Splendid Isolation

Splendid isolation
Papua New Guinea is a land of unique natural variety and rich diversity in culture.
Paul Wagner fears both will be lost to the ravages of global competition.

The vast, inaccessible land of New Guinea is a magnet for naturalists, linguists and anthropologists, keen for a last glimpse of a passing world. Geographic isolation and a highly diverse landscape have combined to produce incredible biodiversity as well as a rich cultural tapestry.

Geography informs diversity – a fairly obvious statement, but all too often overlooked. Scotland’s Highland Line marks not just a radical change in environment but, for a thousand years, the divide between the highland Gaelic and lowland Anglo-Scottish cultures. ‘The Highlands’ are also a major dividing line in New Guinea, but just part of an astoundingly complex picture. The rugged New Guinean landscape divides the island into hundreds of isolated pockets where flora, fauna and culture evolved together into a unique mosaic.

Sheer inaccessibility has allowed this diversity to survive relatively intact. It is perhaps the last true wilderness on earth, with vast tracts untouched by any technology more powerful than the axe. New Guinean ecosystems are still such a mystery to science that no less than 25 new mammal species have been discovered in the past five years – an extraordinary figure. But modern technology and economic self-interest are pushing into the wilderness faster than we can possibly hope to learn. Whole species and cultures may be wiped out before they are even discovered.

New Guinea’s terrain ranges from mountains and volcanoes of intensely folded rock to highly seasonal coastal flood plains reminiscent of monsoonal northern Australia. In between lies the world’s most extensive intact tropical rainforest. Offshore there are innumerable islands and reefs, separated from the mainland by deep oceanic trenches.

This allows a huge diversity of plant life. Savannahs of eucalypt and grassland dominate the lowland coast, interspersed with isolated but typically Asian forest patches. The foothills are also forested with Asian-type rainforest, while the upper slopes support a subalpine mix of oaks, conifers and myrtaceaes, punctuated by herbfields and tree-fern savannahs.

The patchiness of the geology and vegetation has presented an ideal opportunity for species diversity. The island is on the crux between Australia and Asia, allowing a unique mix of monotreme, marsupial and placental mammals. Two species of echidna, wallabies, tree-kangaroos, possums, cuscus and giant tree rats are among the mammals commonly encountered in the Papuan forest. Dozens of species of small mice, rats, and marsupial insectivores and carnivores scurry underfoot, while overhead glide giant fruit bats, tiny insecti-vorous bats, and over 700 species of birds, including the famed ‘Birds of Paradise’.

Although 85 per cent of New Guineans are agriculturists, hunting has always supplemented the diet and many animals have symbolic uses quite apart from nutritional value. Some species of birds and mammals are known only through specimens provided by native hunters. It is hard to say any individual New Guinean species is ‘endangered’, simply because the fauna is so poorly understood. But many species are restricted to isolated pockets, making them highly vulnerable to habitat disturbance.

Humans are believed to have arrived in New Guinea over 45,000 years ago. Papuan Highlanders are descended from the same stock as Australian Aborigines. Today over 3 million out of a population of 4.25 million live in the highlands. Later migration of Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians, as well as people from South-East Asia, helped create a nation so culturally diverse that over 750 languages are spoken – 1,300 if you include the Indonesian-controlled part of the island.

Traditional highland culture has always included considerable inter-tribal warfare, which helped to isolate villages from their neighbours even more than might be expected from the terrain. It is easy to see how, hemmed in by mountains, rivers and the enemy over the hill, New Guinea’s hundreds of distinct languages have evolved.

Most of the languages are now endangered, the majority spoken by less than 1,000 people, and at least 120 have less than 100 speakers remaining. Some languages consist of a vocabulary of a mere few hundred words, while others have over 60 ways to pluralize nouns. They are languages that have developed within the context of each tribe’s unique lifestyle, describing things important to people – one tongue has 36 words for ‘banana’, and another 36 for ‘sago’. Many of the languages are unrelated, as different as Hindi is from English. Seven of them are ‘isolates’, related to no other known language. The accumulated tribal knowledge contained within these languages is enormous. The number of languages and bird species are the same and each is precious.

The national economy of Papua New Guinea is based upon natural resources such as gold, copper, timber, fish, coffee, palm oil, copra and cocoa. Exploitation has been hampered by rugged terrain and lack of infrastructure, but recent years have seen an influx of foreign companies prepared to invest. Although providing Government with money, this has caused tension with local landowners over environmental damage. River systems have been killed by mine tailings. Uncontrolled fishing, often by illegal foreign boats, has destroyed fisheries. The world’s worst logging practices have caused erosion and weed infestations on land that has supported traditional farming for tens of thousands of years.

The people of Papua New Guinea have an advantage over many indigenous communities in that they, in theory, are the constitutional owners of their native land. But they are often faced with the choice of selling resources or being denied development, healthcare and educational opportunities. Most timber and mine workers are expatriate contract workers from Asia. There are no unions, and locals lucky enough to be employed get no overtime pay or benefits, and live in substandard housing.

The rapid social change that accompanies development brings problems of its own. Urban migration, gambling and prostitution, domestic violence and human-rights abuses; health problems such as alcoholism, sexually transmitted diseases and malnutrition have destroyed village cultures unlucky enough to be near mining, plantation or forestry operations. Increasing communication with the outside world means the spread of English and Pidgin that drives native tongues to extinction.

Small wonder many communities have chosen not to co-operate with the developers. The Maisin, for example, have publicly rejected logging companies eager to buy timber rights and instead developed a marketing strategy for their indigenous tapa art, re-investing profits back into the community.

It is a bitter irony that the encroachment of development into harsh, isolated environments usually destroys the only cultures that have been able to survive them. The loss of tribal knowledge, stored within unique languages, is closely associated with the extinction of species. Both are irreplaceable. The preservation of cultural diversity is slowly being recognized as vital, and not just as a form of insurance against the social problems caused by cultural destruction. It may also be a crucial reservoir of alternative social models for post-industrial society to learn from.

Paul Wagner is a biologist specializing in the indigenous fauna of Papua New Guinea.

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New Internationalist issue 288 magazine cover This article is from the March 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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