A Housing Crisis in Papua New Guinea’s Capital is Bringing Social Empowerment to Squatter Communities
Rapid urbanization is putting pressure on infrastructure and public services in the urban centers of developing Pacific Island states, as much as it is across the globe, with 50 percent of the world’s people now living in cities as of 2010, spawning vast shantytowns, call them favelas, squatter settlements or what.
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital, is no different. A chronic lack of affordable housing has resulted in even professionals and public servants moving into informal settlements as they shun available but unattainably priced private homes. The situation is presenting a challenge to urban planners, but also bringing benefits to marginal communities such as the Paga Hill and 8 Mile Settlement areas of the city.
According to the World Bank, more than 90 percent of global urban growth is occurring in the developing world. UN-Habitat estimates that unplanned settlements are home to one of every three people living in the cities of developing nations, and further predicts the worldwide number of shanty town dwellers will increase by 500 million by 2020.
The governments of the Pacific nations are struggling to build infrastructure capacity to match the rate of migration from rural areas. It is a challenge confronting the entire region with the Third Asia Pacific Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development held in Indonesia in 2010 declaring the need for governments to proactively address urban development and plan for escalating housing needs.
In Port Moresby, several factors have contributed to making these informal settlements home to approximately half the city’s population, which is nearing 1 million. These include a decrease in the minimum statutory wage in the 1990s and high income tax rates of up to 42 percent. Many people in public service and formal private sector employment earning less than K500 (US$242) per fortnight are unable to pay rental costs of K5,000 per week for a two bedroom apartment, or the average purchase price of K1.3 million for a three-bedroom house in central Port Moresby. The private housing market mainly services expatriates and workers living in employer provided accommodation.
Paga Hill Settlement, home to about 3,000 people from at least nine provinces in PNG, is situated on customary, or traditional land owned by the Lohia Doriga people in a prime location adjacent to Port Moresby’s downtown business district. Customary or traditional land rights are a strong tradition in Pacific Island societies. Many customary landowners view their land as essential to providing a livelihood for the next generation of the clan. At Paga Hill, settlers have been given permission to reside on the land by the traditional landowners.
However, the community of makeshift homes constructed from found materials and corrugated iron, which clings to the side of Paga Hill at the end of an unsealed access road, defies many of the stereotypes of squatter settlements. It is home to decorated civic leaders, World War Two heroes, successful public servants and business people as well as the unemployed.
The original inhabitants migrated from Kikori in the Gulf of Papua in the first half of the 20th Century in search of work in the city. From a network of bunkers on Paga Hill, the Papua Infantry Battalion of the PNG Defence Forces, many of whom were Kikori settlers, defended the entrance to Moresby Harbour during World War II. Their descendants have been given authority to protect the legacy of historic shelters and relics which still scatter the site.
The settlement is also respected for its high standards of community leadership. The chief of Paga Hill Settlements, Daure Kisu, who has been chief for 30 years, is Commissioner of the National Capital District and President of Local Government for Moresby South. In 2000, Kisu was awarded a Silver Jubilee Medal by the government in tribute to his outstanding leadership during the 25 years following PNG’s Independence in 1975.
Kisu’s generation includes renowned artist, Ratoos Haoapa Gary, who has worked to promote international appreciation of Papua New Guinean art and culture. His improvised home on the edge of the water at Paga Hill seems incompatible with his national stature.
According to a resident, Joe Avapura Moses, a significant proportion of Paga Hill residents today work in the formal sector: “Many of our people are working as public servants, university students, artists, court officials and in real estate. We have business people, as well as truck drivers, carpenters, plumbers, mechanics and bricklayers,” said Moses, a graduate with a university degree in anthropology and further qualification in business studies, who has lived in the settlement for 12 years. He is one of the present generation using his education and professional connections to empower the voices and rights of informal settlers.
With the permission of the settlement’s leaders and customary landowners, Moses joined a team of academic researchers and consultants at the University of Papua New Guinea to produce a sociological mapping and anthropological report of Paga Hill.
“The report aimed to identify why Kikoris are living in this place and their right to reside on this land,” Moses said, “The report fee of K30,000 will be paid by the Chairman of the Kikori Pipeline Landowners Association [in Kikori, Gulf Province].”
Moses is also in the process of establishing the Paga Hill Settlers Association, the first association to publicly represent an informal settlement in the country in negotiations with developers and dialogue with NGOs or other official organizations.
In contrast, the residents of 8 Mile Settlement on the northern outskirts of Port Moresby are considered illegal settlers on state land. Founded in the 1970s, 8 Mile is home to 15,000 rural immigrants. Similarly, public servants, university lecturers and successful business people reside alongside the unemployed, who reap a living in the informal economy.
But while there is hardship in squatter communities, Luna Itiki, Secretary of the Community Development Committee at 8 Mile, says there are also advantages.
“We have more space than we could living in Moresby,” Itiki said, “We have proper areas where we can plant bananas and other garden areas. Our children also go around free. They get together, they come to know each other and then they come back to our houses. We don’t find some problems, like car accidents, where we might find in Moresby where roads are very busy.”
“Our living costs are low,” he added, “Where we don’t have to pay for houses, water, lights. Sometimes we pay nothing. Some of us, we have no lights, no water, but we live and we go to work. Some of us who are not working, we have access to a little market for what we have planted, like peanuts and bananas.”
Nevertheless, there is still the need for basic public services and a standard of living commensurate with human dignity.
Moses says the Paga Hill Settlement urgently requires sanitation, electricity, proper water pipes, a health center, elementary school, a village style court house, community hall and sealed access road.
As long as a settlement is illegal, the government is under no obligation to provide services. However, PNG has committed to the Participatory Slum Upgrading Program, launched by UN-Habitat in 2008, which aims to reduce poverty and manage urbanization.
Mary Bonjui, a community leader in 8 Mile, believes the established nature of the settlement, now home to a second generation, should be officially acknowledged.
“We want the government to recognise us and maybe release this land to us, so that we can be urbanised and developed and services are brought here. I want to see the government listen to the voices of the settlement.”
This may yet happen at Paga Hill, where community leaders are aiming to set a precedent. By legitimising their existence with a professional anthropological report, forming a settlers association to advocate for service improvements and help plan a viable social and economic future, Paga Hill could be a ‘model settlement’ for the future.