Our seminary is part of a large Catholic mission station that has been present since at least the 1970’s. We provide schooling and health services to the local community. The Catholic Church leases the land from the PNG government, which in turn is leasing the land from 4 tribes who consider the property to be their traditional lands. I understand that the land was originally unused swampland that the Church drained and made useable. One of these tribes, the smallest in fact, claims that the government has never properly compensated them for the land. They claim that the government owes them 12 million kina (=$ 4.5 million). At the beginning of our first semester here this tribe temporally blocked the road to Fatima with trees as a way of pressuring the government to honor their claim.
On February 3, the elementary, primary, secondary, and technical schools at Fatima were supposed to begin the 2014 school year. However, during the night before, the disgruntled tribe dug a ditch across the only road going to Fatima and put up a secondary barricade of fallen wood. No vehicles have gone into or out of Fatima since.
I have very negative feelings about this road block. On one hand, I am angry with the blockers for how lazy they are. Instead of blocking the road with a barricade that they themselves man, they dug a trench across the road. I have twice walked by the roadblock and found no one maintaining it at all! Secondly, I feel that this tribe is keeping the Catholic mission hostage in order to get money which, although they may be legally entitled to some of it, will be wasted. Compensation money given to a group is almost always divided between the individuals who then splurge. The idea of using it for the betterment of the community, say, by giving Fatima a decent library or computer lab, is quite counter-cultural. Large sums of money are like a freshly butchered pig, you divide it up among your neighbors and spend it while it is fresh! Third, this tribe wants compensation for the fact that the Church is using its land for schools and medical services, which seems rather ungrateful to me. It’s almost like they want the Church to pay them for receiving the Church’s charity. Fourth, when the police or the other tribes threatened to clear the roadblock, the blockers threatened to destroy the school buildings at Fatima in retaliation. To me this smacks of bullying. I was always taught to stand up to a bully. Fifth, I’ve been frustrated at being unable to do anything about this block. I do not speak the local language and I am in no position to take part in the leadership meetings. Thus, I’ve had to make do with deciphering often conflicting reports about the situation.
It seems that matters will come to a climax tomorrow. The bishop has said that he will close Fatima if the blockade is not removed by Monday evening. The teachers and health workers will be relocated to other Catholic stations. Only the priests working at the parish and the seminary will remain. The police have thrice told the people to end the blockade. Supposedly they will make arrests and clear it by force tomorrow. There is some money in the land office, (though not the full amount) but it is said that it will take at least a month to process the various claims. The government says that the tribe must show its good faith by removing the blockade before any moneys will be given.
My rector told me that the Church is trying to avoid violence at all costs. He claims that if the priests or the bishop were to try to rally the local people to remove the barricade, it would inevitably turn violent. PNG highlanders do not express anger constructively; they tend to reach for rocks and bush knives. Everyone else is frustrated that this small tribe is causing so much trouble. So if a fight broke out the other tribes would probably simply eradicate the small tribe by driving them from their homes and burning their property. The small tribe’s threat to burn down Fatima if their blockade is cleared away is probably empty, since the other tribes would retaliate by wiping them out – possibly even bringing in armed fighters from Mt. Hagen to do so. So it may practically be best to appease the small tribe rather than let it be destroyed, but it’s a frustrating that this small tribe seems to be using the Catholic Church to shield it from the typical consequences of its bullying, especially when the Church itself is the one that it is bullying! And it’s sad that there are not better options.
So please pray for a lasting and peaceful resolution for the problem. What is really needed is a conversion of the people’s hearts away from violence and the love of money . . .