By Norm Dixon
A large movement in opposition to the World Bank/International Monetary Fund-imposed structural adjustment program (SAP) is developing across Papua New Guinea. Of particular concern to the people is a plan to undermine the system of collective land ownership.
Other aspects of the SAP, already agreed to by the PNG government under pressure from the Australian government, include a real cut in government spending this financial year of at least 12%, limiting public servants' wage rises in 1995-96 to a maximum of 3% while inflation is expected to be at least 15%, cutting 4500 government jobs in the same period and privatisation of "non-essential" government holdings.
In return, the PNG government will receive a "rescue package" of $290 million in loans from the WB/IMF, the Asian Development Bank, Australia and Japan.
PNG has become a mecca for big — especially Australian-owned — mining, oil and logging companies. In the past, these companies have been able to convince traditional landowners to let them cut timber, mine for minerals or drill for oil, and in return the local community would get new roads, hospitals and other promised benefits.
But these benefits have rarely been delivered. Instead, the fabric of society has been ripped apart, valuable resources and vast profits are taken out of the country, and there is massive environmental damage. Little social or economic infrastructure is provided beyond that immediately necessary for big business needs.
A secret meeting to discuss the SAP occurred in Cairns between PNG Prime Minister Julius Chan and Paul Keating on July 18. Keating insisted that PNG accelerate economic "reforms" before the early release of aid funds requested by Chan.
The value of Australian investments in PNG is estimated at between $1.8 and $2.3 billion. A recent survey found 30 potential development projects — gold, nickel and copper mines, oil wells, a proposed oil refinery and a cannery — valued at $4.6 billion (excluding the closed Panguna copper mine on Bougainville, valued at $600 million). The Lihir gold mine, now under development, is valued at $1.1 billion and is expected to produce 600,000 ounces of gold (worth $400 million) per year for 37 years.
The current system of land ownership in PNG — indigenous communities own 97% of the land — is seen by western governments and companies as restricting their activities. Enormous pressure is being exerted on PNG to take land out of customary jurisdiction.
The PNG government has proposed that all customary land be registered in the name of its "owners" and clear boundaries be demarcated. The government argues that community land can then be used as collateral for loans. Companies and business people will know who to negotiate with over plans to develop the land.
But as Dr Jean Zorn, former lecturer in law at UPNG, points out in the PNG Post-Courier on July 26, this is starkly at odds with the principles of customary land ownership. Land rights are held in common by members of the traditional group, past (deceased), present and future (unborn). No part of the group has a right to alienate land. Future generations are not bound by any deal made by their forebears. Land is not a commodity.
Zorn adds bluntly: "No matter how it is dressed up, the transformation of land into a commodity which can be bought and sold leads inevitably to people losing their land ... Even if sale is purportedly prohibited, there are still mortgages — and mortgages mean foreclosure ... Those deprived of their land will have no choice but to migrate to the towns, where they join the ranks of the unemployed, the rascals, and the starving."
Dr Andrew Lakau, a specialist in land tenure, writing in the Post Courier on July 11, explained the important role the present land system plays in social welfare: "The country does not have any form of unemployment benefit funds, social security or insurance schemes such as are widely available in developed industrialised countries ... The extended kinship system and customary landholdings are the only viable options to provide support and security to the needy."
The argument that the present system of land ownership is a bottleneck to economic development is disputed by Lakau. "Most cash crops are produced from customary land with no serious land tenure obstacles."
Lakau pointed out that the main block on productive use of the land is the scarcity of services for communities such as transport, local hospitals and schools, and market outlets for their produce.
Across PNG, people are fighting back against this fundamental attack on their way of life.
In March, 18,000 teachers went on strike for eight days in opposition to government plans to cut wages and working conditions as demanded in the SAP.
On July 18, 4000 people, led by striking university students, marched on the parliament while World Bank officials were in Port Moresby. The protesters were joined by public servants, workers, unemployed, by-standers and at least 70 uniformed soldiers angry at not being paid and dwindling food supplies in their barracks. The protesters demanded the government not make any deals with the "terrible twins", as the the World Bank and IMF have been dubbed.
University of PNG students are boycotting lectures, and many have returned to their home provinces to organise awareness campaigns. Students have declared 1995-1996 years of "student action" against the WB/IMF. National Union of Students president Mathew Parep said students must step in because there is no opposition in parliament. "If the government fails to completely do away with the land proposals, we will use student power and this time we will cripple the economy", Parep said on July 20.
On July 17, in Mt Hagen, 1000 people, including striking public servants, turned out to hear university students speak against the WB/IMF land proposals.
An alliance of NANGO (which groups PNG non-government organisations) and 21 trade unions has been formed to back the students' mobilisation and plan other action.
On July 21, a 2000-strong rally was held in Kundiawa, capital of Chimbu province. The protesters occupied the local airport runway to prevent the arrival of government representative Loani Henao, who is attempting to win support from local leaders throughout the country for the land registration proposal. The demonstrators marched to the police station, where one marcher was shot dead by police as they dispersed the crowd.
That same day, a rally of 10,000 people converged on the main market in Goroka, in the Highlands, to hear UPNG students explain the ramifications of the SAP.
Wherever Loani Henao goes, he is dogged by angry protesters. On July 17, he was forced to leave Wabag, in Enga province, under heavy police guard after thousands turned out to express their opposition to land registration. "It would not have been consultation but confrontation", a defeated Henao told the press.
In Lae on July 24, 1000 people turned out to a rally organised by students from the University of Technology. Unitech students have boycotted classes to spread across Morobe and other provinces to educate people about the WB/IMF. In West New Britain province, Unitech students report that the people have "totally rejected" the government's proposal to register customary land.