TUMBY BAY - One of the inherent problems of western-based disciplines like anthropology, sociology, politics and history is that they tend to interpret concepts and practises in terms of their own societies and experiences.
Further than this, they have become the dominant arbiter when it comes to such interpretations. Even non-western practitioners seem to default to western concepts as a matter of course.
And when a serious attempt is made to interpret something in a neutral way, western ideas interfere and inevitably colour the result.
If you add the western proclivity to render as much as possible into black and white rather than hues of grey the result gets even worse.
There is an argument that, because of the academic strength and reach of its canon, a western interpretation is the best way outsiders can understand what happens in non-western societies.
But this argument comes with significant limitations. One is that it becomes unreasonable when it moves beyond observed reality into values and judgements.
Also, this western bias in academic interpretation extends to much broader societal interpretation. Detailing what happens in a non-western situation is fine but judging whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is fraught with problems.
Calling a system, traditionally based on patronage, 'corrupt' is one example. Deciding that people who eat dogs, dolphins and whales are savages is another.
Using western methods of interpretation also has practical implications.
A case in point in the Papua New Guinean context is the use of the term ‘landowner’ rather than something like ‘land user’ or ‘land occupier’.
Ownership is a big deal in the west. Everything has to have an owner. However, in some non-western societies the concept is much looser.
In those societies you don’t have to own or have title to something to enjoy its use or even to control it.
It is doubtful, for instance, that any people in pre-contact Papua New Guinea thought of themselves as exclusive owners of land and territory.
Land was not a commodity. It had – and continues to have – a deep and complex spiritual and social significance.
People asserted a right to live and garden in a particular place without any association with material value. Land was part of being, not a tradeable asset.
If they were pressed, people might describe an area in terms of a group right but seldom, if ever, in terms of an individual right.
A man might have a garden in a particular place and have a right to its bounty but, when he abandoned it, the land reverted back to the common weal.
Looking at that common weal in western terms of borders, boundaries and notions of ownership, it would be seen as a fuzzy concept indeed.
At best people would have known where they could safely go without running into traditional enemies or neighbours but, in general, these ‘boundaries’ were extremely fluid and based on many mystical, political, social and other factors rather than on a strict understanding of possession.
If you bring those cultural concepts into the present you can see how they become problematic.
A group of people asserting their rights to land in terms of western concepts often trigger a problem without a solution.
This is no more apparent than in the miasma that revolves around major resource developments like the PNG liquefied natural gas project.
The so-called ‘landowners’ have a complex relationship with the land that goes beyond the simpler relationship of ‘ownership’ that the resource developers and the government would prefer them to have.
What this does offer, however, if you are smart enough to manipulate both concepts, is a great opportunity to claim that to which you are not entitled.
It is this complexity, and the manipulation it allows, that hamstrings those charged with sorting out land matters and it has frustrated and continues to frustrate any resolution to the problem of equitably disbursing community benefits.