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How Can Western Conservationists Talk To Melanesian Landowners About Indigenous Knowledge?

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Yamin Kogoya, February 14, 2023

Source: Yamin Kogoya:

The independent nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG) is located in the Oceania subregion known as “Melanesia”. PNG and Melanesia are well known for their rich diversity of languages, cultures, islands, and biodiversity to western researchers. PNG gained independence from Australia in 1975. In the years following independence, the country’s leaders were encouraged to take advantage of its abundant natural resources to develop its economy. A number of international and domestic issues have crippled this vision of prosperity and development since then. The purpose of this report is to examine concerns regarding PNG’s ability to conserve its natural environment while developing its economy. Various stakeholders (including local landowners, conservationists, anthropologists, foreign mining companies and government representatives) have been impeded by this dilemma.

In this paper, we examine how Western conservationists engage in dialogue with Melanesian landowners about “indigenous knowledge”. Moreover, it questions whether Western conservationists can convince local PNG landowners to trade conservation for development, and if so, what approach they used to accomplish this.

Two answers are provided to the second question in the report. The first part of this paper examines Filer’s (2000) concept that “money speaks louder than birds,” in which landowners prefer material goods, infrastructure, and other benefits of conservation of native species and the environment. Among the key reasons why conservationists struggle to save biodiversity from loggers is that they cannot provide the development compensation that local landowners request. Secondly, conservationists should ensure their efforts to convince PNG’s Department of Wildlife and Conservation to halt the provision of logging permits to international loggers who are themselves secretly conducting business deals with landowners in order to solve these problems.

This essay will highlight a few key events that occurred during conservationists’ interactions with landowners. This paper is divided into six parts: an initial stakeholder meeting; the first deployment of the Task Force to Lak district in New Ireland province; the second stakeholder mission to the new Territory-Bismarck Range in Madang; the workshop on Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), the launch of new strategies for self-reliance, the empowerment of Melanesian conservationists, and an open-ended bottom line.

The World Bank sponsored the first meeting between stakeholders in April 1990 to discuss the Tropical Forestry Action Plan in Papua New Guinea. One of the key outcomes of this meeting was the creation of an environmental planning task force in priority forests. Its purpose was to investigate and counter logging threats in bio-diverse regions.

Task Force members and anthropologists travelled by helicopter to New Ireland Province’s Lak Census Division. Upon receiving a warm welcome from local elected officials of the provincial government, the task force met with local elders on three separate occasions. It was claimed by the elders that the national government had neglected them in bringing development to their villages for a long time. It was asserted that many people were dying without being able to enjoy the benefits of development projects. By engaging in a storytelling exercise, the task force attempted to persuade the villagers that conservation development would be preferable to logging and would not jeopardize the potential for local development. One of the stories told and heard was the story of two-road development.

Those who travel the logging road, which appears so wide and straight at first, will sooner or later find that their progress is cut short by fallen trees, and that the road itself does not last very long, as logging roads and logging royalties both run out very quickly in PNG.” Thus, this is the road to hell, or perhaps a road that keeps going round in circles, and therefore will not help you escape. Taking the long, winding road will have greater long-term benefits, but it will also involve sacrifices in the short term. (Filer, 2000.2)

These kinds of stories were viewed as empty in promise by the Lak people, particularly because they had already received money and other material benefits from the Malaysian logging companies. Villagers were disinterested due to the many promises made by the Department of Environment and Conservation that had not been fulfilled. The task force left the Lak district with a feeling of disappointment. According to the author, the following observation was made:

Our conservationist friends in the developed world sometimes believe that Papua New Guineans are like Indians living in harmony with Mother Nature in the Amazonian rainforest, for whom ‘development’ is a threat. These people would be in for a very rude awakening if they went to Lak. There is probably no other place in PNG where local landowners are more insistent on cutting down their trees as soon as possible (Filer, 2000, 3).

In this interaction between the task force and local landowners, one of the key points was that it is difficult to convince villagers that conservation is beneficial and represents an alternative form of development. It is also difficult to do this without raising false expectations on the part of local landowners in a world where communities are already divided.

Following the unsuccessful experiment in New Ireland, the conservationists and a few other stakeholders embarked on a mission to the Bismarck Range in Madang. The primary objective of the mission was to learn how local people perceived the exchange of conservation for development. Following the failure of the first mission in Lak, the team was cautious about repeating the same mistake. An American ornithologist opened the presentation by asking how the local social dynamics and their relationship with their land operate. During his explanation of how development works, he said that if it takes too long, then people become frustrated. If it’s too fast, then the benefits may not last. In this intense dialogue, the team discovered that local ideas of power, knowledge, and narrative are more complex than they had anticipated. In addition, different groups of people misunderstood the entire storytelling speech exercise. The study also revealed that there are two groups with opposing views and interests concerning development, namely those who desire to exploit resources and those who desire to conserve them.

Additionally, the team discovered pre-existing social conflicts among the local landowners, as well as their knowledge of each other and the environment. As they began to mingle with the villagers, these complexities gradually emerged. It was not long before the local people began asking all kinds of questions about development, including where the task force headquarters were located, when development would occur, how long would it take, and what benefits they would receive. In spite of these responses to the task force’s speeches, they discovered, as Filer put it, that they might now be able to share “Indigenous knowledge.” Essentially, this knowledge refers to the secret knowledge possessed by local kinship groups concerning their social relationships and the environment by their local kinship groups. In light of these complexities, it is most likely that any type of externally driven development project will be complicated by sharp internal divisions.

A new plan to engage landowners was devised following the appointment of the Chief Technical Advisor to the Biodiversity Conservation and Resources Management Program in May 1996. As a result, two major strategies were developed: the recruitment of a number of young Papuan community development workers, and the deployment of a PRA workshop. There was a complete lack of understanding among conservationists and PRA trainers regarding what really occurred in the villages, according to the author. The PRA toolkit workshop had become overly procedural with regard to the concept of “participation”. They had failed to acknowledge the cultural differences in approaches to participatory behaviours and did not take into consideration the traditional concept of the “big man.” In Melanesian societies, the advice and opinions of a ‘big man’ are considered being more legitimate than those of the individual. In his private diary, the author expressed his dissatisfaction with the way PRA trainers applied its methodology:

The task force should have conducted PRA instead of doing what it did, in order to determine whether the Lak project would have been better designed and implemented. My belief is that a PRA exercise would not have been more effective, and perhaps even more detrimental, in revealing community attitudes, as PRA proponents already have a vested interest in demonstrating their own ability to promote ‘community development’ or ‘popular empowerment’. In this particular case, the problem with “mere research” is not that it alienates the local community or disempowers it, but that the ‘project managers’ and ‘community developers’ may well share a common characteristic – a refusal to accept the truth when it interferes with their existing assumptions and commitments” (Filer, 2000.p.8).

Here, the key question was how conservationists can use PRA toolkits to identify landowners’ true motivations in relation to the competing ideals of conservation and development.

As soon as the PRA toolkit was completed, the Bismarck Ramu Project was established to launch a new self-reliance program. The new project implemented a number of programs, including training its first community development teams, deploying community development patrols to the areas of interest, and conducting a series of meetings between staff members and landowners. This training program was facilitated by an American community development trainer who had extensive experience working in PNG but was not an anthropologist. It was at this point that the conservationists, developers and trainers in the West began to realize that there was a gap between their understanding of the natural environment and that of the indigenous people. It was recognized that self-reliance is the key component of this gap that can be resolved. It can be accomplished by empowering local landowners to revisit their indigenous knowledge. Consequently, it would be necessary to develop a strategy to assist them in transforming from the development-dependence mentality into a self-discovery and cultural confidence mentality. 

Following repeated failures in New Ireland and Madang, the conservationists devised a new strategy for dealing with local landowners. The community development team, for example, spoke to local landowners during one public meeting in order to convince them that they did not possess any money and were not affiliated with any money-holding enterprises. They were merely an environmental group seeking to hear their stories and concerns, and to exchange knowledge in order to achieve the best possible outcome for both parties (Filer, 2000.10).

Filer’s report also indicated that this new approach still has a number of key shortcomings.  Despite their attempts to distance themselves from banks, logging and mining companies, they continued to work with government agencies and foreign donors. Other members of the community were misled by the local community development staff employed to bring this project to the landowners’ villages. The presence of Westerners in the villages perpetuates the longstanding notion that “these people are bosses with lots of goods”. In fact, this completely contradicts the goals of the development worker, who is aiming to promote a greater sense of self-reliance through the promotion of “indigenous knowledge” as a means of empowerment. It was clear from the emergence of all kinds of rumours spreading among the villagers that this was a new cargo cult movement.

This sequence of events has led the author to conclude that the core purpose of community development contradicts itself. As the local landowners put development above conservation, it proved challenging for the conservationists to reject any large form of development in the country. Villagers wanted to see whether conservation can deliver development projects the way they saw them. Western conservationists and their local allies raised these unrealistic expectations. The author states, “One can only wonder what kind of footprints (or mind prints) the team has left in the local soil” (Filer, 2000.16).

Throughout the paper, we have examined rich accounts that were observed and reported by an anthropologist who has been tracking development projects related to resources in PNG for more than forty years. The first part of the report describes his involvement in the project, followed by an observation of the dialogue between conservationist groups and local landowners. This “dialogue” was based on the developer’s assumption that the locals valued their land and natural resources in a similar manner to other traditional societies in the region, such as those in South America. In contrast to Amazonian Indians, the people of Lak are eager to have their forests logged as soon as possible if they have access to development funds. Nonetheless, this does not explain why the local villagers were so determined to see this through. Since they had been promised only the benefits of development, modernization was unattainable while the forest stood. For them, the forest is the only currency for exchanging with the outside world.

Filer also mentioned that conservationists had tried to persuade local villages to perceive conservation as an alternative form of development. It is extremely difficult to deliver such development to communities where there are intense economic struggles. What are the chances of development agencies designing, implementing, and monitoring projects in such divided communities? Getting the right answer to this question has been a challenge for development companies for decades.

Another experiment in Madang revealed the complexity of communities’ politics over development projects. They were able to see the world through the eyes of the local villagers after their extensive interactions with them. Thus, the team was able to determine what the clans knew about each other and why no agreements could be reached. Participatory development approaches in third world projects are based on ethnocentric assumptions that ignore the complex issues in target areas.

Having failed to secure agreement with the landowners, the conservationist team established a new Community Development Team. Using new methods and languages, this new team was supposed to conduct their project from a whole new perspective. The paper reported that local trained staff were sent to villages to convey a message to reveal local stories, wishes, and indigenous knowledge. This would then be used as a platform for launching a self-reliance project. Western conservationists and their local allies soon discovered, however, that sharing local landowners’ stories (knowledge) further aggravated divisions and expectations about development.

There seems to be a huge misunderstanding between Western conservationists and landowners, as well as between local staff and landowners. According to Filer’s paper, this misunderstanding is a consequence of the unrealistic expectations that locals and landowners have regarding Western developers and their development agenda. Filer revealed a wide gap in knowledge about the complex issues as well as the methods of communicating them. He examined the ways in which the concept of “landowner and indigenous knowledge” contributes to the generation of information on the issues development practitioners are trying to address.

The concept of indigenous knowledge presents a few key challenges due to its English language construction to describe non-European cultures. Therefore, it seems to imply that the narratives of the West have dominated the world of the last five hundred years. The Post-Development Theory was initially developed to discredit this top-down approach to understanding various knowledge cultures (McGregor, 2009). Knowledge production and the methodologies used to deploy development projects in order to address the needs of the world’s poor are still largely dominated by the West. By discussing indigenous knowledge in a Western cultural context, we are also distorting the indigenous knowledge itself. Landowners’ cultural values, languages, environment, and knowledge are still discussed in English from a Western perspective. It should be noted that there are other modes of knowing beyond the rational/empirical/Newtonian approach that is used by the West to describe ‘reality’. Therefore, the question arises, are we willing to incorporate other traditional knowledge systems in order to gain a complete understanding of the world? (Thaman, 2003). In my view, this report is interesting because it has revealed the narratives of those who have said “their land is their last card in the gamble for modernity, and their status as landowners is critical to their self-esteem, if not to their standard of living” (Filer, 2000).This is still the interpretation of Western anthropologists.

A key component of PRA methodologies in community development research is the recognition that local knowledge should be given priority when designing, implementing, and managing development projects. PRA is a methodological tool for empowering poor and marginalised rural communities, and for sharing their experience and knowledge. In general, the PRA assumes that local people know best, and that research teams and community development workers can learn a great deal from them since they are the ones who deal with the daily issues (Wilbers & Zeeuw, 2004. 3). In PRA, formality, intellectualism, and professionalism are avoided. Instead, the focus is on empowerment, participation, partnership, ownership, transparency, and accountability (Thomas, 2013). Chambers describes PRA as “…a family of approaches and methods to promote rural communities’ sharing, enhancing and analysing their knowledge of life and conditions, planning and acting” (Chambers, 1994. p.953).

Despite PRA’s popularity in empowering the “poor”, its method has received a wide range of criticism from scholars and development practitioners. As an example, Glyn William argues that participation can be described as a tool for political control. According to Cooke & Khotari, participation has also become a technology of power that depoliticizes aid (Williams, 2004); (Cooke & Kothari, 2001). The criticism of the PRA began to emerge once it became apparent that its approaches had become institutionalized. In some cases, PRA researchers misinterpret local knowledge, stories, and conditions, or are misinterpreted by the local communities. As Filer pointed out during the workshop, PRA’s weaknesses echo his assessment of their performance.

 The PRA methodological approaches are also criticised for stereotypical depictions. “Poor knows best“, for instance.  In McKinnon’s view, participation in development research has not only supplanted the dominant top-down approach, but has become hegemonic. It has thus become generic and internationalized in its own right (McKinnon, 2007.782). In Russell Bernard’s (2006) explanation, methodology has to do with how we know things (epistemology). Over the last decades, whatever methodological approach was used, particularly in social science research, has been dominated by Western approaches. Further, he stated that methodology is a shared responsibility among all of us. Even so, I believe that most third world colonised societies lack a viable methodology for explaining their own systems of knowledge.

This report demonstrates some of the weaknesses associated with the PRA method in research on community development. PRA was the method used in this report in which conservationists and anthropologists engaged in dialogue with local landowners for the purpose of empowering them to have a greater influence on development outcomes. The notion of participation and bottom-up development approaches is sound; however, the report demonstrates that PRA’s assumption of its own philosophy of participation falls short of the reality of local communities – at least in some areas such as PNG. This raises further questions that are difficult to answer. The entire paradigm of contemporary social research is based on the assumption that certain members of human society face certain problems. Third World societies are characterized by a fundamental divide between researcher and researched, investigator and the investigated. This is one of the keys defining characteristics between the third world and first world. Researchers developed methodologies and strategies to examine social realities in a world that had its own set of values. As a result, the researched community becomes passive recipients of knowledge produced about them. This means Papua New Guinea landowners’ priorities are subordinated to those who have come to ensure their survival.


Chambers , R. (1994). The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal. World Development, 22, 953-969.

Cooke, B., & Kothari, U. (2001). Participation: the new tyranny? London, New York : Zed Book .

Filer, C. (2000). How can Western conservationists talk to Melanesian landowners about indigenous knowledge. Canberra: Resources Management in Asia-Pacific Project, Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School for pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University.

McGregor, A. (2009). New Possibilities? Shifts in Post-Development Theory and Practice . Wellington : Blackwell Publishing Ltd .

McKinnon, K. (2007). Postdevelopment, Professionalism, and the Politics of Participation. Annals of the Association of American geographers, 97(4), 772-785.

Thaman, K. H. (22003). Decolonizing Pacific Studies: Indigenous perspectives, knowledge, and wisdom in higher education. The Contemporary Pacific, 1-17.

Thomas , P. (2013). Challenges for participatory development in contemporary development practice. Australian National Univeristy , Crowford School of Public Policy . Canberra: Development Studies Network.

Wilbers , J., & Zeeuw, d. H. (2004). PRA TOOLS for studying Urban Agriculture and gender . The Hague: Research centre on Urban Agriculture and Forestry (RUAF) .

Williams, G. (2004). Evaluating participatory development: Tyranny, power and (re) politicisation. Third World Quarterly, 25, pp 557-578.

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Conservation work

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The Melanesian Way

the modern way

Yamin Kogoya

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