LAND GROUPS: THE FOUNDATION FOR NATION BUILDING IN PAPUA NEW GUINEABy: Anthony P. Power, September 1998
Part 2 of 2
The modern world is a moving target Continuing from Part 1
In order to find a pathway for Papua New Guinea towards the future it is wise to reflect a while on some aspects of the modern world of which Papua New Guinea is a part. One of the most important reason for doing this is that the world is changing all the time and some of these changes are not for the good. Papua New Guinea must establish its own values and seek to achieve them within the context of our own human and physical resources and not seek to blindly follow the advanced economies which are experiencing so many failures in spite of ever advancing technologies.
To illustrate the point that the modern world is a moving target let us consider electronic communications. At a time when the majority of Papua New Guineans are not literate in the written word, technology is available to replace the written word with electronic signals. The global village is becoming a reality day by day. In order to be able to make the best use of the modern technologies we need to have our values clearly defined and our priorities set. In this way we can choose the technologies that will help us reach our goal, rather than just being swept along with the good and the bad by the all powerful forces of the materialism of the modern world which reduces people to being consumers without being able to guarantee them a job so that they are able to pay for those consumer items.
Figure No. 3: Population Distribution, Town and Country
In Papua New Guinea to day more than 80% of the population live in their villages, basically providing their own subsistence, supplemented by sale of cash crops, ranging from export commodities to garden produce or fresh or smoked meat and fish. Very hard working individuals can earn a significant amount of money from certain crops such as coffee and sometimes cocoa. Other crops are not that successful though copra at the moment is doing well. The village support system is such that lazy individuals can get bye simply by hanging onto their relatives for support. This acts as a powerful disincentive for the hard workers. This burden from wantoks is one of the topics that will be addressed in detail below.
In the technologically advanced western democracies less than 5% of the population live on the land and produce all the food necessary to supply the nation and produce huge surpluses for export. Possibly more than 80% of the population live in huge con-urbations while rural towns and communities are on the decline. Unemployment is a constant problem in all these societies. Billions of dollars are spent on social welfare for the unemployed and for workers on the lower end of the pay scale. Lack of meaningful involvement in the community contributes to massive overuse of prescribed drugs and massive illegal substance abuse fed by organized crime. Millions of people are housed in jails. The radical restructuring of the business world in the last 20 years has brought some fundamental changes in the way companies operate and the way people work. This has resulted in a shift in the earning capacity of a majority of the work force downwards so that the middle and lower paid workers are much worse off today than they were 20 years ago. A minority of workers is advantaged and their earning capacity has continued to grow.
Central to these global changes in business is the exponential development of technology able to digitalise information, store it in massive quantities and then transmit it instantly anywhere on the globe and process it at a variety of workstations and return a further developed digital product to the country of origin. For example one company in England uses computer assisted design facilities to design new model car bodies for a number of companies in a number of countries. All this takes place through the agencies of communication satellites and optical fibres without any recognition of national borders and with a minimum of governmental intervention and in some with none, such as with the Internet. Money is traded in the same manner. Billions of US dollars a day are traded in electronic form. Not even paper money let alone gold standard! These transactions make money for very clever people without there having been any contact with the real world peopled, by workers and machines and products. The world economy is in disarray and nations dont seem capable or willing to do anything about it.
These phenomena amount to a failure of big government in the worlds leading democracies in the worlds most advanced nations. This is not just a failure of political will even though there are some ready solutions that can reverse the trends. Also there is some evidence that the political machinery of these countries is run by those who are benefiting most from the existing system and so would have most to lose from any radical solutions to the problems. The problem goes deeper than this. The drivers to the problems are technological and mechanistic and almost inevitable and most people support them and most in many ways benefit from when high tech inventions produce affordable products for the mass consumers.
In the United States along with this trend there has been a countervailing trend to try to undo big government. To many this means less taxes, less welfare, less controls over the environment and more direct spending on their own security. (Everywhere in the world security is a significant growth industry.) To others this means more local involvement in self-government, more accountability over the environmental commons often threatened by big business and by social addictions such as the car. People from both ends of the economic scale see that more and more local control is essential to try to reverse the helplessness of local communities to the forces of globalization. This boils down to a trend where the haves are digging in to protect what they have and the have-nots are going to have to wait for or promote some extraordinary sociological change to address their problems.
For the foreseeable future the manipulation of digital data in all its applications and the manipulation of genetic material will be the foci the creation of wealth, of value added, in world economics. Papua New Guinea has very few citizens who are capable of adding value in this manner via the huge conglomerates that dominate world business. As we begin to produce such gifted people they will inevitably go overseas.
Papua New Guinea on the other hand is trying to create work for its small urban population and at the present rate this is never going to happen. In the emerging economies of Asia one of the drivers has been a pool of cheap labour which attracted industry from advanced economies to the nation providing employment. If the advanced nations are anything to go by this will be a temporary benefit to their workers as the Asian nations will tend to follow the problems encountered in the advanced nations with huge unemployment and huge disparities in wealth. Singapore may prove an exception to any of the societies we see emerge today in that the whole nation may develop into supplying value added products to the world without having to support a huge mass of low income population.
Papua New Guinea does not have a huge urban population and cheap wages that would attract nodes of the worldwide business webs to our shores. This means that wage employment in the urban sector will grow slowly as we begin to produce competitively those products that we can for our own use. On the one hand at the moment we don have a large number of urban jobs but on the other hand we dont yet have a huge dispossessed urban population living in slums, but we are working on it. We do however have law and order problems in the urban areas and also in the rural areas.
The following diagram illustrates that we have all the ingredients for building up a typically third world uncontrolled urban situation. However the relatively low degree of urbanization gives us a little breathing space to seek creative alternatives.
Figure No. 4: Status of Urbanization in Papua New Guinea Today
Many people in our rural communities are merely existing or struggling to subsist. Many are flocking to towns where, unemployed, they are surviving by draining the already low wages of their wantoks. Rural communities are undergoing a big increase in population. They are undergoing a loss of purpose and breakdown of traditional authority resulting in law and order problems that are becoming impossible to address by the police. The burden on women is becoming heavier rather than lighter. Rape is becoming commonplace whereas before it was punishable by death by immediate payback.
In spite of the inevitable fluctuations in world commodity prices the traditional cash crops certainly are essential to the survival of the rural communities where they flourish. Apart from these we have no plan and no track record of creating employment in the rural areas. Our forests are being cut with the mere promise of value added activities that without strong government action will never eventuate. There is no government will to maintain rural infrastructure let alone improve it. There are no significant incentives to rural industry such as cheap finance, tax reduced fuel, or well maintained roads that exist in countries such as Malaysia. Many of the young people in the rural areas would love to engage in paid employment to get away from the angst of living in the village where provision of everything needed for survival is a constant challenge, without the security of paid employment and the corner store. Did the village people of Bougainville really thrive and enjoy village life during the long period of blockade and disruption of goods and services? They showed tremendous resilience but they suffered. Village life today without access to many modern improvements is no bed of roses.
The basic argument proffered here is that we have no indication that we will even find enough paid employment in the towns to cater for the existing 20% of the population let alone paid employment for the 80% that live in the rural villages. Thus successful urbanization of our rural population is not an option. This means that we must devise strategies that will bring a form of modernity to the village people that will satisfy their aspirations and allow many of their members to move comfortably between two worlds.
Power to the people a vision for the future
We should find a Papua New Guinean form of modernity that blends with traditional culture and does not destroy it in a mad haste to ape the mistakes of many of the advanced economies of the world.
Advances in solar power and satellite communication technology mean that for a reasonable cost we can bring the modern world into the village to give the villagers an opportunity to be in tune with modernity without having to ape it in its various forms. Village kids could have access to the very best education programmes to assist in their education. English classes could be taught by native English speakers for example. Such classes could help village education from primary school to university level. Telephone linkages could assist with everything from health care to family unity. Low maintenance solar technology could provide the power for such developments. Economically advanced villages would have a natural progression to power for the entire village as they would have the base load to make it economical.
Such powerful doses of modernity would not be offered to villagers without a range of other measures that would assist the people maintain their integrity as village communities in the face of rapid social changes. Tok ples elementary schools should be established in every village for example. These measures will be dealt with later on in the discussion on incorporated land groups.
What do we have to offer to the world that gives us a competitive advantage, that can create rural employment and give us a capacity to earn needed foreign exchange? We have several assets that, managed wisely, would give us access to the world economy. These include our mineral wealth our forests and our fisheries and above all our unspoiled environment. Only the mining and petroleum industry is presently being managed honestly for the benefit of the nation. Forestry benefits only a select few and their foreign masters. We have a million hectares of sago and harvest less than 10% for our own subsistence. Sago export could provide permanent work for hundreds of workers and income to landowners. Fisheries are there begging for involvement by Papua New Guinea enterprises presently beyond the capacity of local business people without deliberate government involvement.
The one certain asset we have that gives a specific and unchallenged competitive advantage is ourselves, our way of life and our beautiful country. Exploitation of this asset, by definition, will give an advantage to the 80% plus living in the rural villages. The people of this country are its biggest asset. Papua New Guinea is possibly the most ethnically diverse country in the world. Our environment is unspoiled and largely unpolluted. How do we realise this advantage? Several things would have to come together.
Village people must assume control over their own destiny much as they did in times gone by. This is proposed not in any anarchic sense at all. This is not a denial of the overarching functions of the state but a creative complement to a state that just does not have the ability to deliver to all its people anything like the level of goods and services that are enjoyed by the present urban population. Not to mention the level of goods and services enjoyed by the advanced economies of the world. Big government is struggling the world over. Even in the advanced democracies local people are struggling to find alternatives for their own towns, or counties.
For too long in Papua New Guinea we have ignored the very positive elements of our traditional culture in focusing on becoming modern to catch up with the developed countries. Many of our strengths have been identified and enshrined in the Constitution and then ignored. In an attempt to modernize we are throwing away our strength to move hurriedly into areas where we are weak or simply beginners. We are focusing on a target that is changing from day to day and from the ordinary persons point of view changing for the worse. 10,000 years of settled agricultural society did not teach us nothing. Why are we so quick to chuck it all over? Are modern societies all that successful that we have to rush helter skelter after them to repeat their mistakes, when they are struggling to move on to the next stage to overcome their mistakes?
Central to this argument is the suggestion that greater attention be paid to quality of life, as distinct from mere access to goods and services. Thus leading governments away from a pre-occupation with running an unwinable race for an undesirable prize and leading them towards something that is preferable, desirable and pre-eminently Papua New Guinean.
This is not just imagination. Take one simple and incontestable example from personal health. Non-communicable diseases are on the decrease in developed countries yet are on the increase in PNG. The vast majority of the population smoke like cancer never existed and the sedentary workers in the modern sector are adding weight to their poorly exercised frames as if heart disease did not exist. Deaths by heart attack of stressed executives who should be in their prime appear daily in the papers.
Before the nation state came along at the behest of the colonial powers, dragging the population into the modern word there existed here many thousands of communities each independent and each holding their lands and managing their affairs almost in the manner of a tiny sovereign state. Friendly clans within an ethnic group cooperated in many ways to their mutual advantage. Not the least of these was in defence of their land holdings against neighbours who spoke a different language and would take the lands if they had the chance. As part and parcel of this military cooperation there were often shared cults designed to train male youths to maintain the necessary military manpower for joint defence.
There was a fundamental bottom line to this social organization and that was and still is today, the land group. In the past the social, economic and political management buck stopped with the managers of the land group. They had to have the last word on anything happening within their land parcels received into their custody from their ancestors. They had the responsibility to manage these lands and hand them on intact (or increased!) to their descendants. This they accomplished by an amazing array of techniques involving cooperation with neighboring land groups to build alliances against common enemies. In spite of everything these land groups still exist today. They are the foundation of traditional Melanesian society. They should be the foundation of the nation state of Papua New Guinea today and into the future. Certainly this is the intent of the Founding Fathers as enshrined in the Constitution.
If every land group in the country had its house in order it could provide meaningful participation for all its members. At one stroke the law and order situation of the rural area would all but disappear. The state could complement this security situation by managing inter ethnic problems that could result in violence so typical of pre-colonial times. There could be very real incentives for these groups to maintain perfect law and order dealing with any infringements at this very local level. If the majority of land groups were actively cooperating with the police to preserve peace and good order the police could use their scarce resources to manage conflicts when they breakout and/or target those groups whose leaders themselves are criminals.
Imagine a situation where each land group could guarantee that their members would not allow any crime, rascals, violence etc within their borders. People could travel freely from place to place without fear for personal safety. Is this heaven on earth? Is this just a romantic dream? I think it could be achieved. In the village we constantly hear the old leaders bemoaning their lack of authority now that their economic power has been eroded by the exodus of young educated group members with their independent income and the growing assertiveness of family members within their group resulting in a push towards privatization of group assets.
Land group leaders in the past were very powerful autocrats but they acted in the best interests of everyone within the group in order to maintain their position. Their autocratic style does not sit well with the young of today. Perhaps the problem people could become the solution. A more participatory management system within the land group would give all stakeholders at the land group level and then on at the village level the opportunity to become involved in planning their own development. If each land group had the necessary cohesion to generate and implement a land group/village level development plan an automatic deliverable would be the emergence of total control of law and order at the village level, the district level and so on.
Amongst other things this would allow the development of a tourism industry that would become our biggest national earner in a very short time. Our ethnic diversity and our bio-diversity and unspoiled environment are riches beyond the dreams of many of the advanced nations whose cash rich population would readily pay to experience these treasures for just a couple of weeks. This tourism income would be one of the economic drivers to diversify income earning opportunities at the village level. Once we knew how to do it nearly all our villages could be organized to cope with at least a few tourists a year and this would reduce the undesirable impact of too much disturbance to village life.
Villages today lack cohesion and many of their bright young members are away in the modern sector. Unaided they lack the management capacity to work towards a village development plan that embraces the diverse needs and aspirations of their members. Everyone today wants to do their own thing. They tend to do this and yet, time and time again, the hard working people who use their initiative to try to improve their economic well being cant escape the demands placed on them by other clan members.
A way must be found that will involve everyone. A role for the less gifted and less hard working that will make them contribute to their own well being without being a drain on their relatives. In the past this was imposed from on top. The leaders simply allocated tasks that were suited to individuals and everyone simply performed to expectations. The rewards however in those days were mainly sufficient food and shelter and belonging and useful employment.
The massive alienation of many, especially youth, in the western world coupled with unemployment has led to purposeless existence that paves the way for misuse of drugs and all the evils entrained therein. Do we have to blindly follow this path in Papua New Guinea before we try to do something about it?
Many villages today have resources that can be developed to provide a cash income. In the case of the well developed cash crops the returns have been adequate to maintain interest. Many other possibilities have been tried only to be abandoned for one reason or another mostly because the return to the producer was less than expected for the amount of labour required. Many villages today are receiving income from resource projects. Is there any possibility that this income could be used to provide permanent income earning opportunities?
Papua New Guinea is at the crossroads in regard to many aspects of shaping society for the future, none more fundamental than in regard to land holding, rural development and population control and urbanization. The most important questions to be answered in relation to these are:
Not to ask these questions means that the answer to question (1) is that the group will not be sustained. What will happen then in regard to question (2) is anybodys guess. Maybe it will be the survival of the fittest. The landless, the less fit, will then have to drift towards the towns to survive or will they stay on as workers or even beggars in their own land? Not to ask these questions and in particular not to start taking some positive steps to address these questions will mean a stagnation of the rural areas and increased and inexorable urban drift, unemployment, poverty and crime as we mindlessly repeat the mistakes of other societies with no one to blame but ourselves.
My own view is that the land holding in Papua New Guinea is something which gives us options for societal development quite extraordinary in todays world. In order to make the most of these options we will have to do some fundamental thinking about where we want to go and then start doing something positively about it. This paper is a contribution to that thinking based on the premise that the group must be sustained and that the land must remain under customary tenure. Most westerners believe that customary land tenure will doom Papua New Guinea to underdevelopment forever. This paper argues that this need not be the case and that far from being a deterrent to development customary tenure could result in a unique form of development that grants a quality of life to citizens that will be the envy of the so called developed world.
Before making practical suggestions as to how we can achieve and maintain a social structure in Papua new Guinea that is unique, consider the structures that we have now and relate these to the advanced economies that we seek to follow. In the western nation state individuals face up to the state, all equal under the law. In the Papua New Guinean situation we have the existence of other groupings, managed under custom, with the overlay of the nation state. We must find a way to nurture our customary management systems so that from a position of strength the members of land groups can interface with the state. This inevitably requires a shift in the traditional mental model but not a destruction of custom.
Figure No. 5b: WESTERN MODEL - Individuals comprise the State Population Distribution, Town and Country vs PAPUA NEW GUINEA MODEL - individual to family to land group to State. Customary groupings overlay and complement the individual basis of the State.
Masters of a domain or property owners?
Traditionally, clansmen did not look on their land holdings as property. Some expressions used by village people imply that the land where one is raised owns one. In many ways they looked on themselves as being masters of their land holdings. Pressures are coming from every quarter today requiring landholders to consider themselves as property owners. This requires the clan to be run almost like a company whose assets are the clan lands and the clan members. Is this possible?
It is possible to argue that the clan is established on principles that are contradictory to that of a corporation. The corporation is driven by the profit motive while the clan, as a cohesive body of relatives, often has other motives including reciprocal obligations between individual members (welfare?), and sustainability. For this reason clansmen cannot be controlled as workers etc. There is evidence to support this view. However the clan is indeed a corporation because:
In the past, authentic leaders were able to control the rank and file and even mobilize them for economic activity. There are examples of this today also where bigmen have enough power and prestige that they can control their clansmen.
In many cases today the functioning of the clan as a business or more accurately the functioning of clan owned businesses fails because of poor or corrupt leadership and not because of a total incompatibility between the clan as a customary group and a clan as a economic corporation. Honest strong transparent leadership is needed at the clan level. Is this possible? The task is formidable given the many trends in the opposite direction. The young and the skilled have left the village or remain disgruntled, under-utilized, alienated and not in the frame of mind to accept the authority of the elders. The elders see themselves as being ignored and shown little respect for their role of custodians of the clans oral traditions, land and welfare.
The Land Groups Incorporation Act is specifically designed to empower village people so that they can develop the skills to manage their own affairs. If the management of the land group is focused with a common goal they can work together to achieve that goal. Long term planning for the future was not a highly developed skill in much of Papua New Guinea. The climate and agricultural system mitigated the need for such skills. Short term planning was highly developed. Medium term planning evolved with the great trading cycles.
How are the clans to develop a clear idea of where they want their village to be in twenty years? Or fifty years? Planning needs to be conducted at all levels of Papua New Guinea society ranging from the individual family to the National Government. Ways must be found to assist village people plan for the future for their families, their land groups, their village, their local government, their province and indeed the National Government. The overlapping interests of planning are illustrated in the following diagram.
If positive active choices for the future are to be made then planning is needed at all levels in society as shown in the following diagram.
Village people must take stock of their individual identity, their relationship to their group, their relationship to their group property and then think about their future. Any reflection on these issues will inevitably lead to the conclusion that planning for the future is a fundamental requirement if creative responses to the challenges are to be applied to solve inevitable tensions. We must avoid the usual the long drawn out reconstruction of lives and property after the inevitable violent conflict tries to sort out the tensions caused by change.
It is suggested that planning at the family, ILG, and village level would provide the basis for the development of sustainable management at the village level. Where can advice and outside assistance be sourced to assist village people undertake this planning exercise? Resource project area people have a unique opportunity given the expert planning and implementation skills of the resource project developers. Unfortunately, in some forest projects the exact opposite is happening at the moment.
The Incorporated Land Group provides the custom-based structure and more participatory (democratic) decision making mechanism for the conduct of planning and subsequent implementation. The full involvement of the heads of families in the land group committee will ensure that decisions taken are sustainable and able to be implemented. Village based bottom up planning will provide realistic goals that will restore to both elders and village youth a sense of purpose that they once had before colonial intervention.
Village mobilization for business
An abiding concern of mine over the last twenty years has been the fostering of landowner companies. A few years ago on this topic I wrote that
"The preconditions for business development in Papua New Guinea require, that for businesses based on village social structure and resources to have a chance of success, the following conditions must be addressed:
Years of disappointment with LANCOs suggests that developing LANCOs before ILGs are working properly is to put the cart before the horse. The principles of running a successful commercial enterprise must first apply to the management of the corporate owner of land, the land group itself, before landowners will be able to run businesses outside the land group. The situation we now have is that clan members have double standards or at least, when they move out of the village mind-set to some involvement in a business, they fail to relate the two.
In the village if you want to do well you must work hard, plant a big garden, fatten pigs, look after coffee or cocoa or make copra. In other words you create your own wealth. It appears that village people do not see that a business has an existence of its own and that it also must create wealth by hard work and honesty. Villagers seem to think that business wealth simply exists or is created by some magic formula introduced by foreigners. The role of the village shareholder, be he director or worker, is simply to get as much out of the business as possible in the form of wages, private use of company ("my company") property or straight-out theft. ("I dont steal from my own garden").
If we apply the rules of business to a land group, the members will have to come to grips with the following:
Individual and group options for each ILG are the basis for development of rural plans. People will only give limited attention to things that do not relate directly to their own ILG or immediate family. In Kutubu a modern Health Centre was left standing idle for some years because of inter-clan disputes between friendly clans within one village. Perhaps this is why Village Development Committees have been only marginally successful. The ILG plan must be the building block for the village plan and hence the focus for cooperation within the VDC.
Each land group must decide
Papua New Guinea has a unique opportunity to fashion a pathway to modernity for the rural population that is unique in the world today. This can be accomplished not by destroying the essential group identity of rural landholders but by establishing management systems that will accommodate both the individual and the group. Many aspects of such a management system have been outlined in a previous publication so the essentials will be referred to here.
The critical elements that have to be addressed are the management of the national commons, the management of group commons, and the role of outside capital and technology. The state does not own land (or only 3%) but claims as a national commons the petroleum and minerals, the air above us, the use of water but not the ownership of lakes or the land under rivers, the international waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone. Land groups own the land and the forests in group commons. Perhaps as many as 30,000 of them!
Put together the commons held by the land groups make up the nation. For Papua New Guinea to develop the relationship of land and labour to capital and technology is critical. In most nations labour has been removed from land to permit large scale agriculture and to create a labour force for industry. Papua New Guinea does not have a big demand for labour, skilled or otherwise, just the opposite we have huge underemployment both in towns and villages. Therefore we must not remove people from the land in any wholesale manner at all.
The relationship of people to the land must be played out on the commons of each land group throughout the nation. The relationship of capital and technology to land and labour must also be played out by addressing land and labour within the confines of the land group commons. Conventional wisdom has it that this cannot be done. The present writer believes that it can and must be done for an orderly development of a modern Papua New Guinea.
The fundamental mechanism to be employed is the creation of a modern commons which will benefit all members of the group. Whenever any land is removed from the traditional commons there must be some balancing by payment into a modern commons. Individuals living in towns away from their land must and do maintain customary obligations to maintain their land group credentials. Part of this could be in the form of a tax to the modern commons. The simplest form of a modern commons is the corporate entity of the Incorporated Land Group (ILG).
When individual members take land out of the commons and plant tree crops, for example, some form of rent must be payable to the ILG. Members living and working in the towns could pay some form of tax to the ILG. Initially such moneys could be used to fund the land groups contribution to village improvement. As the amount of money became more substantial the ILG could form a company or buy its share in a company. This would occur if substantial group owned resources were deployed in forestry or agroforestry projects. The ILG thus become the central focus of a management system that oversees the conversion of traditional commons into modern commons.
Figure No. 9 Transition of the traditional land group commons to a modern commons
This system mobilizes land and labour without alienation of people from their land. The land group is strengthened. It remains the safety net for all members. Rural areas are modernized. Modern villages become the preferred destination for retirees from the urban sector. In this way Papua New Guinea can be modernized in a Melanesian way.
For this vision to come about there needs to be a national consensus as to the basic idea then there needs to be formed something like a Rural Development Authority that amongst other things takes ownership of the Land Groups Incorporation Act. It would promote training for village extension officers to assist villages conduct their own development option studies and learn of the workings of the Land Groups Incorporation Act as a management tool for development.
Anthony P. Power - email@example.com ©1998, ©1999