2 Aug 2013

The Real Story Of PNG's 'Shanty Town'

By Kristian Lasslett
Photo by Philippe Schneider.
Photo by Philippe Schneider.

The 'shanty town' that could be razed for Australia's refugee plan is a safe community built through collective effort. Kristian Lasslett spoke with the residents, who have resisted developers for years

In its weekend edition, The Australian reported that a “settlement” made up of “3000 squatters” near Port Moresby airport – known locally as ATS – has been earmarked to house refugees resettled under the Rudd Government’s new asylum seeker policy.

In subsequent coverage the Courier-Mail described ATS as a “shanty town”, while a photo slideshow in The Guardian featured the usual spread of dilapidated houses with naked children crawling in the dirt outside, but no context.

The coverage of ATS is typical of the portrayal of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s print and broadcast media. Papua New Guineans are regularly characterised using two trusted stereotypes: either they are powerless victims, languishing in poverty, or they are a malevolent people in the grip of crime, alcohol, drugs and prostitution. This, of course, echoes the media coverage indigenous Australians have endured for years.

But the real story of ATS is one of of self-organisation, collective action, bravery and dignity. This is the real PNG, if only journalists bothered to listen.

The origins of ATS stretch back to 1995. The late National Capital District Governor, Bill Skate, worked with Port Moresby based community leaders from Oro Province, in a bid to develop a model village on state owned land near the airport. It was going to be a prototype for sustainable, self-made communities, carefully planned, with access to decent roads, water and electricity.

The community at ATS has made remarkable progress over the past two decades. Walking around ATS you can see high covenant houses, grassy backyards, lush orchids, and large village gardens. “We have [living here] doctors, engineers, policemen, and people as high as managing directors, even a judge”, Kevin Abotoboni, the treasurer of the local resident’s group, Oro Socio-Economic Development Association (OSDA), told New Matilda. Local women boast they can walk to the local market at any time of night.

Some debt is owed to their local MP, Labi Amaiu, who has earmarked almost a million kina to upgrade access to water at ATS (around AU$460,000); while World Vision is piloting early education centres in the community to support families who work.

That said, challenges remain. Despite the massive investment in ATS by residents, government and NGOs, the state land was leased to a company Dunlavin Limited, which is currently owned by Chinese, Indian and Australian nationals.

According to the managing director of PNG’s Investment Promotion Authority:

“Dunlavin Limited is not certified as a foreign enterprise under the Investment Promotion Act. Dunlavin submitted an Application for Certification as a foreign enterprise on 20 December 2010. The application remains pending as certain information requirements are yet to be fulfilled.”

Nevertheless, this has not prevented them from acquiring a state lease over portion 695, which lies at the centre of ATS, nor has it stopped Dunlavin from trying to forcefully displace residents after an eviction order was granted by the courts in November 2012. According to local residents, when police officers arrived in April this year they were heavily armed, belligerent and drinking alcohol.

The eviction exercise was resisted through a sit-in (at gunpoint) on the main road into ATS. Women, children and men sat peacefully in front of police. Kevin Abotoboni says he then warned officers that a national court injunction staying the eviction order had just been obtained and any demolition exercise would therefore be in contempt of court. The police retreated.

Nevertheless, Dunlavin retains a 99 year lease over a part of the land known as "portion 695". Lands Department records state the annual rent for this prime piece of real estate is K50, only AUD$23.

OSDA is confident that they can beat Dunlavin in court. Their aim is to obtain the state lease (as promised by Bill Skate), subdivide the land, and give residents secure title so they can invest in the community with the knowledge that they will not be subject to arbitrary displacement.

Not surprisingly recent speculation over ATS in the Australian media has rocked the community’s confidence.

The vice president of OSDA, Harold Kaipa, told New Matilda: "This is totally unacceptable … this is totally wrong … They can't come and threaten to displace people, people have invested money, and we have been here since 1995 … they cannot do that. These are working class people residing here! You can see around here permanent houses … this is totally unfair.”

Nancy, a mother of three, worries about her family if the speculation over ATS is true: “If they evict you there is nowhere to go. Because today everything is about money. If I want to move to the next place you need lots of money.”

If the Australian Government is serious about relocating refugees to ATS, they can expect a fight on the streets and in the courts. Because unlike mainstream media stereotypes Papua New Guineans are not feckless victims, languishing in squalor. You can be sure that any community facing forced eviction at the behest of the Australian Government will mobilise.

And when they do, we will see a less courteous side of the PNG Government. The country has long had a black market in state-land, with prime pieces of urban real estate being traded illegally to local and international speculators. Infrastructure contracts – increasingly financed through concessional loans from China – have also become a cash cow for government cronies.

Accompanying this process of graft, the conduct of the police in protection of private property – often illegally acquired – has become increasingly violent and brazen. Indeed, the presence of video cameras didn’t stop police from firing their weapons at revered leader Dame Carol Kidu, who stood shoulder to shoulder with residents in Paga Hill when an Australian run developer attempted to forcefully evict 3000 residents.

No doubt the Australian Government knows all this but as long as their PNG counterparts sign on the dotted line, minor issues like corruption, land theft and state violence can be overlooked.

At the moment in Port Moresby, many expatriates fortify themselves in luxury compounds, believing it protects them from street gangs and criminal elements. As inequality in living conditions widen, it is not raskols they should fear.

When the many hardworking, educated Papua New Guineans shunted from one settlement to another by developers and governments have had enough, then those in living in “fort shit scared”, as locals call it, may have something serious to worry about.

Not Victims: Philippe Schneider's photographs show the real ATS.

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