Ironies of Organization: Landowners, Land Registration, and Papua New Guinea's Mining and Petroleum Industry

By Golub, Alex | Human Organization, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Ironies of Organization: Landowners, Land Registration, and Papua New Guinea's Mining and Petroleum Industry


Golub, Alex, Human Organization


Contemporary policy work in Papua New Guinea portrays the country either in terms of an inflexible tradition to be remedied by liberalization, or a weak state whose disintegrating social institutions must be strengthened by regional neighbors. As an analysis of land registration issues surrounding resource developments shows, rural Papua New Guineans demonstrate a willingness to innovate on past practice that is strikingly modern in its outlook, and the politics of land registration cannot be explained by liberalization or disintegration approaches. At the same time, the fluidity of land tenure makes it difficult to study land in Papua New Guinea as if it were common property, as is done in new institutional economics.

Key words: Papua New Guinea, land tenure, kinship, globalization, mining

This unceasing renewal, this inventive assuredness that guarantees success wherever it is applied, this scorn for the beaten track, bring about ever new improvisations which infallibly lead to dazzling results-to get any idea of them, our times had to await the exceptional destiny of a Picasso. With this difference, however: that the daring feats of a single man, which have been taking our breath away for the past thirty years, were already known and practiced by a whole indigenous culture for one hundred and fifty years or longer.

Claude Levi-Strauss,

Way of the Masks (1982:4)

International policy elites generally have two opinions regarding land reform and land privatization in Papua New Guinea. Neoliberals such as Helen Hughes have argued that "communal landownership has held back indigenous entrepreneurship in the Pacific as it has elsewhere in the world" (Hughes 2003:11) insisting that "clan loyalty, admirable in traditional societies, is inappropriate for a high-income modem society" (Hughes 2003:12). Others, such as Benjamin Reilly (2000:264), are concerned with the "Africanization" of Papua New Guinea and the threat posed by a resurgent tribalism in which "control of natural resources" is an "element driving violent conflict" which could destabilize the entire country. The solutions they propose-deregulation on the one hand and intervention by stronger regional neighbors on the other-are remarkably similar to the tendencies that Ostrom noted in the management of common-pool resources (Ostrom 1990). Drawing on the literature of new institutional economics, Ostrom famously pointed out that common-pool resources can be managed by institutions for collective action more effectively than they can be by either the liberalizing solution suggested by Hughes or the Leviathan-like intercessionist politics advocated by Australian policy makers like Reilly. Is Ostrom's middle path an appropriate way to manage land issues in Papua New Guinea? How well can a focus on institutions of collective actions understand customary land tenure in Melanesia?

In this paper I seek to answer these questions through an analysis of the international mining and petroleum industry's attempt to lease land in Papua New Guinea. Like Ostrom, I argue that the contrast between Leviathan and liberalization is overdrawn. Papua New Guineans today are neither caught in the grip of an "inflexible tradition" nor do they live in a fragile (or "shattered") Eden (Errington and Gewertz 1995). However, while the approaches exemplified by Reilly, Hughes, and Ostrom may differ about whether indigenous social organization is disintegrating, intractable, or well-balanced, they share an underlying model of indigenous landownership: that it consists of stable institutional arrangements that provide an environment within which individuals act. This view, I will argue, is mistaken.

One of the hallmarks of anthropological theory is its emphasis on the dynamic relationship between structure and agency (Ortner 1994; Sahlins 1976, 1985) and the way the agents both exist within structures and reshape them. Such an approach is particularly relevant when studying Papua New Guinea, where land tenure arrangements are characterized by culturally distinctive modalities of transformation rather than a static inventory of culturally-specific content. …

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Ironies of Organization: Landowners, Land Registration, and Papua New Guinea's Mining and Petroleum Industry
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