Traditional cultures: Bridge or barrier

Normal, Weekender

In this two-part article, Dr. SOLOMON B. YOWAIT discusses the nature of traditional beliefs and practices which create a bridge or a barrier to rural development in PNG

TRADITIONAL cultures can be advantageous or disadvantageous to modern development of rural and regional areas in PNG.  Rural areas are of concern as more than 80% of the national population lives in the districts, local government council areas which comprises of wards, rural villages and hamlets.
By virtue of traditional cultures and land rights held over and bound between tribal and clan groupings, the habitation of these areas are bound permanently.
Traditional cultures relate to beliefs and cultural practices which have been inherited from their forefathers.  These range from magical rituals for cultivation of food crops to hunting, fishing and gathering from the wild, and child birth and rearing, to sorcery and witchcraft and magical spells that inhibit advancement of one’s livelihood.  Beliefs in the supernatural and totemic, magical mystical powers which inhabit natural objects have a connection to the traditional beliefs and practices.  This is dependent on the ways in which one perceives and uses these magical powers, where the result can be mixed as a barrier to advancement or bridge to modernisation. 
Let us consider the aspects to which traditional cultures and practices can become a linking bridge to modernisation and development of rural areas.  Clan groupings within tribal areas are hierarchical in the sense of leadership structures, authority and power held and exercised over their subjects which are the clan and tribal population.  Land ownership rights and boundaries which demarcate between other clans and tribal groups are strictly observed and complied according to the traditional rules and obligations.  Disobedience and disrespect in the sense of lack of observance of these traditional laws leads to disputes and to the extent of tribal fights in some regions of the country.  Resolving disputes leads to re-establishment of law and order in the society, a heightened sense of respect for the traditional cultural practices and even creating new relationships with exchange of gifts and reciprocity. 
The above scenario creates new meaning and establishes a foundation for the fertilisation of modern concepts and project proposals.  Say for example, a road project to link a remote rural area rich in agricultural production of cash crops with a vast abundance of natural resources like minerals and forestry.  Here, the road route has to traverse through land areas held by other clans and tribal groups.  On the proposed route is a sacred site, a rock boulder which stands as a monument to which traditional beliefs and practices relating to fertile soils and rich garden harvest has always been linked with magical powers and totemic spiritualism.  This has been associated with food security and seed protection and preservation in times of drought and famines for time immemorial. 
The dilemma is that the road construction works will disturb this rock and its connotations of spirituality.  Once disturbed, the good spirits which inhabit the rock and help humans will migrate and leave behind a bad karmic influence on the future of food crop cultivation and good harvest. 
This will affect the sustainability of and continuation of food crop production and disaster in terms of hunger and famine.  At the same time, natural disasters like floods, gale force winds and landslides could occur bringing disaster on soil fertility, food crop sustainability, which leads to lack of food security in terms of poor harvest, low seed preservation, and livelihood. 
The clans and the tribes suffer the consequences of having made a choice between tradition and modernisation.  The traditional practice once removed is irreplaceable.  It deals with the connection between man and his natural environment, especially with spiritual forces. 
Sounds alarming!  It is the reality of traditional cultural beliefs and practices especially in Melanesia.  More than 80% of the rural populace in Papua New Guinea believe and practice these in one way or another. 
The disturbance to the rock for the sake of modern development of rural areas breaks the spiritual link and the relationship between man, his environment, and the unseen natural spiritual forces.  Sustainable practices and a sound independent livelihood based on the cultivation of a variety of food crops, hunting and gathering might fall into disarray as a consequence of the choice made. 
On the other hand, the barriers to modern development of rural areas are also bound by the factors discussed above.  Because of the sacred sites associated with traditional beliefs and practices, the road route will not be permitted through the proposed areas.  Here, it can be seen that “traditional beliefs and practices” become a barrier to modernisation of the rural areas.  One can ask questions like; will the road passage if permitted remain a long term sustainable means of social and economic development?  Or will it bring more social ills and disharmony to the area concerned?  These scenarios are all common occurrences in rural societies in these modern times. 
In the case of the road project, an alternative route can be found but of all the options assessed, the proposed route was the best at low construction and maintenance cost with a positive cost-benefit analysis.  Only that the cultural object was on the route and a choice has to be made between keeping the traditional cultural values connected to the rock or opt towards disturbing it for a modern road transport system with an uncertain future.  This is the type of dilemma faced when having to reach a decision and making choices between tradition and modern development. 


Next week: Beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft are a real barrier to rural development in some parts of the country. 

The author is a consultant on urban and regional planning based in Alotau, Milne Bay province.