The headwaters of some mighty rivers, the Kikori, the Erave and the Strickland cross Southern Highlands Province. White water tumbles through limestone gorges and lush high valleys. It is a particularly beautiful province, remote and underdeveloped, where traditional cultures survive.
The climate in the south west of the province, at lower altitudes like Lake Kutubu, is humid and semitropical. But at higher altitudes, the provincial capital Mendi lies at 1,400 metres above sea level. Temperatures are lower and some areas are prone to sudden severe frosts which are calamitous for food and cash crops. Food gardens and cash crops were destroyed in 1994 by frost and by natural disasters, flood, landslide and drought.
Most of the natural vegetation is rainforest, with alpine woods and grasslands above 3,000 metres. Swamps occur at all levels. More than 60% of the province is still covered in forest. People’s subsistence activities (cutting for gardens) inevitably change the natural appearance of this vegetation. More recently, economic and social alterations of infrastructure, especially from mineral resource developments, will change it more radically.
The Southern Highlands had a population of 317,437 in the 1990 census. That indicates a tremendous increase in 10 years, which concerns the provincial government. There is already pressure for land. There are also many young unproductive people who demand more goods and services. Until very recently people were engaged solely in a subsistence economy, the introduction of a modern cash economy has had a tremendous impact on their lives.
The development of mineral resources at Kutubu, Kare and to some extent Porgera drew skilled and unskilled to the mines and left only a skeleton productive labour force back in the villages. While the benefits in terms of employment opportunities, business spin-offs and infrastructure have to be acknowledged, so do the bad effects: creeping inflation, prostitution, drunkenness, robbery and pollution. In the future the Southern Highlands government is going to insist on long term strategic plans to counteract these negative effects of mineral resource explorations and developments. In the short term it has declared a total liquor ban and established a high-powered Peace and Good Order Committee.
The Provincial government has pushed through a five year development plan which it hopes will accommodate both economic development and social expansion. Services should be distributed equally to the people of the Southern Highlands. The maintenance of traditional family values to create a sense of belonging and responsibility among all family members must be encouraged. Village level health schemes and Child Survival Programmes have been welcomed. Many of these goals are being achieved despite downturns in resource allocations and government cash flow problems.
When Europeans first came to the Southern Highlands in the 1930’s, they called it a Papuan wonderland. When they found the lovely Lavani Valley in the 1950’s, they talked of lost Shangri-la. There is something very attractive about the area. Since the 1970’s there have been roads and bridges built by the Australian Army Engineering team. It also has the Highlands highway. There are several airstrips which connect the area with the rest of PNG.
The people live in scattered hamlets, grow sweet potatoes for their staple food, have ceremonial exchanges of pigs, cassowaries and other valuables. They use intensive farming methods to grow food including beans, sugar-cane, pit-pit, bananas and greens. They treasure the coconut flavoured karuka (Highlands pandanus) nuts. Houses are built on the ground with walls of wood slabs or mud to keep out the cold.
Visitors to the area may well stay in one of ecotourism’s most successful ventures, the Ambua Lodge at Tari. From there they are invited into the settlements of the Huli people who inhabit the Tari valley. There are 38,000 Huli. They have many striking characteristics but certainly the most photographed are the Huli wigmen. Huli men’s wigs are great head-pieces of human hair decorated with feathers and flowers. The wigs are grown and made to mark the transition from boyhood to manhood. Traditionally Huli men were warriors, they lived apart from women. Indeed they distrusted and feared women who were considered a source of sickness and debility. Huli men still dress up, put on paint and oils and paraded themselves. Tourism has encouraged them. The Huli men leave a bright imprint in every visitors mind.