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Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum

Levels of government responsibility/concepts of land ownership.

Posted By: Haraka Gaudi.
Date: Saturday, 19 June 1999, at 12:16 a.m.

In Response To: Clarifications sought about levels of government control. (Gillian Cambers)

Thank you for your response. Here are the answers to your queries.

RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE DIFFERENT ARMS OF GOVERNMENT: You are correct in distinguishing between the political arm of government (elected officials) and the bureaucratic and (civil or public servants as they are known here). The bureaucratic arm or public servants have been very professional in executing their duties which includes advising the politicians to make informed policy decisions regarding major infra-structural developments. This advice is based on sound technical knowledge and expertise.

The first ten years since independence in 1975 saw prosperity and growth in PNG. During the period there was a good working relationship between politicians and public servants. The period of 1985 onwards saw this harmonious relationship break down. This was the time when politicians took over the functions of the bureaucracy and politicised the whole bureaucracy. Politicians became involved in project design up to implementation and had the final say on what projects got approval.

The important line departments like Environment and Conservation couldn't carry out independent Social and Environment Impact Studies, monitor existing projects, etc; Finance and Planning Departments couldn't adequately carry out Cost Benefit analysis studies and monitoring projects and support departments couldn't contribute towards monitoring existing projects. These shortfalls were compounded by the current Global Economic Crisis and the Cash Flow problem experienced in PNG and in other countries. The severe budget cuts meant that these important departments couldn't carry out their duties and responsibilities.

As a result of the culmination of these and other factors, the major feasibility studies are left at the mercy of the developers who select their own advisers and consultants to undertake these vital roles. Their recommendations were therefore accepted on face value by the politicians without thorough independent examinations of the ramifications of these otherwise biased reports.

The major projects I alluded to, namely the Bougainville Crisis and the OK Tedi Environmental Issue, reaffirmed the importance politicians placed on the potential export earnings over environmental and social issues. The announcement last week by OK Tedi Mining Ltd. to wind up operations within ten to fifteen years is in itself an admission of the magnitude of the irreversible damage done to the OK Tedi River System. What has been denied and viewed as a non issue to be swept under the carpet is now a major environmental issue. This announcement came about as a result of an independent study conducted by a group of international scientists who confirmed and verified that the problem of environmental degradation is much worse than admitted by OK Tedi Mining Ltd. Vegetation die-back of the river system down stream has now expanded to include the forested areas and the OK Tedi Mining Lyd. has finally admitted openly that it cannot adequately address environmental issues, opting therefore for early closure of the giant copper mine.

The stance taken by the senior national (PNG) bureaucrats to keep the Multibillion Dollar PNG to Australia Natural Gas Project on hold is to prevent a repeat of the Bougainville and especially the OK Tedi episodes. It couldn't have come at a better time. The announcement by OK Tedi has ignited the panic button among major developers who now fear that they have to be more transparent and accountable to environmental issues in their respective project sites. This is a good sign although proponents to development might argue that such measures might scare aware potential investors to look elsewhere. That is their problem.

SUPPORT OF THE VARIOUS BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT: The Public Servants would be very supportive of this EWP. I believe the common sentiment from this group would be "we told you so". As I did mention, the problem with the Public Service is the chronic budget cuts resulting in many officers being laid off or voluntarily retrenched and the remaining skeleton staff confined to the capital city Port Moresby. These officers should be out in the provinces monitoring major development projects.

We now have in the national government, (the government of the day and the opposition) many elected officials who were former Public Servants, academics, lawyers, environmentalists, activists and most of them, themselves land owners (stakeholders). The majority of them will support the EWP. Only a minority would still argue for the importance of export earnings to boost the national economy. Even this group are now becoming environmentally more conscious - a positive sign also.

ULTIMATE DECISION MAKING POWER: This EWP couldn't have come at a better time. The bureaucrats were worried that the Multi Billion Dollar Natural Gas Project (the single most expensive and largest project ever envisioned in PNG) might repeat the same mistakes that Bougainville and OK Tedi went through. The project was to go through three provinces in PNG; starting in the oil and gas fields in the Southern Highlands across the Gulf Province to the coast, on the ocean floor through huge submerged pipelines through Western Province Waters, then into North Queensland, Australia. Stakeholders from all these provinces ought to be consulted in order for the project to operate smoothly.

The single most envisioned problem is landowner dissent and blockage of the gas pipes from going through their customary/traditional land. The project itself is a maze of hurdles with different stakeholders from simple land owner villagers, to provincial politicians, national politicians as well as a conglomerate of Australian companies to finance the project. The Queensland State Government of Australia as well as the Federal Government of Australia and the National Government of PNG are all stakeholders.

What the bureaucrats appear to be saying is that instead of rushing this project through, let us consult these stakeholders. These are the people whose land, village, hunting and fishing grounds, gardens that the pipes will go through. These are the people who will suffer the environmental impacts of the project during the project cycle. What are the likely social impacts on the lives of these people on whose land the project will pass through?

The job creation opportunities, spin off economic benefits and the projected export earning figures are already on the drawing boards in board rooms, however, the social and environmental impacts are of paramount importance for the success of this major project.

The ultimate decision making power, however, lies in the hands of the elected politicians in government. The buck starts and stops with them. While they are under pressure from developers and financiers (investors) to make affirmative decisions in limited timeframes, it is wise that they listen to the advice of the bureaucrats. The bureaucrats are saying loud and clear that because of the magnitude of the project, "take stock of the interests of the different stake holders;" how will they benefit from the project? What are the likely social impacts on the lives of these people?; what are the likely environmental impacts and many more relevant and hard questions need to be asked and answered before the project gets final approval from the elected officials (government) of PNG.

The most important challenge to our government is that they will have to foot the bill this time around and engage our own people to conduct these important feasibility studies. A thorough cost benefit analysis study entails comprehensive environmental and social impact assessment studies; economic cost benefit analysis studies and other areas deemed necessary for a major project of this magnitude. We cannot rely on the goodwill of the investors in adapting their recommendations. The events of the last few weeks have revealed to us the mistakes of our colonial heritage as well as that of previous PNG governments. Bougainville has cost us dearly in lives and lost revenue while OK Tedi illustrates the magnitude of environmental degradation that is now irreversible. We must not repeat these mistakes but rather learn from them and make amends for the sake of our future generations.

CULTURAL VALUE OF LAND: Land to us in PNG and other native people of the world including the Australian Aborigines, the North American Indians and the Inuit (Eskimos) means our identity, culture, uniqueness, heritage, etc. To us, the sea, the air, the birds and flowers, the trees, fish, reefs all represent our cosmos and our universe. We refer to "mother earth" as the provider. We are but temporary tenants who live off what she provides to sustain ourselves. What remains is for our future generations. We believe that everything on the surface of the land, in the sea and underground is ours.

Foreigners see our land and resources as commodities with money value attached to them. Legally any mineral and petroleum resources six feet below the surface belong to the crown. This colonial law was adopted from our Australian colonisers upon independence. In PNG people have a hard time understanding this law because we believe that everything from where one stands down to the other side of planet earth (as we now know it) belongs to us. We believe therefore that our "birth right" to land and sea can never be simply replaced by "legal right" for foreign investors who are only interested in our trees, minerals, fish, etc. but are not really interested in listening to and empowering our people. As Bishop Leslie Boseto, a senior citizen, clergy and now turned politician - Foreign Minister from neighbouring Solomon Islands - said in his address to a Theology Conference in Suva, Fiji in 1994,

"resources in the Pacific are enough for everyone's needs but not enough for everyone's greed."

Pacific resources in the land and sea are like a big garden of Eden. Pacific trees, gold, copper, nickel etc. are our God-given blessing. Our garden of Eden in the Pacific should not be spoiled by apple "(money)" and snake "(greed)".

Resource developers (investors) do not share the same sentiments we have towards the land. Their interest is to exploit our resources in the shortest possible time and to move on. What will happen to the big holes they dig in the mine sites after the minerals are extracted, the rivers they pollute and erosion caused by the mass felling of our trees. Who will represent our vulnerable, uneducated, powerless land owners and fight for their rightful share of these economic ventures or stop developers destroying the environment when politicians argue that we need the dollars to develop the country so don't stop progress.

PNG is very unique in that despite our colonial heritage, 97% of the total land mass still belong to the people (traditional land owner) where 85% of the population reside in the rural areas. Only 3% which comprises of urban towns and cities belong to the government where 15% of the population reside. The disturbing fact which I will not dwell upon here is that the 15% in the urban areas enjoy 85% of the national purse while 85% of the total population has access to only 15% of the nation's wealth. PNG's population is around 4.5 million.

The reason why I was addressed as a land owner representative in Paris was not that I own a million dollar ranch in Texas or so but that my people owned the land that the capital city Port Moresby is built on.

Land is our identity in the sense that land i.e. from this river bank to that mountain ridge down to that beach head belonged to my clan X. We would be identified by others as the group who own that huge piece of land. Our territorial boundary was known to others in adjoining land areas and that signified our cultural boundary and heritage. Because my ancestors were hunters and gatherers while their neighbours, the Motuans, were sea-going fishermen, my people were unique in that their association with the land is as hunters and gatherers. Each group was given the land and sea to cultivate and to take care of in the same way they take care of their very life and survival. We therefore coexist with our land, forests and the sea that provided our life's sustainability and nourishment. Our land and sea are us and we are them. This rather unique attachment to the land is almost religious and emotional to the extent that when our trees are cut down, big holes are dug up, the rivers are polluted etc. we feel the same pain that our land feels. This may sound weird to western ears but that is our unique heritage and relationship with mother nature the provider.

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