Friday, January 15, 2010

Modernity's Manifold Chasms

The article appeared in Steven's Window, The National newspaper of PNG on Friday 08th January 2010.

A few days before Christmas I had a brief conversation with a colleague who had just returned from the Southern Highlands Province after the signing of various LNG agreements between the state, the developers, and the land owners of the massive oil and gas field.

I was curious about trauma resulting from the transition from the stone-age to the gas-age for the landowners with so much money in their lives. Resource owners are going on a spending spree, massive consumption of alcohol, and car sales yards in Mendi and Hagen are out of new vehicles to sell to the landowners. The landowners have become wealthy, in monetary terms, beyond their wildest dreams.

Money to spend is no longer an issue to the landowners. I have been thinking about what it all means to be someone who, a few years ago or a decade back, would have been so absorbed in the daily routine of tending to gardens, animal husbandry, customary social obligations, gifts exchange, and involvement in the tribal social, cultural, political, and economic activities in the high valley. With the oil and gas development the same villagers are given millions of Kina as payments for what is extracted from beneath the surface of their land.

These are people who have never thought money would change their lives. These are people content with living the way they were since their ancestors. These are people who never realized that their lives began in a simple way—a life that now has changed dramatically to one that rushes headlong into modernity without any preparedness for its negative consequences.

It is a life that, without much thought to it, takes a flight away from simple and ordinary things in life, or a life without the benefit of large amounts of money to one that is transformed into what is sometimes described as the postmodern anxiety.

The transformation is crafted within the shortest possible time in response to the resources and economic development initiated and sanctioned by the national government of Papua New Guinea. Nothing would have come about without the strong well developed policies and stewardship of the national government to safeguard the economic, natural resources, and political interest of its people.

The issue that interests me is the experience of social stress and disorder in the lives of the people who are now displaced from their social and cultural nests that kept them safe, healthy, and simple. With so much money to deal with many of the benefactors of the oil and gas fields will abandon their traditional and cultural way of life to one driven by the money received for being resource owners. Many people will go through a process of denial of their traditional social and cultural foundations, replacing these with new introduced cultures and social attitudes that are detrimental in the long run. Human history demonstrates that once such a cultural and social revolution is set in motion there is no turning back to the old ways. It is a one way train from depths of the cold mountains to the sea of modernity.

Change happening in the oil and gas rich Southern Highlands is irreversible unless someone cares enough to insists on setting up social and cultural institutions to shoulder the burden of social and cultural house-keeping. The need to respond to the emotional and psychological intensity of the experience is never a shot term solution. It must involve carefully designed institutions, programs, plans, and strategies of responding to the results of this traumatic experience. Otherwise it takes years to repair the cultural and social damage done to these people within a short span of time.

The experiences of Panguna, Misima, OK Tedi, and Pogera must continue to inform our leaders, planners, and resource developers to consider the social and cultural consequences emanating directly from the development of resources in the Southern Highlands Province. Consideration on the ripple effects such as rural urban drift, disillusionment, developmental anxieties, violence, over population in urban areas, and the spread of modern diseases caused by the experiences of displacement, social fragmentation, and cultural sacrifice must take place within a framework that is responsive rather than ignorance.

One is reminded, in saying this, of the difficult transition and suffering made in China after the Cultural Revolution. Arthur Kleinman, a leading authority of anthropology and medicine reminds us that the recovery of the cultural self lost in the transition is never easy and quick. In terms of what this means is that a case of posttraumatic disorder is set in motion. In his book Social Origins of Distress and Disease (1986) Kleinman describes the case histories of individuals whose stress and disease resulted from the excesses of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1920s and 1930s. Similarly, we must ask: Are the landowners of the oil and gas fields prepared to deal with the break down of social and cultural order as a direct result of the great leap they are now taking into the realms of modernity without preparedness? Are there institutions and programs to deal with posttraumatic stress disorder once it appears to make its presence difficult to ignore as it gnaws away at the moral and cultural sinews of a society? I pose these questions at this time to flag the imminent future our people in the Southern Highlands will go through in the lifespan of the resource exploitation.

It is not my place to tell the people of Southern Highlands, especially those with direct connection to the massive resource development, what to do. It is not my place also to argue with the government’s decisions and positions in the development of the resources in the Southern Highlands and Gulf provinces. What is important, however, is that, as a Papua New Guinean writer and scholar I stand between the past and future, then and now—and looking and asking questions that might easily be overlooked or answered in haste in our headlong dive into modernity’s manifold chasms.

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