PNGDF chief: Care for our people & country
How to give women a say in PNG governance

Old Melanesia offers lessons to a grim future

When they say ‘gold is a resource’, then anything in and around it is useless. The people living on the land above the gold, anything else in the ground and down the rivers are seen as a nuisance


| Presentation at the Lowy Institute

SYDNEY - Papua New Guineans are proud and resilient people. We come from a bloodline of some of the most ingenious and innovative people.

Our ancestors sailed the oceans before others did. Our ancestors invented agriculture! Let that sink in.

We are also, together with other Melanesians, the experts on sustainable development.

But how do we move into the future to progress. Let me take us on a reflection of resource management.

We Melanesians never appropriated ‘resources’ as a term to describe what we need to use to accumulate wealth.

Correction. We never accumulated wealth but ensured everyone had enough to thrive.

Therein lies a problem.

Outsiders who think within the realm of Capitalism and other fringe theories, use the word ‘resources’ to refer to lives, things and some abstract concepts so that they can exploit its value to accumulate personal wealth and personal wealth only.

When they say ‘human resources’, they only focus on the productivity they can get from a person to benefit them – the personhood and humanity of this person is useless to them.

In Melanesia, we work together as family or through some form of relationship (connected in so many ways) in order to thrive.

We do not use each other to accumulate wealth but we work together to build clans, communities.

When they say ‘gold is a resource’, then anything in and around it is useless.

The people living on the land above the gold, anything else in the ground and down the rivers, which are polluted while extracting the gold, are seen as a nuisance.

The people had to be kept quiet as not to interrupt their plans to extract the gold from our lands.

To keep the stewards of the land quiet and compliant to their wishes, they even have a name for the strategy: community affairs or stakeholder management.

This fragmented and reductionist paradigm is why we are facing a climate catastrophe today.

The worst is yet to come.

Today, these outsiders are back on our doorsteps, driven by their greed, wanting to trade paper money for our carbon stored in our forests.

They see carbon as a resource and everything else as useless.

The outsiders need to stop and look at lands and cultures which illustrate all or significant portions of mementos of the living memory of our ancestors who arrived on these lands 50 000 years ago.

They need to see the evidence of sustainable development through intact natural ecosystems, this evidence of the past.

Melanesians are blessed, because we can be able to boast with pride about our lands and cultural practices which have continued to sustain a balance of life for thousands of years.

Our ways hold keys, solutions for the increasing climate change and financial issues the world faces today.

With thanks to Barbara Short


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Stephen and Daniel - I stand corrected.

It appears that the solution to many of PNG's problems, including its footloose youth, is staring everyone, bar the politicians, in the face.

What needs to be done now, as Stephen suggests, is scaling it all up to encompass everyone. Build up the export infrastructure and make the trade deals.

The first step, I guess is diverting the politicians attention from flogging off PNG's timber and minerals, dragging their noses out of the trough, and making them work for the country's benefit, not theirs.

How to do that?

Elect good people.

Paul Oates

There's an old expression that seems to fit this situation: 'Be reasonable! See it my way!'

To be on the outside, looking in, it's easy to come up with solutions when you don't have to cope with the confines of what everyday life throws at you.

Some of us that have lived in PNG have some idea of what the problems are and with every good intention, try to suggest practical alternatives to what we see as the problems. The real issue is that with human history having now been effectively recorded for many centuries, the problems should be well known and the list of suitable and effective solutions must therefore be available to choose form.

So why do the problems keep reoccurring? The same reason that they occur in the first place. Human nature.

If you look at the issues confronting the human race today, by far the biggest is greed. The only alternative to the greedy destroying the lives of those around them is to have a set of rules or laws that are fairly enacted and fairly and impartially enforced.

If one looks at when that has indeed happened, the results speak for themselves.

How do you install such a regime? Ah! That's the question.

Civilizations throughout history have been wrestling with just that issue. People power has often been quoted as the way ahead but even 'People Power' must have leadership and a common and agreed to direction to follow.

That brings us back to the age old question: What comes first? The chicken or the egg?

Nations throughout the world are imploding and suffering from poor leadership and an effective plan of what to do.

PNG needs a leader who can lead the nation foreword to the benefit of the majority. Where and when that leader comes from and who will follow then is the real question.

Australia has suffered from poor and misguided leadership but at least seems to be able to run elections that can and have got rid of poor leaders. Can PNG do the same?

Daniel Kumbon

Stephen is right. Men do involve in cash crop production in the highlands.

If one flies over Western Highlands today, you will see fields and fields of cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, pineapples, sweet potatoes etc etc..

And if you walk into a supermarket or go the open markets in Port Moresby, you will see bags and bags of produce transported in from the highlands. Even strawberries from Enga province are on sale here.

Highlands men are producing them, packing them, lifting them up with the bare hands onto trucks to take them down to Lae to ship them here to Port Moresby.

It is markets people look for. Enga started exporting strawberries to Singapore but I know tribal warfare is destroying the industry.

Western Highlands men are working hard. They stopped tribal warfare along time ago. They are helping their women produce cash crops. That’s why you see a lot of healthy Western Highlanders. They make money through hard work to better their lives.

Just recently, UN Head of Delegation to PNG, His Excellency Jerej Videtic told people in a remote area in Yanguru-Saussia district in East Sepik to plant more cocoa because countries in Europe like to buy organic cocoa.
The EU is funding projects to maintain abandoned roads, wharfs and airstrips in the Sandaon and East Sepik provinces to encourage more people to engage in cocoa, vanilla and fisheries activities.

That is the kind of encouragement people need.

Our leaders must not hold hands with foreign powers interested only to forever exploit our forest resources, fisheries, gold, oil and gas.

Our government must find markets for our people.

Go to the EU Ambassador’s office in Port Moresby and find out if it is only cocoa European countries want or anything else the rural population of PNG can produce on a large scale?

Stephen Charteris

Hello Phil,

Yes, tending to kau kau gardens is traditionally women’s work. Making money however appeals to men. We see this with coffee which is regarded as a man’s crop.

I am talking about market garden production on a huge scale. As a former Didi Man I was involved in small scale market garden activities in the Southern Highlands. I found to my surprise that both men and women became interested once bags of produce were shipped via Waghi Valley Transport to Lae for sale in the larger town markets.

The money came back through the Mendi branch of then Agriculture Bank for distribution among the growers. The banking chamber filled with men eager to receive their share of the income.

The whole highlands region has some desirable factors going for it. The volcanic soils are generally fertile and with the addition of phosphorus and the odd trace mineral are ideal.

The altitude and proximity to the equator provides a climate conducive to the year round production of food crops that are seasonal in southern latitudes. This presents some comparative advantages.

The proximity of major airstrips at Nadzab, Kagamuga and Mt Bosavi presents some tantalising possibilities re hauling hundreds of tonnes daily to Japan, Singapore, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland.

If airfreight economics don’t pass muster there are still climate controlled containers to Lae and onto major regional centres.

With a burgeoning population and as Micheal points out, subsistence agriculture no longer a viable way to feed the population the time has come to think and act outside the square.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Stephen, I think you'll find that agriculture is mainly women's business and wouldn't appeal to the disaffected and footloose young men.

Stephen Charteris

Michael, you are spot on.

What you highlight is a diabolical conundrum. The status quo is unsatisfactory, and the rising tsunami of social issues have been apparent for the past forty years.

In essence the men you describe need a better reason for living. Something with hope, bride price and purpose all built in and it needs to resonate with disaffected persons throughout the country.

I suspect that only the young men and their leaders can address this. It is going to require visionary leadership and thinking.

Ordinarily leaders should be transfixed on solving these issues but after nearly fifty years, it looks as though it is still someone else’s problem.

Michael, I think this requires people like yourself to take your understanding of the big picture issues to the world stage and look to regional governments for potential solutions.

In this regard the much-vaunted Pacific labour scheme barely scratches the surface. What else is there? Tourism is a non-starter. Extractive industries exacerbate the social problems. The status quo is untenable.

Is it possible that the highlands region could be positioned as an alternative fresh food producer for Australia and the region? Likewise, do the coastal regions have competitive advantages for producing tropical crops? I suspect the answer is yes.

If Californian producers can profitably put grapes on Australian supermarket shelves blind Fred can see that produce grown less than two hours flight time from Australian shores should be profitable as well.

I understand that global suppliers rely upon big scale agriculture to lower unit costs, but PNG producers have some very desirable organic credentials.

Climate change is now negatively impacting profitability for global producers. They have to move laterally to cooler climates or to higher altitudes. Most won’t have the option.

This may well open the door for the PNG highlands to fill the void and present worthwhile opportunity for disaffected and angry young men.

What is missing is the vision and will to seriously explore the options and where viable, set up the marketing, grower, packaging and transport arrangements on the scale needed to make it a reality.

Paul Oates

I think Michael has said it. It's all about balance.

To be equitable to all, a system of wealth distribution must have effective and enforceable checks and balances.

That system must be managed by a transparent and independent authority that is subject to challenge using a common basis in law that is available to all.

Utopia! I here you say. Yet there has been instances where a system very close to this practical paradigm actually worked, in days gone by.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Thanks for telling us like it is Michael.

Chris Overland

Michael Dom has made very good points that reference the particular circumstances in PNG.

That said, it is still the case that a reformed version of capitalism is less likely to generate the feelings of hopelessness, despair and anger that Michael rightly says helps fuel the violence that is being seen in the PNG highlands.

It is a complex problem with no easy answers and, very probably, no completely right answers but this ought not stop us from trying to create fairer, more equitable and more just societies across the globe.

After all, the alternative is to succumb to being our worst selves and, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, the outcomes will be catastrophic.

The current war in the Ukraine should serve to underline this point and the forthcoming war over Taiwan will no doubt reinforce it.

Michael Dom

No. Subsistence farming may not save PNG in the future.

There is too much to unpack in that assumption and I will most likely be dead and gone before my country realizes that inevitable endpoint that I only spy through a poets lense.

Cue the violence raging throughout the most unstable 'resource rich' parts of the country during this election period.

Don't be blind.

The men who are fighting, harming people and destroying property, those men own nothing, are unmarried (doesn't mean they aren't father's), unemployed and may not be otherwise gainfully employed in any other economic or social activity to boot.

They have nothing to lose and everything to gain: to such men fighting and dying in tribal warfare is a preferably way of life than mere subsistence.

When the fighting ends it probably matters very little to them which side wins because they all return to relying on subsistence farming by their women and older folk who bear the burden of feeding their warriors.

And to many women and older folk this task is honorable, a harsh but necessary morally correct action for their communal lifestyle.

The current fighting has less to do with political leadership (i.e., they don't give a fuck about the politics) and everything thing to do with lost hope in any other option to earn a living, own property and participate in their society as a valuable member.

These warriors have less concern with any 'national democratic communalism' or any such restricted capitalism that political gurus may want to cook up, particularly the 'Melanesian democratic models' that some intellectuals bandy may about.

Communalism and capitalism are at constant odds with each other, and rightfully should be in a stable democracy.

We can argue about the immoral outcomes of capitalism with the wisdom of sages but any other form of engagement is not worth contemplating.

What is our moral argument?

If it is that we share resources, then who ensures the resources which are shared equitably? How much is enough? And who withholds the balance?

How do we ensure that everyone is compensated at the level which affords them each recognition of input, social standing and rank/position in village networks?

As anyone who has shared the gris pik will tell you, the portions are not equal.

Chris Overland

Traditional Melanesian culture was organised in ways that were and are totally at odds with the prevailing capitalist economic system.

I would characterise the traditional way of life as being based upon a system of mutual obligation and communalism, whereby each member of a social group both contributed to the common good of the group and, in turn, received benefits from it.

Capitalism is the very antithesis of such a system, being based upon the exploitation of the labour of others to enrich the capitalist class, the latter being those with the most money. It is an inherently unequal and inequitable system.

Its supposed great virtue as stated by Adam Smith in 'Wealth of Nations' (published in 1776) is that by individuals pursuing their own self interest they must necessarily do so by satisfying the interests of others.

Another way of stating this is to say, as many politicians do, that the rising tide of economic growth raises all boats.

As we now all know, the rising tide does not raise all boats but it does allow a few individual multi billionaires to build rocket ships and fire themselves into space.

This is not to say that capitalism as a system is based upon entirely wrong or fraudulent thinking. The problem is that allowing the market to entirely determine the distribution of wealth without the cautious restraining hand of government necessarily means that the economic gap between the winners and losers in the system becomes hugely exaggerated.

Eventually, if the gap grow wide enough, social tensions begin to emerge which, if not mitigated in some way, will necessarily trigger revolutionary change.

This was one of the central insights of Karl Marx as recorded in 'Das Kapital' and reflected in his later writing (with Frederick Engels ) of the Communist Manifesto.

Unhappily, Marx's supposed solution to the inherent problems within capitalism, being the emergence of a dictatorship of the proletariat (essentially the ordinary workers) and the eventual withering away of the state, proved to be just a pipe dream.

The grand communist experiment was a catastrophic failure which cost many millions of lives and did incalculable personal and economic harm to many millions more.

The now defunct communist regimes of Russia and China have metastasised into a form of authoritarian capitalism, where a new class of super wealthy 'oligarchs' have emerged who effectively dominate if not control economic life.

These regimes have reverted to their historic roots, invoking historic imperialist precedents, both real and imagined, to justify the centralisation of power in the hands of an elite few.

This form of social organisation is as far away as it is possible to get from traditional PNG society yet, tragically, it has found its way into modern PNG.

Elements of traditional PNG thinking, especially regarding the pivotal importance of tribal loyalties and the influence of 'big men' have been perverted to enable the emergence of a new indigenous capitalist class who have both accumulated enormous wealth and political power.

This is an unintended and tragic legacy of Australian colonialism which brought with it the capitalist ideas that now dominate the world's economy.

Even more tragically, there seems little likelihood that this process can even be constrained let alone reversed, thus condemning the great majority of Papua New Guineans to lives of poverty and deprivation whilst the few prosper.

The only comfort that may be drawn is from the fact that the subsistence life style that has sustained Papua New Guineans for thousands of years will probably insulate them from the worst impacts of what is and remains a grossly inequitable, unjust and frequently corrupt system.

Bernard Corden

Much of this fascinating article aligns with Adam Nicolson's wonderful latest book entitled " The Sea Is Not Made of Water - Life Between The Tides" and raises critical ecoliterate concepts such as embodiment, personhood, interaffectivity and intercorporeality.

Fritjof Capra is another ecoliterate acolyte who asserts that both physics and metaphysics lead inexorably to the same knowledge:

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