Papua New Guinea

Photographs and Text by Brent Stirton

No country in the world has experienced as rapid an introduction to the modern age as Papua New Guinea. As recently as the 1930's, the interior of the country remained completely unknown to the rest of the planet. The last tribe on earth to remain a stone-age civilization was discovered hidden in the impenetrable Papuan jungle as recently as 1980. Papua New Guinea's entry into the modern era has not been without problems. Papuans are struggling with their own sense of identity, customs that are centuries old are changing rapidly, cities and towns are growing and many rural people have migrated and left behind a traditional subsistence existence. Poverty is wide spread amongst these new urbanites, unskilled as they are in how to earn money in this new way of life.

Crime is an everyday reality as desperation fuels opportunity in the poor settlement areas around the capital of Port Morseby and further afield. The recent discovery of oil in the highlands will further change the human and natural landscape of Papua New Guinea. Huge logging operations by Malaysian operators have decimated large tracts of the Papuan forests, indispensable filters for the world's carbon dioxide. Some Papuans are fighting back. Exploitative international logging operations have been chased out of the Lake Murray area, replaced by locally run eco-logging operations, a community initiative for community benefit.

Mining operations on the Papua New Guinea/West Papuan Border have devastated the land and its fertile potential. In the Kiunga region, vast areas of iron phosphate sediments have engulfed the banks of the Fly River system. Environmentalists are predicting that over 300 000 hectares of the basin will be poisoned by these sediments in the next major flood. This is likely to affect the livelihoods of over 300 000 people as their ability to live a life based on their relationship to the environment is compromised forever.

This series of images attempts to illustrate a number of issues: Firstly it celebrates the uniqueness of Papua New Guinea's tribal culture and the ritual of dress and dance for which it is most famous. These images also attempt to remind us that these customs are changing, and are now rarely seen unless an important "Moka" or meeting is taking place or there is a tribal gathering or tourist performance.

There are a series of images related to how Papua New Guinean lives are deeply connected to the natural world. 97% of the land of PNG is in the hands of rural villages. Images of hunting and farming attempt to illustrate this relationship to the land. In the Lake Murray region, a former Port Morseby policeman by the name of Galeva Sep has returned to his village where he has worked hard to create an eco-logging industry. This benefits the local communities instead of the exploitative, destructive logging giants who Sep fought to have removed.

There are images of the church and how that has impacted traditional life. Former Spirit Houses are now Churches for the Catholic faith or Seventh Day Adventists. Alongside these are images of Spirit Men, PNG's traditional spiritual advisers. They are depicted in caves with the skulls of their ancestors. Skull preservation is a centuries old practice in PNG. The majority of Papua New Guinean's see the Church through a positive lens. They talk of how it has brought education, medicine and reduced tribal fighting between rival clans.

Back in Port Morseby we see "Raskals," young gangsters with homemade guns who live a life of crime in the poor settlements around the capital city. We see sex-workers in brothels in a climate where a reported 11% of the population are now HIV+. The potential for mass infection amongst PNG's population is high. Superstition and ignorance about the disease make Aids the biggest threat in the country to date. There are two images of Aids orphans, another burgeoning by-product of an HIV epidemic waiting in the wings. One child bathes a frail grandmother who took care of her after the death of her parents, the other lies in a room with his adopted brothers and sisters after the demise of his parents.

Gambling, alcohol and other modern ills have deeply affected Papua New Guineans. Incidents of domestic violence are commonplace. Most of the victims interviewed said that they had confronted their husbands about infidelity and were assaulted as a result. Social workers are quick to say that this is modern phenomenon. Life in the villages never allowed for infidelity. In this patriarchal society wives are often seen as objects rather than people with rights. The practice of "bride price" in many parts of PNG, a ceremony where a betrothal fee is paid for a wife, does not help to dispel this notion in the minds of men.

I have included images of refugee members of the Free West Papua Movement living in Papua New Guinea after being forced to flee Indonesian authorities in West Papua. Indonesia took over Iran Jaya as it was then called in a controversial UN supervised, rigged referendum in 1971. Ever since then there has been a movement to reclaim West Papua for the West Papuans. The Indonesians derive their second largest income source from West Papuan mining operations and the country is run by the Indonesian military. Needless to say, it is a brutal regime with many incidents of human rights abuses. The Free West Papua Movement is sadly idealistic at best.

Papua New Guinea is at a critical point. It desperately needs good governance to usher the population into the 21st century. Allegations of government corruption have not helped and it seems that logging and mining are being allowed to devastate the natural areas of PNG without restraint. People are struggling with who they were, who they are and who they want to be. Most of the people I spoke to in the city told me they want to go back to the village. Those in the village said that that was where they wanted to stay. They all said they wanted education for their children and access to medical care.

The government has to find a way to pay for progress in a country where 97% of the land is owned by tribal villages. Most don't pay taxes. Mining and logging are part of paying for the process of modernization but in order to facilitate those things, the natural lives of thousands of Papua New Guineans are threatened with devastation.

The key is slow progress with careful monitoring by a responsible authority with an emphasis on community. One can only hope the PNG authorities are committed to that course.