Navigating the Future: An Ethnography of Change in Papua New Guinea
Monica Minnegal and Peter D. Dwyer
It seemed a good, even worthy, idea at the time. In the ’70s, there were half a dozen resident Australian correspondents reporting from Papua New Guinea. By 2009, when I was angling for my first reporting trip to PNG, there were just two: for the ABC and for the wire service Australian Associated Press. (By 2013, the AAP bureau would also be boarded up.)
Then a senior writer for The Age, I had a niche enthusiasm for reporting aid and development. Indices plotting the pulse of developing nations – maternal deaths, child health, violence, disease, education, environmental degradation, women’s representation, corruption – revealed PNG as a fixture at the wrong end of many tables. Much of the half a billion dollars Australia directed to PNG each year targeted these issues. Where were the stories?
What do we hear of our nearest neighbour in the mainstream media? Let’s put aside Manus, given those headlines are rarely about the island, but rather about a hazy outpost of Australian politics and refugee policy. Also exclude the Kokoda Track. While they invoke connection with the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, Kokoda stories are predominantly our stories and overlook other dimensions, like the wartime executions by Australian military of local men or demands by local landowners for a bigger piece of the tourism action. A former PNG correspondent once bemoaned to me that the only yarns he could sell to his editors were of Highlands babies named Kevin Rudd, bizarre crime and what he categorised as (pardon the hardbitten vernacular) “ooga booga” stories – tales of sorcery or cannibals. Meanwhile, much that deserves scrutiny festers invisibly: land-grabbing on a vast scale; the devastating human toll of collapsing infrastructure; bloodshed within the footprint of resources ventures.
The most consistent PNG narratives are located in the finance pages, tracking the fortunes of resources companies. Of the landscapes being prospected or the people living there, we hear not so much. Seizing on this, I tagged a pitch to research a crazily ambitious portfolio of PNG stories onto a blockbuster mining project, the $US19 billion ExxonMobil-led PNG Liquefied Natural Gas (PNG LNG), wrangling just enough editorial budget to concoct a whirlwind Highlands itinerary.
This despite having never before set foot in confounding PNG, the most linguistically diverse nation on the planet. The arrogance was gob-smacking, but the ambition honorable. News outfits worldwide were dismantling foreign bureaus as editorial coffers ran dry. The model of insights from “our man/woman in (insert far-flung dateline),” the cornerstone for comprehending our world, was dying. A “fly-in, fly-out” style of international reporting – “parachute journalism” – was filling the void. Critics in the US warned it posed a profound threat to media credibility: “Choppering into unknown locales is a recipe for sweeping conclusions, over-arching assumptions, and silly stereotypes, not to mention factual errors.” But pragmatists argued that, with thoughtful preparation, valuable work could still be done, and reporting something could be better than reporting nothing.
With notebook and fine intentions, I embarked on the first of almost a dozen trips to PNG. Initially, they ran to a frantic template, lurching from village to village, hitching rides with NGOs, police, miners – this skint model relies on ethically fraught piggybacking on the logistics of others. Arriving in a dervish aboard a dusty Troopy, a tinny plane. Scooping up interviews from women in grass skirts and men adorned with cassowary bones. Touring broken hospitals and schools. Firing questions at walking wounded fleeing tribal fights or husbands, accused sorcerers, witch torturers, pastors, elders, midwives. Within hours, I’m gone, and will spend weeks at my desk figuring out how the morsels I’ve hauled home fit within the researched picture.
Meanwhile, in remote country beyond the Highlands, University of Melbourne anthropologists Monica Minnegal and Peter Dwyer have been gathering up stories and observations rather more methodically. Theirs is an epic project spanning almost thirty years. They work in the lowlands of Western Province, from sites only accessible via grass airstrips which the locals trim with bushknives and, in the early years, days of footslog across swampland. They catalogue the seismic cultural aftershock of “intruding outsiders,” miners mostly, but also the likes of me, and how they “infiltrate the understanding of those whom they intrude upon.”
Since 1986, the couple has learnt from and lived, on and off, among Kubo and Febi people, taking ringside seats to witness an extraordinary moment. Their theatre is within the gas fields of Juha, the as yet untapped furthest reaches of the PNG LNG.
Now the largest resource extraction in the Asia-Pacific, the PNG LNG is expected to yield $US31 billion, one-third remaining in PNG and flowing, in part, to people whose lands produce the gas. Yet despite more than 200 shiploads of gas having set sail from PNG, the distribution of benefits to communities has been acknowledged by the companies as far too slow. Analysts at the Australian National University say landowners have yet to receive any actual royalties. Anger in the active heart of the project has inflamed bloody upheaval.
The communities where Minnegal and Dwyer have embedded are on the peaceable fringes of all this. They’ve documented a generation growing up watching geologists, surveyors and drilling teams come and go, expecting that when – if – the gas flows, it will bring wealth. Five wells have been sunk, but remain on hold.
A new generation has begun, and locals are still waiting for “Company,” which despite its elusiveness has become a “very materialized, personalized, presence,” one that has changed their lives profoundly.
To claim what is theirs, they must catalogue their connection to land in ways that satisfy corporate registers. They must articulate ancient kinships. They must identify themselves in ways that square with Western rollcalls. These are people who customarily wait for children to show their character before ascribing them a name, and whose names might change over the journey of a lifetime.
“[They] were catapulted into worlds of bureaucracy, printed words and the law. They had no prior experience that might help make sense of these new worlds. Relatively few people could read. None could comprehend the language of Acts of Parliament.” In 2014, no one in the village of Suabi knew what “percentage” meant.
Navigating the Future traces the “shifts in the ways people relate to the land, to each other, and to outsiders” in pursuit of a radically different future.
“Their efforts have flowed outwards to a globalized world . . . that has no sense of the efforts that people in a remote, lowland forested corner of the world contribute on its behalf. In return, the ideological persuasions of that world, the assumptions of science and the market place that give it certainty . . . have penetrated into the very being of the people.”
This is a scholarly work, but also remarkably accessible, poignant and intimate. It cracks open the door to the utterly Other. Minnegal and Dwyer are affectionate and respectful, but resist romanticism. Observing with discomfort the “sense of presumed superiority” of “Company” representatives, they also document the complicity of locals manoeuvring to achieve their ends. Change is inevitable and constant. “A new world is emerging for Kubo and Febi people, a world that they themselves are building, a world in which they are emerging as new kinds of subjects.”
Such critical nuances are trampled underfoot by the most well-intentioned of outsider correspondents. Without confusing the slow rigor of ethnography with the imperatives of journalism – and within remote landscapes are so many stories that deserve to find their way urgently into the world – this work challenges journalists to think about how we might gather up truer stories. The same digital revolution that hobbled roving correspondents has empowered indigenous voices to broadcast from ground zero of their realities, yet we resist hearing them. How do we enhance our storytelling by “plucking out” as opposed to parachuting in?
The powerful lesson I had learnt by the time I was making my fifth or sixth trip to PNG was how little I understood. I travelled slower. I watched. I tried to ask what I left behind when I flew away with my story, borrowing the medical principle: first, do no harm. What I have discovered from the journey with Minnegal and Dwyer is what I long suspected, but chose not to see.