Our Land, Our Future

15 June 2022

It is the soil we walk on, the source of the healthy harvests we find on our tables, the root of all human life on the planet, and yet, sometimes, it feels so distant that we cannot hear its heartbeat – it is the land.

We enjoy being immersed in it – not only on holiday – and we would all like to feel that we take a bit of it away with us when we leave, but how much do we really know of the landscapes we visit?

We know that these natural landscapes are more than just an opportunity for diversion – they are so missed when we lose connection with them.

These lands and the ecologies they support remind us of the life we need to nurture if we are to have a future as a species.

These remote landscapes, nurtured by their ancestral guardians, benefit the whole of humanity.

Indigenous Communities and the Land

If the image we hold, as tourists, of a generic wilderness risks slipping into a picture of an idyllic, untouched and immutable state, in contrast, the relationship that communities have with their land is never static – it is cyclic, and constant change is part of the balance.

But the healthy balance that has been maintained for thousands of years is often at risk of deterioration, for a variety of reasons.

Many indigenous and rural communities in remote areas of Latin America, for example, still live in areas with rich natural biodiversity, which they have been able to maintain in the absence of the external pressures of civilisation, so that their ancestral cultural traditions have survived the passage of time, undisturbed.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for many other communities, which have been forced – directly and indirectly – to change and adapt their traditional ways of life because their land and their age-old lifestyle was threatened, or simply became impossible.

In some cases, the community’s natural resources have fallen out of their guardianship,  under the impact of adaptation to modern fashions and nutrition practices and, of course, because of the effects of climate change.

These effects are visible in the Southern Region of Papua New Guinea too, where the diversity of plants and herbs has reduced massively. Jesse Leta, originally from Naduri village and founder of Indigenous Kokoda Adventures, shared with us his concern that the lack of groundwater among the communities along the track might cause the forests to die.

Tourism, unfortunately, is another of the factors that has often contributed to the deterioration of traditional lifestyles, which are either transformed into staged performances or abandoned – history is sadly full of such examples, on many different continents.

However, on a brighter note, tourism continues to prove that it can also support the re-establishment of an ancient and healthy balance, and help in maintaining it over time – a particular kind of tourism, more than others…

Community-Based Tourism on The Track

Community-Based Tourism (CBT) is becoming a mainstream option, sparking the curiosity of new markets, because it opens new windows on the knowledge and cultural roots that flourish in the crevices of a local territory.

Indigenous tourism, which overlaps with CBT, is also growing steadily in recognition as well as in visibility, thanks to the brave and determined work of a few national and international associations, such as the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) and the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance (WINTA).

Over the years, members of the communities along the famous track that links Port Moresby to Kokoda village, in the heart of Papua New Guinea Southern Region, have observed the lines of boots trekking past their doorsteps.

When the tourists set off for the 96 kilometres of the trek, over uneven soil, they know that for up to eleven days their minds and bodies will be challenged and put under intense strain; however, what they lack is a deeper understanding of the people living in the villages, whose names they have seen on the tourism programme. The community members’ participation in the tourists’ experiences, in fact, has always been very limited – where they were mainly employed only as underpaid porters and occasional vendors. This bothered Jesse, so since 2018 the local indigenous communities have become part of a bigger dream. A new grassroots narrative has joined the scene, and, thanks to that dream, we unaware foreigners, previously ‘stuck in the mud’, can now learn how to breath with the land’s own rhythm while visiting Alola, Efogi, Menari, Naoro and Ioribaiva and the other villages along the Kokoda Track.

There are locations such as Bogilogo, next to Lake Myola, in the mountains – a very cold place by Jesse’s standards – and a great spot for bird watching. The unusual scenery, scattered with palm trees and left unvisited for the past fifteen years, brings back amusing memories to Jesse, of himself as a child. In fact, it was here that, without knowing a single word of English, Jesse began his career as a tour guide, taking tourists to visit the waterfall and the wreckage of a North American plane.

Today, Jesse is planning to organise professional expeditions for researchers and birdwatchers, reviving his personal stories of the terrain and allowing new visitors to be inspired by the unspoiled views.

What was, one day, during WWII, an important battlefield between opposing formations, becomes today the ground of a much more crucial battle – one that witnesses the interplay of ancestral culture and knowledge, experiments in regenerative biodiversity, and communitarian aspirations.

Back to the Roots (The Coffee Project)

Although coffee is not native to Papua New Guinea  – having been introduced from Jamaica in around 1920 – today it represents the country’s second largest agricultural export, after oil palm, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

According to Nicole Motteaux, for the Perfect Daily Grind, “the country ranks 17th in global coffee production, contributing around 0.45 per cent of all coffee in the world”. She continues, “coffee is grown in 18 of the country’s 22 provinces by over 450,000 households (3.3 million people)”; this includes the Eastern and Western Highlands.

Coffee production was once also popular among the small farmers on the Kokoda trail, in the Southern Region provinces; however, it was abandoned thirty years ago.

According to Jesse, the promise of the easy economic gains that tourism could generate distracted many of the local farmers, who abandoned their plantations to embrace tourism-related jobs.

Jesse still remembers the coffee trees grown by his parents in their backyard garden and he enjoyed helping them to work the land and collect the beans. He wanted to restart the process, this time for the self-determined welfare of the local communities: the building of a mill in Kokoda village for the direct advantage of local families, providing them with an alternative and reliable source of income, has been his top priority since the beginning of his professional journey. 

The local community’s relationship with their land is often hidden to tourists, because the time spent is not enough and the knowledge required, sadly, is not shared. However, in a country where 87 per cent of the population (i.e. nearly nine million Papua New Guineans) live in rural communities, and where both tourism and organic coffee are available as revenue opportunities, it seems obvious that the local indigenous communities should, at least, be managing both resources on their own terms, and in their own interests.

This is what Jesse is trying to achieve through the establishment of the first Indigenous-owned Tour Operator of the Kokoda trail – Indigenous Kokoda Adventures.

Community-Based Tourism is often that decisive piece of the puzzle, able to bridge the gaps between distant universes, while creating local sustainable development.

Thanks to such CBT ventures, by being shown glimpses of the uneven surface, we can also discover some of the invisible connections that grow underground.

Lessons From the Land

Through tourism, hitherto foreign lands can become more intimately known, and can come a bit closer to our hearts.

Thanks to a certain kind of tourism experience, we have the chance to gain proximity to the local lifestyle, to listen to the silence and be more in tune with nature’s cycles, so that we can breathe in its own rhythms.

However, many other things will remain below the surface, inevitably, like the tiny seeds, planted once more on the Kokoda trail, that will grow into coffee bushes, and may leave the country in some curious visitor’s luggage.

Community-Based Tourism experiences, such as Jesse’s Indigenous Kokoda Adventures, allow visitors to understand a bit more of the land we walk on and to re-establish our broken relationship with it. And this is so crucial, because the relationship we have with nature will also determine the quality of the land we live on. Our land!