April Funerals
A colonial hand that rested but lightly upon the people

The steadily ticking time bomb of poverty & deprivation

Pilipolo Oko and some family watch as their village is levelled to make way for the Porgera minePHIL FITZPATRICK

THERE is a largely invisible class of people that have been developing in Papua New Guinea for some time now – the people without land.

Most of them are not only without land, they are also poverty stricken and deprived.

It began a long time ago. In pre-independence times it developed mostly in places like the Gazelle Peninsula on New Britain and around the larger towns like Port Moresby, Lae and Mount Hagen.

The causes are multiple, ranging from over population, urban spread, exploitative resource development and migration.

Provinces like Simbu began experiencing land pressures before independence. There were simply too many Simbus for the available land. The land that was available was jealously guarded by clans who had no desire to make it available for use by traditional enemies.

On the Gazelle Peninsula, the burgeoning Tolai people were under stress and running out of land too. In their case, the cause was over population exacerbated by the vast areas of traditional land which had been taken up for plantations, most notably by the Catholic Church.

The Australian administration’s response at the time was to resettle people in other districts (now provinces). To do this they bought surplus land in areas with low populations and set up resettlement schemes with plantations for products like oil palm and rubber. This is when the great highlands exodus began in earnest.

The drift to urban areas made many people landless when their former clan land was swallowed up to accommodate the needs of a growing town population. The biggest impact was in Port Moresby on the Motu and Koiari people, but by the 1990s immigrants to Mount Hagen and Lae had lost their land and had nowhere to go back to.

Resource development, especially mining, also made many people landless but the biggest impact by far has come from logging, particularly that carried out under Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs).

In most cases, but especially with SABLs, the people losing their land receive little or no compensation. What they get is miserly and nowhere near enough for them to re-establish their lives elsewhere. In many cases there is no ‘elsewhere’ anyway. And too often, unscrupulous wantoks make off with most of the proceeds.

Migration had emerged as a problem before independence. People saw the commerce and the bright lights of the towns and wanted to be part of it. When their dreams were not realised they stayed on in settlements just hoping things would get better.

The urban areas didn’t get better, they got worse, but these people had children and those children had children and soon the link to the home villages and clans was broken permanently and they had nowhere to go. In their villages the land they might have inherited had gone to other people and they had been forgotten. As far as their home villages were concerned, they had ceased to exist.

If they weren’t there already, these deprived people - with no land, no prospects and no income - tended to drift to the fringes of the towns.

They still do, and in increasing numbers. On top of that they are reproducing at an alarming rate, very often outside marriage. Single women with dependent children are now a significant demographic in most towns. Increasingly, as traditional norms break down, it is the case in rural areas too.

The landless people of Papua New Guinea are a ticking time bomb.

Their options are severely limited. To get by, they often become involved in crime. Good people have become thieves simply to survive. And this is what they teach their children.

A few struggle above the pack, mostly by preying on their fellow citizens. They become big time criminals and join the elite as bona fide big men.

It is a strange irony that the poor steal from the poor; but it happens everywhere. The rich also steal from the poor in more sophisticated ways. Everyone steals from the poor.

The poor people steal, go hungry and resort to alcohol and drugs to dull their pain. The latter makes them even more prone to exploitation.

It is not a story unique to Papua New Guinea. It happens in most third world countries, especially Africa, and it happens in advanced western economies too.

The poor and landless are the people who will eventually rise up in revolution (if we take other revolutions as case studies, led by middle class dissidents).

They will reach a point where they have nothing to lose and, even if they fail, as is often the case, they will at least gain the satisfaction of destroying many of those people who have exploited them.

A sensible government would look after its poor and landless but where can you find a sensible government in these greedy times? The very term has become an oxymoron.

For Australia, which has its own problems of inequality, the time bomb is sitting on its doorstep, just 10 kilometres away at low tide. But for some reason the Australian government can’t see it.

Neither can the Papua New Guinean government, and it sitting right on top.

Why are governments so stupid? Why do they persist in allowing the development of the things that will eventually develop the potential to destroy them?


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Michael Dom

It is not that we should expect politicians to be 'right' or damn them when we consider them 'wrong'.

Rather we should expect them to make decisions and take action based on good conscience and reasoning, with honesty and transparency, at all times having the best intentions for their people.

That is the nobility of political leadership.

The disgrace of political leadership is when this 'right path' is not followed.

Let's quit pretending that this path is impossible to follow.

Challenging, sure.

But if it is too difficult for most politicians to follow the right path it is because they are corrupt in their heart, mind and soul.

They damn themselves.

Daniel Kumbon

The photograph is of the Philipolo Oko family from Porgera in Enga Province.

I took the shot as they stood watching as bulldozers levelled their village - Painadak which fell within the Special Mining Lease (SML) area to pave way for the giant Porgera gold mine.

The Philipolo family, including his three wives and many children, were relocated to a new site along with several other families.

I recorded what Philipolo Oko had to say at the time in my just released new book 'I can see my country clearly now' available from Amazon.com

Garry Roche

I would see the massive increase in population as a major factor in what Phil Fitzpatrick calls “a ticking time bomb”.

Perhaps more accurately it is the failure to respond to the increase in population that is the major problem. The problem is more obvious in urban areas.

The single man who came to the city or town with the Department of Works forty or fifty years ago now has children and grandchildren.

In many cases these children and grandchildren have lost their traditional land rights back where their father came from.

I know of cases of retired policemen or retired warders who came back to their own native place only to find that while there might be a house for them, there was no garden land that they could use.

Those who have use of gardening land and those who have access to fishing, - these at least have the possibility of putting some food on the table for their families. Those crowded into urban settlements have to survive by other means.

As Phil has mentioned, in some places where there is genuine shortage of land, church owned plantations may be part of the problem.

Some Catholic dioceses, (e.g., Mt. Hagen) have surrendered part of their land back to the government and in turn some of the original owners have succeeded in getting a new lease on the land. Perhaps more could be done.

We thank Fr Roche for his continuing contributions and trust he has a wonderful homecoming and holiday in the Emerald Isle - KJ

Paul Oates

Phil asks 'Why are governments so stupid?'

Governments are made up of people and it is a well known fact that the more people who become involved in making a government decision, the more complex it becomes. Trying to please everyone ends up pleasing no one.

Political leaders are not chosen on their ability to govern. They are first 'selected' or chosen in Australia by a handful of loyal party supporters at the electorate level. Usually that ensures that the successful candidate is the one who can convince the supporters that he or she can then get elected at the next election.

Often these people have experience in waffling. Lawyers are usually good at saying a lot and wasting time so that they can get paid by the hour. That isn't anything like providing practical experience in governing. So is there any wonder we end up with politicians that constantly sprout hyperbole but can't manage their way out of a paper bag.

In PNG, the selection paradigm is slightly different but the results are much the same. Politicians quickly become adept at constantly issuing motherhood statements and populist press releases that aren't worth the paper they are printed on.

Now there was a different situation years ago when I first joined government service that senior public servants were theoretically selected due to experience (read seniority) and possible merit. Merit then took over and for a short time, the executive was promoting those with the skills necessary to do the job and with experience on what needed to be done.

Then came the inevitable clash with the elected politicians who having started to believe their own ideas and 'thought bubbles', found that any public servant who disagreed with them could be got rid of.

Can anyone see a picture emerging here?

Couple that syndrome with the inevitable isolation that politicians and political appointees then get as they demonstrably cannot spend enough time at the coal face to know what's going on and have to depend on those public servants who are selected on their ability to agree with the political leader in order to keep their job. It becomes a case of 'The blind leading the blind'.

Now where would you find a political leader who will admit they made a mistake? Where can you find a political leader who will make definitive statements that might subsequently then turn out to be wrong?

I remember a senior senator once telling me once that he lived in constant fear of making any statement to which he might then be held accountable. No one can always be right every time yet we somehow think our political leaders are different.

So our politicians have become acutely conscious of the latest opinion polls. But those polls only give a snapshot of public opinion at any one time. What those responding to a pollster's queries can't possibly know is how to run a country. Nor will they be fully briefed on the plethora of information they might need to make an informed decision. Mostly it depends on how they feel about what affects them at the time.

This is how we allow our nation to be governed. Is it any surprise that we seem to be blindly stumbling and lurching from one disaster to another?

Examples abound in the world where the scenario Phil presents are constantly being acted out.

The rub is that Kiaps were part on a system that did work, albeit not every time and mistakes were made. Yet that simplistic system did work and was transparent in how it worked. Clearly that kind of system was an anathema to any political leader and politically appointee. Perhaps they just can't see what they don't understand? How do you tell someone about a problem that they are part of and when think they know what to do? After all, there is now no common benchmark to judge the effectiveness of a government is there? It's all in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps Phil is right about PNG possibly needing a benevolent dictator. Yet power corrupts etc...

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