‘The Mahuzes’, a film about conflicts between indigenous people and agribusiness companies in Merauke, was released in Indonesian last year, and now it is available with English subtitles. It’s one of a series of documentaries produced as part of the ‘Ekspedisi Indonesia Biru’, a one-year road-trip on motorbikes by filmmakers Dandhy Laksono and Ucok Suparta, visiting diverse communities around the archipelago, often communities in struggle.
The Mahuzes follows one clan of Marind people in Muting village, where oil palm companies have started clearing land in the last few years on five massive plantations. The effects of these plantations are having a major impact – even the water from the Bian River has become undrinkable. The Mahuze clan is resisting – refusing to sell their land, erecting customary barriers to forbid the company from entering – but the company (PT Agriprima Persada Mulia) just pulls up their boundary markers. As well as these direct conflicts with the plantation companies, we see how they attempt to deal with the conflicts that inevitably arise when irresponsible companies show up with compensation money – there is an emotional peacemaking ceremony between the Marind and the neighbouring Mandodo people, but also anger in meetings that some elders in their own clan may have struck a secret deal with the company.
The Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate was originally launched as a massive industrial agriculture project in 2010, but it failed to reach the stated ambition in its original plan, and the cluster of oil palm plantations around Muting were some of the only developments that have actually started work in the last years. However, in May 2015 President Joko Widodo travelled to Merauke to relaunch the plan to convert over a million hectares of forest and savannah to mechanised rice production. The filmmakers also visit the site of the new rice development, revealing that once again the central government is ordering a mega project without due consideration of the local social and environmental conditions. One issue is the water – Irawan, who works for the water provider, explains that most of the water in the flat Kurik sub-district comes from rainfall. How could these conditions possibly support huge areas of irrigated rice-fields?
The Marind people’s staple food is sago, and sago palms grow abundantly in groves in the forest. As Darius Nerob explains in the film “If we plant rice, it’s 6 months before we can eat. But with sago, any day we need, we can just go and fell a tree… This tree can feed a family for half a year…. Even though the transmigrant program has existed for 33 years, Marind people have stuck with sago, they haven’t shifted to rice.”
2) Canberra needs to rethink what it offers Papua New Guinea and what it expects, writes Sean Dorney
Feb 19 2016 at 12:15 AM
by Sean Dorney
There is no question that if we are to improve the quality of the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea we need to rethink the aid relationship. This is, of course, easier said than done, and has already been attempted a few times. But especially in light of changes in the PNG economy, it needs to be done again. A particular focus has to be increasing the capacity of PNG government officials, rather than simply implanting Australian officials in the PNG bureaucracy because we do not think their officials are up to the task.
Prime Minister Peter O'Neill earned shrill headlines in Australia in August 2015 following a statement on how he believed the aid relationship could improve. He was said to have plans to "boot out Australian officials" working for his government and that he would "turf out all foreign advisers by the year's end'.
The full statement, in fact, should be welcomed by Australia as it indicated a determination by PNG to take greater control of tackling its problems. "As a developing country we don't want handouts," O'Neill said, "we don't want Australian taxpayer money wasted and we don't want boomerang aid." His complaint was about how much money never reached its real purpose.
"Development assistance has become a billion dollar 'industry' where so much of the goodwill ends up in the pockets of middlemen and expensive consultants," he said. '" wonder if the people of Australia realise how much of the money they give to help Papua New Guinea and other countries is actually paid to middlemen and lawyers." He said that rather than having advisers who worked for their own governments he wanted to move to a model in 2016 "where our partners will be welcome to fund positions within our government. These staff can then work and report through the Papua New Guinea government system and we will deliver their salaries through arrangements with the donor countries." He predicted this would help strengthen PNG's government systems from within and gradually wean PNG off development assistance.
O'Neill also forecast a change to the policing assistance given by Australia."We have had a policing partnership program in place for a couple of years now and I think all parties agree, the benefits are limited due to restrictions placed on the Australian police," O'Neill said.
"We have Australian police officers who are committed to strengthening law enforcement in our country, but they are frustrated by the bureaucracy that means they cannot do hands-on policing. I cannot imagine being a police officer who is told that if they see a crime being committed, he or she has to stand back and watch. We would like to recruit foreign police into line positions within the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary so they can lead by example and pass on their knowledge and skills."
There are signs that the government is shifting to a greater focus on capacity. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has pushed for the creation of a Pacific Leadership and Governance Precinct in Port Moresby to improve the training of PNG public servants.
Back in the colonial era, Australia had a highly regarded training institute in Sydney called the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA). It ran tertiary level courses for people recruited to work in PNG, including the kiaps and teachers. In 1970 it started training Papua New Guineans when Australia realised there was going to be a serious shortage of well-trained and qualified indigenous people to replace the Australians. My sister-in-law spent 10 months there in the mid-1970s doing a management training course. This new Governance Precinct that Australia is funding is, in some ways, ASOPA resurrected. The aim is to build leadership and management skills across all levels of the PNG public service.
In a press release issued for the launch of the precinct in November 2015, Julie Bishop said, "The institutions involved in the precinct will work closely with the public and private sector to foster the ethical, practical and intellectual framework to help build the leadership qualities and skills of government officials."
Papua New Guineans are also seriously underrepresented in Australia's Seasonal Worker Program. This program allows companies to recruit Pacific Islanders to work in Australia's horticulture, accommodation, aquaculture, cane and cotton industries. The Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme was introduced in 2008 and ran until mid-2012.
Although the modest cap on the pilot program was 2500 workers, the numbers who came in to take up short-term employment fell well short of that, at 1534. Of those, 1250 were Tongans while only 82 came in from PNG. A permanent scheme is now in place allowing Pacific Islanders to work in Australia "for a single approved Australian employer for a period of between 14 weeks and 6 months". The cap on numbers for 2015-16 is 4250. New Zealand has a similar seasonal labour scheme which is working much better and takes twice as many Pacific Islanders.
The number of Papua New Guineans getting seasonal work in Australia remains very low.
"We need to get serious about offering labour mobility opportunities to those parts of the Pacific that most need it," according to Jonathan Pryke of the Lowy Institute. "New Zealand has been doing this for its former colony, Samoa, and other Polynesian countries over the last half-century. We have a long way to go to catch up."
The Australian Department of Employment says "there are no country quotas in the programme" in our scheme, but perhaps there should be. A quota system would give Papua New Guineans many of those seasonal jobs in Australia, which would allow the average worker to remit between $5000 and $6000 to their families back home.
The difficulty of getting a visa to Australia really rankles with Papua New Guineans, especially when it appears to them that it is easier for Samoans, Tongans, Cook Islanders and Fijians to get one. Julie Bishop has made it marginally easier than it was. Papua New Guineans who have obtained visas now have special lanes they can line up in at the Brisbane airport. But obstacles still remain in actually getting the visa issued and this annoys Prime Minister Peter O'Neill. He told the 31st Australia–Papua New Guinea Business Forum in Lae in May 2015, that "this is an issue on which our two countries have held numerous discussions, but we have seen limited progress. I remain hopeful that this issue will be resolved [soon] – easing up visa access for Australians and Papua New Guineans alike."
On March 1, 2015, PNG cancelled the previous arrangement allowing Australians to pick up a visa for PNG on arrival. Australians now have to obtain a visa in advance and that has hurt PNG's tiny tourism industry. However, O'Neill said PNG was simply applying the same rules as Australia.
"This ease of movement, for business travellers and tourists, is important for both countries," he said, "but this has to be undertaken with fairness. We hope that there can be resolution in Canberra that is based on mutual respect." He then went on to reveal that Indonesia was giving PNG a much better deal.
There seems to be concern that Papua New Guineans will flood into Australia if the current restrictions are eased. The experience in the Torres Strait provides an indication of how unlikely that is. About 30,000 Papua New Guineans and 3000 Australians are able to travel across the border either way for traditional purposes – which also includes shopping trips – within a protected zone established under the Torres Strait treaty. About 50,000 crossings are made each year and rather than pose a threat to Australia, the PNG villagers regularly report on any illegal movement they see.
"We know which people are from those Australian islands and they know who we are," Robinson Gibuna, a pastor at PNG's Sigabaduru Village told me. "And any strange person trying to go across, trying to use our identity, will be caught easily." The Papua New Guineans in those villages are actually helping protect our borders.
The above is an edited extract from The Embarrassed Colonialist, by Sean Dorney, is a Lowy Institute Paper, published by Penguin Australia and will be launched on February 22.
Sean Dorney is a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute. He was a correspondent for the ABC from PNG for over 40 years and is the author of Papua New Guinea: People, Politics and History since 1975, published by Random House, 2000.