By Martyn Namorong
The phrase “landowner issues” is a misnomer and gives the wrong impression that Papua New Guineas traditional land owners are somehow a deterrent to progress. Next week I travel to the Lower Ramu region to see for myself the land of a rainforest tribe of New Guinea being taken from them without proper consent.
Papua New Guineas customary land ownership is legally recognized in Papua New Guinea. It is generally estimated that around 97% of the land in PNG is under customary ownership. Some people find this an impediment to progress. However, a recent land grab has led to over 11% or 4.2 million hectares of PNG’s total land mass being acquired under dubious Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs).
The case of SABLs highlights the real motives of those who view customary land tenure as an obstacle to development. It seems that such individuals and institutions greedily envy the land owned by indigenous Melanesian tribes. They dominate discussions on land reform and are well placed to influence government policy.
The fact is that many indigenous tribes are actually open to discussions on land use for development. The problem is that those who wish to have access to the land are intent on exploitation not developments. Many local tribes are frustrated when exploiters who dress up as developers, hoodwink them into extracting resources from their land while they see very little development.
Whether intentionally or not, public servants and politicians mislead customary landowners in order to facilitate the entry of foreign corporations into customary land. Many communities are thus divided. Some members buy into the lies or are actually bought off to side with the exploiters while others are skeptical and oppose the exploitation.
After 36 years of independence, it’s obvious that none of the resource extraction projects has meaningfully contributed to the well being of Papua New Guineans. The Panguna mine on Bougainville brought death and massive environmental damages. The Ok Tedi mine in the Western province has raped the Fly River. Recently, the Pogera Mine has uprooted locals from nearby land. At Misima, dead fish continue to greet villagers. Logging operations have not changed the lives of landowners for the better.
Papua New Guinea has Fisheries, Forestry, Mining, Petroleum, Oil Palm and various other economic activities but has very little to show. Customary land owners around the country have given up their land to facilitate these activities yet many remain frustrated by the lack of progress.
Clearly the people of Papua New Guinea are being robbed by State Actors and the exploiters. I wish to encourage Papua New Guineans to stop calling any of these exploiters ‘developers’. They’re not developers but thieves who just want to rip you off your birthright. They call themselves developers but there is no development in the areas they operate.
Instead, many communities suffer from Police brutality because the police force has been bought off. There are massive environmental catastrophes created by these exploiters and made legal by the Environment Act.
In this Land of the Unexpected, the only thing that has been Consistent is the Absence of Justice. My people have not seen justice since independence in 1975. There has been a consistency of corrupt politicians and public servants not being held to account. There has been a consistency of commercial interests not being held to account. Money rules above justice in this land. There is no justice in Papua New Guinea …period!
And yet, so called development specialists still preach about grabbing more land from customary landowners. Those who have given up their land are now spectators in urban ghettos or slaves in oil palm plantations, tuna canneries, logging camps, etc… The real face of progress is the poverty that prevails in communities that have lost their land.
The fact that needs to be emphasized is that there is not justice in a land where money has blinded the guardians of justice. It is not just the State but the landowner leaders who fall for the scraps thrown to them by the exploiters. People who have never seen so much money can easily become whores. For me the most striking example has been the village court magistrate of Mindre village in Madang Province, whom I saw running errands for the Chinese community liaison officer of RAMU Nico. Magistrate Dubam shamelessly dressed in a blue RAMU Nico uniform.
It’s not surprising therefore that some so called leaders don’t mind seeing mine waste being dumped into the waterways and seas. It isn’t surprising that laws can be amended to suit vested interests. Why? Because there has never been justice in this land since independence… never! If justice really did exist in PNG, we would be fully enjoying the fruits of this rich land.
What’s happening to all the money from, Forestry, Fisheries, Mining, etc…? To start with, are we really getting what we’re supposed to be getting from these projects? Do we really know how much of each is exported and whether it’s bought at fair value? How do we manage the income we receive? All these are questions of governance… of justice!
I know as I’m writing this that across my country, my people are being deceived with empty promises of developers. Exploiters call themselves developers and buy off support. Communities are divided and divided communities cannot fight for what is rightfully theirs. Meanwhile, greedy vultures swarm around talking about landowners and land issues as if the customary landowner was an obstacle to development.
The evidence all around shows that customary land ownership is our last line of defense against destruction of our cultural, spiritual and natural heritage. Sadly, it seems that every man has a price.