By Kumbit Aivi
In my last article, I discussed our traditional Papua New Guinean value systems and how they give rise to our notion of wealth and support our sustenance. And I pointed to land as the most important underlying commodity that gives rise to our social and cultural values and our understanding of what constitutes wealth.
So I noted with keen interest the piece that was aired on EMTV’s Tok Piksa program on the night of Monday 15 March. As well as exposing certain areas of apparently substandard works on the slurry pipeline along the Usino-Madang section of the highway by Ramu Nico, the operators of the Ramu nickel mine, the documentary also highlighted a significant issue that strikes at the core of our Papua New Guinean ways. It is about the threat of the loss of their land and ultimately their life by the owners of the land that is soon to become one of the largest mines in our country.
Land is an inalienable right of every Papua New Guinean and is essentially our guarantee to life. Even after so many years of failing to try and be what we are not by adopting the western ways of life, a great majority of our people still depend almost entirely on their land for survival all year around. This important life support system is characterised by two key elements in our own cultural context. Firstly, all lands that are still in the hands of traditional land owners are communally owned by a group of people who identify themselves as belonging to a particular clan. And secondly, each clan has a definite land boundary which had been decided by a long history of often colorful tradition filled with intriguing and elaborate stories of love, hate, warfare and peace.
Thus, while every Papua New Guinean can proudly lay claim to a portion of tribal land in our country, their claim to that piece of land has a definite limit. There are predefined land boundaries in our traditional settings and members of a particular clan must make their livelihoods within the confines of what is generally accepted by other neighboring clans as land that rightfully belongs to that clan. And any encroachment of someone else’s land by another person from a different clan often results in violent and sometimes fatal confrontations. This is because people must protect something that gives them life. It is no wonder that land is affectionately referred to as mama graun in our lingua franca.
So from that perspective and as a Papua New Guinean who also owns traditional land, I just couldn’t imagine what I saw on EMTV’s Tok Piksa program that night. From what I understood of that piece, an entire clan tucked away in the mountains of Krumbukari in the Bundi area of Madang province has been completely forced off their land, and the very land on which a thriving village existed for generations will soon be mined to oblivion.
Interviews with the affected people in this documentary appears to point in the direction that almost the entire inhabitants of this village have been moved to another piece of land, which is considered to be a sacred site, and they will eventually be resettled on another clan’s land in the long term. Therein lies the real dilemma that these people are faced with. You can not simply tell someone to go and resettle on another person’s land because there is sure to be conflict among the landowners and the settlers. One of the two groups, usually the settlers who are seen as the encroachers with no right to the land, must necessarily be extinguished to restore the cultural order that has existed in that locality for time immemorial.
Hence, the important episode in this documentary to me was the resistance by two brothers from that village to ongoing persistence from Ramu Nico and its agents, including the police, for them to pull down their houses and move with the rest of their clansmen to the proposed relocation site situated on land they don’t even own. Anyone who understands how landownership works in this country will tell you that such a move is a recipe for disaster. The brothers appeared to be intensely aware of this and are staying put because a move now is sure to spell the end of their lineage in the long run.
To their credit, Ramu Nico is trying to compensate them for the loss of their land and gardens by supplying food rations, but the mothers in this documentary film couldn’t make it any clearer that this is not enough. Not because they want more rice and tin fish, but because of the fact that you can not bottle an entire way of life and substitute it with something else with the blink of an eye. A non Papua New Guinean can be forgiven for believing that what the developer has been doing so far is fair compensation to allow the inhabitants of the village to resettle and rebuild their lives while their land is being mined. But there is more to land than just a few thousands of kina and a bag of rice and tin fish. To us, land is our mother, the omnipotent and everlasting giver of life. It is simply invaluable. The value of land to us can never be equated to kina, dollar, pound or yuan. I mean I will happily trade the whole of Tutankhamen’s tomb and all its treasures or the whole of Beijing to hold onto my land and dear life.
EMTV and the producers of this documentary deserve to be congratulated for highlighting this important issue to firstly raise awareness on the plight of our people at Krumbukari who are trapped in this vicious cycle of land grab, and secondly for doing great justice to our country by ringing the early warning bells about what could potentially turn out to be another Bougainville.
Finally, if you didn’t feel the loss and the sense of hopelessness that the two old men from that beautiful village at Krumbukari felt, and if you didn’t shed a tear when they broke down and wept, then you wouldn’t understand this piece. In our culture, men don’t always cry that easily.