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The importance of customary leaders

Timothy Ashton | National Capital District, Papua New Guinea

Koki Markets. Seen by very few westerners as law and order in PNG is so dire we are strongly advised not to venture from the security of our hotels


An all too rare good news story from the bottom end of the developing world.

After 36 years of independence, and witnessing increasing incompetence and corruption within their government, which was leading to a total breakdown of their society, the traditional elders, whos position and authority within Melanesian society had been ignored in the transition to a self rulling democracy, decided it was time to restore their authority.

The results of their intervention could well point the way to the future for Papua New Guinea.

Here the photographer compares the  Vabukori community with the settlement of Koki. The concept is discussed in more detail within the "Photographer's Statement".

Vabukori: An all too rare a story from the developing world of a community’s success


Only five minutes from Ela Beach and in view of many of the luxurious apartments of the expatriates who live on the peak above the commercial centre of Port Moresby is the settlement of Koki, tucked in behind the PMV (Public Motor Vehicle) interchange and the local markets.


The markets are supplied by local entrepreneurs some of whom work gardens on the few unsettled/ undeveloped areas of the steep hillsides over looking Fairfax harbour. Those with the gardens sell primarily sweet potato and taro, with other vendors selling bananas, coconut, fish and mud crab. We Australians and other foreigners are strongly advised not to venture into such areas without security, but it is here one meets the real face of Papua New Guinea and like people the world over, the friendship and generosity offered from these people, who by western standards have nothing, is humbling.


Within Koki settlement itself, there is a mixture of the original villagers and those who have left their villages and come to the city seeking jobs and the good life.  The despair of these immigrants from the highlands and elsewhere is palpable and the overall feeling for outsiders, is fraught.


A further twenty minute ride by PMV to the outskirts of Port Moresby is the village of Vabukori. This is an original settlement, whose inhabitants have lived there for centuries. Historically like most of the coastal communities of the region they were raided by the tribes people of the hinterland who would come down to steal women for wives and to work their gardens, so for protection they built their homes on stilts over the sea, thus protecting themselves from  night time raids.


The land behind is not so rich, blasted day in day out by the trade winds, but as they are fishermen, anything grown in their gardens is a bonus


Since independence, life in Vabukori has been on a downwards spiral as corruption, incompetent governance and migration from the highlands has reduced services and increased competition for the few jobs available.


By 2005 with unemployment hovering around 85%, school attendances plummeting, and the youth resorting to hombru (Homemade alcohol) and marijuana the traditional chiefs and elders took the future of their people into their own hands.


Lacking the capacity to create employment for their people they organised team sport and Vabukori became the Pacific powerhouse team of volley ball and in 2009 they won the gold medal at the Arafura Games.


Despite unemployment still sitting around 85% the result has been nothing short of spectacular. Community pride has returned, substance abuse is now unheard of and school attendance is at an all time percentage high. 

Note: within Melanesian society a the position of chief is not heredatory, but they are selected by the existing chiefs and elders for their wisdom and ability to take their community forward. 

 The lesson to be learnt from this is that the position of traditional chiefs and elders within these societies must be supported, especially in law, because it is within these traditions that the strong social fabrics which have the capacity to carry these people into the developed world lie.


Ask any of the old people who remember colonial times and they will tell you Australia was a good colonial power; but they the people have been very let down by the process of de-colonialisation which placed too much emphasis on forcing a Westminster system of government upon these peoples and paid too little attention to their traditional customs











 Timothy Ashton is a self funded advisor on Bougainville Island which was devasted by 10 years of conflict caused by corporate arrogance in relation to the Panguna Copper mine. Think of the movie Avatar. The Bougainville conflict could have well been the inspiration for the script.


Tim can be contacted via email on:


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