Trobriand Islanders are known for mouthing away in their language with ease as with their knowledge and skills of yam planting. There is an intricate connection between their language and the knowledge of yam planting and harvesting. Anyone outside of this Milne Bay society would never understand the deep attachment to land and culture their language plays in their lives.
The languages of the indigenous communities have a direct link to the cultural explanations and understanding of the natural and social world. In the Waria River area of Morobe Province in Papua New Guinea the older generation of villagers complained that the younger generation was unwilling to learn the names and knowledge of medicinal plants used in the area. The younger generation complained that fewer older generations were left, but were unwilling to teach the younger generation of the knowledge of medicinal plants.
This dilemma emerged as a result of voluntary shift of younger generation to urban centres or away from home as students in educational institutions or as employed workers in urban centres. The older generation left in the village pass away without imparting their knowledge to the younger generation.
The link between language and culture is an intricate network of knowledge woven together. It is hardly surprising to learn that the world of the traditional healers and medicine men and women is linked neatly to their languages. The naming of plants has an important part in the delivery of the powers of plants used in traditional medicine.
Ethnobotanist Wade Davies (1992) describes language as the “filter through which the soul of a people reaches into the material world”, especially in his consideration of the Penan of Sarawak rainforest: “In Penan there are forty words for sago, and no words for goodbye or thank you… For the Penan, land is a living entity, imbued with spiritual meaning and power, and the notion of ownership of land, of fragile documents granting a human the right to violate the earth, is an impossible idea.”
Biolinguistic diversity is linked to the biodiversity and the indigenous knowledge systems of Papua New Guinea. The link between indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge systems is so important. Development discourses and planning must consider the dynamic biolinguistic diversity in Papua New Guinea.
The old people in the villages are unable to carry out their responsibilities to educate the younger members of their communities about their cultural knowledge systems. Linguists Daniel Nettle and Suzane Romain (2000) make the point that “development practices have tended to suppress indigenous ways of life and the languages that they sustained, by displacing people, liquidating their resources, and changing their patterns of production and exchange, rather than sustainably improving their standard of living.”
Traditional knowledge is sacrificed for the sake of modern change. Traditional medicinal plants and cultures are inseparable from each other in many cultures. This inseparable relationship is a dynamic part of the economic, political and cultural way of life.
In 1982 J. M. Powell writing on traditional management and conservation in Papua New Guinea observed that conservation and management practices include tending and maintenance of plant populations, growing of plants, and fallowing in garden areas.
Researchers have long warned that we need to understand how we use and manage our biological resources. Access to land is limited to certain individuals and small groups of people: “Only they are permitted to harvest particular plants or products—for example, those needed for ritual or magical purposes, medicinal plants, tree old for trading, building materials for religious structures etc” (Powell 1982).
In traditional societies harvesting of plants is restricted in some areas: “Although some species may flower and fruit over a relatively long period of time, harvesting is carried out at a certain time only…In some areas certain plants may only be used at a particular stage of their life-cycles. Villagers’ knowledge of plant life-cycles is important here. For example, only sago plants about to flower are cut for food; the starch is at its greatest concentration at this stage and hence more economic to extract. Selection of trees for canoe-building is based on size, girth, length and straightness of bole, and only mature trees will be cut. Sometimes only plants growing in particular habitats can be used. With some fibre plants (Debregeasia), only those growing in most shady conditions are suitable for fibre extraction, and only mature plants will be used” (Powell 1982).
Ethnobotanist Randolph Thaman, of the University of the South Pacific, observes that “the use of plants, particularly wild plants, is so clouded in antiquity and so intimately associated with cultural origins, ethnobotanical research can shed considerable light on the origin and virtue of pre-European contact among Pacific Island societies and their scientific heritages.”
Extensive research on the use of, impact on, and plants that sophisticated horticultural and maritime societies must have brought with them or used upon their arrival in the islands, is required. The need to investigate traditional medicine for its economic potential, medicinal value, and functional relationship to human society and the natural world is called for: “Because of the ecological and cultural importance of coastal plants their impoverishment and the loss of ethnobotanical knowledge constitute an ecological, economical, and cultural disaster,” says Thaman (1994).
Thaman suggested that practical immediate activities such as coastal reforestation and protection of coastal vegetation, coupled with rejuvenation of traditional ethnobotanical knowledge, could be among the most direct, cost effective, self-help orientated, and culturally sensitive strategies for addressing both the short and long term obstacles to sustainable development.
The tragedy in Papua New Guinea is that many communities want developmental projects such a rubber plantations, logging operations, mining, oil, and gass extraction, but have not sat down and considered the harm to their cultures and biolinguistic diversity these developmental activities will bring about. Even the government and international companies ignore the unreversable damages these projects will bring about in future.
Current developmental perspectives in PNG need to take into account the effect various kinds of development have on our people and communities.