Daily Archives: 28 July 2006

Alex Golub on Unfulfilled Consumers in PNG

Another Pacific-area article that caught my fancy is Alex Golub‘s Who Is the “Original Affluent Society”? Ipili “Predatory Expansion” and the Porgera Gold Mine, Papua New Guinea in the latest issue of The Contemporary Pacific at Project Muse (subscription required). Here are a few paragraphs from the introduction and conclusion (some references removed).

In the 1970s, first-world fantasies of “ecologically noble savages” were key to the creation of alliances between indigenous groups, environmentalists, and affluent first-world publics. More recently, however, anthropologists have grown increasingly critical of such stereotypes of indigenous people. In areas as diverse as Amazonia, Australia, North America, and Indonesia, indigenous peoples find their political leverage derives from filling first-world fantasies that are often essentialized and stifling.

This dynamic has taken another interesting twist in Papua New Guinea. Unlike many Commonwealth countries, Papua New Guinea has no settler population, and, unlike many African states, it has no majority ethnic group. Furthermore, Australia’s administration of Papua New Guinea was both well meaning and under-resourced. As a result there has been little alienation of land and it is difficult to recognize Papua New Guineans as “indigenous people” separate from “settler” populations, as is typically done in Australia, Africa, and the New World. At the same time, however, Papua New Guinea is highly reliant on resource rents, and the activities of international logging, mining, and hydrocarbon companies present a picture of a David-and-Goliath struggle between local people and transnational capital that is comfortably familiar to many first-world activists.

Like scholars elsewhere, Melanesianists are increasingly dissatisfied with stereotypes of grassroots Papua New Guineans as ecologically noble savages. A growing literature has, for instance, emphasized the ways in which compensation claims for damage to the environment are part of a complex local politics. Glenn Banks has argued that compensation claims are often a way of expressing a sense of disenfranchisement by people outside of mining lease areas (2002), while Martha Macintyre and Simon Foale have argued convincingly that even for people within mining lease areas, claims of environmental damage are often expressions of dissatisfaction with social concerns couched in environmental idioms (2002).

But there is a danger that these responsible works could be misread by policy elites in Port Moresby, the national capital, who often see landowners as savages more nasty than noble. Papua New Guineans have one of the best track records in the world for extracting concessions from foreign developers and the national government, and the demands of landowners have become so strident that the overall perception nationwide is that they are corrupted opportunists who have given up their traditional culture in order to “go for money” (Filer and others 2000). Thus, at one industry conference in 2000, the president of the Papua New Guinea Chamber of Mining and Petroleum claimed that “people issues are at the forefront of the mining and petroleum industries” in Papua New Guinea. The industry’s biggest challenge, he claimed, were “community problems that could have been avoided” and that were caused by “so-called ‘landowners'” who ripped off the government. “The rip-off is so blatant,” he said, “[that] it penetrates into the fabric of the government” (Golub fieldnotes 2000). Other speakers were more blunt. “Community affairs issues will shut down this country,” said one mining executive, himself from the highlands region (Golub fieldnotes 2000)….

To an audience familiar with stereotypes of noble savages, the reaction of the Ipili to the mine can be startling. Elites in Port Moresby who romanticize a traditional “Melanesian Way” feel betrayed by landowners who fail to conform to their expectations. At the same time, first-world activists interested in finding “guardians of the forest” in Porgera will be disappointed indeed at the alacrity with which the Ipili, as they say, “traded their mountain for development.”

But it may be that the unease the Ipili instill in others is due to the fact that they are driven by concerns remarkably like “our own.” Their desire for new commodities, time-saving devices, and prepared food is in many ways not so different from what one would find in any major city in the United States. Thus it could be said that “they” are not as bad as “we” are, or, to put it another way, that “we” are as good as “they.”

So which is the original affluent society? Just as we see our own weak points in Ipili prodigality, so do Ipili imagine whites, as a version of their present or possible selves. This examination of Ipili culture reveals them to be a bit more like ourselves than we have been led to believe. Sahlins looked to hunters and gatherers to explode the Western, Hobbesian conception of infinite need. Studying the Ipili suggests that the West is not the only place plagued by need and want. Ipili do not denounce consumer society in the name of a pristine, authentic primitivism. They denounce it for failing to make good on its promises. The problem, as they see it, is not enough affluence.

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