The Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium on Traditional Environmental Knowledge (report)

Summary report of the Inaugural Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium held at the University of Goroka (PNG) from 31 October to 2 November 2012 by Assoc. Prof. Colin Filer.

Photo: Symposium participants enter the Mark Solon Auditorium at the University of Goroka, PNG.

The Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium was named in honour of one of PNG’s first internationally recognized indigenous knowledge experts, who was born in a mountainous corner of Madang Province around 1948, before his Kalam people had any contact with the Australian colonial administration.  In collaboration with anthropologist Ralph Bulmer and linguist Andrew Pawley, Saem wrote two books and several articles documenting the traditional environmental knowledge of the Kalam people, for which he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of PNG in 1989.

The symposium organised in his honour was largely funded by The Christensen Fund, with additional support from the University of Goroka, the Australian National University and the University of Aberdeen.  The basic aim of the symposium was to enhance the capacity of universities in PNG to train students in the appreciation and documentation of traditional environmental knowledge, engage them in deeper processes of interaction with the local holders of such knowledge, and involve them in wider processes of bio-cultural education, expression, and revitalization.

Photo: Professor Andrew Pawley surrounded by Asaro Mudmen as he prepares to give the keynote presentation at the Symposium.

The symposium was attended by roughly 100 people with an interest in this subject, including the Director of PNG’s National Museum, staff and students from five of PNG’s six universities, staff from a number of conservation organisations active in PNG, and a number of local village experts who have followed Saem Majnep’s example by working in partnership with outsiders to document traditional environmental knowledge. Prof. Andrew Pawley gave the keynote address ‘How Saem became an ethnobiologist and writer: on the collaboration of Ian Saem Majnep and Ralph Bulmer’. Many of the papers (see the program) and discussion that ensued was taken up with:

  • a review of what has so far been achieved in the documentation and dissemination of traditional environmental knowledge in and from PNG, with particular focus on partnerships between scientific and local experts, and on the relationship between research and education; and
  • a review of new technologies for documentation and dissemination of traditional environmental knowledge at local, national and international scales, with appropriate recognition of issues involving intellectual property rights.

In light of these discussions, plans are now underway to develop a set of web-based resources to facilitate the documentation and dissemination of traditional environmental knowledge through systems of formal and informal education in PNG.

For further information on the progress of these plans, contact

[Note: Immediately following this symposium there was a launch of two related books at Divine Word University (DWU) in Madang. The first, a collaboration between Ian Saem Majnep and Ralph Bulmer, Animals the Ancestors Hunted, the second, A Dictionary of Kalam (with ethnographic notes) by Andrew Pawley and Ralph Bulmer (assisted by John Kias, Simon Peter Gi and Ian Saem Majnep and published by Pacific Linguistics, ANU).

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