ELVINA P Ogil recently tweeted about whole families living in the doorways of buildings in Port Moresby.
We shake our heads and say, “Why don’t they just go back to their villages? They should have realised by now that the idea of finding the good life in the big towns is just a myth. Surely they are much better off living on their own land as subsistence farmers!”
Unfortunately the sad fact is that many of these people don’t have any land back in their home provinces to go to.
The long-term squatters argue that this is not an option for them either because their clan links were broken long ago. “Besides,” they say, “life in the squatter settlements is not that bad, all things considered. It is these newcomers that are the problem, thank you very much.”
And in that they are probably right. So what is motivating these Johnny-come-latelies to try their luck in the big city?
This is where it gets complex. Many of the newcomers report that they were fringe-dwellers and squatters in their own traditional communities. How can this be so? What about the Melanesian Way? You know, sharing resources and looking after each other?
The newcomers scoff. “You haven’t seen our communities, have you? If you had you’d understand why we are here.”
And they are right. In many places there is no land for them. No place to garden and no place to build a house. You wonder what’s going on. Isn’t the sacredness of PNG land meant for everyone? Apparently it’s not - in many places anyway.
It’s got to do with the incredible population increase going on in PNG. In some places it’s running at close to 4%. In most places it hovers between 3% and 4%. In Australia the rate is significantly less than 1%. In a couple of decades (or less) PNG’s population will overhaul Australia’s.
Consider a small clan in the back blocks of one of the provinces, especially a highland province. For hundreds of years they’ve had enough land to fit everyone in comfortably, sometimes with quite a bit to spare.
When their populations experienced the occasional surge their cultural traditions swung into play to manage it. Complex inter-clan alliances, inter-marriages, marriage restrictions, infanticide and warfare came into play and the temporary bulge was smoothed out so that things settled down again.
Nowadays the cultural controls are all but gone and the old alliances and customs are just buried secrets. The burgeoning numbers in the clans just don’t seem to fit into the space available anymore. When they talk to the larger clans around them that still seem to have adequate land they are laughed at. What to do?
In some places in PNG where land pressures are occurring you can walk around and it looks like there is heaps of land to spare. But when you speak to people you realise that all this land is tied up. It is owned by larger clans that have no intention of giving any away.
In some cases powerful big men control all the land. In other cases it has been taken over by logging companies using shonky SABLs. They have no qualms about chasing people away.
It is not a new problem. It existed prior to independence. In those days some areas like Simbu and the Gazelle Peninsula were already finding it hard to provide land for all their people.
In those days the Australian administration tackled the problem by setting up resettlement schemes. They moved people from areas with high pressure land problems to areas where spare land was plentiful. They bought land for the landless.
Finding areas where useful land is plentiful in PNG is becoming increasingly difficult. People see the number of landless groups growing daily but they don’t want to give up their own land because their own populations are spiralling out of control and they reckon they will need all the land they’ve got very soon too.
So where does this leave PNG? Does it mean that the centuries old sacredness of customary land is getting close to running its course? How are all these landless people going to survive? How are they going to be fed and housed?
Do there need to be measures put in place to control the burgeoning population?
What happens if PNG runs out of doorways where these people can sleep?