Academic journal article Oceania

The Risks and Uncertainties of Migration: An Exploration of Recent Trends Amongst the Wosera Abelam of Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Oceania

The Risks and Uncertainties of Migration: An Exploration of Recent Trends Amongst the Wosera Abelam of Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt


This paper reports on ongoing research on migration and circulation between the Wosera sub-district, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea, and the island province of West New Britain. We examine the pressures contributing to increased family migration and longer-term, possibly permanent, migration from the Wosera. While rising resource/population pressure and stricter forms of land tenure arrangements are altering patterns of out-migration, the situation for long-term and temporary migrants in West New Britain is becoming less certain as land shortages begin to limit opportunities for further settlement and indigenous landowners become less tolerant of migrants from other provinces. We discuss these influences on migration patterns within the context of emerging social stratification of Wosera society, and consider the implications for both migrants and non-migrants.


Migration studies in PNG have yielded important insights into the complex processes of socio-economic change in rural areas. For example, studies on rural to urban migration have revealed how communities have responded to colonialism, capitalist incorporation and growing inequalities between rural and urban areas (Curtain 1980, 1981; Morauta and Ryan 1982; Strathem 1982; Connell 1988, 1990; Boyd 1990; Zimmer 1990). Research has also revealed how migration has been used as a strategy to diversify and increase incomes, to escape sorcery and other village conflicts, and to overcome problems associated with resource scarcity and access (see Curtain 1980, 1981; Gewertz and Errington 1991:107; Curry and Koczberski 1998). Shifts in established migration patterns are equally important as they often reveal much about continuing change and adaptation to broader structural forces. The growing trend of urban permanence in PNG, for instance, is particularly telling of the economic and population pressures in many rural ar eas because, as studies in PNG and elsewhere suggest, those more likely to become permanent migrants or undertake permanent migration are landless or lack adequate access to resources in their home villages (e.g., Nelson 1976; Garnaut et al. 1977; Ryan 1989; Morauta 1981; Zimmer 1990).

Given that some rural societies in PNG are becoming more stratified in response to rising population and resource pressures, it is worthwhile to examine how migration patterns and migrant decision-making are adjusting to these pressures. It is probable that as resource pressures in rural areas continue to rise, the context for migrant decision-making will change too, thus creating new risks and opportunities for migrants and potential migrants. Village out-migration is not necessarily risk free, nor are the risks likely to be the same for all individuals or households, particularly where differential access to resources is emerging. For example, households with insecure access to village resources may face expropria- tion of their access rights during an extended absence from the village. The question then arises as to how resource scarcity and security shape the migration strategies of individuals and households differently positioned in village society.

This paper explores these issues by examining migration in two different rural contexts: the Wosera sub-district, East Sepik Province (ESP) where rates of out-migration are relatively high; and the island province of West New Britain (WNB), an important destination for migrants from the Wosera sub-district. In an earlier paper we explored how circulation between the Wosera and WNB draws simultaneously on indigenous socio-cultural and modern elements for its forms and meanings, and how, through exchange, migration is intimately bound up with notions of individual and group identity (Curry and Koczberski 1998). This paper, which complements our earlier paper, adopts a more economic perspective as it examines the relationships between resource security and access and changing patterns of migration. …

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