Evictions in Port Moresby. Over recent years many communities have been evicted from informal settlements in the National Capital District (NCD), the administrative area containing Papua New Guinea’s capital city, Port Moresby. A November 2021 discussion paper by Michelle Nayahamui Rooney, Whose right? Forceful evictions of informal settlements from state land in Papua New Guinea’s National Capital District, analyses numerous cases. Evictions related to state land that are the subject of court cases are identified. Rooney conducted a critical discourse analysis of eviction stories, examining media stories, court proceedings and other information to develop understanding of forced evictions in the NCD. According to this research or about 20 forced evictions 18,791 NCD residents were forcibly evicted from their homes between 2012 and 2021. This alarming picture is contextualised with explanation of Papua New Guinea’s land tenure system. A complex legislative framework stems from the colonial administration appropriating land from customary owners. This state-owned land can be registered to private owners and can be bought and sold. Informal settlements on such land are an important option for low-income groups unable to afford housing. But this land is prone to contestation and residents of informal settlements are often subject to harsh treatment by state actors .
Saiwara residents resist eviction. In the early days of 2022, a further wave of eviction exercises was announced, of informal settlers living on land surrounding Jacksons Airport, Papua New Guinea’s main airport located 8 kilometres outside Port Moresby. The National Airports Corporation (NAC) lays claim to this land. On 10th January residents of the Saiwara community, adjacent to Jacksons Airport, protested being issued with several eviction notices over the past year by the NAC, the most recent giving them until the end of the month to vacate the area. Settlers handed a petition to member for Moresby North East, John Kaupa, urging him to stop the eviction. A video by EMTV Online shows a group of men, women and children protesting, some holding up placards with statements such as ‘No Eviction Please’, ‘No Eviction, What is Government doing For My Future’. They demanded a better solution, saying that eviction and demolition of their homes is not the answer to the problem. A representative stated that the residents had been paying a traditional landowner - Eliap Tokana, deputy chairman of the Dubara clan - who claimed he held rights to the land. NAC stated that it needed to reclaim all the land within an area under a government gazette as the ‘declared aerodrome area’. Public notices detailing ‘Illegal Encroachment on Airport Land’ and ‘General Advice and Eviction Notice to Illegal Tenants’ had been posted in newspapers. These notices included a map highlighting portions of land in the Saiwara area and two other areas on the fringes of Jacksons Airport, collectively referred to as ‘Port Moresby International Airport Portion 2965’ .
The petition against eviction was signed by over 5,000 Saiwara residents. Many tax-paying businesses also urged the government to stop the evictions. Abraham Kewa, owner of a rental property in the area, said he faces the risk of losing the property after spending money to build it. He had been living on the site for eight years and his property was housing workers from private and public sectors . The Hagen Kona group, owners of many rental houses hosting flourishing small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s) along with church buildings, had been issued with eviction notices and members were concerned over what would happen if they were forced to leave Saiwara. They were worried that assets like houses and vehicles might be removed. Abraham Kewa said he had received no assurances on how he would be compensated if the eviction went ahead and his assets removed. Many houses constructed in the Saiwara area meet a need for rental accommodation and have been expanded.
Residents and several SME owners residing in the area have purchased land; community representatives argued that they should be given an opportunity to have a stake in the land. The Saiwara community has been growing, providing an alternative to the high cost of living in Port Moresby .
Eviction drive in Erima
Simultaneous with the eviction drive in Saiwara, NAC began pressuring residents to vacate Erima, another area adjacent to Jacksons Airport. A group of policemen visited communities and issued eviction notices. Long term resident Febi Bill said, “Police said the land close to the airport belongs to the National Airports Corporation and people must move out before the eviction date.” NAC managing director Rex Kiponge stated that the land belonged to NAC and that people must vacate the land by the end of January. He said, “I personally witnessed and heard from the police that any settlement or houses near the airport must be immediately moved out of force will be applied” and urged people living in the affected area to find a place to resettle. Kiponge explained that the evicted drive was a strategic move to utilize the land for non-aeronautical stream (generation of revenue from sources other than airlines, such as retail, hotels, property, real estate and car parking) . Kiponge stated that NAC had given people occupying the portion of land a grace period of one month, but by February NAC would not hesitate to proceed with the eviction exercise. He said the investment in non-aeronautical business was a paradigm shift triggered by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had cased a reduction in air travel . NAC managing director and chief executive Rex Kiponge said the NAC needed to start generating its own revenue and recouping its assets was in line with this aim. He said, “I can’t sit and keep asking the government to give us money to run NAC” .
Prime Minister James Marape intervenes
In response to questions in Parliament from member for Moresby North East, John Kaupa, Prime Minister James Marape assured settlers on airport-owned land at Erima and Saiwara that they would not be evicted by the NAC until a permanent solution was reached. But he warned settlers not to move in onto state land and start building structures if they are not in possession of titles, saying that the Government would not step in to assist anyone on humanitarian grounds. He said he had directed the NAC management to put a stop to the proposed eviction of settlers on aerodrome land. Mr. Kaupa said the eviction would cause a lot of social problems, claiming that NAC owns the land through Certificate Authorising Occupancy (CAO), not a land title. Mr. Marape said, “I have asked the NAC to freeze their plan to evict the settlers until we find a permanent solution so there is no eviction for you now”. Talking of a long-term plan for settlements in Port Moresby he seemed to suggest that people facing eviction would be resettled, saying, “We want the land to be properly plan to settle our people. We want to do it properly by planning it properly with respect to the views of landowners” . On 31st January 2022 NAC announced that the eviction planned for the following month had been put on hold until further notice, informing the media that they had considered and accommodated the government’s concerns. Managing director Rex Kiponge said settlers would still need to look at resettling somewhere else and that NAC would exercise its right to take back the land . In advance of the eviction drive, in December 2021, Kiponge had made a statement pertaining to the legality of NAC’s claim to the contested land, along with other airports with declared aerodrome status:
“All declared aerodromes are the private property of the NAC, therefore, the NAC reserves the right to evict and repossess portions of land within aerodromes from Individuals who fail to comply with the requirements of the Aerodrome (business concessions) Act 2000 or, are illegally occupying or, squatting within declared aerodromes.”
Kiponge said NAC’s activities were aligned with the Government aspiration to develop and implement strategic aviation assets. He also said that the NAC was working closely with the Department of Lands and Planning to ensure that 22 Papua New Guinea airports were declared aerodromes .
Previous evictions from land claimed by NAC
The eviction drive beginning in 2022 is the latest in a series. In February 2017 police evicted settlers originating from the Highlands region who were occupying state-owned land in Erima. The officer in charge of Jacksons Airport, Inspector Robert Wane said the police were acting on the orders of the land owned by the NAC. He explained that the eviction had taken place following an eviction notice being issued to settlers by the NAC the previous year, “That is why an order has been given for police to move them out and the people have no choice but to adhere to it”. He said that over the course of a week all the houses and tents in the area in question had been removed. Mek Merla, a settler who had moved to Erima from Hela, in the Highlands region, said that some people whose homes were destroyed had not received an eviction notice. He said “Eviction notice was issued to the people living on the other side of the drain, not us. But to our surprise, the backhoe crossed the drain and destroyed 26 houses built on the opposite side.” He called on the government to help resettle them .
An EMTV article stated that more than 200 families were displaced in the February 2017 Erima eviction. A video by EMTV Online said that more than 300 families were displaced and shows women, men and children impacted by the eviction . They were settlers from the Highlands region who had been residing behind Erima Bridge. Some of them had lived in makeshift and semi-permanent housing for more than 20 years. On 6th February it was reported that they had been left sleeping out in cold, wet weather conditions for a few days. Their only shelter was wooden frames and roofing iron and they had no food, water or clothing. NAC told EMTV that the settlers were trespassing without their approval. NAC Acting Director and Chief Executive Officer, Richard Yopo, said the Erima Bridge area had been a concern due to criminal activities making it unsafe for travellers, employees and visitors. He said the penalty for trespassing would be a fine of K10,000 (USD2,850), imprisonment for up to three months, or both .
Eviction and disputed land ownership in 7 mile. In May 2015 a demolition exercise at 7 mile, near Jacksons Airport left more than 200 people homeless. Some of them were beaten up by the eviction squad. People lost all they owned during the demolition and some homes were burned down. The eviction was part of NAC’s development plan. NAC’s Acting Managing Director, Joseph Tupiri, told EMTV that, in conjunction with National Capital District, NAC was undertaking a major clean-up exercise within the aerodrome area. The land had previously been referred to as Portion 1229 before being referred to as part of Portion 2965 (the same designation as the Saiwara and Erima areas subject to eviction exercises). NAC stated that more demolitions would follow in the coming months to make way for developments in preparation for events like the Pacific Games . NAC’s claimed ownership of the land was disputed by a man from Chimbu province in the Highlands region, John Kaupa, who claimed to have bought it from the original owners. Kaupa produced documents proving he had bought part of the Portion 1229 land, opposite the Airways Hotel, in 2010. He stated that the land was sold to him by Eliap Tokana, deputy chairman of the Dubara clan, saying, “This is our customary land called Saraga Ima. We have documents to prove the status of this land. I own this land.” Kaupa also said that, on 16th March 2015, without any eviction notice, police officers and people from a security firm evicted his relatives and destroyed their properties .
Dubara clan landowners demand compensation. A long-running dispute over compensation for Jacksons Airport customary landowners flared up in October 2012. The Dubara clan claimed ownership of the entire Jacksons Airport site along with surrounding portions of land. Clan spokesman Kila Joe Gabutu said landowners were frustrated over the government’s failure to honour a deed of release that had been signed between his late father, Joe Henao Gabutu and former Lands Secretary Pepi Kimas more than six years previously, on 5th September 2006. Dubara landowners held a meeting and demanded that K4.5 million (USD1.28 million) owed to them be paid immediately, warning that they would forcefully shut down the airport during a forthcoming visit by the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee. Kila Joe Gabutusaid, “We will resolve to shut the airport. We have 200 people readily available to execute our protest…The government has not honoured the deed of release. We have run out of patience because the government failed to honour its side of the bargain”.
Four years later, in October 2016, representing the Dubara clan landowners, Eliap Tokana filed a state claim against the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The traditional landowners claimed that the CAA owns only 27 hectares of the aerodrome land, whilst the remainder of the aerodrome land, covering a total area of 600 hectares, was customarily owned. The Waigani National Court had ordered the CAA and Mapping Bureau to provide specific documents in court to show land acquisition titles. The documents had not been provided . In February 2018 a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between NAC and the Dubara Idibana Incorporated land group (formed by traditional landowners of Jacksons Airport) was questioned in Parliament. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill responded to questions by Rabaul MP Alan Marat about a letter from Dubara Idibana land group to Civil Aviation Minister Alfred Manase. The letter, titled ‘Closure of Jackson International Airport within 21 days’, expressed landowners’ disappointment, frustration and anger at NAC’s failure to honour its commitments under the MOA, which had been signed on 19th November 2014. The questions in Parliament about the MOA included pertained to honouring the signing of the agreement and traditional landowners being part of small businesses on their land .