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Guy Jackson is looking at camera with mountainous terrain in the background.

Guy Jackson

Guest researcher

Guy Jackson is looking at camera with mountainous terrain in the background.

The influence of emergency food aid on the causal disaster vulnerability of remote Indigenous food systems : A case study of the Bedamuni of Western Province, Papua New Guinea


  • Guy Jackson

Summary, in English

Disasters are the result of a vulnerable socioecological system interacting with a hazard. Causal – or the root causes of – vulnerability relates to historical and contemporary social, economic, political, cultural, and biophysical processes and factors, and human and institutional actors that increase the susceptibility of socioecological systems. Indigenous cultures throughout Papua New Guinea survived and flourished over millennia despite recurrent exposure to hazards such as El Niño-caused droughts and frosts, earthquakes, and flooding, which indicates high resilience. However, over the last century these same hazards are leading to reports of widespread hunger and the distribution of emergency food aid. The distribution of emergency food aid feeds into an existing narrative that Indigenous cultures’ food systems are, and have always been, vulnerable to disasters. However, the survival of these cultures over thousands of years suggests otherwise. It is therefore critical to explore whether the causal disaster vulnerability of Indigenous food systems is increasing over time and what processes and factors are, or are not, driving this vulnerability. In addition to identifying the wider historical and contemporary drivers of disaster vulnerability, this thesis aims to explore how emergency food aid influences the causal disaster vulnerability of Indigenous food systems. This is achieved through a case study of the extremely remote Bedamuni of Western Province, Papua New Guinea. Fieldwork took place over three months in mid-2018 within 25 Bedamuni villages. I used a variety of established (e.g., ethnographic observation and notetaking, interviews) and novel (e.g., 31 ‘longhouse stories’ lasting 1-3h) qualitative data gathering methods with the assistance of local research assistants. Despite limited interaction with colonial government patrols in the 1940s and 1950s, first sustained contact with the Australian Territory of Papua and New Guinea occurred in 1962. As such, many elders who were young men and women at first contact contributed to this research. Emergency food aid was first distributed after the 1997 El Niño and has been distributed after two major events since then. This case study provides an opportunity to empirically explore the influences of colonisation, missionisation, capitalism, and emergency food aid on the causal disaster vulnerability of the Bedamuni food system. The thesis first develops and justifies the core concepts utilised throughout. This includes conceptualising food systems as a form of socioecological system, developing a framework to understand the causal disaster vulnerability of Indigenous food systems, and demonstrating how emergency food aid can be considered as a potential driver of vulnerability. Drivers, including but beyond emergency food aid, are taken to be any exogenous or endogenous processes which intentionally or unintentionally durably alter food system activities and outcomes. Before turning to the Bedamuni case study, the multidisciplinary literature is reviewed to identify the changing contours of vulnerability in remote Papua New Guinea food systems from pre-history through to the modern day. The drivers associated with, for example, prehistorical migrations and agricultural development, colonial ‘law and order’, Christianity, and capitalism are shown to be instrumental to understanding the contemporary disaster vulnerability of remote food systems. Drawing from the fieldwork explored in detail in Chapter 3, the thesis investigates changes to the Bedamuni food system from first Western contact to mid-2018. From this analysis I show there have been significant changes to population, land use and settlement patterns, agricultural practices, and political economy (e.g., social relations, power, property). Colonial contact and the establishment of an Evangelical mission in 1968 are found to be the major initial drivers of changes that continue to influence current sustainability and food security concerns. The thesis couples the socioecological conceptualisation of food systems with disaster vulnerability expressed as a function of exposure (temporal and spatial), susceptibility (as historical, socio-human, psychological, economic, environmental, physical, cultural, and governance dimensions), livelihood resilience (as knowledge, power and participation, capabilities, assets, and social capital), and absorptive, adaptive, and transformational capacities. By implementing this framework, it is demonstrated that the main drivers of vulnerability relate to historical, social, economic, environmental, and psychological dimensions of susceptibility and declining adaptive capacity. Taken together with high exposure to El Niño droughts (e.g., 1971/2, 1982/3, 1997, 2015/16) and earthquakes (e.g., 1954, 2018), disaster vulnerability is concerningly high and participants suggest is increasing. Therefore, some entry points to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience in Indigenous food systems are outlined. The development and empirical testing of a nomothetic framework was a major outcome of this thesis. Emergency food aid, while a lesser driver compared to, for example, colonisation and capitalist political economy, has nonetheless affected several key determinants of vulnerability. These include exacerbating already declining self-efficacy traced to colonial and missionary led narratives of helplessness and a transition away from Indigenous knowledge and practice. Additionally, through encouraging increasingly unsustainable food system practices, emergency food aid was also found to undermine the motivation for urgently needed incremental and transformational changes to address escalating disaster vulnerability. The identified socioecological consequences of emergency food aid lead me to argue for a renewed critique of its distribution in remote Indigenous contexts. Overall, the exploration of the causes and consequences of change in the Bedamuni food system showed that much contemporary vulnerability can be traced back to colonial and missionary contact. The framework developed and implemented to understand the causal disaster vulnerability of Indigenous food systems proved highly effective at looking beyond outcomes and identifying root causes of vulnerability, which are multi-scalar historical, social, economic, political, cultural, and biophysical processes and factors. The overarching finding was that emergency food aid, which is now universally expected among the Bedamuni, was found to be influencing and exacerbating the causal disaster vulnerability of the food system through further undermining their collective capacities and by encouraging a socioecological trajectory that is proving increasingly unsustainable.

Publishing year




Document type



  • Earth and Related Environmental Sciences
  • Food Science


  • Food aid
  • disaster
  • vulnerability
  • food system
  • Socioecological
  • Indigenous
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Bedamuni




  • Karen E. McNamara
  • Bradd Witt