MARTYN NAMORONG | Supported by the Chalapi Pomat Writing Fellowship
AN UNDERSTANDING OF Papua New Guinean gift logic may help understand the basis of demands made across the nation.
Of course, Papua New Guinea is a modern interpretation of diverse and complex cultural groupings. However, there are some common recurring themes found in this diversity.
The absence of a capitalist money based economy in the past led to the development of a gift-logic and what some refer to as a “moral economy” similar to that of the Australian Aboriginal people.
Anthropologists have divided these diverse groups into two broad social categories: Big-Men and Great-Men.
I am currently researching for a book on the traditional food of the people of Western Province. In documenting this traditional knowledge, there is the underlying recognition in local communities that traditional food sources provide food security.
As I was reading material on my own people of the South Fly, I came across the significance of yam exchange for the Torassi people of the Morehead District.
The importance of yams as a source of prestige and social recognition is not unique to the Torassi but widespread throughout the Trans-Fly savannah region.
My own Bituri people previously practiced similar yam exchanges or competitive displays of yams in order to shame and coerce opponents in a leadership struggle.
These yam exchanges, and the sister exchanges, have defined the value systems of many communities in the South Fly.
These like-for-like exchanges define Great-Men societies as opposed to Big-Men societies where human life can be exchanged for goods as in bride price and compensation payments.
Some anthropologists believe that Big-Men societies would be more adaptable to the modern capitalist economy than Great-Men societies.
For me, this proposition presents an interesting model for understanding why most communities near the giant Ok Tedi mine haven’t capitalised on the economic benefits of mining compared to farmers in the Western Highlands.
Hundreds of millions of kina have been paid directly to mine-affected communities along the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers with very little being done by the villagers to improve their own lives.
I heard hundreds of community leaders speak during the negotiations on Mine Life Extension.
A thought dawned on me that what happens in Waigani could be best explained if we observe what happens in the village.
In the end, whether we progress or not is dependent on how we are able to convert natural resource wealth into improvements in socio-economic outcomes.
Understanding cultural narratives and how they define exchange values may help us avoid the cultural baggage that impedes progress.
It is important to appreciate the significance of the exchange values of traditional societies and how the logic behind those values hinders (e.g., unreasonable demands for compensation) or facilitates positive development outcomes.
Understanding the cultural narratives and gift-logic of different societies may explain why some societies like the Western Highlanders, Tolais and Bougainvilleans seem to thrive in this modern economy compared to the rest of PNG.