What should development mean in Papua New Guinea?

By Rosa Koain

THE Western concept of economic development is about one person taking control of an activity and pulling all the rest in to work for him. The Melanesian concept of the same development is about sharing and participating equally and openly.

Despite the many lessons from different parts of the world, the concept of development that PNG is adopting is breaking up communities. The many conflicts arising as a result are indications of an economy breaking down. 

While conflicts in response to the development of the Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) project, the Ramu Nickel Mine (RNM) and Hidden Valley continue, New Guinea Islanders are informing themselves about the likely impacts of the proposed deep sea mining project. At the same time Turubu landowners in East Sepik are struggling with oil palm development in their area and a handful of landowners across the country are confused about carbon trade developments in their areas as their leaders cook up projects in Port Moresby.

Many of these projects are happening without proper consultations with the people who are custodians and landowners prior to these projects coming on shore. From their traditional teachings Papua New Guineans have a responsibility to take care of the land, use it for their sustenance and hand it over to the next generation. However, these teachings are being challenged as money walks in.

Papua New Guinea’s very own lessons are from Bouganville who was forced into a bloody 10-year civil war which saw thousands of women, children and men loose their lives. This was to end a 25-year struggle to let the world know the copper mine development there was not helping but harming the people. However, this does not seem to matter as 12 years after that war ended, leaders are back in Bouganville pushing for the mine to reopen.

Advocates for the western development concept refuse to see there are alternative models working already and try to push the one corporate model as the way to go. This model refuses to accept the diversity and creativity in Melanesia but instead invest huge sums of money to confuse people in order to access their land for developments that only leave these people poorer than they ever were.

The first and major asset for Melanesians is land. The westerners see land filled with trees, rivers, flora and fauna as wasted space not doing anything to bring in revenue. Yet they fail to see the fruits that this land has produced. A dead land will give nothing.

But the western concept of development favours freeing up land from its custodians thus the land mobilisation initiative.

Land mobilisation is a concept that has been around for a very long time. It helps to put the rest of the clan outside, even though it looks on paper that a given group of people are members of an Incorporated Land Group (ILG). The ILG created in a rushed manner in some urban centres with names of animals and deceased people and so on respects no other clan member and therefore is not inclusive. The ILG created in this same manner takes decision-making powers away from all clan members and concentrates these powers in the hands of one or two people. 

However, there are some ILGs created in the villages but without properly understanding what the ILGs entail. So it throws the clan group into further confusion as it spends a good amount of time trying to understand what the ILG is all about. Or in some communities, once the ILG is formed they sit back and expect it to work for them. Whose problem is it if the people do not understand what they have committed themselves to.

From these ILGs the landowner association is formed. Again this takes decision-making powers further away from clans and in many cases concentrate these powers in the hands of strangers. While people know who the landowner chairman is, he is usually a stranger if he comes from another clan. 

Once he takes up office, he spends his time making sure the company’s work is not disrupted in any way. He has shifted his responsibilities from maintaining dialogue with the company on behalf of his people, to now becoming the peace and good order person for the company.

Together, Bouganville Copper Mine, Ok Tedi Mine, Porgera Mine, Misima and Lihir have dished out millions of kina in revenue to the PNG government. However, this government has demonstrated its inability to manage these monies adequately, thus the break down of basic social services. 

In addition to the mining sector, the PNG government has also enjoyed revenue from the forestry, fishing and agriculture sectors but all these drowned in Port Moresby.

The poor state of the country indicates where government expenditure priorities are. From Port Moresby’s Jackson airport to Boroko and downtown looks impressive but take a walk to the outskirts of Tokarara, Morata and others to see if the leaders are really investing in this country. 


Well said Rosa, a really fantastic piece! However, might I add, lets replace 'Western' with 'capitalist', as many in the West have been maligned by the model of development you critique and thus also oppose it. Indeed, when capitalism burst from the womb of England during the 16th-18th century, many 'westerners' who had customary rights to the land that extended back many generations, found themselves displaced by an elite of landlords whose focus was profit - a process that was replicated across Europe as other powers sort to compete with the United Kingdom.

While several centuries later in the West, people are now used to living a dispossessed life, selling their only asset, labor, to survive (if they are lucky)... many share Melanesian opposition to Western (or capitalist) 'models of development', and thus find good reason to work in solidarity with them.