be designed for relatively ‘closed’ economic and political communities at village and community level; be cheap and available to everyone in the village rather than a privileged few; be suitable for application on a small scale. It should be designed in such a way as to provide villagers with the means of doing profitable and intrinsically significant work; of helping them to achieve independence from bosses so that they become their own employees or members of self-governing cooperative groups working for subsistence and local markets.

“It should be labour-intensive, to reverse the trend towards increasing unemployment and be capable of being reproduced locally, thereby encouraging indigenous industries.

“There should be a new type of literature for the rural population—literature on ecologically-based low-impact technology for support of small-scale village communities. Such literature should contain information on low-cost building materials; low-cost dams; low-cost energy, e.g. wind, water, solar and other renewable energy uses; low-cost medicine; low-cost transport; labour-intensive methods; workshop technology and all those things which the village needs to be self-sufficient, self-reliant and largely self-governing”

Once more the lesson is as applicable, if not more so, to industrialised countries such as the UK as it is to the traditional societies of Papua New Guinea—whose primitive culturally-determined technologies have always satisfied these requirements admirably.

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Among his recommendations, on the subject of education, one notes the two following essential points:

“The villagers should run their own primary, secondary and training schools and research stations, with government assistance if necessary.

“The education given at village schools should be designed to enable the pupils to continue to work in the rural areas, instead of drifting to the towns”.

Indeed, centralised educational systems have been a serious cause of social disruption and alienation in the West, while one of the causes of urbanisation is that people in rural areas are educated specifically for an urban life.

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On the subject of housing he writes:

“The villagers should be encouraged to build new low-cost houses communally. By this means houses in the villages cannot be sold when individuals leave the villages”.

This would undoubtedly do much to reduce undesirable mobility which prevents the establishment of those bonds which normally hold a community together.

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On the subject of Politics, the accent is on self-government, with a minimum of bureaucratic control. Thus he writes:

“The villages need to provide educated people and trained village cadres, teaching and working with villagers.

“What should be avoided is the wholesale importation of people from other villages or officials from outside the area or areas, even from Provincial or District Headquarters, instructing the villagers as to their tasks but taking no physically active part in it themselves”.

His approach to Land Management is based on sound ecological considerations. Among his recommendations, we read:

“Papua New Guinea has vast areas of fertile land that are being gradually destroyed either through monoculture and exclusive use of chemical fertilisers or lack of proper irrigation and good land management.

“Apart from the fact that chemical fertilisers and pesticides are very costly, their indiscriminate use could destroy the fertility of the soil on which food production depends.

“It is very essential that the soil should not be depleted of certain types of plant food. Consequently rotation of crops is essential.

“If it is necessary to protect crops from insects, pests and diseases, it is advisable to plant different types of crops at the same time. This could assist in controlling pests and diseases for the obvious reason that different crops are subject to different diseases.

“Also an integrated control combining biological predators and low toxic chemicals could be used.

“Herbs and spices could also be planted and used to keep pests away.

“It is impossible to exterminate all pests and it is a waste of time and money attempting to do so with pesticides which could destroy the soil and its beneficial organisms.

“Management of the land is very important. Sloping land should be terraced to stop wasteful erosion. The terracing could be done by using draft animals such as water buffaloes’, simple implements; proper drainage and local materials such as stones, and bamboo”.

What would be the main characteristics of the society which would emerge?

Fadaka writes:

“The type of society Papua New Guinea should envisage should comprise a conglomeration of self-supporting communities based on the various ethnic groups or communities or national groups as in its traditional society, as far as is possible or practicable.

“This is the goal towards which Papua New Guinea should be striving—an organisation of stable, self-governing, self-reliant and self-financing human scale Communities enjoying that lifestyle prescribed by their own traditions, customs and beliefs”.

Underlying this report is a rejection of the principal values of industrialism. The notion of development itself has not been abandoned, but the form of development envisaged which is largely subject to the constraints that must be applied on human activities for them to satisfy basic social and ecological requirements.

One can only hope that it be heeded, and it serve too as an example to other governments throughout the world, both of the industrialised and as yet non-industrialised countries.

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A Faceless Society

The other side of the Island of New Guinea is occupied by the Indonesians. Though they themselves have only recently obtained their independence from the Dutch, they have not hesitated to subject their new subjects in New Guinea to the worst abuses of colonial rule.

Robin Hanbury Tenison, Chairman of Survival International, recently visited a valley in this part of the Island in which lives a tribe called the Dani, 6,000 of them whose very existence was not suspected until 20 years ago. They are very happy and prosperous people but possess none of the paraphernalia of industrialism, no Cadillacs, colour television sets, electric toothbrushes, no modern hospitals and comprehensive schools, no all-pervading State Bureaucracy, and no Nation State. Most of us would regard them as fortunate to have been able to escape the terrible ravages of the industrial age. Not so however, their Indonesian overlords, who regard it as their divinely inspired duty to bring them as rapidly as possible the full benefits of progress of which, so far, they have been so shamefully deprived. In this way, rather than allow the different tribal societies to retain their identity, they are to be systematically swallowed up into a faceless mass society.

I shall quote from Robin Hanbury Tenison’s new book A Pattern of Peoples.1

“Wamena is not an attractive town, the straight rows of corrugated iron roofs looking out of place in the magnificent setting where blue mountains sweep down to the valley floor, through which the wide Baliem river curves leisurely before plunging into the narrow gorge sealing off the eastern end. We stayed the night there, talking to a young Austrian agriculturalist working on a project for the Catholics. He was full of praise for the Dani as farmers.

The soil is rich and they work it skilfully, digging long ditches for irrigation and drainage, and allowing the land to lie fallow between croppings. He felt that the sweet potato, which is the staple diet of the highlands, was a much maligned source of food. [Which contains?] ten to twelve per cent protein.

They grow magnificent cabbages and other vegetables. If they were not prevented from selling these in Jayapura they would have a perfect cash crop, and could buy the things they see in the market but have no money for.

He felt that great danger lay in the removal of the remaining areas of forest, as increasing numbers of military personnel were brought in who used the timber for their houses and barracks. Soon there will be no trees left in the valley. Flying in, I had noticed how few clumps of woodland there were, but instead bare hillsides contrasting with the neat garden plots and round thatched villages. From the air, it had looked more like a high Alpine valley in Switzerland than the ‘primeval jungle’ we had been led to expect.

No replanting is being done, and promoting this would be an easy way for the government to bring real help to the Dani. Instead, all the emphasis has been on ‘operation Koteka’,2 a plan to clothe and civilize the Dani, so paternalistic, ill-conceived and puritanically prejudiced in its priorities as to make one gasp that it could have been drawn up in the twentieth century. But I have a copy of it and, rather than comment, shall simply provide a few quotes so that the reader can see what I mean:

“‘Socioeconomic conditions among the inland inhabitants are distressing. They live on the products of nature they gather briefly every day, and on the produce of their primitive cultivation, shifting from one place to another.

‘The inland communities are a relatively easy pray to influence from separatist groups campaigning against the government of the Republic of Indonesia, due to the unsatisfactory social conditions and the pronounced tribalism of the people.

‘The people remain strongly attached to tribal traditions and customs. This attachment constitutes an impediment in our effort to lead them on the path of development, of social unity and progress in living standards.

‘The chiefs who are, at the same time, warlords, leaders and guardians of tradition and culture, occupy a central position in the tribes.

‘Their housing is extremely poor. Huts are built of tree poles with thatched roof, primitive structures with no attention given to hygienic or aesthetic factors. The people sleep on the floor, on a bedding of grass, around the fireplace for protection against the cold.

‘Our objects include teaching the people the importance of having decent living accommodation according to normal village standards, as well as to build houses using locally available materials . . . to understand and be willing to carry out their duties and responsibilities as family heads and mothers of the household, for children and descendants . . . to dress neatly, to cultivate plantations, to care for their animals, to use Indonesian in a limited way, to sing

‘Indonesian songs, to know the names of the Indonesian islands, to cook their food, etc. . . .

‘Having achieved these objects to form a village and large community, so as to facilitate the work of officials in guiding and influencing the people toward the attainment of the main objective and, at the same time, to render government administration easier.’”

Dom Moreas, writing in The Asia Magazine (March 1972) about the Baliem valley, sums up Operation Koteka.

“Its aim, in fact, is to change the Dani whether they like it or not, though the Indonesians don’t think of it like that. They will deliver trousers to the Dani in much the same mood as that in which Saint Paul delivered the Epistles to the Lacedemonians . . . It is bound to be enforced eventually. Money will come into the valley with clothes. The old free life will be finished, and . . . (the Dani) . . . will become another backward race looked after by a supposedly paternal administration. More children will attend more schools: but what will they team there which will be of any use to them if they continue to live in the valley?

“Possibly quite a lot, as the valley changes: but the happiness one feels in the Dani now will have departed, it will have flown beyond the mountains, and nobody will know where they can find that blue bird a second time.”

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1. A Pattern of Peoples. To be published by Angus and Robertson in June [1975].

2. The term Koteka refers to penile sheaths which up to now have been the sole garment of Dani men.

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