Papua-New Guinea - Back to the Future

Chiseled warriors in Bird of Paradise headdresses and spears, impassable mountain roads, stunning vistas, abundant gardens of coffee and vegetables. Papua-New Guinea is the final frontier of dreams, of images from the pre-colonial past.

Yet here I am, the first American anyone can remember coming into these Highlands, many say the first white guy. I have dreamed of this land since I was a child, looking at National Geographic (yeah, those photos!), reading about its wildness in my Goldenbook Encyclopedia. There are no roads connecting the capital, Port Moresby, with the rest of this island, which is the size of New England. We have to fly to the interior, and I am glued to the window of the small plane, knowing that below me are anacondas and pythons, tree kangaroos and Birds of Paradise, wild rivers and still uncontacted tribes.

There is also coffee, introduced to the Highlands only in the 1950's from rootstock taken from the famed Jamaican Blue Mountains. Coffee is the only cash crop in the Highlands. The people grow all of their own food, using the coffee money to buy cooking oil, sugar, used clothes and other necessaries. They depulp the cherries by hand using round rocks. This is the only place in the world where coffee is depulped this way. It is a family affair, and I visit with several families singing and depulping by the river. After sun drying the beans, the villagers have to carry the sixty pound sacks on their backs for up to twenty miles, over mountains, through rivers via rocky paths.

Historically, they would sell their beans to a number of middlemen who wait by the only road, givng the farmers pennies for their labor. But we are here to change that. We are here to work with several farmer associations to create legally recognized cooperatives, and to create more direct trade relationships that should increase the farmers income fourfold, as well as increase sales. As I am the first coffee buyer to come into this area, the farmers organize a Coffee Cultural Show. I thought that meant a few dancing and singing groups, a feast and a gift exchange. Wrong! As we rolled into a distant village after three hours over rivers, boulders, mudpits and bridges that shook beneath the land rover, we were greeteed by ten thousand people! It was the largest gathering ever seen in these parts. Traditional warrior societies, women's clans, singing groups, hunters and every possible combination of feathers, noses pierced with tusks, and painted bodies festooned with coffee branches and berries greeted us riotously. I was hoisted into the air and carried almost a mile by joyful men, while the women called a welcoming chant. There were speeches by every village's elders, by coffee farmers and of course by me. For two days the festivities roared on, segued together by an all-night discussion around a fire about coffee techniques, trade justice, the role of women and every imaginable subject for people who have never met an American or a Fair Trader. Wild pigs were cooked on hot stones in pits, covered with banana leaves. Huge plates of yams (they laughed when I told them about research which links yam consumption to twin births - and they have a lot of twins there!). Of course, we brewed up lots of Dean's Beans Papuan coffee (Ring of Fire). It was the first time these farmers had ever had their own coffee, and they loved the taste almost as much as they loved seeing their own tribal names on the coffee bags, tee-shirts and hats I had made for the visit. As we passed through the Highlands, we had to stop at each tribal boundary for permission to enter the territory. Considering that there are over eight hundred tribes in PNG, we were crossing boundaries every ten miles or so.

At each boundary we were greeted by warriors in full dress, with welcoming chants and speeches, and invited to feast and speak. Needless to say, it took a long time to get a short distance, but we were well fed and made hundreds of new friends every day. Back in the capital, we went on the radio (four million listeners nightly, as there is no electricity in the villages, only battery powered radios) and talked about making strong cooperatives and quality coffee to insure vibrant communities. Our meeting with the Prime Minister didn't happen, so we spent a day on an island of fisherman and their families, cooking the bounty of the sea and playing with the kids. My kinda day. Papua-New Guinea. A lifelong dream come true. It was a profound honor to be able to go as an emissary of peace and positive social change. If you ever get to go, DO IT! You can be assured of a warm welcome and a great cup of coffee. Just tell them you're a friend of mine.

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