Despite the fact that it is my area of expertise, I do not normally comment on the mining and petroleum scene in Papua New Guinea. Despite having studied the industry for more than a decade, I will never know as much as my ‘informants’ — the people actually living with mines and oil projects. This is particularly true for current affairs, when the ‘real story’ of what happens on the ground is often much different from reports circulated by the press. Nevertheless, I do feel compelled to say something about the shameful events that have recently taken place in country — and the way they are being received by the anthropological community and others.
The government of Papua New Guinea recently amended the country’s Environment Act to make it illegal to appeal permitting decisions made by the minister. The immediate reason for this change is clear — the national government relies on large, internationally-financed resource developments to fund it budget. The Ramu NiCo mine in Madang province, majority-owned and operated by a Chinese firm, is planning to dispose of tailings by dumping them into the sea — a move that many, many people in Madang oppose. When anti-mining groups got an injunction against the mine, the government responded by making it illegal to oppose their decision to let the mine go ahead.
The issue is actually more general than this. Landowner groups and others who oppose mining and petroleum developments often challenge environmental permitting in order to pressure or halt operations. Mining leases are rarely reviewed and renewal is largely a matter of course, but water use permits (for toilets on site, for instance) more regularly come up for renewal — and miners need toilets. The Ramu case is just one instance of a much broader tactic used by people opposed to mining.
The big picture is that Papua New Guinea is torn — between politicians in Moresby who are want to use mining revenue to enrich and develop the nation, and grassroots Papua New Guineans who don’t see why they should suffer so others can gain the benefits of mining revenue. When Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975, the country inherited the benevolent paternalism and technocratic confidence of its colonizers — the first generation of educated Papua New Guineans were going to lead the country forward and help develop the grassroots in the name of national progress. Now the worm has turned and Papua New Guinea’s leadership seems to see Papua New Guineans as ungrateful and stubborn — after a peaceful protest organized by Transparency International outside parliament, the prime minister called those who participated “satanic and mentally insane”.
In an article I am working on right now, I examine newspaper coverage of these issues in order to understand contemporary transformations of nationalism in Papua New Guinea. My conclusion – which at this rate will not be published until my kids head off to college! — is that Papua New Guinea is torn between two different idioms to express this conflict between grassroots and the political elite. Within the country, the language used is that of the nation: ironically, the nation-making project of the independence period was so successful that many Papua New Guineans now see themselves as uniting against the state in the name of national unity. Externally, however, the language used to describe these conflicts is that of indigeneity. Coverage of recent events by a UN-sponsored website, for instance, describe the problem as one in which “indigenous people lose out on land rights”.
What I do not say in the article — since it is all scholarly and everything — is how incredibly disappointed I am in the government of Papua New Guinea. Democracy is not fun or easy, and the paralysis induced by lawsuits can be a huge pain, but the solution to these problems is not and can never be removing people’s rights to participate in the processes that will affect their lives. This is particularly true in the case of Ramu, where environmental concerns are justified and deeply felt, not simply cynically used as tactics in a political process. Transparency, accountability, and participation are all incredibly stupid and ridiculously ineffective ways to run a government — but we chose them because democracies put people’s rights ahead of convenience or practicality.
Additionally, I am very uncomfortable with labelling this as a conflict featuring ‘indigenous’ people — despite the fact that I know appealing to international forces using the idiom of indigeneity is often yields useful leverage in political contests like the one at Ramu. But in fact Papua New Guineans are indigenous only in the (often oppressive) eco-authentic sense: they are brown, they have ‘exotic’ languages and cultures, and they live in a place full of endangered species of animals. They are not, however, ‘indigenous’ in the much more important political-emancipatory sense: there is (and was) no real settler colonialism in Papua New Guinea, no large scale expropriation of land, and not even an ethnic majority to oppress minority groups. Despite how easy it is for outsiders to shoe horn Papua New Guinea into popular and easy paradigms of indigenous struggle, such a construal of Papua New Guinea’s story does not do the country justice.
Eco-authentic definitions of indigeneity perpetuate stereotypes of Papua New Guinea as savage backward by giving them a positive moral valuation. They obscure from sight the large number of educated Papua New Guineans, and they stigmatize Papua New Guineans’ decisions to take part in urban, cash-based economies as an abandonment of precious indigenous heritage.
Most importantly, however, these idioms tempt Papua New Guineans to give up on their country and its government. With corruption in the civil servant rampant and elections in Papua New Guinea too-often a mere shadow of genuine democracy (there is video footage of political henchmen unapologetically — and literally — stuffing ballot boxes), it is easy these days for Papua New Guineans to opt out, to declare the government an illegitimate opponent of the grassroots rather than to hold it to account as the voice of the people. Perhaps they do not need the ‘indigenous alternative’s’ help in abandoning any conception of state legitimacy. But I think Papua New Guinea loses something important when it gives up on its dreams of independence and self-government. Even though it may require people to dig deep, I would urge Papua New Guineans not to give up on the light at the end of the tunnel, and to insist that they are citizens, not indigenes, of Papua New Guinea.