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It’s time to do something about squatter settlements

Port Moresby squatter settlement
Port Moresby squatter settlement


TUMBY BAY - I saw my first squatter settlement in 1967 in Mount Hagen.

The settlements around Mount Hagen in those days were nothing like the ones that came later.

Unlike their counterparts in the big towns like Port Moresby and Lae, where squatters came from other districts, they were mainly occupied by local landowners. The town was not yet big enough to have created an underclass of dispossessed landowners.

The settlers around Mount Hagen were generally made up of people who had moved in closer to the town to take advantage of its attractions and to sell the vegetables they produced in their nearby gardens.

They were, nevertheless, a hodgepodge of ramshackle buildings constructed with no thought of order.

Most of them occurred in the gullies and on the low rises around the town and were accessed by a mixture of pathways and occasionally wider tracks worn by the increasing number of vehicles owned by local people.

In those days the Toyota Stout was king. It came as a tough and almost unbreakable utility that was used for everything from coffee buying to use as public motor vehicles, known as PMVs, that plied the roads between the town and the outlying hamlets and villages.

The administration was well aware that these nascent settlements would eventually develop into the crowded eyesores that already existed in Port Moresby and Lae and did what it could to discourage them.

Thirty years later I worked with several people from Mount Hagen who had been rendered landless because of the spread of the town.

Their traditional lands had either been sold to commercial developers by unscrupulous clan leaders or enveloped by the settlements built by a mass of outsiders illegally moving into the area.

These landless people were now existing as renters in the squalid settlement areas that had once been their own traditional land.

For income they either worked in the town or in uncertain and tenuous jobs on resource development projects. Beyond that many of them migrated to places like Port Moresby and Lae to join the landless masses there.

Now, as urban dwellers, they make up a significant proportion of Papua New Guinea’s population. Any links they ever had with their traditional origins are well and truly broken. Not only are they landless but they also lack any sort of tangible connection to any kind of traditional heritage or culture.

While nowhere near as big as other shanty towns in the world, the squatter settlements around Lae and Port Moresby look very similar to those in places like Lagos in Nigeria in Africa.

The squatter settlement in Lagos is the biggest in the world. Lagos has a population of 21 million people with about 66%, or 14 million of them, living in squatter settlements. The city has been dubbed the "mega-city of slums,"

Just like Port Moresby and Lae these people live with no access to proper roads, clean water, electricity or waste disposal.

And just like Port Moresby and Lae they are subject to regular and brutal “clearances” by a government eager to use the land for commercial purposes.

There are many millionaires in Lagos, just as there are many millionaires in Port Moresby and Lae and even in Mount Hagen.

As far as I can tell no one has compiled any statistics on how many people now live in squatter settlements around the big towns. However, if we take the statistics from overseas cities, it is entirely possible that well over half of the populations of Papua New Guinea’s towns are squatters.

By any stretch of the imagination that is a colossal problem that will eventually have catastrophic social effects.

Any sensible government would now be undertaking measures to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Unlike Lagos the large towns in Papua New Guinea have tracts of unused and marginal land surrounding them that could be developed and utilised as resettlement areas.

Careful negotiations would have to be carried out with the traditional landowners and money would have to be invested in infrastructure and transport but it is not an impossible thing to do.

Some of the well-established squatter settlements like Kaugere could be re-developed with suitable infrastructure.

Will it happen?

I can’t see it but if it does no doubt it will be plagued by corruption and kickbacks like most things in Papua New Guinea.

Good sense in Papua New Guinea is always trumped by greed.


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Joe Herman

Excellent piece Phil. This is going to get worse unless the housing needs for the urban workforce is addressed. The majority of the workers live in settlements.

The PNG government should look into something like the Singapore government type housing or other models and engage in a large-scale national housing project.

Perhaps partnership with financial institutions like NASFUND PNG, employers, and banks to establish subsidised home loans so the workers can have easy access to purchase their own homes.

Garry Roche

Phil notes correctly the problem of squatter settlements and I would guess that most of the real poverty in PNG is in these settlements. In rural areas people usually at least have access to locally produced food.

Papua New Guinea is in fact one of the least urbanised countries in the world, with only about 13% of its population living in big towns or cities. Why then the increase in squatter settlements?

One reason for an increase in squatter population is that rural born people who get work in the cities often lose contact with their rural roots.

Sometimes they are expected to send money back to assist with funerals, weddings, etc...

Sometimes when they do return to the home place they find the available land has all been divided up among the siblings who remained at home and they will struggle to survive if they retire back home.

Sometimes a retiring public servant may have to leave a government supplied residence in the city and the only option is the squatter settlement.

Sometimes it is the children and grandchildren of the public servants who have to live in these settlements.

If the rural areas are better provided with services such as banking etc., then there may be more incentive to resettle back in the rural areas.

Richard Jones

I saw my first ever dead body at a Moresby squatter settlement, Phil.

It would have been on the outskirts of Kaugere/Kila Kila and it was late 1963-early 1964.

A small boy, about 9 or 10, had been placed lying down on a table. It was the only piece of furniture in the hut.

I think I was there to verify that the lad had, indeed, passed away so that the proper authorities could be contacted.

It was extremely traumatic for me and clearly even more so for the boy's relatives. I can still recall the scene in my mind quite clearly more than half a century on.

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