Shifting Ground: Economic Creolisation and Land Sales on the Edges of Goroka, Papua New Guinea

Economic development Land use Urban planning Land management Papua New Guinea
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Urbanisation in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is increasingly characterised by the sale of customary land to migrants from other provinces. As the borders of towns transform through this process, I ask: what does selling customary land in PNG mean, and what implications do sales have for Papua New Guinean sociality? I address these questions by analysing land sales in a community in Bena, near Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province (EHP). Drawing on approximately three months of fieldwork in the area, I explore the region around Goroka as a space of intersecting logics of exchange, ownership, and personhood, I argue that land sale is an example of the creolisation of both economic forms and ideas of personhood. As buyers and sellers draw on both legalistic and customary symbols of exchange, land sale is neither a gift exchange nor an example of commodification, but rather exists in a space of economic-semantic ambiguity. Sellers and buyers draw on a creole of economic signifiers to communicate the ownership and transfer of land. Further, due to the central place of land in constructing sociality in Melanesia, this economic creolisation has important consequences for the construction of personhood in Bena. By examining the centrality of land in competing ideas of “freedom” in Bena, I place economic concerns in conversation with questions of personhood. As Papua New Guinean towns expand into the surrounding customarily-owned areas, these dynamics provide insight into the role of land in ongoing urbanisation in PNG.

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