No refuge from capitalism


Review by Bernie Wunsch

Throwim Way Leg: An Adventure
By Tim Flannery
Text Publishing, 1998 — 320 pp., $24.95

Review By Bernie Wunsch

"In New Guinea Pidgin, 'throwim way leg' means to go on a journey — to thrust out your leg for the first step of what can be a long march." Thus begins this tale of several journeys through the remote regions of Papua New Guinea and West Papua.

Tim Flannery's book covers the rare mountain ecosystems, the indigenous people, the political and social conditions and the impact of capitalism on this island. It is a very readable account of his scientific missions to document both the flora and fauna of the region and the impact of "development" on the people.

Flannery is a principal research scientist at the Australian Museum, with expertise in palaeontology, mammalogy and conservation. His ability to comprehend and describe the relationship between humans and the environment has added volumes to our understanding.

In Throwim Way Leg, Flannery also begins to explore the political environment imposed on the people of PNG and Indonesian-annexed West Papua. What emerges is the fact that nowhere, not even the highlands of PNG, is disconnected from capitalism's quest to exploit natural resources for profit.

Throwim Way Leg covers Flannery's 15 expeditions from 1981 to the present. Along the way he discovers the world's largest rat, the world's largest fruit bat, four species of tree kangaroo and many other species.

He describes living in remote villages, climbing mountains, surviving tropical diseases such as malaria and typhoid, and gradually piecing together a picture of the island and its people.

New Guinea has been cut off from other continents for millions of years and, like Australia, has many unique and diverse ecosystems. These range from the mountain glacier which is closest to the tropics of any in the world, through dense rainforests to the drier coastal lowlands. Sometimes moving, sometimes clinical and sometimes comical, Flannery gives us a taste of the amazing environment of this island.

As the book unfolds, Flannery describes the many rich cultures in PNG. "While New Guinea is still one of the world's last frontiers, its human history is venerable. People have lived there for at least 45,000 years ...

"Despite half a century of colonial rule, it was only in 1935 that Australian gold prospectors stumbled across the 750,000 people living in the central highlands — by far the largest concentration of people on the island, some of whom live at the greatest rural population density on the planet."

Flannery gives some insight into the economy, language and history of the people, and the impact on their cultural traditions of the colonial administrations of the past and their contemporary rulers in Australia and Indonesia.

New environmental discoveries for Europeans are revealed as longstanding systems of understanding for the indigenous people. Flannery's empathy and respect for the mountains' tribal people is an important aspect of the book.

He describes how the imposition of Christianity, and later western commodities, has changed the people. He also explains that mining operations, such as Ok Tedi in central PNG, have extracted resources and destroyed the environment with little benefit for the indigenous people.

On his expeditions in West Papua, always under the watchful eye of the Indonesian regime, he documents the role of the military and the growing resistance of the Aumungme people. Beginning from confessed naivete about the Indonesian rule of West Papua, Flannery comes to understand, and express sympathy for, the indigenous people's resistance and the armed uprising of the Free Papua Movement.

Throwim Way Leg's conversational style makes it accessible to everyone, even those without much scientific background. It covers ecology, anthropology, history and contemporary social issues in a witty and incisive way, without too much technical terminology.

The environmental and social justice message that emerges is important: the environment and the people cannot survive under the current system of exploitation. Throwim Way Leg is an important addition to our arsenal against capitalism.

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