ADELAIDE – The Australian colonial administration in Papua New Guinea understood right from the outset of its rule that the concept of individual ownership of land didn't apply.
In part, this was based upon the British colonial experience elsewhere in the Pacific, like Fiji, where land was also a communally held and managed asset.
The Administration, as it was known, therefore pursued a policy of tightly controlling how land issues were managed and, in particular, demonstrated a strong general bias against acquiring land.
Given that a feature of the late European colonial era was the rapacious and violent seizure by colonists of traditional lands, it puzzled me that the Pacific colonies tended to be treated differently.
Possibly, it was because the Pacific fell under imperial rule relatively late in the piece and thus its early colonial administrators were much more enlightened in their outlook than their predecessors in other parts of the world.
Another reason that occurs to me is that Pacific nations are in the tropics and, for Europeans, were a hotbed of various lethal diseases, notably malaria. But the same might be said for Africa.
Of course, the hair-raising tales popularised in the late 19th century of cannibal warriors rampaging through steamy and largely impenetrable jungle may also have discouraged mass migration to such far flung and remote places.
Or maybe it was simply because opportunities for fame and fortune offered by places like Africa, Asia, the USA, Canada, Australia and South America ensured that the bulk of European migration simply by passed the small and economically insignificant Pacific nations.
Anyway, whatever the reasons, their combined effect was to spare most of the Pacific nations from the very worst excesses of European colonialism, including the expropriation of land.
It is thus a heavy irony that, Papua New Guinea’s national government seems hell bent on undermining, if not destroying, the colonial legacy of generally seeking to protect the interests of traditional land holders ahead of outsiders intent upon the commercial exploitation of the land.
European imperialism cops plenty of criticism, and so it should. But in the case of land in PNG, the colonial administrators mostly got it right.
There were glaring exceptions like the Panguna mine on Bougainville, but even there (as Bill Brown has vividly recounted) the administrators and officials ‘on the ground’ sought to advise and warn against what remote bureaucrats were determined to do.