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Logging in Pomio: Violence, Wages, Land and the Environment

September 22, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

The arrival of Malaysian logging personnel in the Pomio area has been accompanied by increased disputes over land, poor working conditions, growing insecurity and violence, the destruction of sacred sites, the confiscation of villagers’ private property, environmental damage and an exacerbation of the crisis of legitimacy involving the modern PNG state.

logging and oil palm plantings in Pomio

By Professor Andrew Lattas, University of Bergen

Local villagers complain that government no longer represents their interests. This accusation is made against government at all levels: district, provincial and national. The democratic state is seen as not functioning to incorporate and protect people’s interests, but only those of the developer. Senior government personnel in key departments are accused of having too close a relationship with the Malaysian logging company operating in Pomio. Government officials can be frequently seen socialising and eating at the mess at the logging company’s headquarters at Drina. Some officials are there almost on a daily basis and they are seen sometimes carting away goods in government and company cars. This leads to much speculation by villagers, logging company workers and other government officials. This speculation focuses on the fact that this hospitality is not extended to all government employees but to select officials working in the key departments of forestry and lands; and senior officers at the local district office at Palmalmal, such as the Special Projects Officer and the District Administrator. The latter two officials were appointed under the influence of the previous member for Pomio, Paul Tiensten, who has recently been convicted and jailed for corruption involving tens of millions of kina. Other district workers at Palmalmal told me how they struggled to make ends meet on their low government salaries, but they did not see the select officials favoured by the Malaysian company as having the same money problems. They suspected these officials of receiving what they called a “second wage”, a euphemism for hidden payments rendered for hidden services.

Given that the district administrator, his deputy, the special projects officer, and the officers belonging to forestry and land socialise regularly with Chinese Malaysian management, it is no surprise that villagers see government as compromised. Villagers do not regard state officials as impartial and many believe there is no point in taking to them any complaint over land boundaries, the price of store goods, wages and conditions, safety, environment, or the destruction of private gardens and cash crops. This is why some villagers have resorted to road blocks in defence of their property but this only invokes a response by the riot squad and the private security employed by the logging company.

The Company Store: Low Wages, Credit Purchases and High Prices

I received many complaints from workers over their low wages. Workers complained that they did not receive any itemised pay sheets that might indicate how their pay has been calculated for that fortnight, e.g. how many hours they were booked as working and how much they were paid for each hour. Many workers just receive an envelope with money in it and without any accompanying calculations.

In particular, many workers complain that they never receive any itemised list of what they have supposedly purchased on credit from the logging company’s store and how this corresponds to the amount deducted from their fortnightly wage. Many workers claim that they have not purchased the quantity of goods that has been deducted and others tell of how during some fortnights when they have deliberately sought to avoid making purchases, they still incurred deductions from their pay. Workers have no way of getting redress for they do not receive any itemised record of their purchases that they could dispute or corroborate.

Some workers complain that they are urged by their Malaysian supervisors to purchase goods on credit from the company store when they are trying not to do so, for they need to save and spend their wages elsewhere, e.g. on school fees.

The price of subsistence goods (especially rice, tinned fish, oil, flour and biscuits) at the company store is much higher (about 25%) than the price of goods in local village stores. This is despite the fact that village trade-stores do not have the same easy access to urban wholesale stores in Kokopo, Lae and Port Moresby. This means that workers for the Malaysian logging company find it hard to survive on their low wages and many are forced to steal local garden produce so as to supplement their diet, both in terms of variety and calorie intake. Many Pomio villagers speak of increased thefts of food from their gardens by logging workers, who do not have local kin to provide vegetables.

The price of boat fuel is another source of complaint, whilst it is possible to buy fuel in villages for 18-22 kina, at the Malaysian camp it is sold for 25 kina.

Destruction of Private Cash Crops and Subsistence Gardens

Logging, road construction and the planting of oil palms has destroyed many private gardens and cash crops belonging to villagers who never agreed to have logging in their area and most certainly do not want to give up their land for an oil palm plantation. Until very recently, in coastal areas, the government has been encouraging copra and cocoa as cash crops, but these are now deemed superfluous even though villagers spent many decades clearing bush and then planting and harvesting these trees. The trees have been bulldozed to make way for roads and oil palms without the owners being compensated for their lost trees, land, expenses, income and work.

Ironically, the Malaysian logging company has used traditional concepts of clan ownership to seize and destroy private cash crops and gardens. The company has sought to gazump the rights of individual owners by using the supposed higher power of clan signatures collected by government officials. The fact that these government officers never went to the actual villages to collect these clan signatures and many of the signatures are fraudulent does not stop the riot squad and the lands and forestry officials from supporting this destruction and confiscation of people’s private land, gardens and cash crops using those same problematic signatures.

It is not just the customary rights of people which have been fundamentally compromised, but also their modern property rights. Once cash crops are planted on customary clan land, then the land and the trees becomes the private property of individuals that can be passed on to their children. It does not revert back to becoming customary clan land as is the case with slash and burn gardens. It is these modern property interests which are not being respected by this new form of development that uses forged clan signatures to trump and appropriate private property rights.

Land Registration as Land Theft

This dreadful experience with government attempts to collect clan signatures supporting logging is why there is currently widespread opposition by Pomio villagers to the land registration process. Many regard land registration as a vehicle by which RH and the land department can empower certain select individuals at the expense of others so as to provide developers with access and control over the land and its resources. Lip service is paid to the protection of traditional land rights through a bureaucratic process that in effect transfers clan rights to select individuals who are not clan leaders but are supported by the developer who has too close a connection with forestry and land officials.

A Crisis of State Legitimacy

The riot squad which has been brought in by the Malaysian company does not seek to correct these grievances by putting a stop to the seizure of private land and the destruction of property. Instead, the riot squad police support the Malaysian logging company by using their guns and the threat of arrest to intimidate villagers who set up road-blocks to prevent bulldozers, trucks and chainsaws from entering their land. The district office and the local council also refuse to help protect people’s property. All of this is producing a crisis of legitimacy for the modern state whose officials are seen as compromised and partisan. State officials are not seen as abiding by the logic of a democratic state where state officials should impartially assess and serve the interests of the people. Instead, these officials are accused of just working to protect the profits, private property, rights and reputation of the Malaysian logging company whilst that of Melanesian villagers is confiscated, destroyed and severely curtailed.

Divide and Rule

Many of those who have signed the documents to allow logging in coastal areas do not reside there. Instead they reside further in the interior, in bush villages that have an interest in logging and roads. It is true that these bush villagers do have relatives living along the coast and have customary rights to access coastal lands and their resources, but this is not the same as those bush villagers being the major clan leaders of those more coastal terrains. The interior villages see logging as a practical way of providing roads into the mountainous interior given that the government has been unable to fund and build those roads. Bush villagers are not affected by the oil palm plantations that are being established in the flatter, fertile and gently sloping hills close to the coast. Ironically, many of these interior villagers who support logging do not want oil palm plantations and certainly not in their home terrains. Nevertheless these same bush villages have at times raided and assaulted coastal villagers who seek to stop logging operations. In doing so, these bush villagers have been led by the directors of the local landowner company, which is largely funded by the Malaysian logging Company. Some of these directors live in the interior villagers and like the other landowner company directors they receive money from the Malaysian logging company, which allows them to visit town. There they stay in expensive hotels, eat and drink at restaurants and bars, and hire local prostitutes.

Private Security, Violence and Terror

The logging company also pays for the travel expenses of riot squad police. Indeed the Malaysian company houses, feeds and gives a monetary bonus to these police for their time in the logging camps in Pomio. Supplementing the violence and intimidation provided by the riot squad, the logging company has also recruited a large army of private security staff from villages in the interior who support logging. Ostensibly hired to protect company machinery at night from sabotage, this security staff is used in the daytime to protect the bulldozers, trucks, drivers and chain saw operators as these are pushed into new logging areas that are disputed and that coastal villagers do not want clear-felled and planted with oil palms.

The Mamusi bush villagers who have been hired as security guards have a reputation for traditional warfare and they very much cultivate the respect and fear this renown brings. This reputation was recently confirmed when some bush villagers raided the homes of coastal villagers and physically assaulted those who had opposed logging. These individuals were selected and were warned of further violence and even death unless they stopped their public opposition to logging. One major violent attack by bush Mamusi villagers happened at the logging camp at Drina where the riot police are based.

Corporatising Sorcery

The use of violence to intimidate logging opponents also extends to death threats involving sorcery. Whilst western educated individuals might not believe in sorcery, for Pomio villagers it is real. It is seen as evidenced in the unexplained deaths of friends, children, spouses and other relatives. One major form of sorcery used by bush Mamusi villagers to intimidate coastal villages involves the use of an invisible spear. A real spear will supposedly be dipped into a magical mixture and then it will be held, pointed and thrown in the direction of the intended victim. The real spear never leaves the sorcerer’s hand but an invisible spear travels to strike down the victim. When coastal villagers were physically assaulted by villagers in the interior, they were warned that the real spear had already been dipped in its magical solution and they should await the travel of the invisible spear. On many occasions, logging opponents have been threatened by the directors of the local landowner company and other supporters of logging with the gesture of them throwing an invisible spear at logging opponents. Indeed, logging opponents are openly told to eat their last pig and chicken, for they will soon be dead.

The expansion of logging into new areas has required not just the presence and violence of the riot squad and a private army of security personnel. It has also required a redeployment of the intimidating powers of sorcery; these have been corporatised.

Sexual Harassment, Pornography, and Marriages of Convenience

Women who come to the camps from villages to purchase goods and/or to see relatives are sometimes sexually accosted by Malaysian Chinese employees who will touch the breasts of these visiting women and proposition them by offering money for sex. The women in the logging camps who suffer the most sexual harassment are local women employed to work in less public and visible spaces that require the preparation of food and the cleaning of private rooms.

Sham marriages are often undertaken by Malaysian Chinese management personnel as a cover for permanent sexual relations with local women. These marriages do not involve a church minister and they do not involve a civil registration of the marriage. Instead, the customary notion of marriage through gifts to kin is used to legitimise a temporary union that does not involve any permanent obligation by the Malaysian Chinese to the children of that “marriage”. When these Malaysian Chinese employees leave PNG or are transferred to other logging camps, they do not take responsibility for the upkeep of these children by helping to pay for school fees, clothing, housing or food. Instead, all of these expenses are shifted and borne by local kin.

The sale of pornographic photos and videos especially for use on mobile phones has become another cause of concern at the logging camps. Local village leaders complain that these are being sold to workers and villagers by Chinese Malaysian staff.

Housing and Racial Hierarchy

Interactions in the camp are organised around a racial hierarchy and this is reflected and reinforced by the spatial layout of the camps. The Chinese management live in more luxurious quarters at the top of the hill. This compound is fenced off with high wire; it has painted buildings that are air conditioned and have satellite-TV reception. The housing of the Iban workers from Sarawak is situated closer to the coast and the loading wharves, where there is more noise and more mosquitoes. Their accommodation consists of partitioned rooms in long houses that are unpainted and unfenced. The buildings are made of timber planks and are slightly better in quality than the mostly thin plywood housing of Melanesian workers. The latter’s long houses have uninsulated corrugated iron roofs which make the buildings very hot in the day time. The thin plywood that separates the small rooms and living quarters of individuals and families offers no privacy, especially for married couples. The washing and cooking facilities are basic and inadequate.

The accommodation of Chinese management is at the top of the hill and luxurious by comparison

The accommodation of Chinese management is at the top of the hill and luxurious by comparison

Destruction of Sacred Sites

The rapid expansion of logging along the coast has destroyed many sacred ancestral sites, which have been bulldozed to make way for roads, logging and oil palms. The public relations officers employed by the logging company and the directors of the landowner company, though they are local villagers, are seen as too close to the logging company to act as impartial mediators. These individuals eat in the company mess and like local government officials they are regarded as compromised by the wages and gifts they received from Chinese Malaysian management. This perception is supported when directors and public relations officers spend all their time seeking to placate angry villagers, and refuse to intervene to help villagers to protect well-known sacred sites by diverting roads, logging and oil palm. These sacred sites in Pomio are regarded as where the world began and also where it will end, so many are worried by the destruction of these sites.

Safety and the Environment

Villagers in the area where the bush has been clear felled are worried by the chemicals used to spray around young oil palm trees to prevent the growth of weeds. When it rains those chemicals flow into the run off that flows into the nearby streams and rivers from which people collect water for drinking and cooking, and where they bathe.

Workers who spray the chemicals do so without any protective clothing. They are not provided with boots, overalls, gloves and a mask. Instead the men work wearing shorts and a shirt, and the women wear a laplap and meri-blouse. Both men and women work either barefoot or wearing just rubber thongs on their feet. The workers speak of how the wind will suddenly change and the chemical spray will then be blown onto their clothing, skin and hair, into their faces, and they will inhale the chemicals. In the morning the wet chemicals sprayed onto the tall grass coats workers’ legs, arms and clothing. When they go home, these workers do not shower or change their clothes. They speak of their fears as their young children come into close contact with their chemically soaked bodies and of wives who prepare and cook food after working with these chemical sprays.

Worker spraying herbicide in shorts and thongs, no boots, gloves, mask or overalls is provided. The wind blows the chemical spray onto the worker's body and clothing, endangering also his children and family when he returns to the village

Worker spraying herbicide in shorts, no boots, gloves, mask or overalls is provided. The wind blows the chemical spray onto the worker’s body and clothing, endangering also his children and family when he returns to the village

In the past, the villagers along the coast who live around Mauna, Lau, Bairaman and Mu have been strong supporters of development. They have their own walk-about saw mills and extensive cash crops, initially copra but now cocoa. Over the last few decades, many have developed their own land use plans with the lands department, but these development plans are now said by the lands department to be irrelevant. The opponents to clear-felling and oil palm are not backward cargo cult villagers as is often claimed by the riot squad and local landowner directors, who like to perpetuate this false caricature in the mass media of regressive, irrational villagers seeking to block progress. This is a very prejudiced portrayal of the Pomio Kivung movement, which operates as a local Melanesian church that established moral order in villages and calls for the proper development of resources rather than their theft. However, today, the strong opponents to clear-felling and oil palm (those who set up the road blocks and are arrested) are increasingly the more prosperous and developed coastal villagers. These more educated villagers oppose the transfers their land to a foreign developer for 99 years and virtually for free (only a token payment). They oppose the transformation of villagers into landless labourers; and they oppose the destruction of their moral communities and the movement of villagers into compounds where drunkenness and violence are common problems. Villagers would much rather work for themselves with their own walk-about saw mills, selective forms of logging, and cash crops rather than become low paid workers living on an inadequate diet, with poor housing and dangerous safety conditions that poison the environment. Villager’s own self-built houses are of much better quality than the skimpy housing, cooking and washing facilities offered by the foreign company. This new development is opposed because it is not improving local people’s living standards but is impoverishing them, stealing away their valuable asset – land and a productive healthy environment.

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  1. Thomas Vue
    September 22, 2014 at 9:14 am

    The government is for the developer, by the developer… We need re-independence! (May be this time through blood)

  2. September 22, 2014 at 11:34 am

    All these tragic circumstances were highlighted in the World Bank funded Review of Current Logging Projects in 2003-4. The then minister for Forests Pruaitch chucked out the World Bank in 2005. The reports from the review are easily accessible on the web.

  1. May 22, 2015 at 7:59 am

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