Development and poverty in PNG


On tour in Sydney and speaking at the PNG Forest Benefit gig at the Harbourside Brasserie on Sunday, December 4, is Father Robert Lak, a prominent radio personality and founder of the development and political activist organisation Doa Foundation. He is active in the Western Highlands, PNG's centre for agricultural revenue, and is based in Mount Hagen, the "frontier town" which is also the international airport for Australian miners. He spoke to Sam Statham for Green Left Weekly.

In your experience, what benefits have the people of PNG had from the resources boom of the last few years?

PNG is a very isolated country. Internally the terrain makes it impossible for people to move, and therefore local groups, tribes and provinces are very isolated from each other. What this means for natural resources of minerals and petroleum, is that if there is any benefit for the people, then first it is to the state, which negotiates with the transnational corporations for a certain percentage of the profits.

There are not really any benefits from employment because you are talking about a very sophisticated skill requirement in mining work, and we don't even have any mining schools. Employment is semi-skilled, not in upper brackets. Some mining companies say their rate is 50-50 nationals and foreigners, but there will be no real benefits until the state demands mining schools.

Another area of benefit is in the spin-off business for landowner groups, who may tap into subcontracting for road works and construction.

Other than that, the traditional landowners get royalties, but only after the local, provincial and national authorities get their share.

What about compensation?

Compensation is money that won't give you the same land. And money that is put into the hands of people with little education is like money thrown away. The people's livelihood is on the land, and in many instances land taken away is like part of their life being taken away.

You don't have a people without the land, and when land is taken away, people are not directly benefiting and therefore they'll always be discontent. Money is blown out in no time, and then we beg for more, and so sometimes that compensation can be an ongoing thing. You never settle it once and for all. A classic example is Bougainville.

What is the impact of money on the social system?

The social structure is one where people's life is dependent on strong linkages. Money in this sense is a luxury item. It is not needed for survival, because the people are self-supporting. Of course, you need money for basic services and to educate your people, but these are infrastructures that the state must provide. In the day-to-day life of a subsistence farmer, money is a luxury item. If he has more money in one day, what is he going to do?

Sometimes money brings social destruction, as the ones that have cash in hand become lazy, and buy food from other people on the local market.

So, while for some money may strengthen social ties, for others it may weaken them.

What about the impact of plantation projects?

In PNG land is basically owned by the people. There is no state land except for the cities and towns. Where there is copra or coffee, a lot of smallholders grow their own and supply them to the local markets, for their own cash. That's the only way people make their own "living". If you were to do it on a larger scale on customary land you would do it through cooperatives, which were successful back in the '60s and '70s, but have failed since independence.

Village Development Trust projects attempt to use traditional ways to keep the people together, but many traditional and modern values cannot go hand in hand. In traditional society what you have belongs to everybody, but the Western mission is to make profit.

Is there any alternative way for the people to get basic services like education?

The political systems that we have at the moment haven't been best for the people. Money seems to be sucked up to administrative headquarters, and sometimes none gets to the real needs of the people. The raising of the standard of living of the community requires good roads, good health centres, good education services, good drinking water, and if these things are not in place, then I question the systems of government.

In mining towns there is agreement with the multinationals that they are to put into place all the infrastructure for the people. If these are not in place, they don't even start digging. But in normal services to all the rural places, the bureaucracy and the political will is not there for the people.

PNG really needs technical people at provincial and local government level to plan for the needs of the people so that infrastructure and services reach people. The only alternative I see is to have the three different levels of national, provincial and community government where people really participate in all major decisions of any type.

How successful have the community governments been?

The idea is good for the people of PNG, but to make it work in each province, you've got to have the capacity. Some of the provincial governments don't realise we're illiterate! People can't be accountable, and when they get into office they think they know it all and are too proud to get professional advice. Money goes down the drain.

How effective is the education system?

It is geared towards individual employment rather than education that provides individuals a place in the community. This is a growing problem, because we have not evolved our own appropriate curriculum which emphasises ways to see our communities as attractive places to go back to.

Through education that is foreign, young people become foreigners in their own communities, turning towards the town and city life. The system fosters individualism, "the survival of the fittest" and unnecessary tension between individuals and families when young people decide the village is no longer the place for them. You get lots of aimless groups wandering around being an inconvenience to a lot of people. Nobody's born a raskal; they're only a product of the system that we have adapted to and now work with.

What has been the government's response to the social impacts of economic development?

I think they realise now that money is not the answer because they have become bad managers of the nation, and they really should be ashamed of themselves. Development can only come about when we become good managers, in both resources and finances.

The present government has desperate problems because the politicians are forever not listening to professionals for advise. They think money will always come, whether it's from the Australians or from the World Bank. They are so irresponsible, over half the budget they keep themselves. Very much depends on the leadership.

What are non-government organisations doing?

Some people think the NGOs are anti-government, but I think they're trying to fit in where the government hasn't been there. To a large extent NGOs are an alternative to the government for disseminating information and telling the people exactly what is happening, with a lot of awareness, empowering and training people. It is a big responsibility that NGOs have taken.

Recently many of the major issues that are against the interests of the country have been brought up by NGOs. A lot of the issues where the government is tied down with multinational corporations, are where NGOs are doing whatever they can to protect the interests of the country, with limited resources but strong commitment to the welfare of people.

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