Research (Islands)

John Aini and Paige West in Bol Village, New Ireland, PNG

Two of Dr. West’s current projects are undertaken in partnership with Mr. John Aini, a lecturer at the National Fisheries College of Papua New Guinea and the founder and director of Ailan Awareness, a small NGO in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea.

Their first joint project seeks to understand indigenous perceptions of socio-ecological change in New Ireland and New Hanover (Mr. Aini’s family’s home).  The project began with a focus on the social and ecological effects of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) cultivation. However, over the past five years it has evolved to focus on multiple drivers of socio-ecological change including oil palm cultivation, the decline in multiple marine species on which people depend for subsistence and commercial purposes, and the influx of new economic development opportunities like coco cultivation, tourism, and commercial fish-cannery development. Through understanding local conceptions of and concerns about socio-ecological change Aini and West, along with their team of national researchers and interns, are pioneering ‘problem driven research’ in PNG.  By this they mean research that derives from engagement with communities and their assessment of problems and issues and that eventually helps them make decisions about how to best conserve both biological and cultural diversity. The ultimate project goals are to develop a methodology for designing socio-ecological research projects that are generated by the concerns of local people in Papua New Guinea, to understand the social and ecological changes in New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea, to help people assess threats to their cultural and biological diversity and come up with plans to mitigate these threats, and to contribute to the development of a new generation of students from Papua New Guinea who are trained in socio-ecological research design, method, analysis, and result dissemination. This project has been funded by The Christensen Fund.

Their second join project, funded by the US Ambassador’s fund for Cultural Preservation, focuses on facilitating the transfer of the traditional knowledge associated with Malangan carvings from master carvers to local apprentices. Malangan ceremonies are the central part of an entire system of ontology and epistemology for the Malangan cultures in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. These ceremonies bring together communities in the wake of a death, or series of deaths, in order to undertake important cultural activities that help to maintain internal community ties, as well as ties between communities. Additionally, these ceremonies maintain ties between people, their ancestors, the land and the sea. Malangan carvings, intricate and beautiful mask-like objects that contain, through their motifs, family histories and genealogies, are the central part of these ceremonies. The carvings themselves are not what is valuable and important in Malangan culture, rather it is the imagery, or the motifs, that are carved onto the objects, that contain what is of value. The motifs are part of an elaborate system of exchange between Malangan communities and individual families. Additionally, the motifs contain in them historical knowledge about family origins, rules for relating with ancestors, rules for relating with the plants and animals, and detailed knowledge about land and sea tenure. The motifs are cultural memory carved onto objects. Only master carvers can produce these carvings and today there are only seven master carvers left in New Ireland. There are strict rules for when, where, and to whom a carver can pass on his craft and knowledge. Working with master carvers and local elders, they are developing a protocol for knowledge transfer that respects tradition and traditional rules but is flexible enough to acknowledge that without some transformation of the rules this cultural practice and traditional knowledge will cease to exist.