Australian academic accused of playing the race card to defend Malaysian loggers

Professor Andrew Lattas responds to criticism from Australian National University academic and industrial logging advocate, Tim Curtin, of his expose of the land theft and violence experienced by communities in PNG at the hands of foreign logging companies.... 

Professor Andrew Lattas*

Tim Curtin is not a very careful reader and he raises the threat of legal action against me. He should have noticed that I do not accuse him personally but refer to how a “new liberationist discourse, which is also being articulated by certain sections of the national elite in PNG, is actually part of the development of new structures of dispossession and police violence at the local level against ordinary villagers.” It is absurd to blame individuals and the focus has to be on the emergence of new public discourses that do certain kinds of ideological work. 

In PNG, legal threats have been used very effectively by large Malaysian logging companies to silence criticisms directed at logging, oil palm and lease-lease back schemes. They have been used to intimidate the Post Courier and it is one reason that critical political discourse in PNG has moved away partly from national newspapers and to the blog sites. 

I have never worried about trying to guess the personal motives of those advocating logging, oil palm and lease-lease back schemes. They invariably claim humanitarian motives involving food security, the economic welfare and independence of the nation, and now a desire for racial equality. However, it is very relevant to point out that the motives of those articulating a discourse can be very different from the social effects of that discourse. Thus history shows how humanitarian and liberation discourses can often have effects contrary to their espoused ideals. I was struck by the anti-colonial and anti-racist themes in Tim Curtin’s papers and how this overlapped with similar nationalist claims being made by PNG politicians who advocate logging, oil palm and lease-lease back schemes. Those same anti-colonial and anti-racist themes can also be found in the public literature produced and circulated by the large Malaysian logging companies which Tim Curtin has gone to great pains to defend. 

I am not convinced by Tim Cutin’s belief that the anti-colonial liberation struggles in Africa in the 1960s can be imported to contemporary PNG and in particular so as to defend the freedom which will come to PNG citizens through lease-lease back schemes (SABLs). Today these schemes are dressed up as land reform, rather than as land theft. At the local level, those schemes are widely unpopular and are perceived to be a new form of land alienation. In Pomio, they are being resisted by villagers and those schemes can only be implemented through using a semi-military form of police violence, indeed police terror, which intimidates villagers who assert their land claims. All of this messy detailed politics is ignored by Tim Curtin despite local newspaper accounts of arrests, protests, road blockades, and police violence in Pomio.

Tim Curtin invariably takes the side of the Malaysian logging companies. He dismisses all the criticisms of corruption, illegality and injustice directed at those companies who together with local politicians and government officials are “developing structures of dispossession and police violence against ordinary villagers.”  What I criticise Tim Curtin for is that he uses his new role as the public advocate and public intellectual of Malaysian logging companies to ignore all these criticisms, and he does so in the name of anti-racism and anti-colonialism. He ignores all the everyday forms of power that those logging companies use to realise their objectives. Indeed to focus on any of this is to be accused of racism against Asians and to be in cahoots with white European multinational logging companies. It is not a question of what Tim Curtin really thinks and intends, but how his claims merge and participate within a broader discourse whose recent emergence in PNG and on the global stage is not random.  Today, new forms of intrusive capital require new discourses of liberation and they frame their actions as freeing people from poverty, as freeing the nation’s resources from the tyranny of custom, as freeing government policy from neo-colonial paternalism and as freeing Melanesians from white European hegemony and its hidden self-interested agendas.

As for Tim’s defence of ITS Global and the Institute of Public Affairs as poverty stricken organisations from which he receives no funds, I really think that misses the point.  One of my points was concerning the nature of the discourse being produced and disseminated by those institutions and how Tim Curtin’s participation in those institutions serves to situate his discourse as consistent with wider ideological agendas that use neo-liberal economic theory as an instrument of social planning. Tim Curtin does not like being situated within broader ideological and political structures which re-contextualise what he is arguing by noting that it is not that original but part of broader ideological discourses that have concrete effects at the level of everyday power relations.  What is interesting about economic neo-liberalism in contemporary PNG is how it does not remove itself from other social and political liberation projects but rather advocates them, embraces their nationalism, as a way of advancing and re-organising the social in the interests of foreign large scale companies. One has to treat seriously the racial egalitarianism and anti-colonialism within which contemporary large-scale logging interests formulate their desire to free the PNG economy (from tradition and European colonial control). It is a pity that Tim shows no understanding of what kind of power relations are being produced on the ground from these “liberation projects.” Thus Tim Curtin ignores all local protests and resistances and just presents opposition to Malaysian logging as coming from privileged white Europeans, who are racist if they criticise this new form of intrusive capitalism. 

Repeatedly, Tim Curtin plays the race card; e.g. let us not pick on Asian loggers and who they finance, for white Norwegian loggers also finance, supposedly my research. Is this a defence of corruption in PNG by saying that Norway is just as corrupt? Can invisible financial arrangements or “gifts” in PNG be rendered the same as paying taxes that allow a government to support university research in Norway? In his conspiratorial theory of environmental concerns, Tim Curtin presents European concerns about illegal logging as European attempts to prevent competition in timber production and “as a way of raising the prices on their own timber.” This sounds like a very Malaysian corporate view of the global opposition they are meeting.

In terms of illegal shipments, if Tim Curtin went and stayed for some time in one of these logging camps in PNG, he will see what everyone can see and that is that the forestry officer who signs off on the contents of the logging shipment does not mix with the local villagers. Instead he is accommodated, fed and transported by the Malaysian company, very much like the riot squad police who also support the company and get a special monetary allowance from it.

What Tim Curtin needs is a good dose of ethnography, he needs to go and live with some of the villagers in logging areas rather than just offer abstract anti-racist and anti-colonial formulas, which supposedly are in villagers’ long term interests. 
He might also want to complicate his model of race relations in PNG by taking into account what the Chinese Malaysian managers say and think about Melanesian villagers, which is often not flattering. Moreover, there are also emerging anti-Chinese and anti-Malaysian sentiments growing amongst Melanesians and this has to do with logging and SABLs but also with new large trade stores that are being established in urban and rural areas by Chinese businessmen.

If we are going to explore race relations in contemporary Melanesia let us begin to contextualise how the categories of race are being deployed in different contexts as well as the discourses of anti-racism. Let us not homogenise discourses, but recognise how the new alliances between large Asian capital and local politicians and government officials also requires a new use of liberation discourses. These draw on Melanesian nationalism and the new global respectability of anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles. They also draw on the cultural capital of white academic consultants who can be used ironically to criticise white European hegemony as the true enemy of PNG. Let us recognise some of these new discourses for what they are, namely, new ideological framework for sustaining emerging new structures of exploitation and domination.

*Dept of Social Anthropology
University of Bergen Fosswinckelsgt. 6
5007 Bergen,
ph: + 47 55589261