Panning for gold: a real time glimpse into the (neo) colonisation of Papua New Guinea

Lihir mine-aerialThis is a tale of good ‘ole colonisation in 2016.

Awareness of the colonial, neo colonial, and ‘postcolonial’ practices that lead Indigenous peoples to  “live our daily realities in suffocating spaces forbidding our perspectives, our creativity, and our wisdom” (.ix) is not new  to Indigenous people. I certainly am not impervious. However, sometimes I hear things, far beyond the ‘daily reality’ of these experiences, that force me to stop and ask seriously, how?

A story my mother told me after returning from a recent business trip to Papua New Guinea with my father, who for the last six years has been working in PNG on a number of development projects including construction and energy, was one of these moments. It was the latest installment  in a  series of many stories shared by my father over the past few years  about the politics of development in PNG.  He has, with his company(s), worked with landowner groups to provide development that is sustainable for the groups communities’ financially, culturally, and ecologically . This is a radically different model than exists normally within PNG, which is almost exclusively straightforward extraction with no responsibility toward landowner groups  beyond compensation for land lease, and it has met a fair share of resistance.

The short of it is, the majority of land and resources in PNG are still owned by traditional land owner groups- a very rare circumstance for Indigenous people; 97% of land in PNG is held by customary tenure and protected to some degree by legislation as inalienable Indigenous land.  And by extension many billions of dollars in minerals, oil & gas, agriculture, forestry, and fisheries (1 remain in the control of traditional land owner groups. But the security of this position is currently under significant threat from legislators pulled by aid strings and large international companies, such as Anglo American Mining. (The existence of this company alone was a big how moment for me. Just roll that company name over your mind a few times.)

Unsurprisingly the fundamental role of traditional land owners in governing the use of land and owners is perceived as an bottleneck, and an obstacle to growth by foreign interests. Landowner groups participate in the formal economy through an incorporation, which transforms the group into a western legal entity  but also places strain on the traditional model(s) of governance. Again, unsurprisingly despite being organised like a western entity, these groups do not often conduct their business as one. So,  there is significant pressure from multi-nationals on the national government to introduce constitutional reforms allowing the central government to regain control of land thereby “freeing it up” for sale and profit (2).

What I have such difficulty wrapping my mind around is the fact that these groups control many billions of dollars in resources, but policy experts from places like the UK  and Australia insist that they remain in poverty because 1) traditional ownership of land leads to inefficient use of that land, which by the way would be much better used by international companies with no commitment to keeping that money in PNG, and 2) the people (read peasantry) are not focused enough on cash crops. Of course there is a much more sophisticated economic rationale which includes some real issues like corruption. But this rationale serves simply as justification for removing insane amounts of wealth into the hands of neo-colonial powers. It’s a 21st century version of the colonial history most people assume remains in the past. And it needs to be talked about.

A caveat: I’m not an expert on this subject.  I’m writing about a people and a land that aren’t my own based on limited, albeit informed and researched, understanding.  I’m aware that Papua New Guinea has long been fetishized by anthropologists, biologists, archaeologists, and photographers, and I in no way want to contribute to that legacy. I am in no position to represent the experiences of Papua New Guinea peoples. I do, however,  posses a deep appreciation for the generational scars the processes discussed in this post can inflict on communities. They have marred both my Kiowa and Tongan communities, along with many other. My interest in the entrepreneurial and development practices of Indigenous peoples as acts of self determination and healing developed in many ways as a response to my experiences of them. These experiences create a background for my interest and a context to respond to the  unique insight  into the political and commercial climate for development in PNG I’ve been afforded through my father’s involvement there.  


  1. Amber Nicholson

    I am not sure if I am utterly shocked that colonialism is well and truly alive in the present day (as in being practiced in such an overt manner), or completely not surprised. Will we ever learn??


  2. Abigail McClutchie

    Thanks for the share Rachel. It never ceases to amaze me how colonial oppression and domination of indigenous peoples manifests itself all over the world.Thanks for bringing this to our attention.


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