Published on 4th February 2015
Paul Bedggood has one of the world’s greatest offices. It spans from the west coast of Bougainville to the centre of the island, running a course through traditional villages, past World War II relics, via waterfalls, caves and swimming holes.
For the last year, Paul has been volunteering with Bougainville community-based organisation Rotokas Ecotourism (RET), which is using sustainable tourism as a means to build peace and prosperity after the Bougainville civil war at the turn of the century. It is Paul’s second assignment. After he undertook a UniVol assignment in 2013, he decided he wanted to stay on.
“I did my Masters in Peace and Conflict studies (at Otago University), so within development I wanted to work in a post-conflict setting.” Seeing his academic work in practice has been satisfying, Paul says: “We’re giving livelihoods to ex-combatants who, because of the war, haven’t been able to get an education, qualifications and skills. Post-war they haven’t been able to find work. The trekking industry will give them opportunities to become tour guides, provide accommodation for trekkers, and we are going to provide training for them as well.”
Rotokas founders Pedro Uravutu and Junias Repiriri are wantok (family), but found themselves on opposing sides of the conflict when it broke out, shortly after they’d finished high school. This was a common story throughout Bougainville, as families were divided by war. The Rotokas track itself also saw plenty of conflict, as it became a frontline first in WWII, then again during the civil war.
World leaders walked the track in 2011, to celebrate a decade’s peace after the civil war, and it was this interest that sparked the formation of Rotokas Ecotourism. Since then, with support from VSA and the UN Development Programme, they have completed consultations with communities in 21 locations along the track, which Paul says is the other peace-building aspect to the work. “You have to walk through several different clan areas, so for trekking to be successful all the clans have been working together.”
Alongside this consultation, RET has built gender, human rights, equality and the environment into its business model, ensuring sustainable growth, fair treatment for women and workers, and teaching good environmental stewardship to its partner communities. Paul also worked on marketing, starting a Facebook page and website, through which the trek and accommodation can be booked.
In a short period of time, they’ve been able to contribute back to communities: building native plant nurseries, WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) facilities at local schools, ensuring tour operators are paid fairly and directly, with transparent financial dealings.
Paul, who is of Ngāpuhi descent, says New Zealanders have a good reputation in Bougainville, after the role New Zealand paid in brokering peace. Many Bougainville leaders came to the country for talks, staying at Burnham military camp, or on Marae. He says, “I’ve been walking down the street and started talking to people and suddenly they’ll want to give me a hongi, or they might know a New Zealand waiata.”