Traveling to Papua New Guinea

Hello! I’m excited to be gearing up to head back out — “to the field” as they like to say — to work with another program. In about a week, I’m going to be traveling to Papua New Guinea, which is in a very different part of the world than I’ve visited before.

Papua New Guinea (or PNG, for short) is a country located in the South Pacific next to Indonesia, just north of Australia near the equator. When I mention that I’m heading to PNG, it’s understandable that most people have a little difficulty remembering quite where it is or what the country might be like, other than tropical. However, most people do recall a particular cultural fact about PNG, which is that early 20th century missionaries and explorers discovered that local tribes engaged in headhunting and cannibalism. But take heart everyone, because it turns out that while tribes in Indonesia, the Philippines, and PNG did shrink human heads, the most prominent group to engage in this practice were actually the Jivaro people who lived in the Peruvian Amazon. So….yeah. As for cannibalism, it is thought there may be a few remote tribes up in the highlands that are untouched by modern civilization that could still practice old customs. But mostly contemporary PNG cannibalism seems to be rumor, possibly stirred up to encourage tourism.

Now, how’s that for a lede?

Why Go to Papua New Guinea?

I’m traveling to the field to work with a program called the Women Peace Building Initiative (WPBI). This program is located in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, which is a group of islands of Papua New Guinea that achieved partial independence in 2000 after many years of civil war. WPBI is a two-year program, funded by USAID and implemented by Counterpart International. Women were instrumental in negotiating for and achieving peace during the civil war, which has resulted in devastating ongoing consequences to the population, including very high rates of sexual assault and violence, alcoholism, unemployment, low education, poverty, and destroyed infrastructure.

The goal of the program is to help the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (ARB) to achieve sustainable peace, security and development by building the capacity of women as effective change agents, and by assisting ARB to implement its National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (ARB‐NAP). The program has two main goals: (1) helping ex-combatant civilians (particularly women and youth) to overcome trauma caused by the conflict and (2) building the capacity and leadership skills of women’s organizations to enable them to implement the ARB-NAP and prevent domestic and sexual violence against women and protect women survivors. The program will work to achieve these goals by working with local women’s organizations to improve and extend their ability to provide services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence, to conduct community outreach to prevent violence, to offer trauma counseling, and to advocate for the ARB-NAP and pro-peace policies.

You can learn more about the project here: USAID Grant to Empower Women in Peace Building in Bougainville

What Will I Be Doing While I’m There?

I will be traveling out to work with the WPBI staff and the local women’s groups to begin the work of the project. I’ll be training and mentoring our staff on how to assess the strengths, abilities, and needs of the women’s groups with which we will be working. As part of that process, we’ll be visiting the organizations to identify their strengths and their needs, and I’ll also be working with them on their community engagement and gender-based violence prevention skills and methods. I will be providing mentorship and training as well as working with staff to develop work plans for the months ahead.

Happily, I will be traveling with another co-worker from the Headquarters office who is the Program Assistant for the project. She’s going to be working with me and learning more about the organizational development, gender integration, and gender-based violence methods we will be using in the field.

A Little About Papua New Guinea and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (ARB)

bougainvillemap

  • Official Country Name: Independent State of Papua New Guinea
  • Capital: Port Moresby
  • Capital of ARB: Buka
  • Official Languages: Hiri Motu, Tok Pisin (a pidgin or creole language that’s a mixture of English and several other languages), English
  • Government: Unitary parliamentary democracy under constitutional monarchy (Queen Elizabeth II)
  • Independence from Australia: Recognized 1975
  • Population: over 7 million (as of 2011)
  • Currency: Papua New Guinean Kina
  • Time Difference: 14 hours ahead of Washington, DC

The country’s dual name results from its complex pre-independence history. The word “papua” comes from an old local term (origin unknown), and “New Guinea” (Nueva Guinea) was the name coined by 16th century Spanish explorer Yñigo Ortiz de Retez who observed a resemblance between the local people and those he had seen along the African Guinea coast. The northern half of the country was ruled as a German colony beginning in 1884, and the southern half was colonized around the same time by the United Kingdom. In 1904, British control was transferred to the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia. PNG was occupied by Australia during World War II, and a major military campaign was conducted there during World War II as well. After World War II, the northern and southern territories were combined and referred to as Papua New Guinea. Peaceful independence was obtained from Australia in 1975.

PNG has very diverse geography. A mountain range runs the length of the island of New Guinea, forming a populous highlands region mostly covered with tropical rainforest and the long Papuan Peninsula, known as the “Bird’s Tail.” The highest peak is Mount Wilhelm at 14,793 ft (4,509 meters). Dense rain-forests are found in the lowland and coastal areas as well as very large wetland areas. Papua New Guinea is surrounded by coral reefs. The country is situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, at the point of collision of several tectonic plates. There are a number of active volcanoes, and eruptions are frequent. Earthquakes are relatively common, sometimes accompanied by tsunamis.

For the lighter side and some tourist information about where I’ll be, check out this website. But for more information about the history of conflict that led to the high rates of violence and need for development, see the next section.

Civil War and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville

Bougainville Island is the main island of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville of Papua New Guinea. This region is also known as Bougainville Province or the North Solomons. In 1969, vast copper ore deposits were discovered in Bougainville, which led to the establishment of a huge copper mine by an Australian company in 1972. At the time, the Panguna open cut mine was the largest in the world. The mine caused major tension on the island: the mine company made the Government of PNG a large shareholder in the profits so that financial benefits were directed entirely outside of Bougainville; the company hired outside workers, and locals grew angry that they did not benefit from job creation; conflict grew against the Australian workers coming in as well as workers from the PNG mainland who were of different ethnic groups; the mine caused significant and devastating environmental damage.

By 1988, tensions escalated into outright violence. That year, an organized group of traditional landowners, later known as the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) forcibly closed the mine and demanded the re-negotiations of contracts. The Government of PNG responded by sending in a Police Riot Squad and then the army, resulting in civil war.

The conflict ultimately claimed an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 lives. The conflict ended in 1997, after negotiations brokered by New Zealand. In 2000, a peace agreement was finalized which included the establishment of an Autonomous Bougainville Government and a future referendum on whether the island should become politically independent. Tensions remain high, however, as some groups have yet to fully disarm. The mine is currently closed, but there is the possibility it could open again, which threatens the possibility of resumed violence as well.

On Staying In Touch

I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to update this blog while I’m traveling in PNG. Not only will this trip be very busy and intense, but Internet access in PNG tends to be pretty unreliable. Internet access is on a “pay as you go” basis, and it tends to go out during rainstorms (which are frequent). It is possible that there will be two posts for this trip — one before I leave, and one when I get back! However, I will post updates if I am able. And I will certainly plan to take pictures and notes while I’m there. Depending on how things work out, there may be a few “retrospective” posts that appear once I return. We shall see what the future holds. In the meantime, I hope that you enjoy the stories and the information I’m able to share. I also love hearing from you, so please feel free to send me emails or leave comments!