Concerns over the likelihood of difficulties in negotiating land acquisition for expansion and upgrade of Nadzab Airport were raised in 1972, when Papua New Guinea was under Australian colonial administration. A report, DEVELOPMENT OF NADZAB AIRPORT, PAPUA NEW GUINEA, referred by the House of Representatives to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works on 31st August, favoured development of Nadzab Airport, 42 kilometres to the northwest of the city of Lae, capital of the Morobe Province, over several alternative sites that had been considered. The report noted that the Nadzab Airport project would necessitate the addition of 777 hectares of land to the existing airport area of 429 hectares and stated: ‘The additional area is traditionally native owned land and whilst the Committee were informed that no great difficulty or undue delay is expected to occur with purchase or acquisition, we were disturbed that negotiations for the land have not already commenced. The Committee’s endorsement of this proposal must therefore be conditional on satisfactory arrangements being made with the land owners concerned.’
A 2018 paper by Bettina Beer, Gender and Inequality in a Postcolonial Context of Large-Scale Capitalist Projects in the Markham Valley, Papua New Guinea, examines the interaction between historical gender relations and the impact of large projects in Gabsongkeg. Land is understood to be owned by patrilineal clans. Thus women have been largely excluded as the commercial value of and demand for land in the area increased dramatically due to its proximity to the Highlands Highway which might be widened to four lanes, actual and proposed mining sites, plus the upgrade of Nadzab Airport. The government requires establishment of state-recognised, benefits-receiving Incorporated Land Groups (ILGs) as the basis for populations’ interactions with large-scale projects. Despite women’s rights initiatives and their formal inclusion under the Land Registration (Amendment) Act, in most cases women are excluded from land use negotiations and decisions. Patrilineage takes precedence over other relationships.
Beer’s biography of Geyam, spokesperson of the Orognaron clan, focuses on issues of inheritance, access to land and patrilineal descent dogma. Geyam’s mother Wanti fought to gain an official survey and legal documentation of land upon which Nadzab Airport was built. Wanti’s letter to the Lands Department of the Huon District declaring Geyam to be her successor was accepted. Using documents and contacts her mother had provided Geyam registered an ILG, obtaining a certificate in 2016. With title to large areas of Gabsongkeg land Orognaron ILG is the only one headed by a woman. But Beer raised the issue that ‘state-sponsored ideology of patrilineal clans’ might weaken the position of the Orognaron clan. At the time of the research Geyam was involved in two lengthy legal battles over land rights, one of which meant that income from Nadzab Airport had been frozen since 2016.
A dispute between the Orognaron and Orogwangin clans over ownership of the land upon which Nadzab Airport and Erap station (a government institution for livestock breeding, aquaculture and rice cultivation situated to the west of Nadzab Airport) are located was reported in The National in May 2013. The article states that Orognaron clan leader Geam Warrago’s (it seems fair to conclude that ‘Geam’ is an alternative spelling of ‘Geyam’ as she was clan leader) questioning of a statement by Orogwangin clan spokesperson that they owned the Nadzab land was confirmed by former Huon Gulf district administrator Tony Ase, who said that the Orognaron clan was the only legally recognised customary landowner of Ngawampog, the portions of land where Nadzab Airport was built, and also of the portions of land in Dogoro upon which Erap station is located. In December 2019 The National reported that Gabsongkeg villagers were ‘still in the dark’ over what was now referred to as the Nadzab Airport Redevelopment Project (NARP). Wampar local level government deputy president and Gabsongkeg councillor Bill Justin said that although people appreciated the project ever since the government took the initiative locals had not received prior notification, from agencies such as the National Airport Corporation, Department of Lands and Physical Planning, and Department of Works, to ensure their participation. Justin told Huon Gulf administrator Moses Wanga, district officer Brian Dikori and land mediators: “Nadzab Airport is located at the heart of Gabsongkeg community, in Wampar LLG and Huon Gulf administration. Therefore, we shouldn’t be by-passed for cohesive working relationship with people and stakeholders. We need to know the local content of the project for possibilities to involve in spin-off activities.” Wanga advised the community not to talk about land ownership benefits as customary landowners were dealing directly with the government. He denied receiving copies of the land survey, maps and physical planning reports as the custodian of the district.
Landowner issues and airport city plans In early February 2020 the Morobe provincial government assured partners in the NARP, namely the National Airports Corporation (NAC) and Japanese International Co-operation Agency, that it would handle landowner issues. Provincial administrator Bart Ipambonj said officers were ready to address issues with landowners to free land for the project and would work closely with them. He referred to future development around the airport site saying, “We understand that after the airport redevelopment project, the periphery of Nadzab area will be the Nadzab city.” Project manager Beatus Kili said this was a major airport and city development and the provincial government must help address landowner issues so that the project could be completed by 2022. On 19th February Nadzab Airport landowners of the Orogwangin clan petitioned the Morobe provincial government over lack of consultation for the NARP. Clan leader and spokesperson Joshua Messach claimed that the land Nadzab Airport is built on belongs to nine clans of Gabsongkeg village, with each clan having some land extending into the airport perimeter area. He said: “The Nadzab airport land is made up of many parcels of land belonging to various families and clans and not just one family or sub clan and we are shocked to hear during the redevelopment presentation that the State owns the land…Gabsongkeg people deny having any land mediation conducted or initiated by the Morobe provincial or the National government officers over the Nadzab airport land ownership. There is no mediation, local lands court or the Land Titles Commission Determination over land ownership when Nadzab airport was established so we consider the airport land as our customary land.” Messach said the contested land ownership problems dated back to inception of the Nadzab Airport project in 1972. He explained that they had given seven days for the Morobe provincial government to respond to the petition before they would seek legal action.
Landowners’ repeated calls for participation In March 2020 Nadzab airport landowners expressed disappointment at the awarding of security and construction contracts that they claimed was conducted without due process. Clan chairman Alex Agon said the contracts were awarded to outsiders even though there were many reputable companies in Lae who could do a better job and allow for landowner participation in spin-off businesses. He added that a local security company had undertaken specialist training to provide security services at the airport, explaining that the NAC failed to consult the immediate landowners of Nadzab Airport on the contracts. He called on NAC to cancel the contracts and allow a proper tendering process giving landowners priority and involvement in all phases of construction and security contracts, warning that “Failure to adhere to our list of demands will result in stoppage of any work that will be carried out on the new Nadzab airport.” In June 2020 Member for Huon Gulf, Ross Seymour, urged the government to offer a modern village model to Gabsongkeg before acquiring their customary land for Nadzab Airport and other high impact projects including Nadzab township, oil palm, Lae-Nadzab four-lane highway and the Wafi-Golpu pipeline project (gold and copper mining). He explained that Gabsongkeg villagers own limited land in the Nadzab area, but that most customary land areas had been sold to settlers. There was no police station or officers to address the social problems experienced by locals. He said “Gabsongkeg is a hot pot to capture government’s agendas, therefore the government needs to offer the most modern village model capturing needs of the villagers into the future, before we offer our land for developmental purposes.” The ground-breaking ceremony for NARP, held on 30th July 2020, provided an opportunity for Nadzab landowners to repeat their call for active participation. Chairman of nine clans in Gabsongkeg village, Jobbie Ferea, said that even though Nadzab Airport services the country’s second largest city, Lea, dubbed as PNG’s industrial hub, they have no hospitals, proper running water, or electricity. He said landowners wanted to change their status from ‘mere spectators’ to ‘active participants’. Local Member Ross Seymour appealed to the Civil Aviation Minister, Lekwa Gure, and Morobe Governor Ginson Saonu, to involve the landowners, saying that while they host many projects the benefits are yet to trickle down to them. In his speech at the ground-breaking event Prime Minister James Marape acknowledged landowners’ concerns and spoke of development around Nadzab Airport: “Let me point to the landowners, let me point to the Huon Gulf district, let me point to the Markham district, let me point to Morobe Provincial Government, we will partner in making not only an airport centre but Nadzab will have an associated city infrastructure built around Nadzab.” Prime Minister James Marape said the associated city infrastructure around Nadzab Airport would cater not just for Morobe but for the whole country. He tasked Lands and Planning Minister John Rosso to start mobilising landowners in preparation for the project but some Gabsongkeg villagers were still sceptical. Clan chairman Jobbie Ferea said. “We must benefit from Nadzab Airport first, then other projects can come in” warning that “If our grievances are not recognised, we will put a stop to the township and the pipeline. Ferea expressed concerns about contractors not involving locals as subcontractors; in response Marape asked all international contractors to train local men and women and pay them at an agreed rate. Residents demand facilities and develop small business opportunities In April 2021 Gabsongkeg residents complained that, after four decades, in spite of living near the airport that serves as a gateway to Lae, they had still not seen any tangible development. They still did not have access to electricity and lack of running water meant that bore water was mainly used for cooking. Wampar LLG was still calling for a police station, adequate health facilities and infrastructure development. After Governor Ginson Saonu announced that Nadzab Airport would be re-named Sir Michael Thomas Somare International Airport the community threatened to halt works on NARP. A Gabsongkeg community leader, Ben Garry, said. “We want social justice”. Siala Nagou, a youth representative, highlighted a lack of provision of opportunities for the younger generation. The community urged the provincial and national governments to address Gabsongkeg’s needs before embarking on new projects such as Nadzab township and the Wafi-Golpu pipeline. Governor Saonu finally responded to Gabsongkeg community leaders’ concerns at a hearing on 27th May. He said “It’s a valid request but we must fix Nadzab first, I’m trying to fix Nadzab for it to run smoothly and when we generate income, we can then talk about services.” A January 2022 article by Pisai Gumar describes the challenges faced by residents of Gabsongkeg. Despite living ‘at the centre of Nadzab airport developments’ only a few landowners were benefitting from leasing customary land. Gabsongkeg residents surviving on subsistence farming and cocoa plots still lacked clean water, electricity and a sealed access road into the village. Many people had migrated to the area. Businesses such as shops, fast food outlets, motels, private clinics and processing mills for coffee and timber had been established, but there were few employment opportunities for the established population. The influx of people had disrupted the social fabric, leading to increased killings and drug & alcohol abuse. Serious social problems specifically harmed women: violence, rape, underage marriage and prostitution. Lack of a police station meant social problems were not being addressed. The proposed Nadzab Township development was expected to bring further negative impacts on indigenous inhabitants’; their ‘cultural norms, beliefs and environment are all at risk’. Land issues for the Township were not resolved; stiff resistance stemmed from negligence by government and businesses, failing to work collaboratively with indigenous people. Gumar writes ‘There has been a neglect and lack of corporate responsibility in appreciation to locals for the millions of Kina generated annually from various businesses including Nadzab airport and the electricity pylons standing on their land’. Opportunities for local women to participate in micro and small businesses were few and far between. Yet 60 Gabsongkeg women contending with multiple social problems were a ‘thriving testimony of courage and confidence’; they had established small table markets along the Gomamoz corridor. Selling goods such as fresh and cooked foods, store goods, water, cold drinks and meri blouses (national dress worn by many women) had increased their incomes. One member of the group, Jane Solomon, said they were encouraging their sons and husbands, many of them negatively affected by social problems, to participate in table markets. Women’s leader Mariken Maliaki said they needed to plan ahead as most of the land in Gabsongkeg, where coconut, plantain, cocoa and other trees are cultivated, would be taken over by the Nadzab township development. She called for support to help women with training in financial literacy and micro-business management, along with seed capital, so they could fulfil their vision of growing the table markets into small-medium enterprises (SMEs) to support their families in the future.