PORT MORESBY - The commentary in PNG Attitude by Martyn Namorong, ‘PNG is not Pasifika – we are not so much of the ocean’, needs rebuttal.
Namorong’s critique is not new. Solomon Islands scholar Tarcisius Kabutaulaka made similar observations in relation to Epeli Hau’ofa..
Kabutaulaka states: “We need to recognise that focusing on the ocean as the element that connects us immediately marginalises the millions of people who live inland, in places like the highlands of Papua New Guinea, for whom the ocean has little significance”.
Kabutaulaka concedes however, that Hau’ofa “challenges us to think in ways that empower us, rather than marginalise and weaken us.”
This terrestrial orientation of Papua New Guineans is natural.
Insulated as we are from others by the perceived vastness of our land expanse, Papua New Guinean exceptionalism can restrict a more holistic, and wholesome, knowledge of our Pacific neighbourhood.
I teach PNG students who initially struggle to name the countries and territories on the unlabelled map of the Pacific region. This is not surprising. To their own peril, even citizens of the United States are terrible with geography, given their own misconception of their place in the world.
Why learn and immerse yourself in the knowledge of other places and cultures, when you are the most powerful state in the world, a continent unto yourself?
The first point in Namorong’s commentary states “why I think PNG is not a Pasifika nation is that of how we perceive our physical environment”.
Sure, the ocean is not a common identity marker for thousands of Papua New Guineans. The Bainings of East New Britain or Lelet plateau inhabitants of New Ireland don’t identify much with the ocean, even though they live in island provinces.
But is the Blue Pacific or Pasifika simply about the “physical environment”? Pacific Islanders use metaphors to communicate universal values and ideas.
The Blue Pacific is a metaphor, just like Hau’ofa’s “our sea of islands”. The Blue Pacific must be read together with the Boe Declaration of 2018 to understand the context in which it is used.
The Boe Declaration emphasises environmental and resource security, among other things. Surely, these are concerns Papua New Guineans share. The Blue Pacific represents values that PNG acknowledges in its national development blueprints.
Contrary to how we think of ourselves, PNG is a small state. In international diplomacy, PNG depends on multilateralism. PNG aligns with other small states to be effective. Together, small states are numerically formidable in forums such as the United Nations.
The Blue Pacific celebrates the idea of ‘collective diplomacy’. Collective diplomacy has been effective for small island developing states lobbying with other like-minded states.
Small states in the Pacific have success stories in their lobbying initiatives. PNG has been a partner and a beneficiary in these initiatives.
The high-water mark of collective diplomacy in the Pacific was from 1979-1990. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, and the banning of driftnet fishing of 1989, attest to the ‘power in numbers’ in international diplomacy.
Blue Pacific is a renewed effort in collective diplomacy, especially in light of the current geopolitical rivalry in the Pacific Islands and threats of environmental and resources insecurity.
PNG needs the Pasifika because in collective diplomacy, it is the ‘numbers game’ that matters. PNG does not have any hard power capabilities to compel big states to bend to its will. Hence, it must rely on collective action and the soft power effects of collective diplomacy.
Moreover, in the global community, Pasifika is a flexible term that is used in relation to non-Pacific Islanders. It is contextual and denotes certain levels of affinity, much like ‘wantok’. Fijians don’t speak Tok Pisin. But I run into a Fijian outside of the Pacific and he or she is a wantok, simply by virtue of being a Melanesian.
A Papua New Guinea may not physically identify with the ocean, but the benefit of Pasifika is its expansiveness and inclusivity, just like the physical ocean. That is the whole logic of Hau’ofa’s “world enlargement” thesis.
Namorong also raises a question, “Is PNG's economic future on land or in the ocean like other Pasifika nations?” The simple answer is yes.
Look at the evidence. PNG is the third largest country in the Pacific Islands in terms of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) - behind Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia.
If we are comparing PNG's land mass (462,840 km²) with it is total EEZ (2,402,288 km²), PNG is a maritime state because it has more ocean space, then landmass. Indeed, our participation in multilateral initiatives like the Parties to the Nauru Agreement is testament to the resources of the ocean.
Our national security, commerce, and potentially, economic resources are dependent on the ocean. The Goroka resident, living thousands of kilometres away from the nearest coastline may not identify with the sea.
But it is through unrestricted access to important trade routes on the sea that merchandise produced in Asia or Europe reach the Goroka resident. The ocean is the lifeblood of PNG’s commercial relations with the outside world and a free and open sea is in PNG’s national interest.
In terms of resources, the finite land-based resources that are recklessly being extracted will all be exhausted. Where do we think people will start looking to extract resources?
Nautilus insists on mining the seafloor of the Bismarck because of the intellectual property rights from its extractive technology and scientific knowledge of the seabed. These will be highly demanded in the foreseeable future when resource scarcity on the land becomes apparent.
For all we know, the resource wars of the future may be over tracts of ocean floor rich in rare earth metals and other lucrative resources. In the areas of bio-prospecting, David Kenneth Leary identifies the untapped potential of genetic resources of the deep sea. He concludes, “Increasingly the race to the bottom of the deep sea for new developments in biotechnology is also becoming a race to be the first to the patent office”.
Finally, Namorong asserts “whilst we will feel negative consequences of climate change, these may not erase our nation from the surface of the earth like they might other Pasifika states”.
Sure, PNG may not be erased off the surface of the earth. But parts of PNG’s sovereign space are already facing the prospects of going under water. This will generate its own social and cultural upheavals.
PNG has recorded some of world’s first cases of “climate refugees” (in the Bougainville atolls). Islands such as the Duke of Yorks are also densely populated and the easy way out is emigration.
The dynamics of land ownership and resettlement, as seen in the case of the Manam and Carteret resettlement programs, will come under increasing scrutiny as more low-lying islands of PNG are erased.
Social tensions relating to land resources and cultural assimilation will be the challenge for PNG.
PNG may not be erased off the face of the earth, but that’s no sure comfort at all. Some of its cultures, languages and peoples face extinction as a result of climate change and sea level rise.
Surely the Pasifika can teach us to be modest and frugal.
Patrick Kaiku teaches in the Political Science Department at the University of Papua New Guinea