Lessons from the fringe of the world

Monday 28 February 1994

WITHIN the international community, few people have cared to study the environmental behaviour of Papua New Guinea. Its traditions provide a very instructive experience: they show the world how to deal with the globalisation process of the 21st century, which is slowly eroding the economic sovereignty of Third World nations and pushing investments that can be socially and environmentally damaging. But if the very people who are likely to suffer the adverse consequences of these investments are in charge of making decisions about the use of their natural resources, the multinationals will learn to behave themselves better.

The rest of the world can only hope that Papua New Guineans will stick to their powerful traditions and show the way forward to the growing environmental movement, which is confronted with this new problem of how the people of the world should protect their common environment.

For an outsider, Papua New Guinea is a country of extraordinary contrasts. It is probably the only country in the world where a visitor can take three nationals to dinner and be unhesitatingly told that two had grandfathers who were cannibals and one's father indulged in similar excesses. Contrary to popular perceptions of "civilised" human beings, cannibalism had little to do with culinary delights. It was more an effort by the victor to acquire the qualities of the vanquished -- just as the United States today, through market cannibalism, is devouring the technical skills -- in the area of space technology, for instance -- of the former Soviet Union.

Modern Papua New Guineans, of course, hate to be reminded of their "primitive" past. The country came in contact with the outside world just about 100 years ago. Most of the people living in the Highlands of the country saw outsiders for the first time during the 1920s and 1930s.

Since then, the country has undergone an extraordinary transformation. Catapulted straight into the modern age, many Papua New Guineans saw the wheel on an aeroplane before they saw it on a bicycle. In Port Moresby, the country's capital, Papua New Guineans are today as comfortable with modern gadgetry as people are in any other country.

The country's modern economy has been managed reasonably well, although its minerals sector remains heavily dependent on transnational investment. The national government earns substantial revenue from the exports of primary products like cocoa, coffee, copra, gold and copper. Unfortunately, it then blows most of its revenue on its highly paid bureaucracy and leaves little for infrastructure development or for the development of social sectors like health and education.

There is, thus, an enormous gulf between the country's rich and its poor, and between its urban and rural areas. Since industrial development is limited and modern consumption patterns are heavily dependent on imports, the formal sector employs very few people. The majority of Papua New Guineans eke out their survival on subsistence gardening, which consists largely of a form of shifting cultivation built around bananas and root crops like yams and sweet potato.

On the face of it, the country's economy appears to be a typical enclave economy dominated by foreign economic interests that are ripping off the country of its minerals, land resources and, increasingly now, forests and fisheries. But the country's tradition has an inherent strength that is already playing a key role in taming the international market-place and should do even more so in the future. Papua New Guinea could well become a country that provides the model for dealing appropriately with the ongoing globalisation process.

The people of Papua New Guinea have a deep attachment to their land. Each clan worships the spirits of its ancestors, who opened up the land in which it now lives and fought to protect it from neighbouring clans. And, by tradition, now enshrined in the country's Constitution formed in 1975, each clan owns its land as a community. There were several attempts by the erstwhile colonial state to expropriate some of this land, but post-Independence governments have failed to muster enough courage to "alienate", or acquire, clan land. International agencies like the World Bank have repeatedly argued for more modern systems of property to be introduced to promote multinational investment and, hence, "development". But the issue of clan lands remains too highly an emotional and contentious issue for the government to subvert tradition.

The result is that Papua New Guinea stands out as unique in the modern community of nations in terms of its property rights. Whereas modern societies are largely built on concepts of private property and state property, most of Papua New Guinea is community property, and the country is largely a federation of powerful Village Republics.

Not only the land but also the resources on the land belong to the people. Therefore, any attempt to set up a biodiversity reserve or a conservation area must be first negotiated with the local community. Similarly, a logging company must respond to the demands of local communities if it wants access to its forest resources.

The most contentious issue of all has been mineral resources. By law, minerals found underground belong to the state. Using this statute, the national government has tried to take maximum advantage of the revenue earned by the Panguna Mine on Bougainville island. But it has faced two secessionist movements in the process. When people of the island found out in 1975 that they would get a very small share of the mine's earnings, they raised the flag of revolt and agreed to stay on with the country only when a system of provincial governments was written into the Constitution. By 1989, they realised that they still had not received much by way of money even while they had suffered enormous environmental damage. The resulting rebellion closed the mine down permanently and only in 1993 was the national government able to send its forces back into the island.

The government has learnt a major lesson since then: that it must involve the people in its minerals projects. A more recent project to mine gold at Mount Kare was the first in which local clans acquired an equity share in the mining company. Even that did not satisfy the local clan leaders. Finally, Conzinc Riotinto of Australia, one of the world's leading mining companies, had to hand over the entire equity to the local people.

Papua New Guinea is thus one country in the world where local communities are sufficiently empowered to take on even some of the world's biggest multinationals. It is a power that rural communities, emasculated by the laws of their own nations, do not have in most countries of the world.

Learning to deal with the global marketplace has not been particularly easy for the country's tribal clans. But they are definitely learning. With the decline in the international prices of the country's minerals and agricultural products, there has been growing pressure on the forest estate to balance the country's external trade. In the first round, many rural communities, ignorant of the ways of the world and often duped by their own leaders, signed away their forests for a pittance. But most of them are now recognising their mistake and are demanding higher prices and insisting on environmental damages. Government agencies and NGOs can play a signal role in preparing local communities to bargain better with foreign market players.

The experience of Papua New Guinea confirms the position that a state in the developing world, highly indebted and desperate to manage its macroeconomics, tends to neglect the microeconomics of its rural people, and sometimes even promotes activities that adversely affect the rural communities. But in Papua New Guinea, the empowerment of the local communities provides a powerful legal framework within which communities can protect themselves from environmental harm. And, as these communities become more accustomed to dealing with the market, they will be able to reconcile the trade-offs between environment and development better than anywhere else in Africa, Asia or South America.

Mahatma Gandhi rolled back the powerful British Empire on the same principle: That answers to many of the world's problems lie within.

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