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Panel 20: Political landscapes in Melanesia today


Priscila Santos da Costa, Ivo Soeren Syndicus

Session presentation

Melanesia is witnessing major changes through ongoing processes of nation-building, urbanization, and globalization. The political landscapes that correspond to these fields of action, however, have attracted little ethnographic attention. Theorizations of the practice of politics have long remained specifically place-based, or have revolved around regional models of leadership and how these transform in articulation with changing contexts. Here, we instead wish to ethnographically explore the broader political landscapes of contemporary Melanesia in their own right, and inquire into the forms that politics take in these. This comprises both the everyday and seemingly mundane practice of politics in varied spaces and polities, and the broader imagery, historicity, and outlook on the future that informs political action. What are the particular characteristics in the conduct of national politics, democratic processes, urban social movements, religious activism, or other initiatives and projects that address a public realm beyond confined notions of place? How do political actors in Melanesia envision roles of the state and civil society? What are the ideologies that legitimize leadership in projects or spaces that can be considered political? What about gender relations, and racial or other identities in political processes? And how are politics mediated through language?

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Imagining the Nation and the Parliament of Papua New Guinea

Priscila Santos da Costa (University of St Andrews)

The Parliament of Papua New Guinea constitutes a space of dispute for claims regarding nation-building. From discussions about how its architecture should incorporate the essence of the country to attempts of changing its structure to better translate the nations’ specificity, the Parliament serves as a point of convergence for different images of “Papua New Guinea”. Categories such as “culture/kastom”, “modernity” and “Christianity” are in a constant interplay when it comes to discussing the current and future state of the country. One controversy in which these imageries were put to action was between 2013 and 2015 with an initiative called “Reformation, Restoration and Modernization Program”. I draw on my fieldwork in the Parliament during this period to analyse how the Unity Team, the group responsible for materialising the Program, (re)articulate the history of the country and its internal and international relationships. I argue that, for the RRMP, the Parliament becomes an agent of social and historical change, and its spatial modification is tantamount to a will of re-shaping the way of governing PNG.

Politics of the Future in Kikori (Papua New Guinea)

Dario Di Rosa (Australian National University)

The important role played by Christianity in shaping post-colonial Melanesian nation states is a particular attribute of regional scholarship. But scholarly attention has been devoted overwhelmingly to national figures, with little research on the micro-regional level. In an area such as Kikori in Gulf Province, where the absence of the Papua New Guinea state and its services is starkly evident in contrast to the material presence of development companies, Christian rituals provide local communities with an avenue towards what is imagined as “modernity”. The Kikori Peace and Reconciliation ceremony, intended to put an end to a curse perceived as holding back regional development, provides a case for analysis of local imaginaries of the future. The ceremony proved to be an arena in which different social actors emerged as competing political leaders by organising socio-economic efforts to realise the ceremony, while shaping imagined post-curse futures. Through the lenses of Bourdieu’s concepts of economic and symbolic capital I explore the process of emergence of political leadership among church leaders, exposing how church-based networks prove vital in the articulation of local relations with larger geographical entities (local, regional, provincial, national, and international).

Community conservationists as peasant intellectuals in Wide Bay, East New Britain, Papua New Guinea

Tuomas Tammisto (University of Helsinki)

Both large-scale and community based conservations schemes have often been criticized as apolitical and neoliberal approaches to environmental problems created by unequal power relations and patterns of resource use. The local conservation activists in Wide Bay seem to conform to the image of technocratic conservationists with their adept use of managerial language and skills in dealing with foreign donors and state officials. However, they have successfully protected their customary land areas from large-scale logging and have helped their communities more widely to prevent dispossession of land areas through controversial leases. The conservationists have also educated their community members in dealing with state and company representatives, sought to further the rural people's position in the wider political economy as small-scale cultivators, taken part in electoral politics and sought to challenge the hegemonic view of "development" as increased economic activity based on resource extraction.

In this paper I examine the Wide Bay conservationists as organic intellectuals as defined by Antonio Gramsci, namely people engaged in educative and organizational tasks. Organic intellectuals, in Gramscian terms, have structural links to a particular class they emerged from and whose interests they seek to further. The Wide Bay conservationists were, I argue, peasant intellectuals, and in this paper I compare them to other rural political movements in New Britain and beyond.

Recolonizing indigenous ('notion of) land ? Conservationist standards, Kanak ontologies and political practices in New Caledonia

Mélissa Nayral (Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès)

Unlike several countries in Oceania such as Fiji or Vanuatu, New Caledonia is yet to be independent. Signed in 1998, the Noumea Accord has however been organizing a progressive decolonization of this territory within the French Republic which implied the transfer of various competencies from French to New Caledonia institutions to be done between 1998 and 2018. Environmental Policy-making is one field of action already transferred to local Provinces but, just like elsewhere, as several have already demonstrated, expert advice and international controls are in order for such field of action. In spite of what can be described as a strong State, contemporary New Caledonian political landscape indeed seems to be of no exception to the global phenomenon of Conservation.
This presentation will mainly be based on the description and analysis of one particular structure of governance designed with a general aim of local-based marine resources management for the only New Caledonian inhabited Island on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It wished to demonstrate how international NGO’s (such as CI, WWF, PEW), programs and conservationist standards in a more general way can interfere with and contribute to remodel Kanaks’ views and claims on their land. In so doing, it investigates how, while impacting political practices and local land tenure rights, this process echoes in its own way with earlier colonial transformations.

Minescape and policy-making in the northern Province of New Caledonia

Marta Gentilucci (Università di Milano Bicocca)

The Kanak people of New Caledonia have found creative and culturally coherent responses to the imperative of development, summarised in the expression “the art of living kanak in the age of globalisation”. In the northern Province of New Caledonia mining activity is bound up with the project to construct a “ville océanienne” within 2025, a new city built on melanesian values. Even if these environments aren’t specifically “Pacific”, the same cannot be said about the ways of experiencing them. Nickel isn’t a passive “object” and a simple commodity to extract and to process but it has own agency. Indeed it is fully integrated in the history of the country: it has written the past, and now it is writing the future. The interaction between human and nickel produces inevitably a political landscape, especially now that New Caledonia is preparing to referendum. Thus, how do minescape contribute to the making of politics? How “Koniambo” industry produces locality? The aim of this paper is to reflect upon the process of resource-making, linked to the awareness of environment. I will reflect referring to my field research conducted in 2015 in New Caledonia.

The Gift of Leadership

Reed Adam (University of St Andrews)

This paper will focus on the perspectives on leadership offered by Papua New Guinean migrants living in Western Australia. For the men of this community, relations between them are partly defined by the problem of there being too many leaders. All of them, because of their status as skilled and salaried mine workers but especially because of their status as migrants living in Australia, present themselves as leaders in the eyes of village communities in PNG. This sense of everyone being a leader back home becomes a source of tension when migrants have to decide who is a leader of their own migrant community. That question is explored through debates about the sources of authority for leadership, where for instance migrants might debate the difference and similarity between a theory of leadership drawn from the capacity to attract support on the basis of charisma or inherited power and a theory grounded in a Pentecostal notion of leadership as a gift from God. Finally, Western Australia becomes a context for women migrants to imagine not following their husbands; if not exactly to become leaders, to find new strengths in divine gifts or in the face of law.

Student strikes and emerging ideologies of leadership in Papua New Guinea

Ivo Soeren Syndicus (Maynooth University)

In this paper, I focus on ideologies of leadership in recent student strikes at public universities in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Whereas these ideologies reveal both continuities and contradistinctions to place-based politics and models of leadership, I suggest that they correspond to an emergent and distinctly national political sphere. Based on ethnographic fieldwork and reports about student strikes since 2010, I illustrate some characteristics of what arguably constitute emerging national ideologies and practices of political leadership. These include: (1) An uneasy relationship between political idea(l)s and intimidation in mobilizing collective action; (2) legitimacy and prowess as leader demonstrated through successful mobilization as an end in itself; and (3) an emerging reification of leadership, once achieved, as unchallenged authority rather than performed role of uncertain efficacy. I draw links between the ideologies of leadership visible in student strikes with characteristics of electoral politics, and thus demonstrate how a national realm of ideologies and practices of leadership appears to become consolidated in PNG. This, I suggest, constitutes a realm worthy of observation in and through itself, and for which a search for conceptual continuity with place-based politics and diverse local notions of leadership may remain important but ultimately of limited explanatory purchase.

Ideology and Legitimation in Melanesian Politics: The Case of Fiji in National and Regional Politics

Stephanie Lawson (Macquarie University)

Indigenous political leadership in Fiji has been in a state of constant adaptation for well over a century. Precolonial leadership evinced a certain diversity but the colonial period saw a more uniform pattern introduced, reflecting not just the ideology of the colonial regime but that of a certain privileged sector of the chiefly elite. The colonial period also saw the introduction of a large non-indigenous population which ensured the racialization of legitimating ideologies. Additional dynamics come into play with the advent of independence, culminating in a series of coups against elected governments. Events following the last coup in 2006 have seen the most radical changes yet, with the elimination of many of the privileges of traditional indigenous leadership by a regime dominated by the military and non-traditional leaders. This paper reviews these developments, paying particular attention to the way in which ideologies of legitimation have shifted over time and the extent to which these are reflected in both national and regional political developments.