Who are the Huli people?
With an estimated 400,000 people, the indigenous Huli tribe is the largest ethnic group in the Southern Highlands region of Papua New Guinea. They have lived high in the central mountains for at least over a thousand years, with some scholars speculating that they have lived there for over twenty-five thousand years.
Anthropologists throughout the 20th century have been researching the Huli people due to their remarkable isolation from modern society. They had minimal to no contact with the outside world until the 1940s, when air travel made the inland regions of Papua New Guinea more accessible to visitors. As a result, they primarily speak their own tribal language Huli with some also speaking the more common language Tok Pisin.
Their society is agricultural and organized through clans (hamigini) and subclans (hamigini emene). Subclans are autonomous, as they can choose to participate in war or aspects of the local economy without approval from the larger clan. Relatives like aunts and uncles are still called “mother and father”, with the extended family playing a large role in Huli culture. For the most part, Huli tribesman practice polygamy.
A Look into Huli Tradition: Wigmaking
One of the most predominant customs of the Huli people is wig making. At Huli celebratory festivals called sing-sings, tribesmen with painted bodies wear wigs made from their own hair and with bundles of feathers from birds of paradise.
Making the wigs is a complicated and esteemed act in Huli society. Not everyone can participate in the making of the wigs; rather, they are made by a small clan known as the Huli Wigmen. They attend wig schools and live together isolated from the rest of the community.
position: perched on one elbow with their necks resting on a wooden log.
Threats to the Huli Tribe: Deforestation
Modernization and specific threats from the outside world, including widespread deforestation, have already had strong effects on the Huli community since their discovery in 1940.
In 2014, a $15 billion Papua New Guinea Liquified Natural Gas (PNG LNG) project formed by a subidiary of Exxon-Mobil, the Esso Highlands, began to extract natural gas from the highlands and homes of the Huli people. The gas is then transported via pipeline to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, and sent to foreign markets in Asia. After this initial extraction, Esso Highlands plans on developing more infrastructure such as roads, processing facilities, and airports to bring the gas to market on a large scale.
The company’s extraction of natural gas has had huge deleterious influences on the community. They purchase land cheaply from the Huli clansmen, who are largely illiterate, by luring them with false promises of shares of profit and new land. Officials from Exxon-Mobil never delivered complete information regarding the full impacts of development.
In addition to economic manipulation, the environmental effects of the project have also eroded the Huli way of life. Their traditional practices rely closely on their local rainforest--they obtain food by hunting and gathering with over 50 different rainforest products. Papua New Guinea as a whole contains over 10% of the world’s vertebrates although only 1% of the earth’s land mass.
Right now, deforestation is slowly spreading throughout their highland region, with reports that the Huli men themselves are choosing to log the forest in order to sell the products to encroaching road construction companies from Australia and New Zealand. The populations of the birds of paradise, which are used by the Huli in their wig making, have been rapidly depleting.
The government of Papua New Guinea has attempted to curb the destruction of traditional Huli culture by forming a commission--the Hela Transitional Authority--to watch over the rural communities. However, the indigenous people of the area have complained that the government has failed to encourage the sharing of economic benefits and the slowing of environment degradation.
Ultimately, after twenty-five thousand years of isolation, the Huli people since the 1940s have slowly been falling prey to modern influences, and in recent years, especially to the encroachment of large foreign energy and construction companies.