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The two types of PNG landowner: the legitimate & the fake

Assembling logs in the Baram valleyFELIX BARAKA

PAPUA New Guinea is among the few nations in the world where ordinary people by virtue of birth can claim to secure access land.

Land in PNG directly supports about 80% of the population, the vast majority of whom live in rural areas.

It is impossible to imagine how PNG could provide for its rural population if villagers had no land. People's attachment to the land is intimately tied to their notions of independence, identity and security.

When the state intrudes on land to exploit natural resources in the name of greater national self-sufficiency, and therefore greater national independence, village people may see it as a new form of colonisation.

The problems created by such activities can be conducted in two ways.

Legitimate landholders try to negotiate for sufficient returns when they lease land on which the natural resources are found to the state or to foreign developers, who are frequently seen as part of the same entity.

As landholders, they feel secure when they are still in possession and in control of their land. But when they realise control has been relinquished, or the returns are not what they expected, or the secondary effects of these development projects disturb their livelihood (e.g., the pollution of vital streams and rivers caused by mining), they find their basic security threatened.

Subsequent resistance to such state sanctioned initiatives is often fierce.

On the other hand, there are individuals who call themselves landowners and who seek opportunities to exploit their relatives and fellow citizens. They appear as middlemen, promising to such bring development to the villages but instead seek to profit personally to the detriment of their own people.

It is a sad paradox that national independence has for some citizens of PNG come to suggest increasing intrusions on traditional notions of independence.


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Robin Lillicrapp

And while ever PNG leaders pursue development along complex 21st century methodology, increasing sectors of traditional society are marginalised and disenfranchised from both input and benefit.

Food security should be a priority for PNG. The villages and the ocean are the rootstock of production. Palm oil is a rather inedible product derived at the expense of arable lands that should be earmarked for edible crops for local benefit then followed by export of surplus.

I'd love to hear from the Kiaps and businessmen of yore, and today, of their recipes for protecting the fundamentals of rural life and development.

Elvis Dennis

In PNG, land is associated with cultural, social, economical and political power and many of you might have that concept as well or otherwise.

And indeed, PNG land is very rich, blessed and endowed with bountiful resources. Besides, PNG is known for its heterogeneous cultures, and has been term as one of the least discovered countries in the world.

It also can’t give in easily to foreign invasion before and after independence in 1975.

In terms of development, natural resources on PNG soil can be a driving factor especially, if these contribute to the wealth of the country, just like in the case of oil-rich countries.

But the logic is, such naturally resourceful owned countries must be the countries that are naturally wealthy and they can use their resources to control the actions of other countries that rely on their resources.

However, in PNG despite, all that we have the opposite happens, just similar to the oil rich nations, so the question is why poverty soars in some of these oil rich countries including us in PNG?

Maybe one reason is there still exists a lack of human resources capacity, because human resources drive the economy. I am saying this because, the world’s super-powers often have the best (I mean very best) workforces that fuel the economy and give the country its economic advantage.

I think PNG needs to bolster and strengthen human resources capacity building in whatever costs it takes.

Given PNG’s enormous and vast natural resources one thing for sure is, its seems like the resources is sought-after by the industrialized countries, so basically the country’s lack of good workforce is a factor that prevents it from attaining change and development directly to the citizen of the country.

At the heart of the PNG’s Vision 2050 strategic direction program are Better Service Delivery, Wealth Creation and Human Development which are to be directly delivered to the people of the country.

But if the citizens don’t experience all that is promised, then how can the majority of the country’s citizens, including local people and traditional land owners, continue to trust the government's commitment and those multinational company’s who are upon PNG soil to lobby and levy the government and corrupt leaders with their economic might?

From experience, time and again few citizens are able to realize that. Because these people are of lower socio-economic and educational background, they are unable to articulate their arguments the way their critics do.

So they do not put out media statements or appear on television to defend their dignity.

On the other hand, it means the action of approaching the challenge entirely depends upon individual provinces of PNG towards what the PNG government and the multinational foreign company’s have been doing since the last decades.

Otherwise, most citizens are still paralysed with deception for decades and some of them are already getting old and others have perhaps died, while those living are still being deceived by giving up their land and birth right to foreign companies as we can see today, and in return they (citizens) are well fed with bones.

An example is the NBPOL Company. The company is grabbing all the land, as well as it’s increasing or encouraging the monoculture farming system and diversifying its economic base, but the farmers are still living the subsistence farming life style since the inception of oil palm projects 3-4 decades ago in the three leading oil palm provinces of Papua New Guinea.

Oh! What is the promising future of a subsistence farmer, just to produce eat, live and die without surplus?

Maybe another factor is our attitude. If our attitude comes in conflict with the development principles and ethics, then the attitude problem will be one of a failure to build a modern multicultural society and a sense of communal existence as well.

Societies that exist today have deep roots in culture, so because in PNG we have a heterogeneous cultures to some extent it’s difficult to build a communities that will define a new modern society.

We all are stuck in our social enclaves. I think the attitude problem emerges from the kind of cultures, norms and belief systems that have been passed down through genealogy.

For example, looking at some of our country’s schools and leading institutions, it is said that schools are placed to develop new mindsets. However educators perpetuate the cultural baggage.

Instead of deliberately encouraging cross-cultural interaction, students are tagged and boxed into traditional cultural groupings during so called cultural shows.

And whatever it is or we think of it, it’s within us. Therefore; our failure to take more proactive, alert and conscientious control of our social behaviour as individuals and as groups is a reflection of our intricate cultures.

If attitudes change then this change will be a precondition for real change elsewhere.

Taking another example, recently there was an agricultural wheat project in PNG piloted by the PR China and PNG government in the Enga Province.

The wheat project was introduced a year ago and worth millions of kina and a wheat factory was erected successfully.

Actually wheat is not a PNG staple crop; the truth is wheat is a cereal crop and nutritionally rich with a high protein content compared to other cereal crops.

In fact, among the other agricultural food crops, cereal crops feed over 60% of the world’s population and wheat holds the dominant position compared to rice and corn.

Certainly, there are many successful research studies associated with wheat production and improvement strategies conducted by the leading wheat growing countries.

Therefore, I believe this crop has a promising future and potential to feed PNG’s population in the coming decades and mitigate or tackle food security problems, which are remarkably multiple in nature and experience across the width and breathe of our nation.

But the disappointing result is that the project was tragically burn down due to ethnic clashes, tribal fights, land issues and so forth.

Some opportunists, either deliberately or to capitalize upon the situation in some way, torched the wheat factory leaving everything devastated.

Well, in some instances, under certain circumstances and reasons, they might be right by their conscience and they knew the consequences of their action.

On the other hand, maybe a few ignorant and irresponsible people who can’t simply trust the government commitment did that for their own end to gratify the elements of their minds.

Presently, in PNG it seems like there are no modern communities in our towns and cities. What we have are enclaves of tribal or neo-tribal groupings. There is little person-to-person interaction outside of one’s personally defined social zone.

There is a failure to coexist in a modern society and so by default, people live as if they are still in their traditional tribal territories. Any nations around the world either developed or attaining development stages has its deep root in its culture.

In PNG, no matter how much we strive to attain change, it has to do with the root of our cultures.

Due to the complexity of our cultures blended into the western capitalist system thus far in PNG the version of development we hold is a peripheral version of the western capitalist features.

Felix Baraka

Most welcome John. It is a persisting phenomenon, and that is the bigger challenge, to educate our vast uneducated majority of the detriments effects when letting the people's power (land) to foreigners.

That increasingly is the challenge and opportunity for the government, to look into the structural changes that are sustain and stabilize peoples livelihood and government power to govern without exploitation by the foreigners.

For example, the government creating partnership with the people encourage investment, (SME as a way forward) for people to move into business, cultivating their own resources.

John Kaupa Kamasua

Thank you Felix. It is very obvious that the landowners are pursuing a highly unsustainable development model.

When all the resources are depleted, then what? That is the question and they need to be better educated.

God save PNG!

Chris Overland

Land ownership has always been a perplexing issue in PNG.

Traditionally, land boundaries tended to shift around a bit, mostly according to the outcome of tribal fighting. Basically, if you could pinch a bit of the neighbouring clan's land and defend it, then it became yours.

As I understand it, different people within a clan had different sorts of rights in relation to gardening and hunting. Some neighbouring groups may have been able to negotiate certain rights as well, such as the right to transit across the land or even hunt on it in some circumstances.

Consequently, when called upon to try to resolve a land dispute peacefully, kiaps often had to try to prepare quite elaborate genealogical charts in an effort to map out who had what sort of rights in relation to a given piece of land.

It was rare indeed to find a single person who exercised ownership rights in the sense that Australians understand that concept.

It was almost invariably the case that the land was subject to collective control and that changes or extensions to rights in relation to that land were always the subject of internal negotiation and bickering.

So, Albert Schram is right to be concerned about self appointed "land owners" who purport to be the appointed agents of their fellow clansmen in deciding how land will be used.

While working in PNG I certainly saw how a "Big Man' could influence clan decisions about land, but I never saw this done outside of the context of a group discussion about what was to be done.

I came to understand that land is not a commodity in PNG. Rather, it lay at the very heart of individual and group survival and so became inordinately important in everyone's life.

The colonial administration zealously sought to protect Papua New Guineans from carpet baggers and land grabbers by imposing major restrictions upon who could acquire access to land and how it was used.

Clearly, as the Panguna debacle demonstrated all too clearly, sometimes the desire to promote "development" led to the traditional rights of the ownership group being trampled upon.

It would seem that, despite the bitter lessons of Bougainville, it is still the case that "development" all too often is pursued at the cost of the rights and needs of the traditional land owners.

Felix Baraka

Yes, Albert, such an entangled issue, which is different from the western view.

In western society, when people own a business, owners make the decision and ascertain their livelihood.

In PNG, land is the way forward. But as you weigh the PNG concept of livelihood in a modern cash economy, I would say it is challenging and risky to move collective ownership to private individual ownership.

This is a high ownership mountain to climb.

If PNG Government could encourage local-state partnerships, in which the government could invest and take full control of monitoring, this might be a way forward.

Albert Schram

Apart from vague definition of the landowner in PNG, there is another fundamental issue with communal landownership.

In absence of private landownership, a regular banking sector can not develop.

In capitalist economies land is used as a collateral for bank loans, which in part provide finance for productive capital.

Capitalism without capital is not a realistic expectation.

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