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Land, culture & the limitations of western interpretation

Angry locals  gold mine (Jethro Tulin)
In 2013, angry people massed in their thousands at Porgera, forcing the gold and silver mine to curtail operations. One man was killed (Jethro Tulin)


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.


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Philip Kai Morre

Land is so precious in PNG and people fight over it individually or in tribal fights. Land is such an integral part of a tribal territory or boundary. A tribe is like a nation of its own which controls its boundaries from other tribes.

Applying a western concept of land ownership, land registration and land mobilisation does not work well in our traditional society.

When a western concept is imposed, people don't accept it and this is still a problem in mining areas. We have been told that what is on top of the soil you own it but what is inside or below the top soil you don't own it.

That means we don't own the gold, copper, oil and gas that is below. That sort of land law does not go down well in our minds, because we own what is on top and below as well.

We own rivers, mountains, valleys, stones, gravel, gold, copper, gas, and so on. Our ancestors owned them and they passed them onto us. We consider them as gifts from the creator.

Philip Fitzpatrick

There are some concepts that are easily translatable across cultures and there are other concepts that defy such translation. In PNG one of the latter has been land ownership. It just doesn't translate comfortably from traditional systems to a western system.

This problem exercised the minds of the Australian administration in the years leading up to independence. In the hope of seeking an answer they set up a Commission of Enquiry into Land Matters chaired by eminent magistrate Sinaka Goava.

I worked with the commission in 1972 in a minor role but had the opportunity to watch how it was conducted. The biggest issue by far was to come up with a way of using traditional land for commercial purposes. This is where the concept of incorporated land groups originated. The concept was incorporated into law a few years later.

As Raymond notes the system doesn't work very well. Opportunists use it to disenfranchise their fellow clan members and create their own elite land owning cabals.

Australia, in effect and despite good intentions ultimately passed on a flawed system. They did this because they couldn't recognise the inherent problems in the system they invented.

This was probably because they couldn't get their minds beyond their western prejudices. They were also informed by how things had been done in the past, mainly at the hands of the kiaps.

What the kiaps had been doing under the colonial laws was purchasing the rights to use land for a specified period as leases which would revert back to the land owning clan complete with any improvements when the lease expired.

This is where the concept of 'buying' land might have originated, albeit it wasn't buying land in a strictly western way but more in a traditional way. It was a bit like a clan group negotiating the rights to hunt on a tract of land for certain considerations awarded to the clans that controlled the land.

I subsequently tried to work with some of the later refinements of the legal system when conducting social mapping and land owner identification studies and while I was initially optimistic have come round to the view that it is a dud system.

What the system doesn't recognise is human nature and its inevitable avarice. Whether this avarice was a western concept introduced into a community based system more intent on the common good is a debatable point.

I strongly suspect that this was the case and as such played very well into the hands of many politicians and so-called elites.

My thinking at the moment is that where dealing in land is concerned, whether it is for a massive resource development project or simply for a small local development, the money factor has to be removed or at least minimised.

In this sense the concept of royalties being paid to alleged landowners would have to be stopped in favour of some other method of passing on benefits to the communities effected. One way of doing this might be in the form of community infrastructure, roads, schools, hospitals and the like.

No doubt the politicians and the elites would find a way to hive off some of the cream on such a system but it might create a better sort of equity.

Paul Oates

There's one other aspect that seems to have been conveniently overlooked by modern day finger pointers, Chris. That is that except for a very small number obvious exceptions around the cities and towns, PNG land was never effectively alienated.

Under the Australian administration, there was never a ruling class that evolved until Independence was forced on the country through external and internal pressures.

When the time came, Australia withdrew and basically didn't fight a colonial war as did many European nations. The PNG elite Australia left behind were PNG people who gratefully or otherwise, accepted their opportunity to run their own country.

Economic colonialism was at PNG Independence, a new concept that had to be and still is being learnt to live with. Panguna was an example of what can grow like cancer or the proverbial 'Topsy' unless there is accountable leadership.

To look over the PNG border into West Papua might provide an essential contrast so near to home.

Chris Overland

I endorse Phil's comments on the problems of determining land ownership in PNG.

The Australian colonial administration understood right from the outset of its rule that the concept of individual ownership of land didn't really apply in PNG.

In part, this was based upon the British colonial experience elsewhere in the Pacific like Fiji, where land also was a communally held and managed asset.

It therefore pursued a policy of tightly controlling how land issues were managed and, in particular, demonstrated a strong bias against acquiring land generally.

Given that the rapacious and violent seizure by colonists of traditional lands in places like Africa was a feature of the late European colonial era, it has always puzzled me that the Pacific colonies tended to be treated quite differently.

Possibly, it was because the Pacific fell under imperial rule relatively late in the piece and thus its first colonial administrators were much more enlightened in their outlook than their predecessors.

Another issue that occurs to me is the fact that Pacific nations are in the tropical region and, for Europeans, were a hot bed of various lethal diseases, notably Malaria. But the same might be said for Africa too.

Of course, the hair raising tales of cannibal warriors rampaging through steamy and largely impenetrable jungle that were popularised in the late 19th century may also have discouraged mass migration to such far flung and remote places.

Maybe it was simply because the opportunities for fame and fortune offered by places like Africa, 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, the combined effect of these and other factors was to spare most of the Pacific nations from the very worst excess of European colonialism, including the expropriation of their land.

It is thus a heavy irony that, in PNG at least, its own national government seems bent on undermining if not destroying the colonial legacy of generally seeking to protect the interests of traditional land holders over those 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 people "on the ground" sought to advise and warn against what the remote bureaucrats were determined to do.

Paul Oates

For those of us who, over many years, have suggested ways of helping PNG people cope with the modern world, we deeply appreciate traditional feelings and concepts about land ownership and usage of resources.

As Phil correctly points out, the problems arise when traditional customs clash with governments who have inherited power from another methodology and are made up in part by individuals who see opportunities to easily enrich themselves in the confusion.

For many years I have been suggesting that you can’t mix the two systems and expect to end up with a result that pleases everyone.

In any system there will always be the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, actual or just resentful.

In many traditional PNG societies, there was provision for both the inclusive support of everyone to do something positive and the provision for an ‘agree to disagree’ and therefore do nothing as an alternative.

When the question of exclusive ownership of material possessions such as land came into dispute with a rival person or clan, traditional methods of resolving a dispute often turned into an ugly fracas. Violence and tribal warfare were then used to resolve not who was right but who was going to be left out.

This is not in any way different from elsewhere in human societies and is still the practise in many parts of the world today.

The essential difference, as Phil points out, is that under a so called ‘western’ concept, ownership has been codified to allow the financial benefits to accrue to some person or an identified entity, whether for further sale, use or rent and also so any financial benefit may be taxed.

Taxation in its modern concept, was never part of traditional PNG cultures. It arose in PNG, as it did in other societies, when the need arose for government to provide services (like health, education and roads) for the benefit of people generally.

Money, as the old saying goes, doesn’t grow on trees. In old times, when money wasn’t available, material possessions were used in default, and if they weren’t available, labour and even slavery.

Only a few hundred years ago, poor people in Europe would sell their children or even themselves as slaves to survive when times got tough.

In terms of what PNG faces in land use, either you apply traditional resolution methodologies to resolve a traditional impasse or you arrive at a mix of modern and traditional methodologies and try to struggle through the difficulties that evokes.

But in many cases, mixing the two methodologies still results in the traditional outcome of ‘tribal warfare’ when those who have the power (governments and the forces of government) apply the necessary force (police and army) to resolve the matter in a way that looks more traditional than modern.

The only way in which this age-old problem of human nature was resolved was when someone lost and someone gained. The total satisfaction of both sides was never going to be an option while ever material gains were in dispute.

Only by applying the necessary force, or at least implying that the necessary force could be applied, did any dispute of this nature ever be temporarily resolved.

Simple solutions are always best. Therefore, find who are the recognised leaders of those who claim ownership and negotiate an acceptable solution with them, albeit a temporary one.

One could suggest that solution has been applied in PNG in the past to resolve potentially volatile problems. Compensation on both sides was enacted and honour was satisfied.

The problem is now that the potential for that solution of the past to actually work has now corrupted. The necessary application of force to make this solution ‘stick’ is now also broken in a number of places.

When kiaps applied this solution to resolve disputes, there was no question of them being either personally ‘rewarded’ in material goods or funds, or in a later participation of the results. They were seen therefore as impartial.

Unfortunately, the traditional make up of a clan and tribe has now been ameliorated by migration, population increase and diaspora.

Secondly, the influence of traditional leaders is virtually gone since the way in which they were recognised and listened to has now been swept away by modern technology and access to material possessions.

Thirdly, even by applying a traditional method of limiting physical confrontation by using a ‘David and Goliath’ approach is not acceptable to the masses as the contest can and often is corrupted. Just look at modern boxing contests or football matches.

So how to resolve the matter? If PNG can effectively resolve land disputes involving material gain, and in a better way than the so-called western manner, whoever does so successfully will be a first for our species.

Until then, good luck to those who try. Over hundreds of years in many places, human history has determined and resolved there is no other peaceful way.

Raymond Sigimet

An important piece here from Phil in trying to understand land and its societal construct in PNG.

Boundaries, states of being and communal ownership are the base constructs of what land is to the people.

These are intricately woven into the people's oral traditions which pose problems and complications today in the interpretation of land as a commodity. This is because of the narratives that define and identify people to their land.

The Incorporated Land Groups legislation is a wrong foot for me because it will eventually disenfranchise and isolate the people from their land and create elitism in something that is communal and a state of being.

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