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Upgrading settlements: A better solution than bulldozers & guns

8 Mile  Port Moresby (Sean Davey)
Squatter house at Eight Mile settlement, Port Moresby (Sean Davey)

BUSA JEREMIAH WENOGO | PNG Informal Economist

PORT MORESBY - Life in a typical Papua New Guinean settlement is probably better than the favelas of Brazil but is no place for the faint-hearted.

For many years, settlements in Port Moresby and other urban centres have been a safe haven for the unemployed, labourers and poor although they have very rundown living conditions and are deprived of clean drinking water, sewerage and power.

Settlements are also known for providing refuge to criminals and their illicit activities and are a hotbed for tribal and ethnic clashes.

Yet for many years little constructive action has been undertaken by the government to rectify this situation other than resorting to eviction, which has been criticised as inhumane.

Now, however, the National Capital District Commission (NCDC) in Port Moresby is embarking on a program to change all that. Under its settlement upgrading strategy, settlements will be connected with essential utilities like water, sewerage and electricity and eventually awarded title to the land.

This move is certainly timely given that shanty settlements are increasingly being replaced by a new class of educated working people. For these people the intervention is a huge relief at a time when the formal housing market is in tatters with rental and housing prices going through the roof.

For many settlers who have been living in the settlements all their lives, the program cannot come soon enough as they see the idea of securing formal title as critical to protecting their families’ well-being and livelihood.

As the influence of modernity seeps in, settlement life is changing. On any given weekend, a bass speaker can be heard forcefully pumping out music accompanied by screams of drunken ecstasy and the sound of beer bottles smashing on the road.

The level of noise at times can be unbearable and insane. Alcohol related fights and domestic violence are a recurring phenomenon. The basic fabric of the family unit is beginning to buckle as prostitution, juvenile crime and under-age drinking are rampant.

The paradox of most PNG settlements is that, although they have become safe havens for social disorder, politicians until recently haven’t had the courage to make the tough decisions required to deal with the problems.

Informal settlements in most urban areas have been exponentially increasing since the 1960s. In cities and major towns such as Port Moresby, Lae and Mt Hagen, the development of informal settlements has been so rapid and pervasive that it has reached a point where urgent action needs to be taken to arrest out-of-control development.

It is estimated that by 2030 one-third of PNG’s population will be living in urban centres with an annual growth rate of 1.6%. In Port Moresby alone it is estimated that almost half of the city’s population already live in the unplanned settlements.

Squatter housing at 4 Mile settlement, Port Moresby
Squatter housing at Four Mile settlement, Port Moresby

This rapid development of settlements is taking its toll on government services. Public transportation is unable to keep pace with growing demand and confrontations between the authorities and the public over the use of public space are becoming more frequent. Without a clear strategy the government finds itself in a dilemma.

Perhaps to better understand the enormity of the challenge confronting NCDC in tackling the settlement issue in Port Moresby, one needs to pay a visit to one of the several timber yards or hardware stores.

The busy informal housing market has seen a boom in demand for hardware and timber, and the outlets are teeming with people and trucks (mostly hired) standing by to load timber and building materials. 

The intended locations (mostly on the outskirts of Port Moresby) have no formal titles or address and are devoid of utilities such as sewerage, water and electricity. The dusty roads leading into them are infested with potholes and are susceptible to flooding.

Yet dotted across these once vast areas of undeveloped land are high covenant city houses. These new settlements - Bush Wara, Farea, ATS, Taurama, 14 Mile and Manuti are just some of them – have emerged in the last five years or so.

And what makes them stand out from the older settlements such as Sabama, Morata, Erima, 6 Mile and so on is the impressive list of tenants. Apart from the educated working class there are prominent business people, senior government bureaucrats and even politicians who have built houses in these places.

This new development may sound absurd but it reflects the mess that is the formal housing market in Papua New Guinea.

Several years ago the Independent Consumer and Competition Commission (ICCC) reviewed the situation and urgently recommended the government regulate the housing industry so Papua New Guineans could afford decent homes.

To this day the report has not been tabled in parliament. When Peter O’Neill became the country’s prime minister the government introduced a housing scheme for the public servants. But the project has stalled although there have been efforts to kick start it.

To get a sense of the enormity of the problem plaguing the formal housing market, a portion of government land in a major urban area such as Port Moresby can command a market value ranging from K300,000 to over K1 million. Land with a house connected to essential utilities can cost from K500,000 to K5 million.

What this means is that it is much cheaper to buy undeveloped state-owned land or customary land. The situation is now so dire that buyers are willing to invest in setting up homes on state-owned land knowing full well the consequences that awaits if the government decides to develop the land for some other purpose.

The debris-ridden but otherwise bare landscape of Paga Hill overlooking Ela Beach is a constant reminder of the fate that awaits many urban settlers. Yet the frontier between settlements and government or customary land keeps expanding with more land taken up by settlers.

It seems just a matter of time before there is destruction and dislocation. The settlers are bound to be the ones who will suffer the most; perhaps ultimately losing their homes, however modest.

Unlike the long established settlements of Port Moresby, the new settlements are mostly on land said to be customarily owned by local landowners (although the government contests that).

In a break from the past, traditional landowners on the fringe of Port Moresby are selling their land to take advantage of growing demand. The government has made attempts to develop a win-win solution with the introduction of the Taurama Urbanisation Pilot Project however it was short-lived due to corruption.

Overall, government reforms in the area of customary land registration is lagging and, as a result, these informal arrangements between landowners and buyers are often susceptible to confrontation and disagreements.

In the competitive hardware and timberyard industries, household names like Steamships, Badili and Carpenters have gradually been replaced by the Asian owned and operated Leon, Sunshine and Ideal hardware operations.

Most of the logs sawn into timber and sold in these places are sourced locally but there are concerns that some of these new outlets are offering sub-standard building materials that compromise quality.

Squatters_at_Rubbish_Tip_in_Port_Moresby
Squatters at rubbish tip settlement in Port Moresby

Furthermore, there seems to be little control in the way prices are set leading to speculation about price collusion. This is an area the government needs to address through enforcing appropriate standards.

Under its new UN Urban Agenda 3 the United Nation has called on governments to ensure urban development is sustainable by linking urbanisation to overall development. Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights further stipulates that everybody has the right to property.

However, in developing countries such as PNG these rights are often ignored or trampled by governments. Hopefully in Port Moresby this will change once NCDC implements its long-awaited settlement upgrading strategy.

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