Urban Villages in Papua New Guinea

Prime urban land in Papua New Guinea is in abundance but the peculiarities of the land tenure system is the single most critical factor preventing urban development.

Papua New Guinea (or PNG) is home to people of 820 languages which are spoken by as many different tribes. These tribes inhabit the 19 provinces and differ from each other in language, lifestyle, social status, customs and traditions.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, these tribes, separated by mountains and rainforests, lived in isolated villages. When the Europeans arrived, urban centres were established within the villages – known today as, Urban Villages.

Urban Village in the PNG Context

Wikipedia defines an Urban Village as an urban form typically characterised by medium density development, mixed use zoning, good public transit, pedestrian and public spaces.

However, in the context of PNG, an Urban Village, is characteristically a traditional village within an urbanised area.
Customary Land Tenure in Papua New Guinea

Villages in PNG existed before the Europeans arrived. Land also belonged to tribes passed on from generations. After the Europeans arrived and even after they left, the customary land tenure system remained.

Ninety seven percent of land in PNG is customary with the remaining 3% alienated from customary landowners. A large portion of alienated land is held by government. Alienated land is made available for development through 99 year leases.

Since customary land can belong to several tribes, each tribe may have varied interests on the land and these interests may be vested in different groups who may also have different but overlapping entitlements on the land. Disputes frequently arise because the geographical limits of the land are often undefined and uncertain.

Most prime urban land is customary which is the most critical factor in any planned urban development in Papua New Guinea. Customary land cannot be bought or sold except through long and complex procedures.

The government has no jurisdiction over customary land unless the landowners have entered into agreement with the government for use of the land. Customary land is not subject to government planning and development controls.
Characteristics of Urban Villages in Papua New Guinea

Urban Villages in PNG are mainly identified by tribes who speak the same language. However, villages may also be home to several tribes. For example, Hanuabada Urban Village in the capital city of Port Moresby, is dominated by two tribes - the Motu and Koita people.

Each tribe is identified with a distinct lifestyle - the Motu people live in compact villages at the edge of the sea while the Koita people live in scattered villages built on the ridges which can run parallel to the Coast and grouped around a central place.

Another Urban Village, also in Port Moresby, Kila Kila Village (originally a Koita Village), has a large migrant population, who have been given permission by the landowners to live on the land in exchange for some form of payment. Migrants also bring with them their own distinct lifestyle, customs and traditions which are reflected in their settlements.

Large tracts of land in PNG’s urban centres are dominated by Urban Villages and since local town planning laws do not apply to Urban Villages, there is no planning control over the siting of houses, services and control of population densities.

Houses are often arranged haphazardly or in clusters and living conditions vary greatly. There may be some well built houses of concrete, timber and corrugated iron with basic services and extremely poorly built (makeshift) houses of sub-standard materials, scrap metal, plywood, no basic services.

Since an Urban Village is often home to several tribes, tribal conflicts within the village are not uncommon. The position and arrangement of houses may also vary as a consequence of tribal conflicts.