BY MARTYN NAMORONG
A RECENT PARLIAMENTARY review into mineral resource ownership and management has sparked a debate on transferring ownership from the State to so-called traditional landowners.
Proponents of this shift in ownership include prominent politicians and individuals. Their argument is straightforward: give customary landowners the right to ownership of what is under their land.
For many Papua New Guineans, this seems logical; after all, why should the State have ownership of resources that are under customary land? For millennia, their ancestors have fought to defend those tribal lands and the resources therein. Within their cultural context it seems totally unfair that the State should take away what they regard as their birthright.
The Bougainville crisis that stemmed out of such clash of cultures illustrates the extreme reaction of people towards the State. It is this principle of presumed traditional ownership that plagues the LNG Project in Southern Highlands Province.
The State has not done itself any favours by not effectively articulating this ownership issue and, as a consequence, many illiterate people in remote rural communities still live with the assumption that any gold, copper or oil under their customary land belongs to them.
Many customary landowners in areas where resources are being extracted continue to be frustrated with the realisation that they only get what the State and the developer think is their fair share. To many, it isn’t fair at all.
For the uninitiated, the Constitution of PNG recognises the customary land ownership rights of Papua New Guineans. However various Acts of Parliament covering the management of resources enable the principles of Crown ownership of the British Common Law tradition.
What this means is that, while indigenous communities own their traditional land, the management of certain resources within those customary land holdings are subject to Acts of Parliament which cover forestry, fisheries and mining throughout PNG.
With elections around the corner, many politicians aim to capitalise on this negative public sentiment by making populist comments about resource ownership.
This is a clash of cultures; a battle between the Anglo-Australian colonial view and the traditional Melanesian view of resource ownership. The real issue being drowned out is the question of how national wealth is distributed equitably in a modern democratic state.
This is also a symptom of an identity crisis faced by many Papua New Guineans who still do not identify with the modern state and hold on to their traditional political identity. It is frustrating to them that what they consider their traditional resource should be shared with ‘foreigners’ from distant tribes.
That is not to imply that they are greedy, although some may be, rather the frustration stems from the lack of say they have over how much ‘others’ should receive. That is the Melanesian Way.
The State has not done itself any favours in that its agents have failed miserably in their fiduciary duty to properly manage the natural resources. Forestry and fisheries resources are being over-exploited and mining projects have caused catastrophic environmental damage. This is compounded by the squandering of income from resources, much of it being lost through corruption.
The people have lost faith in the institutions and mechanisms of the State. Instead of serving the interests of the people they are seen to be self-serving and in favour of developers.
However, many communities in resource project areas have also shown how incompetent they are in managing the income they get. These issues were highlighted in the Barnett Inquiry into the forestry sector.
Landowners also incurr huge debts in the name of their mineral payments, such that much income is diverted to servicing those debts. Very little, if anything, of substance is achieved by these groups.
This is the awkward dilemma the nation faces. And at the heart of the issue remains the question of who, which or what is the best and most efficient mechanism for distribution of national wealth? Is it the State or will the customary landowners do a better job? Furthermore, are these natural resources national wealth or customary wealth?
One of the risks associated with the move to change ownership rights is that it places the national government and institutions at the mercy of sub-national governments and local tribal interests.
It also weakens the influence of the national government and further undermines its roles. This is the situation in Afghanistan where a weak central government is at the mercy of powerful regional warlords who control the opium trade.
It is therefore not in anyone’s interest that the national government be dancing to the tune of powerful landlords and governors who control its money supply. The moves to curtail the powers and rights of the national government are driven by selfish regional and local interests and are not it the best interest of the people of PNG.
Having powerful landlords and governors undermines the national government and raises the risk of political instability and secession of regions. The transfer of ownership rights is thus akin to transfer of sovereignty and perhaps like the Sarajevo bullet that killed the Archduke of Austria, a trigger for the Balkanization of Papua New Guinea.