Indigenes or citizens in Papua New Guinea?

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.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

9 thoughts on “Indigenes or citizens in Papua New Guinea?

  1. Hi Alex, thanks for the post and for provoking a comment in me for the first time on savage minds. I understand why you want to critique a globalizing, even exotifying version of the indigenous. But your critique actually reads to me a little like that of the Kupers, and Browns of our discipline. The whole point of the passing of the UN Declaration, for all its faults, was to align indigenous rights with those of citizens and frame indigeneity within a universal human rights frame. Remember, no matter what you think of the exceptionalist claims underpinning the category of the indigenous, these are people who have been denied the full democratic process (e.g. self determination) for most of the twentieth century in most places (including PNG). The whole reason why indigineity is galvanized in contexts like PNG, and Vanuatu (where the situation is different because there isn’t resource extraction of this scale and competition) is as a critique of the inherited post-colonial democracy which so often does not seem to work in favour of the “people”. they connect up with settler-colonial indigenous movements, but the term has expanded in other directions. I think it’s a grass-roots political movement that aims to rethink democracy in very interesting way. In this way, the discourse of the indigenous is a vital political strategy which uses identity politics as a very real filter for political critique and activism. to align indigeneity with “brown exotic people” (to condense your comment above), diminishes the achievements and work of indigenous people who are not necessarily that visibly brown (Sami, metis, some Maori, the list goes on) to rethink alternative structures of governance and community participation. I suppose I’m saying that there are problems with the category but also that there are some very real political issues and that the global indigenous rights movement is not, intrinsically, a “bad” thing. Despite its problems, ultimately I think it works for the good! Take away the tools of indigeneity and what voice do people have to combat the mines? I would be genuinely interested in your take on this? What other strategies are effective in the face of a govt that just changes the laws when law works against it?

    Indigenous resistance is incredibly effective within the global media, galvanizing money from international organizations and so forth. Just because it may be strategic doesn’t make it inauthentic by definition. Once more, if we start with the authenticity thing, we end up in a difficult and unproductive place. Lets look at this as a political movement and critique of democracy, which lets face it, doesn’t always get us into good places…especially in regards to the environment. In Vanuatu, some people consider the state to be indigenous and the same argument could be made in PNG – you don’t have to read this as indigenous against the state, you could also see the discourse of indigeneity as a way to combat the pressures of global capital interest, which, despite independence, remain as influential as ever in government.

    It’s early morning here. This is a bit of a blather, hope it makes sense….

  2. Hey Rex,

    Interesting post and response above. The reference below from the polsci / political sociology literature might be of interest to you – especially the case study of Ogoni that documents changes in their a self determination discourse to one more focused on environmental activism; and the resulting leverage they gained from the change.

    Bob, Clifford. 2005. The Marketing of Rebellion. Edited by J. A. Goldstone, D. McAdam, S. Tarrow, C. Tilly and E. J. Wood. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  3. Haidy —

    I think we agree and perhaps are talking past one another. In the post above I made a distinction between ‘eco-indigenous’ and ‘political-emancipatory’ sense — a distinction that I’ve drawn from Geoff Sisson’s book first nations. Like Sissons — and you, I presume — I recognize that the discourse of indigeneity can be used in multiple ways and have multiple effects, ranging from the enforcement of an ‘oppressive authenticity’ on indigenous people to an empowering and emancipatory political practice which ameliorates longstanding injustices in post-settler states. As you yourself say — and I myself said in the post above — equating ‘indigenous’ with ‘exotic and brown’ causes us to overlook social justice struggles that do not fit the mold — urban indigenous people, ‘white’ indigenous groups, etc.

    Sissons’s point — and my own — is that the more discourses of indigeneity play up the eco-authentic dimensions of this concept the more they will take their eyes off the target that is important to you (and I): the social justice aspects of claims to indigeneiy. I hope you recognize how far this position is from Kuper’s. When you write that you believe that “the global indigenous rights movement is not, intrinsically, a “bad” thing” I would have thought it was obvious that you could not be disagreeing with me. You know me, at least a little — do you honestly think I believe the ENTIRE global indigenous rights movement is INTRINSICALLY a bad thing? Come now.

    You ask what sort of moral language could be used to combat a government that changes the laws when the laws work against it. The answer, of course, is any idiom with a commitment to justice and democracy — and both the language of citizenship and indigeneity appeal to these underlying moral principles. In the case of PNG, however, I believe that it would be better for the country to stick with its original vision at independence than to give up on the expectation — increasingly utopian, I admit — that the government is meant to represent them.

    When George Ireng writes that “We will WIN this fight for our Nation, our people and our future Generation if WE Beleive and move together” and laments “ignorant decisions by our Leaders” he is speaking a language of national regeneration — the leaders are corrupt, but they are his leaders. The goal is to preserve the nation, not supersede it. This is not a Tea Party politics, and it is very different from a Hawaiian nationalism that fundamentally contests the legitimacy of US rule of the islands, or indigenous groups living in countries which refuse to enfranchise them or whose oppression of them is so egregious that the government lacks legitimacy in principle.

    Papua New Guineans love their country — flags are on shirts and bags everywhere, the “PNG yumi mas kamap wan kantri” song plays constantly on the radio and on TV. I think they would do better to take it back from their leaders rather than write off the state altogether.

  4. I have often thought that the term ‘indigenous’ is overused, but I don’t think it must be used only within a post-settler-colonial context. I feel the ‘political-emancipatory’ use of the term is appropriate in other contexts where people mobilize through a shared identity AS indigenous people. It’s the application of the label ‘indigenous’ when there simply happen to be native people involved in a movement that is mobilized along lines other than those of shared identity that really irks me.

  5. This is a really neat conversation and I wish I was better versed in the literature and realities of Melanesia (in my heart I want to be in New Caledonia studying the upcoming independence referendum).

    There are a number of productive intersections between “indigeneity” and American Indian Studies, which flirts with this category of analysis at times while rejecting it in favor of the more politically real tribal communities and their governments. In particular Tom Biolsi makes a very useful argument about the scalar nature of identity among Indians: see “Imagined Geographies” in American Ethnologist 32(2). James Clifford, focusing on communities in Alaska and New Caledonia, makes a very similar argument about conceptualizing indigeneity as scalar, overlapping nationalism, and portable across geographies: see “Indigenous Articulations” in The Contemporary Pacific 13(2).

  6. Yeah I am not interested in using my epistemological authority — if I have any — to police the use of ‘indigenous’. Especially if it involves actively telling people they aren’t! And as Clifford and others have pointed out, ‘indigenous’ and ‘national’ are not polar opposites — most obviously, that’s why Sissons’s book (which I _highly_ recommend) is, after all, called First _Nations_.

    In the case of PNG, however, there are particular issues of law and policy that make the choice between ‘indigenous’ and ‘citizen’ rights talk uniquely consequential. PNG is already a place where resource developers tend to ‘replace the government’ in areas where they operate. I’m concerned that the decentralizing trend behind the creation of new provinces — particlarly Jiwaka — will not serve people well. There is talk of private-public partnerships that will put responsibility for schools, roads, and hospitals in the hands of private contractors rather than the government. I can’t really explain here how neoliberal economic trends in Papua New Guinea play into all of this but basically this trend towards decentralization, often couched in terms of helping ‘indigenous’ Papua New Guineans in claims against the state, is probably not a good idea in the long run. Or that’s my guess anyway.

  7. I read this blog as often as internet access allows, so I’m coming late to the comments. I’m a sociologist living in Madang Province working with youth in an action research project exploring environment-development issues. Rex, your post has similar elements to a loose collection of ideas rolling around my head related to social action in PNG. I’m interested in how ideas and the narratives of ‘grass-roots’, elites, nationhood, etc. influence relations, community psychology, and individual or collective action. There are some particularity strong narratives, almost caricatures at times, of the grass-roots people and the elites. This doesn’t seem to stem from any sort of social analysis, rather, these labels seem more descriptive – elites live in towns and drive Land Cruisers around, and the grass roots is pretty much everyone else without access to services and living in their village. These descriptions are politicized and reinforced in the media and with NGO-Government-foreign aid relations. I believe many of the NGO and activists strengthen these narratives, for example weak landowners fighting powerful corrupt multinational corporations, which can sometimes actually limit dialogue, participation, and educative opportunities from analysis of what are really complex social and transnational relationships. I think the use of the word ‘indigenous’ or George Ireng’s language of ‘national regeneration’ stems from the use of these powerful and increasingly common narratives.

    Getting to the point of the nation, I have never found the nation-making project of the independence period to be successful. Its influence was limited to a very small number of national high schools and faded shortly after independence. People surely wear t-shirts and bags with the PNG flag on it, but I don’t see how that translates into many Papua New Guineans ‘uniting against the state in the name of national unity’, as much as I may wish that was the case! From our work with youth and elders, perceptions of national unity do not have a strong influence on social action and affiliations, and organs of the nation-state – the constitution, parliament, legal rights, etc. – are mostly poorly understood or inaccessible.

    As for Papua New Guineans giving up on their country and its government, and giving up dreams of independence and self government, or opting out, well, certainly this is an issue of participation and power? More and more young and educated people, many with legal backgrounds (for all that’s good and bad with that), are meeting around PNG, discussing legal rights, Marx’s critique of capitalism, etc. I wouldn’t want to guess how this group (could I say intelligentsia?) reacts and engages with the government amendments to the Environment Act, but I am sure I’ll be surprised with what (if anything) they eventually come up with.

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