Pomio: Logging, lawlessness & a crisis of legitimacy

Andrew Lattas gives an account below of logging, lawlessness and a crisis of legitimacy in one (out of a hundred other) areas of Papua New Guinea, where local land grab, has left a group of aggrieved locals intimidated and brutalized by members of the Royal PNG Constabulary.

State Agencies that are supposed to be Regulators of foreign investment activities, are actively facilitating human rights abuse in defense of foreign interests.

Meanwhile, across the nation, similar genuine questions on theft of land are being ignored by a government which is clearly NOT "a government for the people, by the people", rather, "a government for corporations by corporations". Our people loose, again!!


By Andrew Lattas

I have just left the West Pomio area of East New Britain in Papua New Guinea where I was able to interview and verify reports from coastal villagers at Totongpal, Kaiton, Mu and Lau.

At a public gathering in the men's house, Totongpal villagers described how they were systematically beaten by the task force (riot squad) for opposing logging on their own customary land and the development of an oil palm industry which many reject as a massive form of land appropriation. At Mu, villagers told of how the riot squad visited them unexpectedly at nightfall, holding machine guns and forcing them to sign documents without villagers being given the opportunity to read them (an ordinarily difficult exercise without electric lighting but more so when the documents are in English, and involve legal language, and villagers are only literate in Pisin).

All of the coastal villagers to whom I spoke (including village elders and clan leaders) have not seen copies of the lease-lease back agreement (or Special-purpose Agriculture and Business Leases, SABLs) whereby their customary land is to be leased by the local landowner company to the government which will then lease it out for oil palm development. Villagers do not trust explanations given by the local landowner company which is funded by a Malaysian logging company. This funding is not public and transparent. Meetings or minutes are not publicly available, and villagers have not even sighted a copy of the logging agreement between the Malaysian company and the local landowner company. When I asked the Chairman of the landowner company for a copy of the lease-lease back agreement, he told me it was too unsafe to keep a copy in Pomio and that the only copy that existed was with his lawyer in Port Moresby. It is difficult to see how villagers can verify and agree to a contract when the actual legal document is not public and locally available and exists in what is a distant destination prohibitively expensive to visit.

Currently, the task force has four to five personnel permanently based at the Malaysian logging company camp at Drina plantation. The police are fed, housed and transported into Pomio and surrounds by the Malaysian company. They are heavily armed, and wear military camouflage and strong boots. They receive a special monetary allowance from the Malaysian company for being stationed in Pomio. Considerable Australian aid has gone into training PNG's task force, which in Pomio currently operates as the brutal private army of a foreign company that is not just taking valuable timber but threatening to take control of land.

When they enter villages opposed to logging, the police verbally abuse the men, with gross sexual references, as holding up development, and as being ungrateful for the rice they eat. The extra-judicial punishments inflicted by the police include beating villagers with sticks and rifle butts, whipping them with fan belts, and locking them in iron shipping containers that lack ventilation, temperature control and toilet facilities. These punishments are meted out to villagers who do no more than prevent access to their own customary land by cutting down a tree to lie across a road or a stream so as to halt the logging and protect drinking water.

In Pomio, the task force has undertaken so-called "awareness campaigns" against marijuana and home brewing. At villages supporting logging, this has involved verbal educational campaigns, but this was not the case at the village of Totongpal which has opposed logging. Here villagers tell of police arriving summarily at nightfall with guns and then assembling all the youth who were beaten with fan belts and thick sticks. It did not matter that many of these youth belonged to churches such as Assembly of God, One Way and Jehovah Witness that prohibit any use of alcohol and drugs, which they were accused of abusing. They were nevertheless beaten. So were a few elders who questioned what was going on; and some of these elders belonged to the same Protestant denominations. Youth is one of the major groups setting up road blocks, so it is not surprising that young men were targeted for this "awareness campaign". This was also something made clear in the contents of the tirades of verbal abuse that police directed at villagers. Some workers at the Malaysian logger camp where the police reside noted how the task force personnel had that night themselves drunk alcohol and smoked marijuana at the camp site. This was something that was backed up by village accounts to me of the personal demeanour and behaviour of the task force.

Though the task force, the Malaysian company and the local landowner company present opposition to logging and lease-lease back as coming from the Kivung movement; that is, as a product of a backward cult mentality; this is far from being the case. Indeed, the non-Kivung followers of Protestant and Catholic churches will often ask the movement to assume a low profile to prevent such caricatures which use a "cult label" to dismiss and ridicule widespread popular opposition to this new form of exploitative development.

A new kind of state has emerged in Papua New Guinea, with the corruption of state structures exceeding all previous limits. In Pomio, it is not just the task force which is perceived as having been bought off by a wealthy foreign company. The same is the case with the leading personnel in the district government and the local government councils. Their staff can often be seen dining at the Malaysian camp and then receiving large unexpected gifts of cargo. Currently, the local district administrator has been suspended and is being investigated by the ombudsmen over the misappropriation of district funds.

The district administrator and the directors of the local landowner company have often appeared in the national media to legitimate claims by the task force that there is a law and order problem in Pomio. I have worked in Pomio since 1995 and I have not seen this law and order problem. Pomio is one of the safest areas of Papua New Guinea and is one of the reasons that international tourist ships often visit the area. On a daily basis, I walk alone on the main dirt roads and bush tracks as have many other white expatriates who have also never personally experienced any violence or witnessed significant criminal activity. Currently an elderly aid volunteer and his wife are stationed very close to where the beatings by the police force took place. Like myself, they walk unaccompanied and unarmed in the area; they sleep in open village houses, chat in the men's houses, swim in neighbouring fresh streams and receive gifts of food from villagers concerned about their health.

It is outrageous that Australian aid should be going to training and equipping what has now become a private army that has very little respect for human rights. More Australian aid money needs to go into the everyday management of the task force which is protecting and sponsoring a brutal form of land appropriation. It is relatively easy for Pomio villagers to stop the logging and oil palm project with peaceful road blocks. It is only the violence of the task force, under the control of the Malaysian loggers, which allows the current injustice to proceed.

In the Kaliai area, where I previously studied opposition to logging, the local landowner company was conscious of needing to take responsibility for calling in the riot squad so that blame did not fall on the Malaysians. Here, the Malaysian company was unable to get the support of local state officials such as councillors, magistrates, and district administrators. This is not so in Pomio where to everyone's shock some local state officials have been participating in fabricating a non-existent law and order problem. This has seriously undermined trust and the legitimacy of local state structures. These state officials are using law and order problems elsewhere in Papua New Guinea to redefine, as crime and violence, what are legitimate local disputes over land and resources.

As I was leaving the field on the MV Vanmark from Pomio, a speed boat brought onboard 10 youth from Lau. They had been arrested for cutting down a tree to stop company boats using and polluting a stream from which villagers ordinarily collect drinking water. In a show of defiance and unity, all 16 young men initially claimed responsibility, even though only one could have come forward. When I asked them why they did not run off into the bush, they noted how it would have been easy to do so but they feared that police anger and violence would then have been directed at local women (mothers, sisters, aunts) and at elderly men. It is the love of kin which led these young men to come forward voluntarily for arrest, and it is these collective sacrifices which build up local solidarity. En route the young men could easily have overwhelmed or escaped from the two police escorting them to Kokopo. They travelled compliantly, however, allowing the police to wander unhindered around the ship, and in fact the police were hardly ever near their prisoners. I bought dry biscuits for the men and gave them money for food in town whilst other passengers gave them cooked sweet potato. We chatted and slept next to each other on the long voyage from Pomio to Kokopo. Such are the new dangerous rascals and criminals from Pomio.

Professor Andrew Lattas is attached to the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen Fosswinckelsgt in Norway