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Established since 1963 

Some Search, Some Cry for Food 

20th. September, 1998 


When a recent food crunch struck an isolated island named "Good Enough" at the eastern most part of Papua New Guinea, people well related to plants coped with the scarcity “extremely well".

    In contrast, their “educated” counterparts who had lost touch with plants "lobbied the government for food relief.”

    The latter couldn't survive otherwise!

    "This was the most striking difference I observed on how people coped with changes brought by drought associated with El Nino which affected Papea New Guinea very badly," said Jane Mogina a PhD pursuant at the Australian National University, Canberra who is studying the transmission of traditional knowledge and changing resource use on Good Enough island off Milne Bay Province.

    Jane was one of two Papua New Guianeans who attended People and Plants Southeast Asia Certificate training course on applied ethnobotany held at the Kinabalu Park in June.

    Good Enough island, 24-36 hours by boat from the mainland, is inhabited by Melansians who speak a dialect called Bwaidoga.

    "That's why they are called Bwaidogans," she said.

    One reason she chose Good Enough for her study is its "high biodiversity" which somewhat resembles Kinabalu Park where its highest peak reaches 2800m.

    "My research is to look at different factors that affect changing traditional knowledge, how long people have been away from their home village, their outside experiences and. how this affects the way they interact with their home village environment," she said.

    The study took her to different communities in the field.

    It so happened that the drought struck while she was at it.
    "Most of the gardens had very little food," she said.

    I was looking at how people foraged - where they got food from, for instance, how they changed their gardening strategy which is basic subsistence gardening driven cultivation, like here in Sabah but different crops."

    "What I was interested to know was how they change their strategy in the context of a severe drought so that they could get quick returns of food and all sorts of things," Jane said.

    "In one of them, they had a very well educated community and their strategy was to lobby the government for relief, for food," she related.

    Then she went into a mountain village where their average education level was Grade Two (Primary 2).

    "These people didn't even know the government existed. They didn't know such things as food aid from Australia. They foraged, they went further into the mountains for things to eat," she observed.

    But beyond that, they also had a sub-sistence strategy where each time they abandoned a garden., they planted a whole lot of cassava (tapioca).

    The idea is to go back to those during times of scarcity and as a result, they coped extremely well," she pointed out.

    Diversification helps

    "They also eat a lot of figs - both fruits and leaves," she said.

    Reactivating a traditional sharing system in crisis time ensures nobody goes hungry.

    "If someone found something, they distribute those along the traditional distribution line. So, in the end, some will have something during the day and at night, every body will have food to eat," she said.

    More on people and plants, she said: "One of the things I found very striking was these people were managing their environment so that it enhances useful plants people looking after plants with a futuristic view so that one day they will need them," Jane pointed out.

    "I was looking at yam because this particular community depended a lot on wild yam and if you just walk in, you think they are wild but what had hap-pened is people would dig, cut off their tops and replant them so that they know they got them there to turn to when they need them," she said.

    Smart planting based on species knowledge keep food supply going through the good and bad times.

    Variety is a good bet for sustaining yields.

    "They plant a huge variety of cassa-va - a quick eating vegetable and they plant them in such a way they know which ones they need within three months and what they'll need in six months but they are all sort of planted together," she said.

    Asked whether the course on applied ethnobotany which she came all the way to attend at Kinabalu Park, was relevant, a straight answer came : "It's very relevant in that we've done a lot of methodology - ways of working with communities."

    We spent a lot of time working with Dusun communities but I could use the same method working in Papua New Guinea .1 just modify them to suit PNG situations," she pointed out.

    The course was also very enrich-ing. I picked up a lot of what others people are doing; we had Vietnamese, Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai, Filipino experience - just so much there," she said.

    She confessed she was more an aca-demic with little community experience but "all of a sudden, you have got this rich wealth of experience to draw from by talking to these people and asking them what they did in their particular situations," she said.

    From a Papua New Guinean point of view, she said she found the people in Sabah, the communities she had worked with, the Sabah Parks and its Projek Etnobotani Kinabalu (PEK) were simply "fantastic".

    "PEK (Kinabalu Ethnobotany Project) had collected a lot of data which they haven't analysed and need to be organised and we used their data in the process of training which was so enriching because we were learning something in one culture which could be transferred to another culture," she said.

    She cited the example Kadazandusun linguist, Rita Lasimbang, who came in during their course to show them how to interpret traditional plant names.

    "That is the sort of knowledge that is being lost," she said.

    "Indigenous plant names tell you a lot about that particular plant their physical characteristics, their chemical characteristics. I think that's something scientists forget, that traditional names do have meaning," she added.

    "And if you just ask that one little question what that name means in their language, it tells you a lot. To me that was so exciting," she enthused.

    Like everywhere else, education and exposure to the outside world had increased people's dependence on mod-ern medicine and a turning away from use of traditional medicine.

    "But with the current interest and awareness, we are hoping that people will start looking back and I am doing quite a lot of documentation with a lot of other people to try and keep knowl-edge of traditional medicine in PNG before they disappear," she said.

    But one of the problems with tradi-tional medicines especially in PNG is that it had always been associated with witchcraft and rituals.

    "This is why people tend to shy away from it and I think that's what kills the transmission when young peo-ple won't want to know all those associ-ations," she pointed out.

Copyright 1998, Daily Express, Sabah, Malaysia. All Rights Reserved.

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