Minute with Mike. . .
Niuginians are rich with land

This column submitted by Michael Jacobson on 7/14/99.

What disturbed me wasn't the sight of the little girl's head sleeping on the concrete sidewalk, near where her parents were hawking goods to late-night strollers on Bali's busy streets. It wasn't the thought of the hookers and drunks and vendors drifting past. My specter was the contentment on her face, the relaxed posture of her frail frame, and the apparent comfortness with which she slept on the sidewalk amidst the activities of the night.

She looked as if she were resting on a king-sized waterbed. Her slight smile seemed better suited to a mattress than concrete. She wasn't sleeping on the sidewalk just that particular night. Obviously this Indonesian girl was accustomed to sleeping there.

When you imagine the so-called "Third World," little girls sleeping on sidewalks might not surprise you, but the economies of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, neighbors in the South Pacific, are vastly different.

It seemed that everyone in Bali--a popular Indonesian resort island--needed to make money. Streets were full of hawkers, and if there was one guy selling cheap leather belts, there were 100 with the exact same merchandise. The only advantage hawkers could gain was through sheer determination, personality, and a little luck in timing.

While in Indonesia for three weeks, I was amazed with the people's fervor to earn money. I remember eating at a food court in a shopping mall, which was a little overwhelming for a jungle teacher like me, and being impressed with the work of the custodial crew: clean public bathrooms and workers cleaning tables in the dining area. The worker near me while I ate took pride in her work. I remember thinking that it was the type of job that people in PNG would gladly be paid for but would not put much effort into doing. In Indonesia, that job was important enough for her to put her best foot forward.

A better example is cars. There were lots of cars and motor scooters in Indonesia, enough to make five lanes of traffic on a three-lane road, like the familiar Asian street scene in movies. In Bali, if you left your hotel walking, within a 100 feet someone would offer you a ride. Even private car owners were looking for a little extra income by offering taxi services. In walking to the corner grocery store, you might have to refuse a half dozen rides.

The plane from Jayapura, Indonesia, to Vanimo, Papua New Guinea, makes its weekly run on Sundays. The problem in Vanimo is that the local public transportation system doesn't run on Sundays. A plane unloads in the town, and there's not a taxi or public bus to be found. Almost everyone has to walk. I was staying with another Peace Corps couple several miles from town, and a student of mine arranged a ride for me, as I was carrying too much cargo from Indonesia to walk. In a matter of hours, I went from pleading to be left alone in Bali to begging for a ride in Vanimo.

In Bali, the untapped market at the Vanimo airport would have been inconceivable.

Papua New Guinea is one of three countries in the world where the people still own the bulk of the land traditionally. This is very different to the type of ownership we have here. Traditional ownership means the land is not registered with the government. There is no eminent domain, no property taxes, no title provided by a government office, no threat of government confiscation. I remember our Peace Corps trainer saying how powerful this ownership was, but it took me awhile to comprehend.

Villagers would tell me their land was along the river from a stand of bamboo to a certain rock. A tree might mark the division between two villages. Disagreements between neighbors over the informal boundaries aren't uncommon and lead to fights. One trade off is you can't rely on government to protect your land either.

Niuginians live on the fringes of the cash economy. Statistics are guesses in PNG, but I would estimate that only 20 percent of the people have formal employment. Niuginians like money, but they are far less dependent on it than you or I. Mortgages, insurance premiums, retirement plans, school loans, car payments, and even rent are not concerns to most people there. Food is grown in gardens or gathered from the jungle. Lodging is built either from jungle materials or is a benefit of your job.

Teachers, nurses, government workers, and city residents would depend on their income to buy food, but purchasing local foods at the market where I lived was pretty inexpensive. Most items were sold in ten-toea bundles, the equivalent of a nickel. Ripe pineapples would cost 15 to 50, though my teaching colleagues felt 50 was too much.

Niuginians dream about becoming rich, just like I fantasize about winning the lottery. Their idea of the lottery is being elected to the national parliament, where members enjoy hefty salaries, fringe benefits, and the use of slush funds to cover expenses. The prime minister resigned last week days after agreeing to recognize Tawain, in exchange for a billion dollar loan to PNG, and maybe some under-the-table money for himself.

They don't dream about working in a factory for a few dollars a day. The World Bank tried to make PNG more competitive by devaluing its currency, making it cheaper for outside countries to hire Niuginians. But it hasn't worked in my opinion, and now the buying power for the country has been reduced drastically. My teaching friends would complain frequently about not being able to buy as much with their paychecks nowadays.

Villagers would struggle for income, but were by no means desperate. They could grow coffee where I lived but had a hard time getting it to market because of the lack of roads. Women grow food, pick it, and bring it to market before sunrise, most walking at least an hour while carrying a heavy load for minimal profits. But they choose how hard to work at this. For weeks, the market might have little food. Maybe it was dry and the crops weren't ready. Or maybe it was raining too much, and no one wanted to traverse the muddy jungle slopes to collect food.

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