The Guardian • Issue #2102

Papua New Guinea: disaster and the hand of capital

Papua New Guinea National Parliament, Port Moresby.

Papua New Guinea National Parliament, Port Moresby. Photo: Drew Douglas – flickr.com (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The tragic loss of life in the landslide in Papua New Guinea has shown just how pitiably inadequate is the level of infrastructure in the country. It is an indictment of successive governments in Port Moresby, and a shameful reminder of the legacy of Australian colonialism and of the continued abuse and neglect of PNG and its people. It is likely that the dead will number in their thousands.

There was just one road into the area where the disaster struck. Efforts have been made to clear that road. This is necessary from the point of view of gaining access to the disaster area, but Prime Minister Marape made it known that access for supplies to the nearby Porgera gold mine was also a priority. The mining company has indicated that operations have not been affected and that it would play a role in assisting in the relief operation.

Marape blamed heavy rain for the disaster. ‘Nature threw a dangerous landslip.’ This may be so, but the country suffers from a continual lack of proper funding. It endures a chronic lack of basic infrastructure, a health care crisis, a lack of educational facilities, and endemic poverty. Forty per cent of the population live below what is designated as the ‘extreme poverty line.’ Barrick, the company that runs the nearby Porgera mine, extracted $1.4 billion in profits from PNG in 2023.

Many of the missing and dead have been eking out an existence in ‘illegal’ mining of alluvial gold on the fringes of this mine.

The fact that the ground was more susceptible to landslips, either as a result of mining operations or climate change is not a surprise.

Kate Allstadt, a research geophysicist with the US government’s Geological Survey, described how the landslide area extended for over 85,000 square metres. She also showed evidence from a report published a year earlier that the particular area was unusually unstable. This was due to an earlier landslide. Despite this, no warnings were issued to local villages as to the possibility of such a disaster.

This lack of care is par for the course in PNG. While the government bears direct responsibility for the tragedy, its former colonial master, and powerful Australian ‘family’ member, through years of neglect and complicity in the exploitation of natural resources stands guilty before the people and the world.

Australia has promised a $2.4 million aid package. It is a pittance. It is as empty a gesture as that of Defence Minister Marles, who, while reminding PNG of our joint military connections remarked that “all Australians will be thinking of Papua New Guineans at this very difficult time.” Foreign Minister Wong chimed in with the news that Australia “stands with the people of Papua New Guinea” and that the aid package would “assist the urgent needs of those affected by this devastating landslide.”

Successive Australian governments have all but ignored the real plight of the people in PNG. Albanese, during his recent visit to the country, wrung as much as he could from talking up the “family” relationship, and the Kokoda heritage, but now that a momentous crisis has struck, his government is prepared to commit just $2.4 million in aid. The USA has been even less generous with a promise of $1 million in relief. Only weeks before, these same leaders were working overtime to ensure that China did not become too closely involved in PNG.

Under normal conditions, aid from Australia has very tight strings attached. This is a direct throwback to the colonial days. Australian-based companies account for over half of the Foreign Direct Investment into the country. The great majority of this investment is in mineral-based projects. This investment has little direct effect on the lives of the people.

Papua New Guinea has one of the highest inequality levels in the Asia-Pacific region. Ninety-four per cent of the poor live in rural areas. These areas of subsistence farming supported by sifting and panning for gold on the outskirts of foreign-owned gold mines are ravaged by poor health outcomes and violence, and are all but cut off from the urban areas. The urban elites are dominated by the political class and those employed by aid agencies and foreign companies. They are divorced from the needs of the vast majority of the population.

Marape’s government can be accused of corruption. It is certainly corrupt, but this is the status quo in PNG. The interests that he promotes are those of those same elites. Social tensions have become more intense, both in the urban centres and in the highlands.

Australia, for its part, has done nothing to change this tragic course of political and economic action. When the government of PNG sought to develop closer more productive relations with China, the muscle of Australia and the USA were soon brought to bear. PNG was reminded that, despite its wish to be an enemy of no-one and a friend to everyone, imperialism had other plans.

Chinese analysts were quick to make the point that “Western powers colonised these regions without properly establishing a system of social governance and left them in a mess in terms of politics, economy, and social governance when the regional countries gained independence.” The government of PNG has engaged with China as part of the Belt and Road initiative to develop better infrastructure and develop resources. Australia as its former colonial master and dominant neighbour has been critical of any such move on PNG’s part.

Landslides happen, but that cannot be an end to the story. What is known is that the technology exists to map, identify unstable areas, and monitor changes that can at least offer warnings of potential disasters, either from effects of climate disruption, from mining, or from the geological make-up of the region. Data can only be gathered and interpreted if the necessary investments are made. That is unlikely to be provided either by the government, its imperialist backers or the giant mining corporations that continue to pillage and impoverish the people.

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