Reflections on Papua New Guinea Trip

When we were visiting a village, the daughter of the village’s captain welcomed us with an act of gangsters’ attack.
“Welcome to Papua New Guinea.” She smiled.
In a country where violence is rampant, prison breaks are usual, gang fights are normal, friends and family can be betrayed, anything can happen.
“Expect the unexpected” as the slogan on its tourism advertisement says.

It has shattered my world perception.

“Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a beautiful country. People here are very nice and friendly. We have many resources, but we are not developed.” Brendon Peter, 37, a villager in Takudo village, said.

“We want the White (people) to stay here lifelong and change the place because we just hold the notion that when the white comes, there will be hospitals, schools, roads etc.” Francis Peter, another villager said.

The above statements have been heard repeatedly during my 5 weeks expedition in Papua New Guinea. PNG people have generally held the notion that despite their rich endowment of resources, they are not developed. But what developmentmeans to them? It is about infrastructure building, such as roads, schools, tapped water.

Tracing back to the process which PNG people form perception of themselves and the world, a sense of injustice is smoldering within.

PNG used to be Australia’s colony, upon its independence (before 1975), Australian government tried to introduce different foreign investments into the country to provide good financial foundation for the future independent government, signing contracts with mining and logging companies are of such examples. Those companies promised to “develop” villages around their mining and logging sites. However, they failed to live up to their promises. Several decades later, villages were still of no main roads to the city, no schools, hospitals. On the other hand, the investment from the companies has invaded and destroyed the very fabric of the country.

The culture of doing-things-fast has intensified the corruption among different governmental levels. To get necessary documents signed, approved, officials from those companies tried to bride government officials. Bribery becomes even more rampant after Chinese companies come in. The corrupt government has failed PNG people, which in turn have undermined its legitimacy.

Besides, most (97%) of the land in PNG belongs to customary land, meaning that a tribe instead of respective individuals owns the land collectively; at the same time, the boundaries between the lands are not clearly defined. To facilitate the logging and mining activities, the government is introducing land register system. So the ownership and the boundaries of the lands need to be redefined. It erodes the cohesion within a tribe, creates hostility among tribes because land disputes essentially create conflict of interests among different stakeholders. Indeed, it brings greed, dishonest and distrust. News reports regarding fights and riots related to land disputes have topped the headline frequently. This gradually dissolves PNG people’s sense of identity and sense of belonging. More to come, once the communal system is dissolved, the county is torn apart.

Moreover, such investment and development has distorted how they view themselves and the world. It is good to see that PNG people have a strong sense of national pride. Their loyalty towards their own tribe is much stronger than towards the country. Yet, once they are communicating with foreigners, automatically, they will have this kind of patriotism.

However, with a closer look, the sense of national pride is an injured one, based on self-victimization.

Through the propaganda from the government and the foreign companies, PNG people are portrayed as primitive, weak, backward. They cannot fully develop themselves unless with the help from other nations. Their predicament is a result of indifference and exploitation from other nations. However, such portrayal is only a discourse from the other side. It neglects the fact that PNG people are independent and vibrant, and always adopting to this changing world as well. Somehow, PNG people are brainwashed with this demeaned self-image. So the unsustainable development and foreign investment not only challenges the fabric of the PNG societies it comes in contact with, but also the very fabric of the Self.

In so doing, this foreign discourse, perhaps unintentionally, flattened the significance of local ways of being and local ways of understanding the world but another way, foreign discourse works to supplant local discourses.

I am not anti-development. But if people are happy with the way they are, like living less than two dollar a day, being “primitive” in terms of living under subsistence farming system, what authority do we have to intervene or even alter the way they are? Why would we think that our way of living is superior to others? What authority do we have to impose our value systems to the others?

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