Development and Local Knowledge: New Approaches to Issues in Natural Resources Management, Conservation, and Agriculture

By Alan Bicker; Paul Sillitoe et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

The knowledge of indigenous desire

Disintegrating conservation and development in Papua New Guinea

Colin Filer


Talk of indigenous knowledge

How can Western conservationists talk to Melanesian landowners about ‘indigenous knowledge’, when Melanesian landowners do not think of themselves as ‘indigenous people’, and would rather talk about that Western form of knowledge that commands the gateway to ‘development’? How could Jared Diamond (1997) answer Yali’s question in a way that would make Yali think again about the value of the knowledge that had failed to yield the ‘cargo’? Such is the question which hangs over the battle for ‘biodiversity values’ in the lowland rainforests of Papua New Guinea (PNG). At the level of policy, this is a battle between a group of Occidental donors, led by the World Bank, and a group of Oriental loggers, led by Rimbunan Hijau. The choices made by Papua New Guineans, both at the level of the state and at the level of the village, have become the prizes in this tug of war.

Over the past decade, the PNG government has been persuaded to impose severe restrictions on the further expansion of the logging industry, but these policy measures have not stopped the loggers from making promises of development to local landowners whose forests have not yet been logged, and they have not enhanced the government’s own capacity to persuade the landowners to stop listening to such promises. So this latter task has been left to Western conservationists, whose projects are thus designed to win back the hearts and minds of landowners who tend to blame their own government for their own lack of development. The landowners count as landowners because the point at issue here is the use of customary land, on which more than 99 per cent of the country’s natural forests happen to grow. Indeed, they have come to think of themselves as landowners, or sometimes as resource owners, because they have come to believe that their best chance of development is to sell the natural resources that their land contains (Filer 1997). But their determination to defend their customary title to the land itself has also grown apace, because they do not trust the government to do so, and because its loss would leave them powerless and impoverished (Ballard 1997). Their land is their last card in the gamble for modernity, and

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