Laying the conservation groundwork
Imboin laid out a welcome for us. They were also enthusiastic participants in the training by our guest foresters to get landowners to conduct surveys of their own forests. Sometimes ‘skills transference’ is a piece of cake. They knew so much about their bush, we learned, that they might have all had advanced degrees. Conservation is an extreme posture. I know that we are propagating a kind of species xenophobia for the Karawari, species purity. But that’s the cold heart of conservation after all. Every invasive specie is an enemy. Everything not endemic is an illegal alien.
Like white supremacists, we abhor admixture (and like the one recently exposed in TV, are often surprised to find we are not ‘pure’ after all). Obviously you can take this too far, as people like to grow beans and vanilla in places it never grew before. So many species of plants and animals may have been introduced (or introduced themselves by natural migration) before an arbitrary ‘traditional’ cut off date, just as we all derive from sub Saharan Africa But there is real need to halt the tide of homogenization before the discrete identities of our biological world are lost to science. It is flora/fauna xenophobia, nothing less. All we have to do to sound politically antediluvian is substitute an ‘ethnicity’ in these conservation arguments against an invasive specie. Keep the migrants out---turn back the boat species.
But humans have tipped the balance of species homogenization. ‘Miscegenation’ and global blending has moved so quickly to habitat loss and destruction of whole geographies happens before we even know about it---worse, before these places have been studied, valued in their own right, and protected. Homogenization is rarely what it seems, it is almost never blended result, because new species come to dominate their new environments and erase the identity of what came before. It is a form of biological colonialism if you will, the hegemony or manifest destiny of super plants and predator species.
What conservationists fear most is the Rachel Carson Silent Spring scenario, where a chemical finds its way to the water table, kills the frogs, which starves the birds, which prevents pollination of certain trees, and lays waste to the entire ecosystem. It’s not the next Kathryn Bigelow film, but more like an endless disaster miniseries, or watching Shoah in one long sitting. Just as we think about the millions of lives and intellects and creative productions lost to the European Holocaust in the forties, we can stand on mountainsides across PNG and look over plantations of oil palm, open cut gold mines, and oil exploration fields, knowing we have lost uncountable species’ contributions to science, in the name of global capital.
The bees are dying; that’s our current nightmare. It always starts small. So yes, conservation is a battle against pernicious invaders, trying to construct impermeable barriers against the Other, whether he or she comes by boat, by chance or by the odd bit of litter. Some ecosystems are now too fragile to be left to fate, because in their fragility lies the biological clues to things we cannot even imagine, and in their destruction lies a form of evolution that is not survival of the fittest any longer, but survival of the most lucrative to humans, at the price of our global biodiversity.
Yorba agrees with my idea that we need vigilance against human and nonhuman invasions here in the Karawari. The place and its people are too easy to be coopted; too fragile. He and his colleagues who have worked in community development and conservation all across PNG are in the position to know how little it takes for one pernicious idea or one bad agricultural project to lay waste to the bush, the ideas, the very substance of a remote cultural community.. They’ve been impressed by the amount of information the Meakambut have for every tree and bush, even the young kids. Working with them on the survey was their own education, as they saw foraging people identify one leaf in five terms and then describe its various uses. Howard shakes his head and says his people in Madang don’t know anything like that anymore, it’s so sad. And so fast, this language loss.
I see why Tomi tells us so much of the Penale language is being forgotten, and quickly---no doubt because they are having to settle near the riverside to seek schools and aid posts, and because, as foragers, they are so deftly adaptive. Once the need to recall a tree name is gone, it is gone forever. The Awim are just one generation away from living in the caves, living like the Meakambut, but they’ve already lost so much taxonomic information. And that’s why fences have to be built, and languages, like stories, tree kangaroos, marmosets, fruit doves and the very cultural template of people who live off this bush, must be given a chance to survive.
I had a shock in the canoe the other day. Meakambut Jack was sitting before me when we passed a friend on the river. Suddenly he barked, and at first I couldn’t believe it was Jack barking, “Hey you fucking idiot!’---in perfect English, with an arm pump to boot. Clearly its a quick slide from first contact to just another foulmouthed villager.
At this point in our journey we passed great mountains of dirty white algae drifting downsteam from last night’s storm. They seem like a million mini icebergs or alpine models; dirty bubbly bathwater, or clotted cream. And as we pass we hear the big burping sounds of rubbermouth fish beneath us, sort of bellowing calls. Or honking-bellowing really, sound bouncing off waves almost like distant buzz-saw being acoustically warped for us (Is it a warning? RH is coming!!)
Jeffrey makes a joke about how people say the Sepik is so abundant with fish they hardly need to fish at all. The fish themselves just loll about asking “Huk we?”
If we look at this area, its forest and people and caves, as a vast scientific resource, then we need to take one further step in our conservation. It’s not the gold and logs and oil that must be preserved, or passed on to a next generation, but the entire biologically diverse environment itself. It is a veritable laboratory for Papua New Guinean scientists in the future, who will explore its anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, forestry, biology, botany, mammalogy, ornithology, entomology, herpetology, and so much more.
Let’s keep it for Papua New Guineans, too, and prevent the scientific resources from being usurped and managed by foreign academics. I would sign my own death certificate I know, and I would even add a caveat that invites overseas experts to study the bush if they also trained local counterparts to do so. But this is an old idea that has never been successfully implemented. Maybe we can do that here. Drawing boundaries both physical and academic becomes all the more important in the age of open sourcing, free range education, Google maps and a global English school curriculum.
It’s a myth that democratic distribution of information benefits everyone---no less a myth than the FTO’s campaign to drop trade barriers in the developing world. The powerful win and the powerless lose, in yet another twist of capitalist evolution. The entire Sepik region is made up of knowledge based societies, cultures that exist to transact information before money. This is where knowledge is power, and amassing wealth (as in the Highlands) simply is not possible. The engine of social interaction—the musculature of all competition and hierarchy---is exclusive information—local ‘copyright.’
This is where every word and secret is parsed for its siociopolitical value. You don’t tell your secrets to the wrong clan, and you hold those special bits for an important debate. Like Nancy Jr hoarding her gossip, people hold tight to what they know, whether it comes as a legacy or a discovery. Thus conserving the vernacular taxonomies and the cultural esoterica of Sepik people is really a matter of survival. And recording that information to serve (only) a European discourse-- conducted in peer review journals and hallowed university halls ---not to mention expensive lecture circuits---is perceived to be, and therefore is in effect, theft. Science is not democratic. It’s more hierarchical than a Middle School cafeteria.
No one really shares everything, and everyone cultivates exclusivity by language, data or access to resources. Being an expert is no small thing, not in PNG, Australia, Germany, Madagascar or Bolivia. And yet PNG has too long been the subject rather than the object of scientific study. It is an illusion to think that writing a book about a people is enough to give them power. It gives them a name in another culture, and a subheading on a syllabus, even an ISBN.
But it often means little or nothing to the people in place, who face daily threats by commercial resource extractors, fringe churches, even junk food. We need to make the information about PNG more powerful TO Papua New Guineans, and stem the yearning to be ‘modern’ with the powerful force of cultural and intellectual pride. The workers we bring---Yorba Yuki, Howard Sindana, Siggy Fuaya, Frank Don, Peter Gabu---to name a few---were trained by an exceptional NGO called Bismark Ramu Group, and are committed to cultivating better judgement, critical thinking and acting, in powerless remote communities. Only this way will they ever be able to make free and informed choices about their future.
We don’t make enough social scientists, and far too few anthropologists. But when we do, ironically, it is always by cultivating special students who earn overseas scholarships where they write up the details of their own culture to earn a PhD. They rarely conduct fieldwork in their host country. And yet everyone from their host country conducts fieldwork in PNG, it seems. We need to provide the ‘field’ for that kind of research to be conducted by PNG students, preferably from PNG universities. Rather than being the subject matter for everyone else’s PhD and professorship, we need an indigenous anthropology of Papua New Guinea, and we need to do this right away. By making it easier for Papua New Guineans to gain expertise, saving precious monies on overseas ‘consultants’, we also serve the rural communities. Because it is only by making Papua New Guineans come to respect the importance of PNG culture that we will ever be able to conserve it.
Our workers show remote villagers in the Karawari their first moving images: cds about self-reliance, about environmental damage, and court battles to reclaim indigenous land. It’s compelling, no doubt about it. One morning two young men came into the kitchen and told us they hadn’t been able to sleep all night thinking about the video we’d shown them. Aren’t we fking with their brains? Is this brainwashing? Is it manipulation after all? I’m not sure I care, because being a blank slate doesn’t last long and some crank or cult or conman would be here if we weren’t.
We’re sitting in the haus boi near the water in Awim one day when Sebi describes a skull Joshua found with him in a cave, one that didn’t seem to have the seam down the middle, so it didn’t look human. Sebi reports to us that Josh’s explanation was that this was a pre-human, one of the early homo sapiens who had a tail. “Tails?” “Tails,” Sebi says, pointing to the coccyx, everyone’s vestigial tail. ‘Humans had tails,’ he explains. Or at least that’s what Joshua told him. Josh was one of our team leaders a few years back, and a very nice DWU student of physiotherapy. He did a lot of early caving for us, and we loved him. But he also taught me never to assume any of my team members has a grasp of evolutionary biology, not to mention cultural relativism. He ended up telling the National Geographic a thoroughly fictional tale about Meakambut origin beliefs. Hearing this new ‘tail’ I shake my head and try to laugh, but I can’t. ‘Josh told you that? That’s what he told you?’ Sebi says Yes. “Em yet i tokim mi olosem.”
Sebi is no naïf.
He came with us on a donor funded trip to the World Conservation Congress in South Korea last year. He has seen the singing, vibrating heated toilets of Korea. (This goes some way toward explaining why is son wants to grow up to be a plumber). “Do you believe that?” He looks at me and shrugs, then laughs. “I dunno!” This is my chance to launch into a lecture about evolution, Biblical stories as legends, racist urban myths, and never taking Josh of all people seriously. For goodness sake, and we laugh. “Humans bin nogat tail!”
Paleodieting for the evolutionarily conscious
Coincidentally I turn on one of my NPR podcasts to find the “oh gosh” evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman talking about misconceptions of evolutionary biology. It’s not just Sebi who’s confused. People in the US are now eating something called The Paleo Diet. Lieberman does a good job debunking the idea that we are pre-adapted to a Palaeolithic and not a modern diet. Never has the human body been ‘adapted’ to any diet, not our autonomic (involuntary) nervous system, nor our hormones or digestion. There’s more Crohn’s disease and autoimmune dysfunctions of the digestive tract, like celiac disease, these days, and this is the hallmark of evolutionary ‘mismatching.’
It’s true about gluten—there’s so much more gluten in our diets today than ever before. Combined with our over-use of antibiotics, we have really become over-hygienic and virtually destroyed out immune systems. There are no more pathogens today, Lieberman explains. The immune system has nothing left to attack but itself. So there are foods for which we are better adapted, which suit our systems better. The Paleo Diet is filled with fats and fatty meats, and eliminates all cereals, legumes, milk, peanuts and grains (because it’s a pre-farming diet). But just because they ate it then doesn’t mean it was good for them. Or more to the point, good for them individually.
Because hunter-gatherers evolved to be reproductively successful, but not necessarily healthy. They died young. And farming was a boon for reproduction, but no improvement for individual health. What value did food have then, and what is its value now? A case in point would be underweight babies. Lieberman explains how in Gambia mothers were given nutritional supplements to make their babies fatter, but all it did, instead, was to space out the intervals for their babies. It made them healthier on the whole, but not reproductively more successful.
By contrast, the babies born to women in places like Lumi, in the West Sepik, are underweight because of strict prenatal dietary taboos. But this also suppresses maternal mortality, because women without medical care are much safer having smaller babies. More babies and mothers survive, even if they’re undernourished (and susceptible to other medical problems). The point is, nothing we have done in the past or can do today is perfectly ‘adapted’ to our biology. And even if we agree that not all evolutionary changes are improvements, there was never an ideal pre-modern time when our food and our bodies were perfectly coordinated.
Even today, the Penale are not too keen on gardening. Their transition from nomadic to sedentary is no small adjustment, even if farming is generally easier, more nutritionally rewarding (actually I don’t know about that last bit). It’s so unappealing, even their modern cousins the Awim remain apathetic nouveau gardeners. They’re lackadaisical about it. The Penale just prefer to hunt and fish, and for them---whatever the nutritional or political rewards---gardening is a hassle. They harvest sago, then some yam, fruits and wild berries. The Meakambut plant a bit of kaukau when needed, but prefer to process wild sago when they’re hungry. Culture---go figger. Its always mucking up that bio-evolutionary straight line.
Murderpods and mugshots
I’m slumbering to a podcast about ‘famous murders and murderers’ which is so good in so many ways: raw, poorly produced, filled with thuggish Elmore Leonard accents in telephone interviews between crime authors who avoid –at all costs-- the use of big words. My own kind of brainwash. They talk about ‘rationale’ and ‘motive’ and the ‘psychology’ of a murderer---no mention of sociopathy, neurology, or even criminology. Some occasional talk of a ‘split personality disorder’ sounds suitably dated and pulp-scientific.
These are all about serial murderers from the backwoods Texas and British Colombia, where meth and adultery and repossessed mobile homes are assumed to be sufficient triggers for a bloodbath. They talk about police praxis and the courts, obviously reading passages from their own books to explain the differences between US and Canadian procedures. The beauty is that I am no more the expert than they are, I’m their prototypical reader in fact, yearning for greater understanding. It’s the ultimate opacity of these talks (like listening to your uncles play cards in the kitchen, referring to family history before your time) that make them so good, so tantalizing. You can never really understand why the Gulf War vet murdered his pregnant girlfriend when his fiancée treated him like dirt anyway. Why did the seductress risk everything to commit that dangers sixth murder?
After two of these, my MP3 rolls on to an NPR podcast from New York, which is beautifully produced (with zippers and creaky door sound effects) about old fashioned grafters and con artists---and told by articulate stand up storytellers, moderated by the educated ebonic-inflected voice of the East Coast. A fake meditation guru to an investment banker. The New Jersey uncle posing as the arte povera naïf in his own gallery---causing a run the paintings. Here the stories are better than the facts, the story arcs as predictable as prime time sitcoms.
If only ethnography could be more like storytelling.
We’re off to the Upper Karawari now. Pauly tells a long story on the ride from Moinene to Latoma---which is over 2 hours’ travel. I imagine an animal cartoon—Into the Wild, or Madagascar 4?---because this involves a lion, cow, giraffe, zebra, squirrel, koala bear and maybe a polar too, a kangaroo, lizard, snake and a rhinoceros. Pauly’s rendition is made more vivid for all the farts, squeaks and slaps of each character, and because he’s such a good storytelling JJ can’t even find a gap to contradict him. The climax seems to be when the zebra falls on ice and the squirrel steps up to say, “Busted!”
One evening Pauly struggled to remind me of the film about blue people were the guys goes into a bed and becomes blue and then they go into the forest…Long minutes passed in my befuddlement. Blue Man Group? “Nogat!” Fantasia?...Then it occurred to me: Avatar! Yes!, he says, That’s my favourite movie! For Pauly, of course, Avatar is cinema verite.
We are headed to Latoma, but get waylaid by Ben, the new Latoma Councillor, who has his own splinter camp downriver from the new inland village. Here he’s got a fiefdom, and shows us an enormous garden now cleared to be a soccer field, for which we are being tapped to supply the equipment. The whole settlement is so vociferous about us stopping here and not going upriver that I remember a time two years ago when we were actually ‘held up’ by Ben’s mob who demanded medical supplies. We weren’t with Dr Samiak at the time, and had to apologize for his absence of course, but we got a very clear indication of their ferocious need for medicines. There’s at least one severely disabled child living here who has never seen an aid post orderly.
Someone brings by a shy lad of 7 or 8, beautifully clear skinned, to prove tht the grille meds Dr Samiak did leave for him once, really did the trick. This time Nancy Jr applies scabies lotion to one sad and scared boy with one of those grille masks on his face. He is so skinny that I have to ask his father if he’s eating—his skin is too loose, he looks 100 years old---and the father says he is so bothered by scratching he hardly eats. They have an excellent and sturdy bamboo toilet here that is guarded by a swarm of bees who require you to moon them for a crap. You pray for constipation ---or the final extinction of all bees.
Cyril told Jacinta a story about a Yamandim man who got all dressed up for church and in the middle of the service had to leave for the toilet. Hut he broke the planks in the haus pek and fell into the gruesome hole, only to struggle out and make a dash for the river---as women laughed loudly. (It occurs to me that Sebi’s son who wants to be ‘a plumber’ may just be a local hero).
Her we go. It's late afternoon when we sit outside with a kero lamp as Lindsay and Kentis explain their forestry work. Cicadas are so loud here and Kentis’ voice so low I have to give up. But it’s not long before the Latoma people unfurl their lists of complaints about me and my neglect of them. We hear about broken promises of fishing nets and ropes (were they promised?---or did someone send me a laundry list I ignored?)---I say: Why not a fifth element? A kit house? Maybe you’d like an Air Niugini Exec Club Membership?---but no one finds this funny.)
A baby pig takes a tumble sideways down an embankment and finally breaks the tension with Jacinta’s lovely tinkling glass laugh. Ben talks about convening a councillors meeting for the Kaiam, Bosorio, Gadio and Upper Blackwater (Mariama) people. That’s a huge population on the southwest edge of the cave project, and we should really visit them somehow. I am told that the former Councillor, Jonathan (who lives at the main village) received a bundle of second-hand clothes from our team leader Livai, but then distributed them to Yerevat and not to Ben’s village. Ben is cross now.
This is about fairness---an ethic that supersedes even politeness, and certainly takes precedence to our work recording caves, or even providing medical supplies, solar panels, water tanks and school tuitions. The clothes were not distributed equally! I am in the guilty box throughout this entire harangue, and Ben eventually elicits a promise from me (which I had already pledged, but which dramatically caps his interrogation of Lapun Missus) to pay project fees for 4 Latoma students in Angoram High School next year. He is later heard bragging about this political accomplishment to friends.
Ben further demands that I send him the money for the project fees directly, which he will deposit. What a good idea, I smirk, and no doubt completely reliable. That ain’t gonna happen, I say. He’s overplayed his hand by lack of graciousness, you see, and so now when he pushed for one more concession (as political coup de gras)---Would I but them a motor canoe to transport the students to Angoram?---I balk with sputtering annoyance. ‘Yu mas ting mi Guvna blong Ees Sepik Provens!’
We stay in a neat little bamboo house, our house in Latoma, which is more like a doll house than not, with a small open space and two back rooms (in the second of which a lame dog is hiding, next to his outboard motor) and a shelf table that holds stacks of D batteries and a cheap Chinese torch. On the floor is a sack filled with eaglewood bark. Precious items Ben assumes we will not steal. Nevertheless, in the morning he arrives with further requests: a big touch screen mobile phone, two soccer balls, nets. He has already handed me a list of the parts he needs for his motor: prop, inverter, etc.
Siggy later reminds us of the former councillor, Jonathan, who not long ago explained his development ambitions for the Sumariop (Latoma) people. He dreamed of a ‘mini hydro power’ Wankain olosem Yonki! This gives us chuckles for days.
But the big news I will take away from Latoma this time is a bit of gossip in the end. A woman sitting with Ben’s wife on the grass during our evening meeting blithely told me that my daughter Madonna is but a days’ walk away in a bush camp between here and her home of Mariama. She left us last year to go home and have a baby (much to our chagrin). Apparently, Im told, she’s not married after all, but alone now and looking after her daughter, although this woman pretty superciliously adds that she doesn’t know how Madonna does it, or who helps her.
Im gobsmacked. “Klostu?” I want to walk there now!
No, no, its all swamp, and too far away, she laughs, and continues with a story about how Maddona’s own brother publicly scolded her for falling pregnant while living with us in Madang—how she blew such a good opportunity and he wants nothing more to do with her. Now she has no one watching her back.
I’m amazed out the callousness of this woman’s report---for a woman, a mother herself. She’s intentionally imparted some awful news thinking I will have washed my hands of this girl and can join her in a sorority of Madonna haters. Did she not consider I might react like any worried mother? Yu tok wanem? Blong wnaem yu toksave olosem lo mi? Yu laik kirapim bikpla wori long me? Nogut yu tok olosem long pikinini meri bilong mi! Emi no kisim asua nating—i bin tupla wokim bel long em! Na husat sinfaun long bus nogat kaikai nau---? Madonna! Emi bin wok hat long Madang na nau yu laf long problem blong em??
That was my harangue. Did she think I would laugh along with her at Madonna’s predicament? Did she really think Madonna’s pregnancy was her fault alone?
But it was a harangue against all the gossip that's ever circulated about Madonna and girls like her--- someone told me the baby had died, someone else said Maddox was married, and everyone sniggers to hear the tale of a fallen woman.
But this womans gotten exactly the wrong kind of rise from me and her expression grows into surprise as I swell in defensiveness of poor albino single mother Madonna living in the swamp and having no one to help her feed her baby. As a result, at the every end of the meeting, once Ben has scored his concession from me, I am unnerved enough by the town gossip to insist that if anyone sees Madonna in the bush they should please bring her here to Latoma and look after her, where I can come and go and help her. With ultimate imperiousness and no little misogyny, Ben tells me to stop worrying ---he himself will take care of that. This is not the place to bring it up.
But I’m still smarting next day when we walk down from the houses on the hill to the riverside and our canoe. The little grille lad is there now, wearing a shirt and shorts (which we’ve discouraged because clothes only make grille worse). I tell his father to be sure to grab some grille meds for him when the medical team comes later. Ben’s wife leans in over the embankment as we board the canoe, saying “You tell them to bring lots of grille meds! They’d better bring lots!” And I spit the dummy. ‘How can I control that? Am I God?’ Hau bai mi wokim olosem? Yu ting mi God?