Legibility and Recognition in Nenataman

As Filer has pointed out, a popular ideology of landownership has become a general idiom through which local people make claims against the state for everything from compensation to the provision of government services (Filer 1997, 1998; see also Ballard 1997). Where mining projects are contemplated or are already underway, the discourse of landownership has provided local people with a powerful bargaining chip in demanding the restoration or extension of dwindling government services, by raising the possibility that they can block projects by withholding consent until at least some of their demands are met. In such a context discussions that at first sight appear to be about property must be understood to be at least as much about the broad political relationship between the state and its disgruntled citizens (Jackson 1989, 1991).

This point brings us to an important feature of mining negotiations, for landowners’ issues are often less about threats to their enjoyment of land than securing recognition that will confer access to benefits that — it is fervently hoped — will flow from mining operations once they are underway (King 1997; Filer 1998). The stakes for local people increase when possible royalties, compensation payments, employment and business development are added to the mix of anticipated benefits.

This context sets up a situation in which there is a tension between the state’s need to identify clearly legible landholding units and local people’s efforts to establish recognition of their claims to a share in the wealth generated by mining operations. That tension can be illustrated with reference to the proposed Nena/Frieda mining project.[5]

Situated on the boundary between the East and West Sepik provinces, the Nena/Frieda prospect is located in a valley known locally as Nenataman — a thickly forested valley in the rugged foothill ranges south of the Sepik River (Figure 4-1). As with many other mining projects, the mineral deposits at issue are found near the top of local mountains, some of which lie along border zones between adjacent ethnic groups (Figure 4-2).

Figure 4-1: Nenataman location map.

Figure 4-1: Nenataman location map.

Not surprisingly, this location has given rise to disputes about whose land this is — a situation intensified and complicated by the pattern of land use and the history of settlement in the region. Nenataman is inhabited by a scattered and ethnically mixed population of shifting cultivators who supplement gardening with wide-ranging hunting, collecting, and sago making. The valley has been the site of dramatic shifts in settlement and population for at least 150 years, when Telefolmin from the south began expanding into Nenataman at the expense of the original inhabitants, the Untoumin. Over a span of about 50 years the Untoumin were raided by Telefolmin and the nearby Miyanmin with the result that most were annihilated and the remainder either scattered or incorporated as captives into Telefol and Miyan settlements. After the destruction of the Untoumin at the turn of the century, Telefolmin and Miyanmin raided each other intermittently until just before pacification around the end of the 1950s. At present, the main settlements in the Nenataman area include: the Telefol villages of Wabia and Ok Isai; Miyan hamlets belonging to Wameimin parish; Bapi, the sole surviving Paiyamo village; and a handful of small Owininga hamlets to the northwest.

Figure 4-2: Topographical and site map of Nenataman.

Figure 4-2: Topographical and site map of Nenataman.

The fact that Nenataman has been a contested zone for most of its known history, and the location of the main mineral deposits along its borderlands, are only two of several factors blurring attempts to demarcate territorial boundaries. For Telefolmin of Wabia and Ok Isai, the situation is further complicated by the fact that they settled the valley as colonists assisted by Telefolmin from the Eliptaman and Ifitaman valleys to the south (Figure 4-1). Local ideas of entitlement permit claims of access to the descendants of those who fought to clear the valley's previous inhabitants, and Telefolmin in Eliptaman and Ifitaman now invoke these principles to press their interests.

This general fluidity is accentuated by aspects of Miyan and Telefol social organisation, for although relatively fixed villages provide the structural backbone of settlement, these villages competed for personnel and were relatively open in their recruitment. Kinship is reckoned cognatically, and as it was always possible for individuals to claim affiliation along a diverse range of ties, it is arguable that this kind of organisation facilitated a kind of demographic warfare that was endemic to the region before contact (Jorgensen 1997; Gardner 1998, 2004). Finally, men employed in mineral exploration sometimes tended stands of sago in the prospect area, and Telefolmin recognise such activity as entitling one to claims in the area worked.

Although this untidy picture is probably not unusual for a number of areas in PNG, it represents a nightmare for those interested in drawing lines, circumscribing claims and identifying landowner groups. When it became clear that the prospects of mining in the area were good, the government, the developer (Highlands Gold, now Highlands Pacific), and the recently formed Frieda Mine Landowners’ Association[6] sought to clarify the situation by mobilising the apparatus of legibility: making maps, conducting censuses and collecting genealogies.[7]

Both the government and the developer were hoping for some sort of solution to the apparently intractable problems associated with determining claims, but local fears of failing to gain recognition fuelled an increasingly contested atmosphere as the prospect of being excluded from a benefits settlement loomed larger on local horizons. What emerged in response to attempts to create legibility was a strategy of seeking recognition through a series of experiments in clanship. Here it is important to underscore the novel nature of the enterprise, since Telefolmin have no clans.

Telefolmin from Eliptaman and Ifitaman pressed their claims by virtue of genealogical ties to the current inhabitants of Nenataman, driven in part by the obvious significance genealogical material held for the developers and the government. Some Nenataman Telefolmin began talking about ‘clans’ (klen) defined by ‘pure’[8] patrilineal ancestry, and others went a step further by insisting that only those claimants with an unbroken line of descent from the original raiders on both paternal and maternal sides should qualify as landowners.

These local attempts at gaining recognition through clanship failed for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that these solutions would have excluded sizeable numbers of Nenataman’s current inhabitants from any settlement. In the end, however, a novel resolution was proposed: the resurrection of the Untoumin as a clan. Spurred perhaps by the exclusionary claims of the partisans of ‘pure’ Telefol descent and invoking their own claims of prior occupation, a coalition of people descended from Untou captives declared themselves to be a ‘clan’ and successfully gained recognition as the registered landowners in the Nena/Frieda prospect. The resulting grouping embraces people otherwise identified as Telefolmin, Miyanmin, or Paiyamo.[9] As such, the Untoumin might be said to comprise a peculiarly ‘international’ sort of clan, since they include speakers of three different languages drawn from two unrelated language families.

The reinvention of the Untoumin has several incongruities, not the least of which is that as a putatively customary group, the Untoumin have no distinct body of shared custom nor any sense of common identity prior to the search for landowners at Nena. Further, with the apparent exception of claims to land upon which mineral deposits have been identified, the Untoumin seem to have no property in common.[10] While common descent names were sometimes recognised across ethnic boundaries, these never formed the basis for any kind of group and entailed no sense of common interests.[11]

Whether or not the Untoumin are to be regarded as a ‘traditional’ entity, their recognition as landowners poses more immediate political problems in the project area. The reincarnated Untoumin are dispersed among several villages but form the whole of no community. Put differently, the postulated Untou clan asserts differential claims by inscribing a division between ‘members’ and their co-villagers.[12] As a consequence, this version of clanship runs the risk of destabilising any broad consensus on mining agreements by excluding neighbours and kin from entitlements in each of the communities where so-called Untoumin live — thus ensuring that each village in the project area is internally divided between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

Despite these difficulties, however, the Untou solution offers definite attractions from the point of view of mining developers and the state. It promises to transcend the ethnic divisions between Telefolmin, Miyanmin and their neighbours — divisions that have shaped contention over claims to Nenataman. Further, the fact that membership in the clan is genealogically fixed eases worries about the vagueness of defining landowners and beneficiaries. From the corporate point of view, limiting entitlements is necessary to limit liabilities. Finally, while PNG land courts have failed to settle on whether conquest or original occupation should receive priority in land claims (Zorn 1992; Westermark 1997; Marco 2000), the Untou solution has the appeal of respectable antiquity by reaching back to a past pre-dating the arrival of any of the currently extant groups — a notional ‘Nenataman Ground Zero’. Viewed from the perspective of anxious developers in the present, this holds out the prospect of locating a solution to the distribution of benefits in the distant past — an impulse that clearly owes much to the desire to avoid the unpredictable hazards of contemporary mining politics.




[5] This project is presently (2006) on hold, and its future is unclear. In this regard it is in fact very much like most other mining projects whose course is rarely certain, especially at the outset. Despite the fact that a mine has yet to materialise at Nena, the dynamics of the present case are instructive in understanding other projects currently on line.

[6] The name of the association draws upon the official name of the main river draining the Nenataman valley, the Frieda River. Highlands Gold subsequently opted to change the designation of the site to Nena in an attempt to recognise local usage.

[7] Don Gardner, George Morren, Rune Paulsen and I worked as consultants on this project (Jorgensen 1997).

[8] The English word ‘pure’ had become adopted into the local vocabulary of discussions about land and mining — an interesting development in its own right.

[9] The latter resided in Bapi village (Figure 4-1) and were putatively related to the Untoumin.

[10] It is important to note that claims over land for purposes of mining have had no discernible effect on land use for traditional purposes such as gardening.

[11] For example, the Miyan Temselten are said to be ‘the same’ as the Telefol Atemkayakmin, a claim based on a perception of cognate features of the names themselves (from atem, a kind of frog) and suggestions that these commonalities derive from shared ancestry in the remote past. In warfare it was permissible for Telefol Atemkayakmin to kill and eat Miyan Temselten, and vice versa. By contrast, Telefol custom categorically rejected the possibility of cannibalism among Telefolmin or, indeed, bloodshed (though this occasionally took place). The notion that Temselten and Atemkayakmin shared common land rights by virtue of a shared name would have been as unthinkable in pre-colonial times as it is today.

[12] Although I lack the space to develop the point here, one of the muddles nouveau Untou identity poses is this: the claim that they are the original landowners is countered by the view of others that Untoumin were hosted and sheltered by Telefol and Miyan victors, whose readiness to incorporate Untou women and children into their families enabled their survival. The point is obviously a contentious one.