|Manam Island (Photo: Peter John Tate)|
From the outside looking in, the resettlement of more than 10,000 people displaced by the Manam volcano eruptions of 1996 and 2004, revolves around the passing of the Manam Restoration Authority (MRA) Bill.
It seems a straight forward matter in which Parliament passes a legislation that creates a legal entity that will manage the resettlement t of the Manam Islanders. At least in theory, that is how it is supposed to work.
But in reality, the intention of the legislation and the needs of the Manam Islanders is grinding against age old cultures and complex customary land tenure systems of the Andarum people where the proposed resettlement is to happen and the Bogia people where the “ Manam care centers” are located.
While the National Government attempts to sell the idea of Manam resettlement to the Adarum people, their representatives have expressed, in so many words, that they are not keen on having some 10,000 Islanders settle on their ancestral land.
Generally, the people of Madang province are relatively very diplomatic. But the resistance over the resettlement is coming to the fore as the people who are expected by the government to play host start looking at a possible future of cultural friction and turbulence between them and another tribal group occupying their land.
This is a fear that is not unfounded. Since resettlement after the 2004 eruption, there have been multiple clashes between the Manams and the Bogias – whose traditional land before colonization, has been used as “care centers.”
In 2008, four people were killed in clashes sparked by ongoing tensions. In 2009, a three-year-old child was abducted and killed sparking further violence. Then, in March 2010, the government held a special cabinet meeting to look at ways to ease tension after three years of continued violence.
Understanding the violence requires a detailed look at how Papua New Guineans are attached to their land. For the Manams, leaving the island has meant the severing a relationship from a spiritual source of life for them.
It is harder for the old men and women, many of whom, have died in grief after being unable to express their loss of a connection to the land where their parents and grandparents are buried. For younger generation, the lack of freedom to use water and harvest building materials from land owned by the Bogias has had a direct impact on their health and living standards.
The Bogias, in a sense, feel cheated by the government.
The initial understanding was for the Manams to be settled on their land for six months before being moved to a permanent resettlement area. After more than a decade, tensions over land and resources remain.
The Manam volcano, has been relatively quiet. However, with the recent volcanic activity, what the government ignored for a decade has come back to haunt them. It has become a problem compounded by an island population that has doubled, whilst living on the mainland, and a new host unwilling to take in clans made landless by a force of nature.
Prime Minister, Peter O Neill, has chosen to look beyond the petty politics of Madang’s politicians and has given an ultimatum for them to sort out their differences. Regardless of whether or not they reach a compromise, the government will use its numbers to pass the long overdue Manam Restoration Authority Bill and start the process of resettlement.
Madang Governor, Jim Kas, has provided some sense of direction by bringing the MRA Bill to parliament after 10 years of provincial indecisiveness. However, there is conflict stemming from the make up of the MRA board and it remains a major obstacle to progress.
While the National Government is on a path to accomplishing its duty, Madang’s political leadership is still in disarray and have been that way for 10 years.
That political chaos, is costing lives.