Environment and development in PNG


By Norm Dixon

Jean Eparo, a member of the PNG activist group Melanesian Solidarity (Melsol), on her way to attend the "Students, Science, Sustainability" conference at the Australian National University over the April 25-26 weekend, spoke to Green Left about how environmentalists in PNG see the relationship between the environment and economic development.

For Melanesian Solidarity, an organisation that unites activists involved in a broad range of political issues, the main environmental issue at this time is not the counterposition of economic development and conservation, but the type of development and who controls the decisions.

The domination of the economy by multinational corporations, a large proportion of which are based in Australia, means the people of PNG have little say in the sort of development that occurs or control over the environmental consequences. At the same time, Eparo said, the wealth generated by the logging and mining projects benefits very few people in terms of employment or better living standards.

"When our people try to go into other ventures like trade stores, fishing industries and most of the other industries that are dominated by the well-established foreign companies, we are quickly pushed out. The only thing landowners are left with is our natural resources to sell.

"We are given no choice but to allow the logging and mining which we know will destroy the environment."

Because of this, Eparo says, Melsol is "concentrating on helping the people to get some benefits, more compensation, for the destruction of the environment. This doesn't mean we think that the environment is not an important issue, but the lives of the people are more important. We think that [the environment] belongs to the people and ... it should be the people who determine how to use it, when to use it, what to get in return."

Melsol accepts the need for multinational capital investment, Eparo explained, "but we want the involvement of the people. If multinational corporations are coming in, they must abide by what the people say. That is not what they have been doing. They must allow the government to use its employees in the conservation and environmental department" to regulate their activities.

"It is part of their duty to educate the people on the consequences of the logging and mining activities as well as its benefits. Then people will be aware and can make decisions. But this is not what is happening. We want to play an influential role in defining development in our country. We do not want to be told what to do, that this is the best way and so forth. Some of us are getting tired of that."

Melsol began to involve itself in environmental struggles at the end of last year. "The environment issue is one of the social issues we concern ourselves with. We help the people take legal actions against succeeded in two already and are now helping in another one.

"We are putting together a landowner awareness campaign, where we go and tell the people their legal rights. A lot of them are afraid, they do not know the laws. We tell them what they can do, how they can go about doing it, where to get help and so forth. We are educating landowners on the consequences of logging and mining and what they should do if they are not compensated, or if the company is not doing what they have promised. We are trying to train our people in how to manage the environment.

"We are now writing a proposal on forest management and will give it to Wau Ecology Institute to have a look at it; then we will ask Greenpeace to help us ...

"We don't go straight ahead and do direct actions. We help the people to understand what they have to do and the consequences of it and how they can tackle problems. They then make their own decisions."

The people's lack of control over major economic and political decisions is one of the sources of the "law and order" crisis in her country, Eparo stressed. "The problem is that government after government, as they came into power, did not try to attack this problem at its root. I think the government has been forced to talk about this because it's been affecting the multinational companies ...

"The root cause is unemployment and the cost of living, which is very high, so a lot of parents in the urban centres cannot help their children to get what they need. People are expressing their frustration.

"We need a system that will make us feel part of what is going on. Being part of it will help us value what is there because we would know, 'That is ours'. It is commonsense. If you know you don't belong, you do not care about it. This 'I do not care' attitude is the reason we have lost touch with ourselves, we no longer value ourselves as human beings."