Observations of Papua New Guinea

Recently I visited Alotau in PNG located in the Milne Bay province.  Alotau is a town of some 30’000 people (although the proximity of villages and high social mobility makes population estimates difficult).  The local people are incredibly friendly.  There are many positive aspects of PNG that are hard to explain on a blog.   

PNG unemployment is estimated in the 95%+ range.  There is no welfare safety net.  The minimum wage is around 60 kina a week (20 Australian dollars).  Despite this, the subsitence economy of traditional living is influential and still plays a key role in the lives of many people.  Many Australians have negative perceptions of PNG because of things that they have heard or things that have been confirmed.  In the town of Alotau these perceptions are simply untrue.  There are greater social challenges and greater issues of community safety in many Australian locations than there are in Alotau.  An initial glimpse of the above facts brings about negative feelings but this should not substitute the influence of the subsistence economy, the mannerisms and friendliness of people, the hard-work and determination on the part of most PNG citizens to lead productive and sharing lives. 

In PNG, Most locals move between the cash economy and the subsistence economy with relative ease.  Food is plentiful and is easy to grow.  Land ownership is based on traditional structures.  These are just some of the fleeting glimpses observant in PNG, and in the coming months I hope to provide more detail into my experiences.

On one occasion an uncle of Nathanael and Aaliyah, Tom, suggested that the social dysfunction experienced in Aboriginal communities is a result of them receiving money for nothing.  ‘But’, he said chewing on Boi (pronounced boo-eye), ‘sometimes I think that if we had that system here we wouldn’t have so many problems with crime and stealing in PNG’.  There are many problems in this regard, he explains, especially in central regions that serve as a hub for young people and others from the village looking for work.  As there are no jobs available, and without the means to provide for themselves or those around them, they resort to crimes that can often go unpunished.   

In another discussion with a ‘Highlander’ (a person from the Highlands located in the centre of PNG) I gained a glimpse of the extent of knowledge about Australia and its links.  Anita explained in pidgeon that I’m ‘mixed race Aboriginal’, or ‘trick-trick’ (not really indigenous and not really a ‘dim-dim’, an expression used in PNG).  He smiled and looked at me and said ‘your land has been taken away’.  He explained the importance of land to people in PNG and how it is centre to everything.  I replied that many people in Australia, including the media and some Aboriginal leaders, regarded many parts of the land to be ‘handed back’, but this didn’t appear to wash. 

In PNG the land title system reflects customary indigenous law.  Land-owners have absolute control including access (although major towns and regional centres are open to everyone).  Land-owners can divide the land and sell titles to the public.  If land is disrupted compensation is payable.  To the person we were talking to the fact that Aboriginal people remain in disadvantage confirmed the stories he heard about Aboriginal land being stolen.  It appeared that he couldn’t reconcile the fact of Australia’s economic development with the supposed statement that Aboriginal land had been returned, or ‘handed back’.

In Alotau the sand on the beach is black.  The beach meets flat land for only a short distance and then it builds upwards into mountanous ranges.  These ranges used to be volcano’s and I am told that is why the sand is black.  Such effects have also creates small boulders ranging from minute to the size of a watermelon.  These boulders are everywhere, and they are used for ‘moo-moos’ (traditional ovens). 

Continued over the fold.

Education in PNG is limited.  There are only limited places.  Some students who work hard and study are not guaranteed a place, even in the lower primary levels.  There are only so many places because of the lack of infrastructure and services that many people who work hard, who study hard and achieve sufficient grades, are simply denied a place. 

Even those who do well and go to further tertiary studies are guaranteed limited opportunities.  A person can come to Australia and achieve a tertiary degree.  They return and in many cases the only form of employment, even with the use of their qualifications, is to work for 6-12 kina an hour (1 kina converts to about $0.4 Aus).

In circumstances of high unemployment, low job supply and no welfare safety net the conditions for corruption are ripe. 


3 Responses to “Observations of Papua New Guinea”

  1. 1 Mangimosbi
    28 January 2008 at 9:04 am


    If you’re ever in Moresby on your way to Alotau or wherever then email me.


  2. 2 Sandy taylor
    22 April 2008 at 12:29 am

    Thanks John, I really enjoyed reading your story on PNG. I have known some softballers from PNG back in 1995 when we met at the Arafura Games in Darwin and I was on the National Umpiring Scence. You are so right – they are a warm and friendly people despite their hardships. Regards, Sandy T.

  3. 21 November 2008 at 1:02 am

    Just thought I’d correct you on your word “BOI”. It is pronounced “BOO-EYE” but it’s spelt “BUAI”. And “MOO MOOS” is spelt “MUMUS”.


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