Papua New Guinea’s mining projects in many ways provide the main context for the nation’s incorporation into a globalized economy. They are the vehicles for cultural modernization and encounters with the institutions of industrialization. But for the communities on whose land these mines are constructed the changes sometimes seem piecemeal and disappointing. The dramatic changes in standards of living never quite fulfill the dreams that people had when they agreed to the mining lease. Traditional authority structures often collapse as new ways of achieving wealth and status are introduced. Cultural traditions — especially those involving specialist esoteric knowledge — and local languages are often casualties to the processes of modernization, improved access to formal education, and incorporation into the cash economy.
Even when the transformations in health, education, and employment appear to be rapid and extreme, there are many local people who feel that they have not benefited in the ways that they envisaged when the mine was initially proposed. The persistence of aspects of their everyday lives in the face of change does ensure, however, that many of their unique traditions and ceremonies continue to thrive and co-exist with new institutions introduced in the context of mining. Improvements in health services and in the health of the affected communities are among the criteria by which social impact is commonly assessed. While local people usually welcome the provision of hospitals and public health programs, the shift to using biomedicine often means that healing traditions are eroded and traditional knowledge lost in the process. This brief case study describes and illustrates the persistence of an ancient healing procedure, cranial trepanation (or kuel pas in the local Lihir language), in the context of major changes in health services in a Papua New Guinea mining community.
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