Papua New Guinea is often seen as one of the world’s last unexplored frontiers. It is stereotyped as tribal, underdeveloped, and primitive. On March 1, Phi Beta Kappa society member Paige West gave a lecture that challenged this view. As the Claire Tow Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College, West has spent the last two decades working with the people of Papua New Guinea. Her goal is to shed light on their vibrant culture, the effects of decolonization, and their conservation efforts.
In the mid-1970s, the eastern half of Papua New Guinea gained their independence. Presently, the culture is still widely misunderstood and is only really seen through Euro-American and Australian lenses. West explained how much of the information comes from “surfers, photographers, economists, and conservationists.” Over the years, she interviewed and observed each group, along with the indigenous population, to capture a full understanding of where the misconceptions about the country come from.
West explained how the surfers acted like it was “the wild, wild West.” In an interview, a surfer said, “One minute you can be in the water right alongside [a local], and then the next they can be slitting your throat.” West noticed that as she continued to interview the same tourists over the years, their stories became increasingly “savage” and always emphasized the uncivilized nature of the indigenous people. In contrast, West, who has spent nearly 20 years in Papua New Guinea, found the exact opposite. She elaborated on these interviews when she said, “The surfers eventually stopped coming back as the novelty of the ‘savage’ wore off, and they found that they were just regular people.”
The photographers often claim that they are “capturing a dying culture” with their photos of tribal ceremonies and villagers. West explained how this is also a misinformation. Through an anthropological perspective, she said that “culture is a set of idealized practices and traditions,” but the issue is that the culture we see as Papua New Guinean was created by us, Westerners. Many of the images that come out of this region of “primitive people” are often either staged by the photographer or portray a single, special day of the year when they dress up in traditional attire to celebrate a holiday. For example, the photographer David Kirkland produces stunning photos from this area of the world, but they are often terribly inaccurate representations that maintain a visual trope for capital gain. West implored the audience to support local photographers if they truly wanted to see what life was like there.
The issue with economists, West explained, is that they see “money as a means of corruption” for a society “not ready for modernity.” Because of this bias, West found many entrepreneurs in Papua New Guinea struggling to get bank loans to start up their businesses. In classic colonial style, the world still views these people as infantile and unable to take on the modern world. With their tradition of collective land use, the capitalist economy model that much of the rest of the world uses is not as effective there and results in the industrialized world viewing them as underdeveloped. In reality, while there are large amounts of poverty, money is fully understood, and there are growing cosmopolitan areas. Simply put, they cultivate a different lifestyle.
Conservationists are yet another group spreading misinformation. She recalled meeting with representatives from ExxonMobil to plan out where a biodiversity offset fund would be spent after the company’s pipeline was installed on the island. At this time in her presentation, she began to get emotional as she explained how the representatives dismissed the local scientists’ plans and proceeded to make racially charged comments at the meeting. Although these locals had Ph.D.s, they were not seen as “capable” of handling the $100 million set aside for the fund. Luckily, this issue was taken to Papua New Guinea’s Parliament and resolved, and the scientists of the island were able to allocate the funds properly.
West emphasized repeatedly that “international development was in the business of misinformation.” The idea of Papua New Guinea as an endless frontier is a dangerous myth that breeds gentrification. In reality, it is a vibrant culture, with a strong government, that just so happens to have its feet in both modernity and tradition.