Unchecked population growth is fast proving an additional source of conflict in Papua New Guinea (PNG), a country with a history of clan violence and clashes over land, experts say.
“Without doubt, rapid population growth is adding to the risk of conflict,” Max Kep, director of the PNG’s national Office of Urbanization, told IRIN, noting that various types of conflict are fuelled by limited resources, including a shortage of land.
As PNG’s population nears seven million, comprised of nearly 700 ethnic groups speaking some 800 languages, communities are increasingly fighting over smaller plots of land, while city dwellers in swelling urban areas are clashing with nearby owners of traditional land, Kep said.
Over the past 30 years, the country’s population has more than tripled, from 2.1 million to 6.7 million, government figures reveal.
At the same time, the average total fertility rate of 4.4 births per woman remains one of the highest in the Pacific region, says the UN.
According to a recent government task force report on maternal health, PNG’s population will probably double in the next 25 years.
Pressure on towns
Adding to this challenge is PNG’s increasing youth population, with more than half of the country’s population now under the age of 20, according to World Bank figures.
“It’s like having wild grass lying around waiting to be struck by lightning for a brushfire,” Helen Ware, a professor at the University of New England in Australia who has studied and practised peace-building in PNG, explained, noting the risk of so many idle, underemployed men.
Migrants - drawn to towns and cities for jobs and services - are fuelling population growth in urban areas, Kep said, adding that urban areas are now growing at an average of 4.5-5 percent a year.
Some 97 percent of the country’s land is under customary tenure law, meaning it is reserved for traditional land owners and the state has no jurisdiction over it. Land owners often are unwilling to release land for urban growth, so PNG’s cities have nowhere to expand, according to the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT).
The Eastern Highlands city of Goroka, for example, is facing critical land shortages which have caused rapid and informal urbanization, according to a UN-HABITAT report.
Kep, with the Office of Urbanization, said a government initiative to encourage landowners to lease their land to municipalities is aimed at empowering them, with increased income and access to government services.
Many of those flocking to urban areas today are the young. But with few job opportunities when they arrive, the country has also witnessed an increase in urban youth gangs, known as `raskol’ gangs, who often turn to crime, according to residents.
Violent clashes have erupted between local landowners and `raskols’, Albert Sams, a 24-year-old health worker from Ifiufa, a village 20km from Goroka, explained.
Family, community feuds
Significantly, land disputes between family members and communities are also now more common under the strain of population growth, residents and international agencies say.
“Villages which once were separated are now bordering one another, and conflicts are definitely arising through competition for resources,” said Chris Turner, from Marie Stopes International, an NGO providing family planning and reproductive services in PNG.
In fact, in and around Goroka, fighting between families is also turning violent.
“There are a lot of land disputes between families - some verbal abuse, and sometimes they fight with knives, sticks, stones or guns,” Sams said.
Jeffery Korowa’s story is typical of large families struggling to live off the land. Hailing from a family of five siblings, the 49-year-old says all his brothers and sisters have had several children, leading to more than 15 offspring arguing over smaller and smaller pieces of property.
“I’m already fighting with my brothers over land,” said Korowa, a nurse who owns land outside Mount Hagen, the provincial capital of West Highlands Province. “I can take my brothers to court. But I’m pretty sure if it comes to push and shove, it will become violent.”