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Tackling clan conflict

A tribesman with a traditional sharpened bush knife in Madang Province
(David Swanson/IRIN)

Clan violence is widespread in Papua New Guinea (PNG), where arguments over women, pigs and land can easily spiral into murder, mayhem and civil conflict.

In the volatile Eastern Highlands Province, an estimated 400 people die each year in violence - mostly sparked by land disputes.

During one dispute that lasted 16 years over a coffee plantation in Daulo District, houses were regularly set ablaze and crops destroyed. Six people were killed.

"They [the duelling groups] come and strike, and then move back for two to three weeks a month. If someone comes close to the plantation, they strike again," said Charles Goto, special projects coordinator for the Eastern Highlands provincial administration.

The impact on local communities is severe. After years of fighting, people had taken refuge elsewhere. Children could not go to school.

After the coffee plantation owner was killed, Goto, with a committee of officials and local elders, helped the two parties reach a settlement.

"Everything revolves around mediation, negotiation and compensation, and that's compensation with a capital C," said Don Hurrell, a PNG-born Australian who served 24 years with the police in north-eastern Australia and now advises Goto.

When a woman is killed, compensation is typically US$770, against $1,930 for a man. However, the settlement for the murdered coffee plantation owner - educated with a promising future - was $19,300 plus several pigs.

In 2005, the committee helped restore peace in Daulo. Families returned home and the school reopened.

Fighting for peace

The committee that convened in Daulo was the forerunner of eight district peace management teams (DPMTs) set up in 2008 in the Eastern Highlands.

That year there were 84 conflicts in the province, but with the DPMTs monitoring and mediating, there are now only two to three simmering conflicts at any given time. Patience and persuasiveness are key to resolving the disputes.

Because of customary land tenure, 93 percent of PNG's land is owned by clans with very few secure titles.

"When you're talking about tribal fights, most of it is coming from land disputes," Goto said. "If we can look after the land disputes, then we can reduce the number of tribal fights."

Once hostilities begin, payback can keep conflict alive for decades. Disputes between landowners and the owners of a copper mine on the island of Bougainville, east of the country's mainland in the Solomon Sea, escalated into 10 years of civil war and some 15,000 dead and another 70,000 displaced. The conflict ended in 1999.

"There are some fights that have been going on here for no one knows how long - well over 20 years. No one can even tell you what started it," Hurrell said.

Escalating violence

In the years after independence from Australia in 1975, "the men never touched the women and children. It was with bows and arrows. There was no burning of houses," said Naomi Yupae, executive director of the local family-focused NGO, Eastern Highlands Family Voice.

"Now with these firearms, it's just violence, violence, violence - raping women, shooting children, displacing people from their land."

Clans even hire mercenaries to kill enemies in the capital, Port Moresby, 400km away, fostering constant fear for those involved in the fighting and residents caught in the crossfire.

Donors and NGOs have poured resources into mitigation efforts: PNG-based Peace Foundation Melanesia has conducted conflict-resolution training; Eastern Highlands Family Voice has trained nearly 200 peace mediators; and the Australia Agency for International Development (AusAID) has supported the DPMTs.

Nonetheless, some locals say nothing can quell the thirst for revenge. "I don't think anyone should be involved in mediating peace for them," said Agnes Inape, a women's rights activist in Goroka, capital of Eastern Highlands Province.

"If you force them to make peace, they say 'We haven't settled the score'. They want revenge," she said. "You can spend so much money on trying to make peace, but that money is not enough to compensate for the anger, the heartache that people are going through."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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