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PORT MORESBY - Over the last month or so, a number of settlements in Port Moresby had their residents evicted in quick succession.

The saga started late last year with the eviction of ATS Portion 695 and Garden Hill Settlement followed this year with the eviction of Erima Settlement.

Makeshift shelters now provide refuge to thousands of displaced settlers as they scramble to get their lives back to normal.

Bush Wara Settlement now faces a similar fate as settlers battle it out with Nambawan Superannuation Fund over their future.

Other settlements, like the ones adjacent to Port Moresby’s Jackson’s International Terminal, may also face a similar scenario if nothing is done to address their plight.

All these stories point to a shocking future for settlements in the city.

Over the years the discourse around settlements has been fiery yet has not yielded any concrete action on the part of the government.

The National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) has promised settlers that their identified settlements will be converted into suburbs through a ’settlement upgrading project’.

However the pace at which the project is moving is a concern.

A household survey was carried out in 2018 and since then things have slowed and settlers are still waiting for the promise to be fulfilled.

As we head into a general election mid-year, this and other ambitious (and sometimes unrealistic) policies will be peddled intensively by candidates in an effort to win votes.

At the national level, prime minister James Marape, responding to a query from the Member for Moresby North East, revealed that the “government is now looking at a permanent solution to address settlement in the city.

“A taskforce headed by the Minister for Housing and Urbanisation and Member for Moresby South have been set-up to look into converting settlement properties into titled properties for those who can fully justify their living in cities and towns.

Marape has also instructed the Ministry of Lands to halt all evictions until the displaced settlers are properly relocated.

He said the permanent solution will take its cue from the National Capital District settlement upgrading strategy where the aim will be to covert settlements into formal residential properties with proper titles.

However, it is unclear when this will take place as no timeframe was given.

Wenogo - Bivouacs
Nowhere to call home - bivouacs providing temporary shelter for evicted settlers

Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether the government will maintain its stance after the election. A possible change of government and priorities may reverse these decisions.

The prime minister’s announcement is welcome to settlement dwellers, but there was a condition.

Marape warned them not to bring “nails, saw and hammer onto state land as the government will not hesitate to send them back to their province”.

This epitomises the challenge successive governments face in addressing the settlement issue: how to strike a balance between formally approving existing settlements and discouraging the emergence of new settlements.

It is hoped that that the ‘permanent solution’ the prime minister alluded to will put in place a national policy framework to tackle the settlement issue.

There are a number of reasons why a national policy framework is important.

First, the settlement issue is not confined only to Port Moresby but affects all major urban centres.

That said, lessons learnt from Port Moresby can provide the basis for other urban authorities to tackle their own settlement problems.

Also, according to projections in the National Urbanisation Policy, urbanisation will accelerate in PNG as more people migrate to towns and cities in search of opportunities and a better lifestyle.

This means that managing settlement issues will require a sustained effort from the government and other stakeholders.

Successive governments have failed to take concrete measures to rein in uncontrolled rental and housing prices. There is also a failure to provide low-cost housing for citizens.

This has left large numbers of people with no choice but to settle on undeveloped land, risky as this is.

They are in breach of the law but the government is just as blameworthy for this mess its own negligence has created.

Finally, the national strategy or policy I mentioned is required to guide governments in tackling the issue.

This essentially means a move away from dealing with settlement issues ad hoc as at present.

A responsible government should not be driving its citizens into destitution.

A national strategy must also take into account the interests of local landowners given their increasingly important role in the development of towns and cities.

It is no secret that the government is running out of land and will become heavily reliant on traditional landowners if towns and cities are to expand.

As PNG contemplates these matters, we should seek the guidance of our forefathers as expressed in the national constitution.

Wenogo - Destroyed house
A settler's house is destroyed

In this context, the fifth goal of the National Goals and Directives Principles urges us to “achieve development primarily through the use of Papua New Guinean forms of social, political and economic organisation”.

Perhaps it is counselling us not to rely too much on outsiders to find solutions to our settlement problem.

Instead, we should look at our own social rules and norms to find the permanent answers that the prime minister and the nation are searching for.

Busa Jeremiah Wenogo is a development economist who writes on issues related to the informal economy, settlements, small-medium enterprise and financial inclusion in Papua New Guinea


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