Bulldozers and guns undermine rights


“This rapid development of settlements is taking its toll on government services. Public transportation is unable to keep pace with growing demand and confrontations between the authorities and the public over the use of public space are becoming more frequent. Without a clear strategy the Government finds itself in a dilemma.”

A TYPICAL Papua New Guinean settlement is probably better than the favelas of Brazil but is no place for the faint-hearted.
For many years, settlements in Port Moresby and other urban centres have been a safe haven for the unemployed, labourers and poor. They are rundown, and lack clean drinking water, sewerage and power.
On any given weekend, a bass speaker can be heard forcefully pumping out music accompanied by the sound of beer bottles smashing on the road. The level of noise at times can be unbearable and insane. Alcohol-related fights and domestic violence are recurring phenomena.
Although they have become havens for social disorder, politicians until recently haven’t had the courage to make the tough decisions required to deal with the problems.
For many years little constructive action was undertaken by the Government to rectify this situation other than resorting to eviction, which has been criticised as inhumane.
Now, however, the National Capital District Commission (NCDC) in Port Moresby is embarking on a programme to change all that. Under its settlement upgrading strategy, settlements will be connected with essential utilities like water, sewerage and electricity and eventually awarded title to the land.
This move is certainly timely. For the many settlers who have been living in the settlements all their lives, the program cannot come soon enough as they see the idea of securing formal title as critical to protecting their families’ wellbeing and livelihood.
For the new class of educated working people moving into settlements, the intervention is a huge relief at a time when the formal housing market is in tatters with rental and housing prices going through the roof.
Informal settlements in most urban areas have been exponentially increasing since the 1960s.
In PNG’s major cities, the development of informal settlements has been so rapid and pervasive that it has reached a point where urgent action needs to be taken to arrest out-of-control development.
It has been estimated that by 2030 one-third of PNG’s population will be living in urban centres. In Port Moresby alone it is estimated that almost half of the city’s population already live in unplanned settlements.
This rapid development of settlements is taking its toll on government services. Public transportation is unable to keep pace with growing demand and confrontations between the authorities and the public over the use of public space are becoming more frequent. Without a clear strategy the government finds itself in a dilemma.
To better understand the magnitude of the challenge confronting NCDC in tackling the settlement issue in Port Moresby, one needs to pay a visit to one of the several timber yards or hardware stores.

Informal housing market
The busy informal housing market has seen a boom in demand for hardware and timber, and the outlets are teeming with people and trucks (mostly hired) standing by to load timber and building materials.
The intended locations (mostly in the settlements and on the outskirts of Port Moresby) have no formal titles or address and are devoid of utilities such as sewerage, water and electricity. The dusty roads leading into them are infested with potholes and are susceptible to flooding.
Yet dotted across these once vast areas of undeveloped land are elegant city houses that would be the envy of any real estate developer.
These new settlements – Bush Wara, Farea, ATS, Taurama, 14-Mile and Manuti are just some of them – have emerged in the last five years or so.
And what makes them stand out from the older settlements such as Tete, Gorobe, Sabama, Morata, Erima, 6-Mile and so on is the impressive list of tenants. Apart from the educated working class, there are prominent business people, senior government bureaucrats and even politicians who have built houses in these places.
In a break from the past, traditional landowners on the fringe of Port Moresby are selling their land to take advantage of growing demand. However these deals are often susceptible to confrontation and disagreements as they are conducted through informal arrangements. Money is exchanged with agreements reached verbally or parties signing onto (unofficial) tenancy agreement forms. A signed statutory declaration form normally accompany these sorts of deals to ensure legal recognition and protection.

Formal housing market
These new developments reflects the mess that is the formal housing market in Papua New Guinea.
A portion of government land in a major urban area such as Port Moresby can command a market value ranging from K300,000 to over K1 million.
Land with a house connected to essential utilities can cost from K500,000 to K5 million.
Gone are the days when Papua New Guineans can seek residency in government-owned houses under its low cost housing schemes or in company owned accommodation. For government departments and most private companies housing is no longer a perk of employment.
The debris-ridden but otherwise bare landscape of Paga Hill overlooking Ela Beach is a constant reminder of the fate that awaits many urban settlers.
Yet the frontier between settlements and government or customary land keeps expanding with more land taken up by settlers.
It seems just a matter of time before there is destruction and dislocation. The settlers are bound to be the ones who will suffer the most; perhaps ultimately losing their homes, however modest.

A question of human rights
Under its new UN Urban Agenda 3 the United Nation has called on governments to ensure urban development is sustainable by linking urbanisation to overall development.
Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights further stipulates that everybody has the right to property.
However, in developing countries such as PNG these rights are often ignored or trampled by governments.
Hopefully in Port Moresby this will change once NCDC implements its long-awaited settlement upgrading strategy.
Given the complexity of land ownership, land titling is a long way off, but providing essential utilities like water, sewerage and electricity and refraining from evicting settlers would go a long way to fixing Port Moresby’s settlement and housing problems.

  • The author is an economist who works with the Consultative Implementation and Monitoring Council as a senior project officer specialising in informal economy. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Consultative Implementation and Monitoring Council.