Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Lihir Islands: a Cultural Heritage/Resource Planning Model?

The latest issue (18:1, 2011) of the International Journal of Cultural Property (Cambridge University Press) contains a number of thought-provoking papers. One that should be of special interest to those involved in environmental impact assessment (EIA) and cultural resource management (CRM) is "Stepping Stones Across the Lihir Islands: Developing Cultural Heritage Management in the Context of a Gold-Mining Operation," by Nicholas Bainton, Chris Ballard, Kirsty Gillespie, and Nicholas Hall (pp. 81-110].

The Lihir Islands are in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Bainton and his colleagues provide a concise summary of how cultural heritage/resource management law and practice have developed in PNG in the post-colonial period, including their hopeful if rather tenuous relationship to national development schemes and the interests of extractive industries like gold mining. They then discuss their own experience with a particularly tricky relationship -- that between the traditional people of the gold-rich Lihir Islands and the mining company Lihir Gold Ltd. (LGL) At the center of this uneasy relationship is Ailaya, a cultural landscape of considerable spiritual significance to the Lihirians, around which mining has taken place and within which there are economic incentives to mine (i.e. there's gold in that thar landscape). The evident conflict between mining and preservation of the landscape has not been resolved, but the Lihirians and Stepwise Heritage and Tourism, the Australian company that engaged Bainton and his colleagues and drew financial backing from LGL, have taken significant-seeming steps toward creating a context in which to address this and other development/culture conflicts by developing the Lihir Cultural Heritage Plan, whose pidgin name translates as “A Plan for Social Stability and Harmony on Lihir.” The authors' discussion of how this plan was developed in active collaboration with (really BY) Lihirian communities is fascinating, and may provide something of a model that – with much adaptation – could be useful elsewhere. It was interesting to me that the Lihir initiative employed the popular Australian "footsteps" approach to planning, which I've seen referred to and described but never until now could quite get into my head. Bainton and his colleagues show how "footsteps" works, and it seems very sensible. It will be interesting to see how successful the Plan is at resolving the seemingly inevitable conflict between mining and the sanctity of Ailaya, but one of the Plan's heartening aspects is that it does not (apparently) focus on the sacred landscape in its own right, for its own sake, as we would tend to do if it were in the U.S. and treated as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.  Rather, as I understand it from this article, the Plan truly focuses on social stability and harmony on Lihir.  In this broad context, management of Ailaya will inevitably play an important role, but not necessarily a determinative one, and not in isolation from the rest of what Lihirians value in their culture.

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