ADI’s Dr Victoria Stead is challenging the language of deficit surrounding development in PNG and Timor Leste.
As governments and businesses investigate opportunities for development within Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste – Australia’s closest neighbours – Deakin University researcher Dr Victoria Stead is calling for more value to be placed on customary attachment to land.
Based within the Alfred Deakin Institute (ADI), Dr Stead is an Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow whose research spans the disciplines of anthropology, social theory and political studies. Her research interests are in the social transformations generated by globalisation, state- and nation-building processes.
“Academics and others in the West need to recalibrate the logic that they bring to these and other Melanesian countries,” she said.
“Many Westerners engaged in places like PNG and Timor Leste operate on the assumption that these places are in a state of lack, in need of things—skills, knowledge and systems—that we are uniquely able to provide. In doing so, we often devalue the skills, knowledge, and systems that already exist in these and other Global South countries.”
Dr Stead’s call has implications for those working in the mining industry, land reform and land rights. Her new book “Becoming Landowners: Entanglements of Custom and Modernity in Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste” employs a multi-sited ethnographic approach to explore the transformations to land and life resulting from the modernising processes of change—and the complexities of postcolonial encounters as they unfold across the two Melanesian countries.
The book shows how different communities in Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste actively balance deep customary connections to land, with processes of social and economic change.
“My research shows there are modernising processes such as state building, development, conservation, land rights and land reform that all involve particular ways of relating to land, and also transform the way people are able to connect to it,” explained Dr Stead.
“These processes are often articulated under the guise and rhetoric of empowerment and rights, yet, as the stories in my book show, they can have quite disempowering effects even as they claim to be doing the contrary.”
The introduction of a tuna cannery in Madang Province, Papua New Guinea is an example of this scenario, she noted.
“The tuna cannery employed the local people for a cash wage, which is considered a great thing because it gives people jobs,” she said.
“However, in the process of development, the people have lost land and the capacity to build their own houses, produce their own food and create an informal livelihood through roadside marketing, which, for many, is profitable and takes place in better conditions than the cannery.”
On a positive note, her research has shown that, despite the developments that have worked against local people and customs, many groups have found new ways to reassert their autonomy.
“It’s not that you have customary people versus modern people, or customary places against a modern world,” she said. “It’s about different ways of being in, and relating to the land. These entangled ways of being can create new possibilities for local people to respond to processes of dramatic change.
“People may repackage the language of rights or citizenship as a creative way of asserting their authority. They may strategically engage with civil society, or experiment with forms of collective organisations, such as incorporated landowner groups or other entities, while also enacting rich cultural traditions.
“We need to recognise that people in places like Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea actively create and engage with the process of change and reinterpret what they are seeing. They are not passive subjects waiting to be acted upon by others.
“These places are hugely diverse and dynamic. We need to recognise that as part of living in a shared world.”
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In Rempi, Papua New Guinea, members of the Bomase clan walk alongside a fence that cuts through the land they claim as their customary birthright. The fence will form the perimeter of a 216-hectare Special Economic Zone.
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