Green Community- Conservation of customary land in Papua New Guinea.
Story of one community in the Eastern Highlands Province, keen to conserve their natural environment and the evidence of the mystical one-legged man.
Just six degrees south of the equator
Humans have always had a co-existing relationship with mother nature yet it is staggering how much we take from her yet give so little to sustain it. While some may suggest that the need for nature conservation became essential during the Industrial Revolution in the eighteen hundreds, the scene was quite different in a small island nation, set across the Pacific. The island of New Guinea, pre-colonized, had its inhabitants co-existing with the tropical rainforest and ocean. They took from it as much as they gave back. They were not hungry for wealth or gain, only for food and game which nature provided abundantly. Today, the country- now independent since 1975, has come a long way, joining in with the Asia-Pacific Economic Corporation and Melanesian Spearhead Group in the Pacific region. While economic growth is steadily on the rise, it seems to leave a footprint only on the shores of the Capital- Port Moresby.
The city proved too hectic for me, I wanted to take a break from the dust and heat of Port Moresby so I travelled out of the city, to my home province set in the highlands at a cool 5 200 feet above sea level. The Eastern Highlands Province is well known for its all-year-around cool climate, abundant supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, beautiful flowers, Goroka roasted Coffee and the famous Asaro Mudmen.
The provincial center, Goroka Town is a bustling over-populated town seeing little or less expansion in the past years. Having so much to offer, the province is currently seeing a growth of Small to Medium Entrepreneurs (SME) in bilum weaving, coffee projects, rice projects and beekeeping (apiculture). The Annual Goroka Show attracts hundreds of guests and showcases different cultural sing-sing groups during the month of September which coincides with the country’s Independence Day (16th of September). Much of all these – the flora and fauna of the land, the culture and food production ties with our dependency on the natural environment. In realizing this, a few customary landowners in the Eastern Highlands Province are now engaging with their communities in creating forest, land and water conservation areas.
Hogave Conservation in the Lufa district is one that is currently open to visitors. Gahavesuka Park is another thriving spot just outside of Goroka Town, both ideal for bird-watching. And still, perched in the forested mountain ranges, North-East of Goroka town, is the Kaveve Conservation and Eco-tourism Hub; located at the headwaters for the Goroka town water supply. Once a popular spot a few years back, Kaveve Conservation saw as many as three hundred tourists visiting in the years 2007 to 2011. Most ideal for tracking and bird-watching, tourist have tracked from Kaveve to the Ramu region in the neighboring Madang Province. Initiated by community and church leader, Pastor Zuzai Hizoke, the project saw the inclusion of community members. It is no easy task to establish a Conservation and Eco-Tourism Hub but the Kaveve community never gave up and saw its fruition in year 2007 when Kaveve Conservation and Eco-Tourism Hub was officially launched. Like many projects, its operation required management and organizational skills. Thanks to the Research and Conservation Foundation (RCF), a grant of K10, 000 ($2832 USD) was allocated to the Conservation project and a training session held in year 2007. The much needed training covered topics of capacity building.
The Journey to Kaveve
I set out for Kaveve after New Year’s Day 2021. The distant blue mountain range indicated the journey was going to be long. On that day, I met up with Unape Rocky, a youth from Kaveve, who was going to take us (my two younger cousin brothers and myself) there. The last time I was at Kaveve was in the year 2008, it was in its glory days- the Conservation project had its Resource Centre, beside a clear crystal river. I did not know what to expect now. The bus ride was ten minutes out from Goroka Town to the next stopping point. It was walking from there onwards. The sun was kind and held back its strong blaze. Locals greeted us with cheerful smiles. “This journey is going to be good”, I thought. Two hours later, we arrived at Kaveve village.
Trekking to Sini Waterfall
This was the start of the real excursion, to reach the Sini Waterfall. The legend about the one-legged man who baths in the waterfall has evoked the interest of many to visit the falls. It is also for this reason that I chose to visit the Sini Falls. Was the legend true? This one-legged man, known as the Nokondi, (originally called Nokoti) can be seen on the provincial flag holding a coffee branch. Described as having only one leg, one arm and half of the human body, many similar stories of its existence originate from the Fore area in the Henganofi District as well as other areas all through out the province. (Read about the Fore folklore of the Nokondi, link https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/339562 ).
One reason why the Kaveve community chose to conserve the area was because of the physical evidence that Nokondi once lived in the area. The wide path became narrow as we headed off on the bush track. The air was much more refreshing. Half way there and we stopped to cross a river. The river was safe to drink, so we filled our water bottles there; the best tasting water I have ever drank I might say, the benefits of nature conservation.
Legend of the Nokondi
As the legend goes in the area, Nokondi left his shelter in the mountains to steal bananas from the low grassland area. It was in the early hours of the morning when Nokondi was returning home with a bunch of bananas. As was the time for tribal fights then, that always meant someone had to keep watch. An elder from the nearby Bena area was visiting an old friend from Kaveve and decided to keep watch just before dawn. Seeing movements amongst the bushes, he thought an enemy was lurking and shot his arrow, injuring Nokondi. Now injured, Nokondi leaped back to the foot of the mountain, ending up at a muddy area under the pandanus tress. Having just one leg, it seemed impossible to get out of the mud. It was at this site that Tro’hine, a local from Kaveve found the one-legged man’s life-less body and buried it there. As the story goes, papa Tro’hine was the last to see the Nokondi. Shortly after, Tro’hine had a dream in which the Nokondi’s wife and child mourned the loss of their beloved and fled into the deep jungles never to be seen again. Generations later, this story is been told to many who visit the Sini Falls. In the local Gahuku dialect, the place where Nokondi was shot is called Izaumoka and the place of death, Go’houga. (Other areas in the province have different stories of the Nokondi)
The Cave (Muli’eh)
Amongst the dew scented shrubs, trail markings of a cuscus was spotted. Passing moss-covered rocks and logs that acted as a bridge, I finally stood at the entrance of the stone cave called the Muli’eh. Believed to be the resting area of the Nokondi, this rock dwelling is said to be the main physical evidence of the existence of Nokondi. The cave interior looked much like a siting area and a bed. It has been this way and till now, locals believe it was curved out by Nokondi.
Sini Falls (Sini aukalo lisani)
Destination reached. The river was cold, five minutes walking barefoot in it and my feet was numb. Up ahead was the Sini falls. In all its pearly white majesty, cascading into the pool of water below, the waterfall was where the Nokondi daily bathed. This was truly worth the journey. This was worth conserving. Up ahead, rain clouds were gathering. It was time to go back. I had to make one last stop. I met up with papa Sekito Tanoka, a silver-crowned elder of the Kaveve village who gave this account of the myth of the one-legged Nokondi.
The evidence of the mystical one-legged man may have been part of the reason to conserve the area, as a tourist attraction site however the main reason is the same for many other conservation sites in the region- to manage wisely the natural resource of the land, trees, and water systems and in return benefit from it. Environmental sustainability needs more advocators. Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) are doing a great job, overseeing the many conservation projects within the province and country at large.
Needless to say, the Government of Papua New Guinea foresaw the need of environmental conservation, thus established in 1985 the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), now the Conservation and Environment Protection Agency. Under 3 percent of the country’s total land area are currently under some form of protection status while 97 percent of the land is under customary ownership.
A step in the right direction towards environmental sustainability, the customary landowners of Kaveve hope to be a model community in the province. For a weekend getaway or just a break from the city, check out a green community near you. The folks at Kaveve would surely welcome you to the Sini Falls. Before we make big talks about a greener world for our children, why not start with a green community back home on customary land, ‘lon peles na graun blo yumi‘, not only for our children, but for us to enjoy, today.
Reference: APEC Environmental Goods and Services Information Exchange
Words and Pics by: Shirley Komogi