‘What does Independence mean? It means the freedom to make choices and the capacity to implement them,’ says Sir Mekere Morauta, current Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
This year the nation celebrates the 25th anniversary of its independence. But the mood is not necessarily celebratory. ‘The truth is we have fallen short of the mark,’ Morauta continues. ‘Our economy is still vulnerable and fragile; our social indicators are very poor. In fact they are worse than they were in the early days of Independence.’
As a nation, PNG should have been able to reap the rewards of its rich natural resources. Since the Portugese explorer Jorge de Meneses stumbled on the country in 1527 and named it Ilhas dos Papuas (Island of the Fuzzy Hairs), its forest, mineral and marine resources have been sought after. Variously claimed by the Dutch and the Germans, the country eventually came under British control and was passed over to Australia at the end of World War Two. PNG’s post-independence colonial inheritance includes English as an official language, a Westminster-style system of government and a host of Australian mining companies.
Chris Sattleberger / Panos
Mining has shaped PNG. If it were not for gold prospectors in the 1930s, the world would have continued to believe that Papuans lived only on the coast. Instead these miners found about a million people – almost a quarter of the total Melanesian population of PNG – thriving in the secluded valleys of the central highlands.
While indigenous people traditionally own 98 per cent of land, a European system of law stipulates that what is six feet below the ground belongs to the national government. Resentment at the selling of mining rights and the transfer of mining levies to the capital was one of the elements that ignited rebellion on the island of Bougainville and, in 1989, closed down Panguna, the largest mine in the world. More recently, the Ok Tedi mine on the mainland has provided 10 per cent of GDP but has also destroyed over 1,000 square kilometres of wetlands and forest. Both of these mines were run by Australian and British companies and the national economy still betrays the country’s colonial ties. Although the Asian Development Bank, IMF, World Bank and Japan have recently assisted PNG, Australia remains its single largest aid donor and has provided about two-thirds of all aid over the last decade.
Most people are involved in agriculture which employs about four-fifths of the national workforce and accounts for a third of GNP. In contrast the country’s chief industry – mining – delivers an eighth of GNP and employs less than one per cent of the workforce. PNG’s ‘development’ over the past 25 years has not increased employment opportunities for those living in the cities. In a nation where 69 per cent of the population is under 30 years of age, unemployment plus the lack of educational opportunities has led to crime in urban areas, most notably in the capital, Port Moresby.
Yet perhaps PNG’s greatest achievement is nationhood itself. The Government is committed to a peace process in Bougainville, where fighting ceased in 1998, and it has accommodated an influx of 7,500 refugees fleeing Indonesian-ruled West Papua. While neighbours such as Fiji and the Solomon Islands have been recently rocked by inter-ethnic fighting, the co-existence of over 700 linguistic groups in PNG – and the maintenance of their cultural identities – is a genuine cause for celebration.