© 2013 Erich Pacheco

Ten Days in PNG: So far, pretty good

I arrived to Papua New Guinea (PNG) two Mondays ago on an early morning flight from Cairns, Australia. We debarked the old school way: staircase straight into the tarmac. I quickly noticed the humidity, this familiar moist air that always reminds me of home in Venezuela. When I arrived in the international terminal, I had to pick up my luggage and re-check it for my domestic flight to Lae, my final destination. As I did so, I learned that only Americans have a two bag allowance with Air Niugini. When I asked why, the lady kindly responded: “maybe we feel sorry for you.” I wasn’t sure what to make of that, perhaps it has to do with the fact that we have to travel so far to get here. As I walked out of the baggage claim area, I was overwhelmed with new sensory information. The loud crowd, the smell of sweat, and half-naked barefooted villagers. I mistakenly tried to enter the terminal for my next flight without knowing there is a domestic terminal. One of the security guards offered to take me there. I had a five hour lay over in Port Moresby, so my first interactions with Papua New Guineans happened at the airport. I must admit that I was a bit wary, but any concerns I had were quickly dispelled by the friendliness and kindness of the people here.

PNG is a very mountainous country with treacherous terrains, making road building one of the biggest hinderances for the country. In fact, there is no road connecting the country’s two largest cities. As a result, flying is the main transportation method when traveling from one region to another. The domestic terminal was packed, which made a steamy room due to the rather noticeable absence of air conditioning. There are no boarding gates either, but instead a sliding door leading straight into the tarmac. It was obvious many of the people there were tribal, as many were barefooted (and not because of the TSA). This was a rather interesting juxtaposition of cultures. I also felt like going shirtless since it was very sticky, but it was already obvious I was the only person there who didn’t belong and I didn’t want to stick out any more. My flight on the little propeller plane to Lae was uneventful, but gave me a sneak peak into the beauty of this country. The baggage claim area in Lae was unlike any that I have seen before: there was no carrousel, so they unload all the bags onto a counter area that separates the landing strip from the terminal. After a 45 minute long ride on a bullet proof bus, which felt rather unnecessary, I made it to the apartment. I live in a condo in a gated compound, have a full kitchen with a fridge, a washing machine, cable television, and even air conditioning. Not too shabby. I recently found out the rent for this place is $52,000 a year, and there’s no luxuries in this apartment.

IMG_0599My first day at the office went pretty well. My counterpart, Benjamin Sipa, is from the Highlands in Morobe, the province where I live and work.  He is a big and charismatic guy. My first day in the office, he took me on a walking tour around “Top Town” what they call their downtown area. One of the first things I noticed was how most stores we walked into are owned by the Chinese. I was disappointed to find out that there is no street food here, which is something I always look forward to when I travel. There are, however, local food eateries called Kai Bars (which literally means food bar), which serve a lot of fried chicken, and dough covered fish pieces or hot dogs. The main market is no different than many African markets: a big open area partly covered by a large tin roof, where mostly women sit on the ground with their various produce and fruits for sale. I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of goodies I was able to get. I did my shopping for the week for a mere $12. But everything else is very expensive, so it balances out.

On the professional front the first week was also more productive than I had expected. Although for the first couple of days I felt confused and lost about what the program expected of me, I now have a better understanding of my role. The TKCP works in a conservation area known for the three rivers that cross it: Yopno, Uruwa, and Som. The YUS conservation area (named after the initials of the three rivers) covers 150,000 hectares, from the coastal zone to the mountain ridges at about 4,200 meters (12,600 feet) in altitude. For the past 16 years the program has worked extensively with different clans on land use planning in the highlands, with the goal of protecting the environment while providing livelihood opportunities. The program is now expanding its efforts into the coastal zones. The coastal villages are more connected to markets in other areas, so the program would like me to research how do ecosystems contribute to welfare and what are some of the livelihood opportunities for these communities. To do so, I will conduct research in three wards (clan areas) and determine the total economic value (TEV) of local lowland forests, grasslands, and the coastal zone. I will develop and conduct household and market surveys along several villages and towns, which will allow me to determine the market and non-market values of the different ecosystems based on the services they provide the communities. I spent the last week going through all the data the program has already collected on the coastal zone and doing a literature review, which will help me develop the methodology. To calculate TEV, I will use the ecosystem services definition provided by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems,” which include provisioning services (food and water), regulating services (flood, water filtration), supporting services (nutrient cycling and soil formation), and cultural services (recreation, spiritual, and other non-material benefits). This definition will allow me to determine the direct and indirect uses of natural resources, which I can then use to estimate their value.

Our internet connection has been far from great, but at least we have it. This week I’ve been working on the research proposal, which I will submit and present next week. Thus far our tentative field research dates are July 22-August 14. Meaning I will celebrate my 28th birthday somewhere in the bush!

For those of you who may want to call, my number is +675-73 90 66 47. Please remember that I am 17 hours ahead of the West Coast and 14 hours ahead of the East Coast.


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