REPORT ON ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES
IN THE ALUNI VALLEY
IN THE DUNA AREA OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA (1998)
By Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern
The main purposes of the fieldwork were to:
- Trace local history generally since 1994
- Do re-takes on materials collected earlier such as collecting pikono (these are long fireside ballads) and womens mourning songs.
- Monitor some of the effects of the 1997-1998 drought on local communities
- Gain an impression of religious ideas concerning the notion of worlds end in 2000 A.D.
Questions asked about environmental issues (e.g. regarding the Strickland River and the Porgera Joint Venture Company) were congruent with these purposes. We experienced no real difficulties in our work. All aspects of our fieldwork were carried out successfully and without conflict in the community. Informants were paid on a regular basis per interview. Food supplies in the area were purchased as needed and were found to be plentiful.
The local subsistence crops had recovered completely from the drought of 1997. Vegetable foods were plentiful and a wide variety of plants were being used. These included Alocasia taro, sweet potato, yams, wing beans, lima beans, several types of pumpkins, several varieties of pandanus fruit, cooking bananas, sweet bananas, guavas, avacados, onions, ginger, pitpit (Setaria palmifolia), peanuts, and various greens. In addition to the vegetable crops locals gathered wild vegetables and fruits to supplement their diets. Also hunting of marsupials was conducted while we were in the field and reports of cassowary and wild pig hunting were told to us.
The area had been hit by an epidemic in April of 1998 and deaths were reported to have occurred. We asked the APO in Aluni, Philip Sukaiyu, about the cause of the epidemic. He was unclear as to whether it was from influenza, typhoid, or pneumonia. Children were particularly striken during this time and two of the children of our hosting family had died. The APO gave us a tour of his post. He had very few medicines and showed us the many empty bottles of medicines that Porgera Joint Venture had previously supplied free of charge to the community. Philip complained to us about the lack of government support in terms of medicines and supplies but seemed unable to come up with any solutions to this difficulty. This epidemic has led to an increase in witchcraft accusations within the community some of which are described in our publications (P.J. Stewart and A. Strathern).
Few if any government services were evident to us and most villagers when asked complained about the situation, saying that politicians are concerned only about themselves and life in the cities, and not about the buslain people in the rural areas.
The entire valley area near to where we were situated (Hagu village just across the valley from Aluni village) had recently been devastated by massive forest fires. We took many photographs of expanses of dead trees. These fires made it difficult for villagers to walk about on the trails that lead to various communities (including to Egali) because the pathways had been made dangerous by trees that had fallen and by the fear that sections of dead trees would fall on people or injure or kill them. We were unable to visit several neighbouring villages because of this danger. The trails in the area are difficult to negotiate in the best of circumstances but the forest fires made it difficult for villagers to travel in their own arena of known pathways. Generally there is a substantial amount of movement through this area with people sleeping over at the houses of relatives in other communities. When people walk along the trails they identify flora and fauna resources that they collect on the spot or mark for subsequent collection. Villagers stated that birds and marsupials had been depleted from the now dead forest -- they had to go elsewhere and the people recognized that they had lost valuable plant and animal resources as a result of the fires. The had held local enquiries about who had lit the fires that (unintentionally) led to the destruction and they had made sacrifices of pigs to the ground in atonement for their error(s).
Informants did recognize that the forest fires had produced a major environmental problem for which their own younger people were responsible through the careless setting of fires during the drought. Senior informants indicated they had experiences periods of food shortages several times before in the past but that they had no traditions of such extensive fires in the forest since their malu (group origin stories) began over ten generations ago.