Can the Melanesian Way guarantee a good life for Papua New Guineans?

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WHEN THE AGREEMENT WAS signed to reroute asylum seekers bound for Australia to Papua New Guinea, there was a public outcry against the move by a majority of Papua New Guineans.

In the midst of the animosity levelled against the decision the more peace-loving Papua New Guineans were using social media to remind the rest of the people about the Melanesian Way.

Papua New Guineans were urged to embrace the asylum seekers in ‘the Melanesian Way’.

What then is the Melanesian Way that is supposed to make asylum seekers welcome?

Proponents talked about love, acceptance and peace such that, if this concept was a picture, it would show a line of people standing along a beach with the Bible in one hand, a lei in the other and a smile on their face, singing welcome songs.

Is the Melanesian Way a way of love? Did our ancestors stand on the shores and sing songs of welcome when the Whiteman sailed into the harbours and coves of the island of New Guinea?

John Waiko in his narration of the first contact between the Binandere and Europeans showed that the manner in which the different tribes approached the intruders was a direct reflection of their capacity to fight their tribal battles.

Some tribes were self-sufficient in their capacity to fight and maintain tribal lands and acquire new land from the losing tribes, while other tribes were being run to extinction.

Those that could not defend their lands embraced the Europeans as allies in the hope that the white skins and the power of their guns could be used to fight the local  tribal battles.

On the other hand, those that were self-sufficient saw the Europeans as a threat and rejected them and fought them off at every chance they had and even ate the bodies of white men to assimilate their power.

The Binandere people were portrayed as a scheming lot who forged alliances based on the benefits the alliance would bring to them to assist them fight their enemies. Unfortunately the Europeans were not aware of this agenda.

Other commentators define the Melanesian Way as a value of equality. Indeed, most Papua New Guinea societies are egalitarian. Apart from a few societies that had chieftain systems, most tribes in Papua New Guinea lived in a society where everybody was equal.  (Although the introduction of sweet potato disrupted this system in some societies by breeding pigs, polygamy and the big man.)

The notable writer and blogger Martyn Namorong calls this the ‘Melanesian equilibrium’ wherein  the fruits of the land were regarded as communally owned and, as such, everyone in society expected a fair share – not necessarily an equal portion a balancing act between the interests of the individual and those of the tribe.

But that was where it ended, within the tribe. No Melanesian equilibrium was ever extended to those outside the tribe. Tribes were fiercely protective of their land and women.

John Fowke, in his essay on the Melanesian Way, says that it is the way of a fragmented multi-tribal society. It’s a way which facilitated the existence of such societies whilst they remained divided, multi-lingual, local, warlike and competitive. In PNG’s case, this was a society that existed successfully and independently for tens of thousands of years.

The ‘Way’ that kept a fragmented multi-tribal society intact, as referred to by Fowke, can be put down to one word – suspicion.  Suspicion of everything beyond the tribal boundaries, suspicion of the unknown kept tribes independent for thousands of years.

The trade links and allies that existed were acquired, maintained and managed through marriage over time. The elaborate planning and ritual that went into arranging marriages and paying bride prices demonstrates how important marriages were for strategic purposes.

Although confusing to outsiders, the sometimes messy mortuary ritual that takes place to honour the “mama lain” and the “papa lain” when someone dies serves to reaffirm those links and allies.

Other commentators say that the Melanesian Way is an attempt to bring the thousand tribes with diverse tribal rules together as one nation. The Melanesian Way served to bring the thousand tribes ….under a new version of tradition as a bundle of values specific to no particular place but putatively shared by all.

Is that what Bernard Narokobi meant when he coined the term back in the 1984?

The rule of law which judges right from wrong is a concept absent in the Melanesian context. Narokobi recognised this and pointed out there was no right way of making peace and that conflicts can be successfully settled by recognising differences in the approaches and then coming up with the best mode to resolve the issue.

Through this method of considering all options, all parties win to some extent and none lose. This ensures that relationships are maintained and none is estranged, because one may need to call a favour in the near future.

This method of reaching a consensus had practical implications when the thousand tribes came together to become one nation. This method validated all the different customs that existed and showed respect and consideration for the differences. This method of dispute resolution I believe, was the Melanesian Way Mr Narokobi referred to.

Does a Melanesian Way exist and does it work? The answers are ‘yes’ and ‘sometimes’. For instance, the Melanesian Way is the winner in land disputes cases. Through dialogue, the genealogy is constructed and the land divided accordingly. All parties are satisfied.

This however, is not so for those who go to a court of law. The law rules that one is the winner and owner of the land and the other is the loser. This breeds animosity between blood relatives.

Despite its usefulness, the Melanesian Way is open to manipulation and misuse because of the oral nature of customary law.

This misuse has been pervasive in the political arena. A commentator states this about the Melanesian Way in politics: [It] is whatever those in powers choose it to mean. Lacking any kind of scrutiny their personal lives are enriched by theft, bribery and corruption. The Rule of Law means nothing to them and corruption is so entrenched that it is the norm rather than the exception.

After observing politics in PNG, hard-talking commentator, Dr Susan Merrell says the Melanesian Way is redolent with self-serving pragmatism and a fickle approach to commitment that can be called upon, or not, according to whim.

This self-serving pattern exists because Papua New Guinea’s parliament has two guiding principles. First is the one borrowed from the west and based on Christian tenets and the other is custom.

Custom, however, is not one custom but a thousand customs, unwritten and open to interpretation and which cannot be challenged in a court of law.

In such a dual system, with no rule to guide decisions, the trend has been to choose culture over the constitution when it seems beneficial to do so. The Melanesian Way has become the excuse to break laws and circumvent obligations and hard decisions and even escape the grasp of the law.

Justice is not served when a compromise is reached outside the modern court of law to pay “bel kol moni” to the families of victims of rape and abuse. It is against human rights values when a young girl is forcefully married off by her family to an older man to settle old scores.

So the Melanesian Way has become self-serving, as pointed out by political commentators. It suppresses innovation because it rewards supporters and kin and not hard work.

Can the ‘Melanesian Way’ guarantee a good life for the people of Papua New Guinea?

The definition of a good life is subjective, but all people, regardless of whether they live in glass houses or grass huts, desire a society where there is respect for lives and property, where there is an opportunity to better their lot in life through education, where they can access good health care, where they are safe and protected and where justice prevails.

We can make a good life for our people when we stop pretending that the Melanesian Way is relevant in the 21st century because it is not. Every human being must abide by the rule of law and conduct their lives according to the moral code all humans live by.

Justice has to prevail. The troublemakers must be punished and the people must rise and fall not because of influence but because they have worked hard and earned a good life.

In conclusion, we revisit the initial question: what version of the Melanesian Way would Papua New Guinea offer to make the Asylum Seekers feel welcome? In keeping with the spirit of the “Melanesian Way”, the details of the welcome party will be decided upon when it has to be decided.  As for the future prospects, the Government as the head of the united nations of Papua New Guinea may decide through legislation, to accommodate one more new tribe, to be housed on government land, to serve the government. This action will violate the thousands of year old instruction, encoded in the DNA of every Papua New Guinean, that compels warriors into warfare over land and that invokes deep distrust for outsiders. The attraction of acquiring powerful allies may just win over the default for keeping it between “wantoks”.

*** This essay was written for the Rivers Writing Competition November 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Adapting to a Changing Environment: Confronting the Consequences of Climate Change

Book coverBook Title: Adapting to a Changing Environment: Confronting the Consequences of Climate Change (2011) by  Tim R. McClannahan, Senior Conservation Zoologist with the Wildlife conservation Society and Joshua E. Cinner, Senior Research Fellow at the James Cook University.

The book is focused on the Western Indian Ocean Communities. These communities depend on fisheries and coral harvesting to sustain a livelihood. Some communities have over-harvested their coral reefs.  Climate change is causing waters in this part of the world to heat up affecting the source of their livelihood. This book analyses the state of their environment and the adaptive capacity of the people to withstand the impacts of climate change.

The book contains eleven (11) chapters. The first six chapters contain excellent background on impacts of climate change. Chapter 7 and 8 contain instruction on how to build an adaptive capacity model. Chapter 9 and 10 describes the social and ecological adaptation. Chapter 11 – talks about the future and how to confront the consequences of climate change.

This book is recommended for practitioners interested in helping communities adapt to the changing climate.

Chapters of Interest

The chapters of interest are chapter 7-10.

To identify the adaptive capacity of communities to climate change the authors measured the environmental and social attributes that predisposes communities to impacts of climate change.

Adaptive capacity is the flexibility with which communities can cope with changes. Adaptive capacity  of the people in the West Coast of Africa was measured by measuring the communities (i) flexibility to switch between livelihood strategies (ii) Social organization (iii) Learning – recognizing change and taking advantage of the change or adapting  (iv) Assets – the resources to draw on in times of change.

Data collection for this exercise involved extensive surveys. What is missing in the book is the survey to collect adaptive capacity data and the kind of information that was collected.   Environmental health was measured by surveying the health of the coral reef.

Data analysis was done using the Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP).  AHP is one of the multiple criteria decision-making methods. AHP provides measures of judgment consistency by deriving priorities among criteria and alternatives and then simplifies preference ratings among decision criteria using pairwise comparisons.

The analyzed data was then mapped into a 4 quadrat planning graph. Depending on where the communities fell in the quadrat given their environmental health versus the adaptive capacity, the planners can then develop locally appropriate strategies to address the challenge of climate change.

graphThe heart of the book is this graph which identifies and explains what action communities should take to help them adjust to climate change depending on which quadrat the community falls in.

For instance, when both Adaptive Capacity and Environmental health of a community is high, the intervention is in quadrat C. The activities of the community must be toward transforming and managing the health of their environment, while the ability of the people to look after themselves must be preserved and enforced.

On the other hand, when both environment health and adaptive capacity is low, the prescribed intervention is in quadrat A. The environment needs relief immediately which means that it must be left alone to recover, while the adaptive capacity of the people must be built.

The more adaptive the community , the more flexibility they have to adjust to changes in the environment.

In the last chapter, the authors discuss the merits of the method. They encourage nested efforts in addressing adaptive capacity issues in communities. At the very top of the nested effort is the international community, followed by the government, then the sub-national government and at the core is the local scale where the project is happening.  This is to ensure accountability when it comes to implementation.

The authors however caution that adaptation measures can potentially create unintended and unforeseen consequences on other social and natural systems creating uncertainty about the outcomes of AC. In an attempt to build adaptive capacity, social equity must also be taken into consideration. Excluded communities can undermine efforts to build adaptive capacity in chosen communities.

This model is a one-off tool. Ideally this exercise must be repeated within 4/5 years to measure the changes that have taken place.   It is costly to run this exercise in the field because it requires stringent data collection. The data collected must be in a format that can be analyzed by the AHP.

Application to Papua New Guinea

The adaptive capacity model is a helpful planning tool because it identifies environmental health and human capacity as the two factors that can be used to measure community capability to respond to impacts of climate change.

The model identifies the ideal situation then analyses the current situation, then detects the deficiency in the system. Once that is done, it becomes easier to identify interventions.  The interventions can then be turned into project activities.

The challenge of using this model is proponents will need to work out a method for data collection, and then identify the kind of information that must be collected.

Logically this is a project that must be undertaken by the government through its designated authority dealing with Climate Change.

It may work at District level and above for several reasons.  First, districts are a planning unit in the PNG system and therefore, planning for adaptive capacity can happen at that level. Second, districts have a budget and this may be the way to get the commitment by the governments to systematically address the interventions identified.  Third, the provincial government and the National Government are the levels of government that can ensure that such plans are implemented. This fits in with the nested level of implementation. Such projects require investment of money and infrastructure – all of which are the responsibility of all the levels of government.

The danger however, is this exercise may become just one more planning exercise. If there is no follow-through, this may become a waste of time and resources for both the planners and the people. The local people may become disillusioned because they would have identified the interventions, but lack the tools and the capacity to implement those activities.

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