In the Markham Valley of Papua New Guinea, traditional village life revolves around food. Families rise early to tend their gardens, harvesting bananas, taro and sweet potatoes. Adding to the bounty of the local landscape are fresh watermelon, peanuts, cucumbers and mangoes, supplemented with protein sources like the meat of the wild bandicoot. It’s the traditional diet of an Indigenous culture which, until recently, had almost zero incidence of heart disease or diabetes, even with the consumption of large quantities of mouth-watering, coconut-creamed bananas.
These days, with the recent onslaught of industrial and processed foods throughout PNG, many people are trading in their healthy, traditional diets for packaged foods loaded with sugar, fat and salt. One woman from the fertile Markham Valley, however, is working to make sure that the food traditions of her homeland remain intact and vibrant.
In 2007, Jennifer Baing and her husband, Bao Waiko, co-founded a trailblazing organization called Savé PNG, which uses intercultural education and multi-media programming to inspire Papua New Guineans to embrace their cultural identity and protect their traditional foodways. For this young couple, celebrating food is the first step towards community resiliency in the face of health, climate and cultural threats.
By taking a biocultural approach in their work, Savé PNG addresses public health, ecosystem resilience and cultural identity at the same time. According to Jennifer Baing, poor eating habits across Papua New Guinea, especially the growing consumption of processed, fatty foods instead of traditional fresh foods, have led to a dramatic increase in heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity. At the same time, the elaborate customary management systems that for generations have sustainably regulated the harvesting of fish, plants and animals are degrading as more people turn to industrial foods. For Baing, the relationship between environmental and community health is clear, and is directly tied to the strength of Indigenous food traditions.
“In a nutshell, indigenous food is very important as a means of survival and way of sustaining tradition, community health, and communicating culture,” she says.
In the face of climate change, economic globalization and reduced quality and quantity of forest and gardening land, maintaining traditional foodways is a daunting task. But with some of the highest levels of biocultural diversity remaining on the planet, Papua New Guinea is the perfect place to prove the value of culture-based economies and to confront global homogenization.
Valuing Traditional Culture
Savé PNG is part of a new generation of organizations working to affirm the traditional economy in Melanesia and to help communities find enthusiasm for protecting biodiversity and sustaining cultural traditions. Savé is the Papua New Guinean Tok Pisin (lingua franca) word for ‘wisdom’ or ‘to know’. A primary goal of Savé PNG is to help both locals and those outside the country to understand the beauty and diversity of PNG’s many cultures.
“Savé PNG works to breakdown the often misrepresented and stereotyped images of Papua New Guinea by promoting the unique, resourceful, and resilient qualities of Indigenous cultures here,” says Baing.
In April, for example, Savé PNG organized the Markham Banana Festival, a unique event to celebrate the Valley’s food and cultural traditions. More than 10,000 people attended the festival to enjoy the culture and performing arts of the Markham people and to share local knowledge, plant varieties and agricultural skills. In accordance with this year’s theme – Food is Life – festivalgoers constructed a traditional Tsisipy structure, a vertical lattice that weaves ropes of bananas up a massive ladder more than 20 meters high. The impressive structure symbolized the strength and unity of the many peoples of the Markham Valley.
T.V. and Traditional Knowledge Transfer
To inspire pride in culture, Savé PNG creates educational curricula and television programming to highlight both the deliciousness and the value of Papua New Guinea’s biocultural heritage. The group is in the midst of producing a five-part educational television series called Café Niugini. Hosted by Jennifer Baing, the show takes viewers around the country to explore the local cuisines and food traditions of some of the more than 800 tribes of Papua New Guinea.
A Café Niugini video series will eventually be distributed to schools and other interested groups along with a study guide booklet in both English and Tok Pisin. The series is designed to impress upon viewers, particularly the country’s youth, the stunning variety of local methods for growing, cooking and sharing food, and that these things are, in fact, very cool.
Looking to the Future
By raising interest in traditional foodways, Savé PNG is increasing the chances that the unique biocultural systems of Papua New Guinea will withstand cultural shifts and climate impacts and continue to provide bounty for local communities. While there are various programs in Melanesia to preserve native food species, such as setting up seed banks owned by communities, these efforts will only be successful if the traditions and celebrations surrounding their cultivation and use receive more interest and gain more advocates. For Jennifer Baing, the stakes of this work are very high, going far beyond the sentimental value of saving traditions for posterity’s sake.
“Indigenous food is very much a way of life,” she says. “It’s as much about who we are, where we’ve come from, and how we’re going to survive global climate challenges in the future.”