Monday, April 18, 2011

Joe Leahy's Neighbours: A parable for mordern-day Papua New Guinea


Joe Leahy shot to fame as the star of internationally-acclaimed movies, Joe Leahy’s Neighbours and its sequel Black Harvest, which have also been widely shown on local television.

Joe Leahy manages a smile amidst all his problems.-Pictures by MALUM NALU
Today, at age 72 but still sprightly as ever since the filming of Joe Leahy’s Neighbours and Black Harvest in the 1980s, Leahy is desperately looking for money to revive his rundown Kilma coffee plantation in the Nebilyer Valley of Western Highlands province.

At age 72, and fit as ever, is Joe Leahy in boots, jeans, jacket and hat.
I met him in Goroka, Eastern Highlands, on Tuesday, April 12, when he and other Western Highlands coffee growers had travelled there for the launch of the World Bank-funded coffee project, and we got into a lively conversation.

A perennial coffee farmer…Joe Leahy (fourth from right, backrow) with other Western Highlands coffee growers in Goroka.
If Joe Leahy’s story is a parable for modern-day Papua New Guinea, more so our coffee growers and those living in the highlands, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it.
Having watched both movies several times, unrehearsed documentaries which can make you laugh one moment and drive you to tears the next, I was keen to know how Leahy’s coffee business had prospered since.
Joe Leahy’s Neighbours traces the fortunes of Joe Leahy, the mixed-race son of Australian explorer Michael Leahy, in his uneasy relationship with his tribal neighbors.
He built his coffee plantation on land bought from the Ganiga tribe in the mid 1970s.
European-educated, raised in the highlands, freed by his mixed race from the entanglements of tribal obligation, Leahy leads a Western lifestyle governed by individualism and the pursuit of affluence.
While Leahy may live in Western grandeur, he is still surrounded by his subsistence-level Ganiga "neighbors," who never let him forget the original source of his prosperity.
He spends much of his waking hours just keeping the lid on things.
Australian filmmakers Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson lived for 18 continuous months in 1985 and 1986 on the edge of his plantation, in the "no man's land" between Leahy and the Ganiga.
Their lively, non-judgmental narrative eloquently captures the conflicting values of tribalism and capitalism.
Black Harvest, the final film shot in 1989, charts the progress of Leahy in convincing the Ganiga tribespeople to join him in a coffee-growing venture.
He provides the money and the expertise; they supply the land and labor.
But on the eve of success, world coffee price collapses and tribal warfare erupts in the valley, as the Ganigas team up with the Ulgas to fight the Kulgas.
Always suspect because of his mixed-race status, Leahy is in deep trouble with the tribespeople when his promises of riches fail to materialise.
As he organises to emigrate with his family to Australia, he is a saddened man with an uncertain future.
So much has happened since then, Leahy remaining in his beloved Western Highlands – the Promised Land discovered by his father and uncles in the 1930s and eloquently captured in First Contact – while his Central province wife and children have settled permanently in Australia.
‘The plantation (Kilma), since the movies were shot in the 1980s, has closed, that’s why I’m in Goroka,” Leahy tells me.
“I’ve been trying to get money from the NADP (national agriculture development plan) to revive the plantation; however, all that money has been siphoned elsewhere.
“The plantation has all gone bush.
"I’m still living there.
“I applied for NADP funding but I got nothing, so I’m here to see if the World Bank can help us.
“The government has the ideas in place; however, it is the implementing agencies that are not making it happen
“What I’m doing now is looking for cash to revive the plantation.”
Such was the intensity of the fighting between the Ulgas and the Kulgas in the Nebilyer Valley that it continued unabated, for more than 10 years, claiming countless lives.
"Everything’s been destroyed,” Leahy tells me.
“The infrastructure, everything’s there, and all I need is the money and things will be back again.
“Before the fighting erupted, the plantation was fully operational.
“We borrowed money from the PNGBC (PNG Banking Corporation) and were paying it off.
“Then the fighting broke out and we were in debt with the PNGBC
“I started the plantation in the 1970s.
“In 1975/1976, the plantation was in full production.
“The fighting started in the 1980s and continued for more than 10 years.
“Now is the time to pump money into rural areas so that people can look after themselves.”
After the daylight robbery of the NADP by the infamous “paper farmers” of Waigani, Leahy, and coffee growers in the highlands, see the World Bank project as manna from heaven.
“The World Bank project is a blessing from heaven,” he says.
“The system is there but the people who are there should make it work.
“Bureaucrats live if a dream world.
“They are not looking at reality.”
A look of sadness appears on Leahy’s face as he talks about Kilma plantation, his wife, and seven children, two girls and five boys.
“The plantation’s not operational,” he tells me.
“It’s all bush now.
“Thieves are going there, stealing.
“I just live on the place and do bits and pieces.
“What we need is money and law-and-order.
“My children have all left and are looking after themselves.
“They’re all married and have got kids.
“During the fighting, my wife asked me to leave.
“I said I will never leave this place.
“She’s in Australia with the kids.”
Leahy says the warring tribes now realise the economic development’s they’ve missed out on for all these years because of tribal fighting.
“They accused me of stealing their money and their land,” he adds, forlornly.
“Now they look back and see that they’ve done wrong.
“They’re living a miserable life."


  1. Hello there Malum. I am trying to contact Joe. Would you have an email address, phone number or snail mail address for him please? I am the son of an expat coffee grower who knew Joe, and am doing research into life in the Highlands on a coffee plantation back in the 1960s for a theatre show. Thanks in anticipation,
    Kurt Geyer

  2. Nice to see this interview here...I just have seen the documentaries and.....I was wondering about the current state of the plantation and Joe.

    Congrats for your work!