Episode 13: The BBC Lied to You: Talkin' Papua New Guinea

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Warning: this episode references sexual violence. We won’t spend too much time on it, and I won’t go into nitty gritty details, but please be aware that we will mention this.

PART 1: Preamble

One of my favorite documentary series is BBC’s Human Planet from 2011. This premiered while I was living in Korea, and it seemed to confirm my beliefs in the magic of humanity. The show explores various ecosystems around the world where humans have established niches to acquire food, shelter, and joy. I rewatched this series several times, and each time I fell in love with a different group of people and their ecosystems. Humans, regardless of habitat, are incredibly adaptable creatures. We can eat almost anything, survive anywhere, and make the best out of meager resources. We are both fragile and durable. We can fall to a minor infection, or overcome famine, brutality, war, torture, and extreme climates.

Now, it was exposed years later that a bunch of the scenes from BBC’s Human Planet were staged or exaggerated for the cameras. There was a whale-hunting scene with Indonesian people that wasn’t as true-to-life as it depicted. Also, and most importantly to this episode, the BBC producers asked members of the Korowai people in Papua New Guinea to erect a treehouse much higher than they normally would. The optics were impressive, because the treehouse was unreasonably high and the people seemed so chill about it. It broke my heart to imagine that, yes, once again, people were performing for us. BBC Producers didn’t think that a normal treehouse constructed by indigenous people would be enough for us idiots, so they asked for more. They needed a better shot. The Korowai builders complied, probably because they’re nice people? I don’t know. (nothing that I found mentioned any kind of compensation).

From The Guardian: “A member of the tribe told the makers of the new series that they built the treehouses ‘for the benefit of overseas programme makers.’”

This got me thinking about Papua New Guinea. What do I really know about PNG other than the portrayals of its tribal peoples and animal life from nature shows and other media? How many of us, even those who are relatively informed about the world and its inhabitants, are still operating with a simplistic view of the world? Many of us do our best, and yet our mental images of certain places are either nonexistent or a copy-of-a-copy Nat Geo photo. There was a time when everything I knew about other countries came from the National Geographic magazines in my elementary school classrooms. I, like many American kids, had this Conradian conception of the “dark places in the world.” This is how colonization embeds decontextualized images in our brains. We begin to associate exoticized concepts with reality, and many of us never shed those associations.

Although I’d like to THINK that as a country and culture we are better at this, we don’t need to look much further than the response to the war in Ukraine. When we learn about a white European country under attack, we are rightly outraged at the senseless death and destruction, but when we hear about humanitarian crises in Yemen (or Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Liberia), the majority of American society doesn’t give a fuck or is actively complicit in the slaughter. Why? I think it has to do with imagery among other things (like racism, obvi, but racism is part of our relationship to images). People have come to EXPECT crises in certain places because that’s how they’ve been conditioned. There’s a compulsion to view other places, almost exclusively places outside of the Western world, as oddities, quagmires of perpetual poverty and war, or nonexistent.

After doing this research, the realities of Papua New Guinea are fascinating, sometimes terrifying, and of course, humanizing. What I hadn’t predicted, because I had a somewhat singular view of the place, is that there is some really messed up stuff happening in PNG. There are also gorgeous things, complex ecosystems and biodiversity, and wonderful people. It isn’t this serene island oasis, but it also IS. Unfortunately, this discussion about Papua New Guinea isn’t going to be all goofs, but it will teach you something. It taught me a lot.

PART 2: Let’s Talk PNG facts

Most of the information here is easily Google-able. I’m not changing the world with this info, but I’m all about the basic facts of a place. Although it doesn’t reveal too much, it gives us the broad-brush type of info we need to dive deeper. I got this from Britannica and wikipedia.

-The Independent State of Papua New Guinea is an island country in the Pacific Ocean. It encompasses the eastern half of New Guinea, the world’s second largest island (the western half is made up of the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua); the Bismarck Archipelago (New Britain, New Ireland, the Admiralty Islands, and several others); Bougainville and Buka (part of the Solomon Islands chain); and small offshore islands and atolls.

-It is the world's third largest island country

-It has a population of nearly 9 Million people

-GDP is estimated at 32.382 billion, with a per capita GDP of $3,764. Many of PNG inhabitants still operate outside of global capital through subsistence farming, hunting, and gathering

-As we know, GDP is a pisspoor way of establishing the wellbeing of a country, so take that shit with a grain of salt.

$32.382 billion[8] (124th) • Per capita$3,764

-A better model for determining the health of a nation is the Human Development Index, and PNG has an HDI rating of 0.555, which is “MEDIUM” (for reference, Norway has the highest HDI at 0.957). HDI is a composite of factors like life expectancy, education, and other things.

-It has a Unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy, because it’s still part of the Commonwealth, so Elizabeth II gets top billing or whatever. Their Prime Minister is James Marape. He seems like an interesting character. He’s a Seventh Day Adventist Christian, and wants PNG to be known as “The richest black Christian nation in the world.”

-Here’s another thing: PNG is like 95% Christian. We will get to that.

The history of Papua New Guinea from 1884 is complicated, since it was juggled under various colonial powers and was an important stage in WWII between Japan and Allied forces. The New Guinea campaign (1942–1945) was one of the major military campaigns and conflicts between Japan and the Allies. Approximately 216,000 Japanese, Australian, and U.S. servicemen died.[32] After World War II and the victory of the Allies, the two territories were combined into the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. This was later referred to as "Papua New Guinea".

New Guinea from 1884 to 1919. Germany and Britain controlled the eastern half of New Guinea.

-The northern half of the island was ruled by Germany from 1884-1914, but Australia captured the northern half in 1914 during WWI. Simultaneously, Britain annexed the Southern half of the island and some adjacent islands in 1888.

-The country was united under Australian rule, and as a result was considered a British possession, since Australia was part of the British Commonwealth. Isn’t it funny how people just made this shit up and then it was real? Colonizers have a great way of inventing and complicating the idea of statehood, then of course, cutting and running. We know this.

-PNG is one of the most heterogeneous nations in the world. There are hundreds of ethnic groups indigenous to the island, the majority are from a group called “Papuans” and the other group indigenous groups are Austronesians. There are a bunch of other nonindigenous groups as well, including Chinese, Filipinos, and Australians.

-From Wikipedia: “Papua New Guinea is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. There are 851 known languages in the country, of which 11 now have no known speakers.[5] As of 2019, it is also the most rural, as only 13.25% of its people live in urban centres.[14] Most of the population of more than 8,000,000 people live in customary communities, which are as diverse as the languages.[15] The country is one of the world's least explored, culturally and geographically. It is known to have numerous groups of uncontacted peoples, and researchers believe there are many undiscovered species of plants and animals in the interior.” The Official languages are English, Hiri Motu, and Tok Pisin (an English Pidgin language).

-The capital is Port Moresby, a city of nearly 300,000. It was named after Royal Navy Captain John Moresby in 1873, who was the first Briton to see it. SOME SAD SHIT (WARNING): Port Moresby is considered to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Papua New Guinea has frequently been recognized as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women. Sexual violence is a serious issue, and as many as 2/3 of PNG women report spousal abuse, and in one area of the country, 1 in 5 women reported that their first sexual experience was rape. This shit is devastating. I found so much information about the crisis of sexual violence in Papua New Guinea. In Port Moresby specifically, there are gangs that keep violence against women as part of initiation processes. One terrifying story discussed how a Raskol Gang replaced the rural ceremony of stealing a pig from another village with sexually assaulting a woman.

-There are a bunch of theories about why the situation is so bad in Papua New Guinea, including high rates of poverty, lack of medical care, and a weak justice system that only recently acknowledged the rights of women and children. I can’t say for sure, because I’m not an expert in this, OBVIOUSLY. I don’t think there is a definite answer, because we see violence against women and children in every society, regardless of wealth, justice systems, and healthcare, but it is acutely bad in parts of PNG.

-OKAY–but like so much we hear about the dangerous places of the world, we can’t paint Port Moresby with a broad brush. For all of the “this is the most dangerous place ever” media you’ll find people praising Port Moresby for its wonderful people and beauty. If you want to see it for yourself, google it! Like so many developing (and developed) urban areas around the world, Port Morseby struggles with destabilizing violence and crime, but that can’t be its defining factor even if it is a legitimate problem for citizens there.

-However! There are still matrilineal societies within Papua New Guinea, which imbue women with higher status within society via land titles. This isn’t exactly the norm, but I don’t mean to paint a picture of PNG as a place devoid of powerful and influential women. The problem of women’s rights exists around the world. Let’s never pretend that it’s a “somewhere else” problem. This is one of the many ways that American politicians stoked the fires of Islamophobia necessary to invade Iraq and Afghanistan with overwhelming popular support.

PART 3: Biodiversity and Representations in Media

This is a tough transition, but we need to return to the original point, which is that PNG is merely an abstraction for most outsiders. For instance, in my romanticizing of this place, I never once considered the real issues that it faced beyond vague notions of poverty and colonization. I thought of the Papua New Guinea of nature shows.

-Imagine this land of mountains, rainforests, tropical beaches, and 40 species of Birds of Paradise! If you’ve ever watched Planet Earth, then you’ve likely seen Birds of Paradise from Papua New Guinea.

-The national bird of Papua New Guinea is the Raggiana bird-of-paradise, and it’s included on the flag.

-More flags should have BIRDS!

-Because Papua New Guinea once shared a land bridge with the Australian landmass, many of the dope animals that evolved in Australia (marsupials, tree kangaroos, and echidnas) also live in Papua New Guinea.

-New Guinea (which includes Papua New Guinea) has been identified as the world's most floristically diverse island in the world, with 13,634 known species of vascular plants

-PNG is home to this tree-dwelling marsupial called a cuscus. Look at this thing:

-Tree kangaroos all day over in PNG.

-Here is something awesome: Between 1998 and 2008, 1,060 new species of plant and animal were discovered on the island of New Guinea (which is half Papua New Guinea, and half Indonesian province).

-The snub fin dolphin

-blue-eyed spotted cuscus

-rainbow fish

-turquoise lizard

-fleshy-flowered orchid

-the wattled smoky honey-eater

-Here’s a big nose bat. It is hilarious and terrifying.

-The New Guinea Crocodile is a small species of crocodile found on the island of New Guinea north of the mountain ridge that runs along the center of the island. The skin of the New Guinea crocodile is valuable and in the 1950s and 1960s the animals in the northern population were heavily hunted to a point where they might have become extinct. Around 1970, legislation was put in place and they received some protection. They are considered “of least concern”

-From the BBC: “The men of tribes along the Sepik River “have one of the world's most extreme initiation ceremonies, the men of the Sepik have their backs, shoulders, and upper torsos sliced by razor blades to leave long raised welts resembling a crocodile's hide.”

-"Some boys pass out from the pain," Aaron Malingi (the Chief-councilor) reveals. "The older men play sacred flutes to soothe them and the cuts are covered with tree oil and white river clay to prevent infection."

-He tells me the scarification symbolizes the purging of their mothers' blood and the gaining of their own adult blood - in a somewhat excruciating metaphorical severing of the apron strings.

-"The crocodile is a symbol of power," says Malingi. "We fear them but draw energy from that power." He tells me a local creation myth suggests the Sepik people descended from the crocodile and emerged from the river as humans to walk on land.

-I remember being a high schooler, and one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Goldberg, gave us a reading to reveal the “Absurd Rituals” of an isolated foreign tribe called “the Nacirema.” I’ve always been good at reading things backwards, so I kind of saw where this was going, but it essentially described the behavior of Americans from a sociological perspective. Nacirema spelled backwards is American, just so we know what’s happening here. It’s a classic history teacher thing to do. I loved it. The exercise was supposed to make us realize that what we consider to be normal is based on the cultural norms of our society. I’m not sure if articles like this are meant to be “whoa look at these wacky freaks in other parts of the world,” but that is often the effect. However, if you look at our cultural rituals, how different are they? How many of our body mod practices are similar? How much more absurd is it to kill yourself going to work, become addicted to cellphones and prescription medications and 24 hour news cycles? This shit is relative.

-I’m not condoning the scarification practice of unwilling participants, but if we don’t apply this same lens to our own society, then who are we to say anything?

-As I said before, it’s difficult to fathom the depth and breadth of Papua New Guinea as a Nation State in our contemporary understanding of nation states. It’s a place with nearly 900 languages, hundreds of ethnicities, several groups of uncontacted peoples, and more undiscovered/unresearched places than any other country in the world. This is a place with more distinct cultures, traditions, and languages than some continents, contained in about the population of New York City.

-Papua New Guinea represents something for outsiders. It is that “lost world” of peoples, animals, and traditions that we don’t connect to.

-I’m not sure what that impulse is.

-Do we want to gawk like we’re at the zoo?

-Do we long for what Papua New Guinea represents to us, without the baggage?

It sucks to talk about a place without having been there. I have lived in a country as poor and internationally discarded as PNG, and I’ve seen firsthand, daily, how international stigma and the legacies of war and colonization have material impacts on people’s lives.

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