Papua New Guinea’s bottom up revolution
Madang Provincial Governor Jim Kas served as governor in the late 1990s, was defeated after a term, and was re-elected in 2012. During his time in the political wilderness, he spent a lot of time in the interior of Madang, Papua New Guinea, getting to know the people and villages of the highlands and the coast. He also tagged along to meetings with Tricia Kas, his wife, who works for TNC. TNC has been working in Madang since 1996—always focused on the overlap between the ecosystem health and the health of communities like those along the coast that rely on fisheries and coral reefs to sustain them, or in the mountains where people rely on forest products, small scale farming and timber for their livelihoods. So the Governor, outside the pressure cooker of politics for a while, learned from his constituents about the tight connection between people and their environment. He also absorbed the idea that the villagers were managing their communal lands (97% of PNG’s land is held in what is called a “customary tenure”, or by the traditional users of the land, albeit without official registration) in a responsible and sustainable way, but were facing increasing pressures from outside the communities due to timber and mining leases that had been issued by the central government with little local input.
So when Governor Kas was elected again in 2012, he came to TNC’s PNG Director Francis Hurahura and said, “OK, lets figure out how to put the power back in the hands of the people who rely on these resources, and lets give them some 21st century land management tools to help them.” Francis was very excited about this opportunity, and, fortunately, so were some international donors—USAID and AUSAID, the US and Australian foreign aid agencies. So what has followed over the last 2 years has been a grassroots-driven re-calibration of what Madang province can look like. A series of workshops and community meetings, huge maps and 3D models of each district of Madang on a table with all the village leaders gathered around with markers and sticky notes describing what was important to them, what their worries were, and what their dreams and aspirations for their children are. For the first time, these leaders could see where they lived, the valleys, sacred spots, garden plots, timber lots and villages, and how those features fit into the larger landscape. They could see their homes, as if from above like a god, and the environment they have depended on for generations. And they could discuss and decide together how to protect and manage that landscape.
And this would have been a pretty good thing in itself—who doesn’t want to see better how they live and how to protect that life? But this is where Governor Kas’ political genius comes into play. With a clear vision from his people, he’s begun to un-do and up-end the land use and leasing decision-making process–Reclaiming it from the central government, devolving it to the local governments, so that the decisions are better aligned with and benefit local people. He’s prompted a debate in the legislature around how timber and mining leases are let. He’s catalysed an examination of the country’s constitution and legal framework that he hopes will ultimately lead to more self determination by the villages, more control over their own destinies. And it’s happening! At the meeting to unveil the Madang provincial vision, the Prime Minister’s cabinet sent the Chair of the Constitutional Law Reform Commission to speak about the actions to implement that vision that can move ahead now, and those that will need national legislation. Other national level officials also promised to remove barriers and work towards the vision. And the Governor has orchestrated all of this.
A couple of US political aphorisms came to my mind as I watched this process. First, all politics is local. Tip O’Neill’s articulation that the basis for legitimacy comes from taking care of the needs of local people, that politics is really just the art of figuring out how to serve them. Second, if the people lead, the leaders will follow. And, while sounding sort of funny, this is really an observation of how great politicians can tap into the energy of their constituents to create lasting change.
As I got up to talk to the large group of national, provincial and local leaders, I had a powerful sense of deja vu. I realised that it was 20 years ago that I followed another visionary Governor around the province of Colorado in my first political job after law school. Roy Romer also understood how to tap into the power of local people by asking them what they wanted, and working hard to deliver on it. He and his staff spent 2 years moving from community to community around the state with maps and blank sheets of paper on the walls collecting the aspirations and needs of people in Colorado that relied heavily on the state’s water, timber, soils, grass and other natural resources for to thrive. And he worked hard throughout his term to align the not just the state’s departments of Transportation, Natural Resources, Environment, Public Health, and others, but also the federal agencies that control much of Colorado’s lands, the BLM, the Forest Service, National Parks Service, around those local visions. It was a great lesson for me in the best of politics—making our collective dreams into a reality. The people and landscape and language and culture of PNG could not be more different from Colorado, but the politics is all local.