Freeing up land the answer to poverty

Editorial, Normal

THE principal goal of the United Nations-inspired Millennium Development Goals is to halve or rid the globe of poverty.
The subject of poverty is highly debatable in PNG.
The Prime Minister told Australian television audiences, for instance, that “nobody is hungry” in Papua New Guinea.
Nobody, the Prime Minister implied, is so poor and destitute that they go to bed without food.
Poverty in that regard is a matter of whether or not a body has sufficient food for the day.
PNG and any other country might have an abundance of food but the population might still be poor nutritionally or in terms of health for hygiene reasons.
Poverty, therefore, is not merely the lack of food but a collection of many factors. One definition might be the lack of the things that are essential for the wholesome growth and well being of the human being.
The World Bank measures poverty another way. It considers poverty on the basis of how much money is available to a person within one year. In its estimation, the average Papua New Guinean villager earns about K350 within a year, which it judges to be well below the poverty line.
By its ruler, PNG is at the lower end of the poverty line.
So seen from one angle there is no poverty in PNG. From another there is abject poverty in PNG. This is by far the most popular view and one that is presently dictating aid kina and the way the PNG Government spends it in annual budgets.
From another, far less popular and perhaps academic viewpoint, poverty is what you measure it by. This viewpoint would hold that Papua New Guineans might not have cash – which is the measure of wealth the world over – but they each own (individually or as a group) mountains of tracts of land, the largest indicator of wealth anywhere on earth.
Every Papua New Guinean can be self-sufficient in providing for their immediate basic needs if all these lands were worked, or indeed they can be reasonably wealthy.
From that perspective, no Papua New Guinean is poor. He or she is richer by far than most people.
PNG is rich and it is also poor. The way out of this paradox is to find out what makes it so.
Most indicators would point to the way this country deals with land. It has much of it.
There are only 6.2 million people settled on 460,000 square kilometers of land.
Much of this land is rich for agricultural purposes. There are so many different minerals and hydrocarbon deposits in all parts of the country.
Yet land is a no-go zone. Few politicians have ventured there and those that have got their fingers burnt badly.
One inquiry was held into land matters in 1973 – two years before Independence – and since then land matters have been given a wide berth.
One government tried to deal with it – the Chan-Haiveta government – when it tried to implement the World Bank-funded land mobilisation programme and faced a nationwide backlash which ended only with the government’s utter trouncing at the national elections in 1997.
Land, which is in Government hands, and, therefore, can be mobilised is only that bit that the colonial administration acquired compulsorily (in most instances) for settlement purposes throughout the country.
Very little has been added to it since Independence. So while the population has grown and the economy has expanded so much that there is very real encroachment on Government or alienated land, the amount of land available for public purposes such as development is next to nil.
The rest of the 97 % of land in customary hands is unaccounted for. This is the land that will make Papua New Guineans jump from a lower middle income country to a rich nation if only the activities on them could be measured by normal economic measuring standards.
But they cannot be, because the economy revolves around capital and, right now, PNG customary land cannot be moved from its present physical form to capital. Customary land cannot be easily valued and be transferred to cash compared to land which has been alienated.
So in this land of plenty, PNG is still considered a poor country. The only way out of this is to find a way to free up land in the country for commercial and economic development.