Review of ‘The Gidra’ by Toshio Kawabe

THE GIDRA: Bow-hunting and Sago Life in the Tropical Forest. By Toshio Kawabe. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, Kyoto: Kyoto University Press; Portland: International Specialized Book Services [distributor], 2014. xxviii, 268 pp. (Photos, tables, figures.) US$89.95, cloth. ISBN 978-1-920901-18-9.

This handsome book has been in gestation for some time, Professor Kawabe having first gone to the Wipim area of Papua New Guinea where the Gidra people live in 1980. These people and their hunter-gatherer-cultivator lifestyle are well known from the work, published from the early 1980s, of Ryutaro Ohtsuka and Tsuguyoshi Suzuki among others, as well as from Kawabe’s earlier publications.

The Gidra
The Gidra

By contrast, I doubt very much if many Papua New Guineans have ever heard of any of it. I took Ohtsuka’s Oriomo Papuans (1983) with me on fieldwork among the lagoonal people on the Middle Fly in 2014 and the book drew a blank among my companions, who were otherwise well-qualified field staff from the same province.

This is a pity because Papua New Guinean students appear universally convinced that research has ‘never been done’ in their own areas, despite the fact that French, or German, or Swiss, or American teams of researchers have been coming and going for decades, and sending the next generation of students after themselves. Sadly, some lecturers perpetuate this falsehood, becoming complicit in an indigenised ‘Land that Time Forgot’ narrative, which is an awful pity given the richness of the findings of these highly collaborative, long-term research programmes.

Such is the case with the research of Prof. Kawabe and his colleagues and students who have lived and worked among the Gidra, just inland of Daru in the Western Province doing fieldwork in 1980-81, 1986, 1989, 1997 and 2003. The present book is an attempt to understand the traditional life and subsistence techniques of the Gidra as a representative of peoples around the world who live in and rely on the various kinds of tropical rainforest for their livelihoods. The Foreword draws attention to the recognition of the importance of rainforests at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and sites the relevance of the research programme in that context. It is ironic that Prof. Kawabe should mention this, because part of the Western Province’s ‘Special Support Grant’ for 1990, a K3.1 million giant cheque presented at the Tabubil basketball courts in 1990 to help compensate the province for the Ok Tedi copper mine, was diverted away from rural development in order to send a delegation of the province’s custom and political leaders to Rio. How the delegation’s attendance furthered the cause of people in the province living a traditional lifestyle is unclear: in the foreword to his government’s National Assessment Report for the Rio+10 summit, the PNG prime minister spoke of the country’s ‘minimal performance’ in implementing the Rio Agenda.

In this context, the author’s work helps to raise the profile of one group of rural Papua New Guineans to show the complexity of the forest way of life. ‘Gidra’ itself means ‘forest people’ in the neighbouring Kiwai language, he says.

The author has his background a bit muddled up: we haven’t heard much of ‘the Papuans and the Melanesians’ (p. 13) since the time of Sidney Ray and Charles Seligman and it is odd to say that prehistoric migration from Asia started ‘more than 5000 years ago’ – I will assume this is a typo for ‘more than 50,000 years ago’.

It is a little concerning is that the first part of the book is taken up with anthropometry. Here headings take on an early 1900s look: ‘Visual acuity as a sensory function’, p. 50 (cf. Seligmann ‘The vision of natives of British New Guinea’ 1903!). What’s it all for? I guess it is to examine whether forest people are physically limited as they go about their daily life. We have long known that they are not, but I don’t mind this being confirmed (as long as the Gidra didn’t mind being measured multiple times – hats off to them for being super patient).

A time-and-motion approach is taken to the study of hunting and subsistence activities. A breakdown of what villagers eat was obtained by following what was eaten in six households in Rual, one of the thirteen Gidra villages, for a fortnight. Few researchers have done this – it would be a difficult task in a ‘modernised’ village where people travel about on buses, snack all day long from roadside stalls, and generally do things away from the ethnographer’s gaze – but there is in Western Province today a pressing need for such data.

The villages of the Fly River are impacted by wastes from the Ok Tedi mine, such that sago production in some parts of the lagoonal country has dropped to negligible levels. Large amounts of money have been spent on environmental studies over the 30 years of mine production, but the village-level effort put into finding out what mine waste has done to village subsistence production has been almost non-existent. I have heard a company-aligned expert say that ‘we are unsure as to whether sago existed in large enough quantities to support the existing [population of X] in the past’. Prof. Kawabe, at least, has knocked this one on the head for Rual, which is not affected by mine wastes. Sago was eaten at 76 (98.7%) of 77 main meals observed; it made up 54% of the daily kCal intake of an adult man (average weight 54kg), with 27% coming from bananas, taro and yam. Wild plants and purchased food made up most of the rest. Hunting (2.3% of kCal) and fishing (1.3% of kCal) made up a small part of the energy intake but a quarter of the protein. When people say they eat sago, they eat sago, QED.

Minor quibble: Kawabe gets his planes mixed up. The ‘eight-seat Fokker’ in Photo 1.1 and the ‘Cessna plane’ in Photo 1.7 are both Britten-Norman Islanders.

John Burton
Divine Word University, Madang, Papua New Guinea

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