You’re simple. You rely on wooden tools and methods of agriculture forgotten by the first world. You don’t go to into town to buy food, you catch it. You don’t use a bathroom to wash or a tap to drink from, you use a river. You are uneducated, you can’t read or write, you don’t rely on an occupation to support your family, you have your own customs and culture and know no other way of life.
One day you’re approached by strangers, they dress differently, speak in strange ways and are presenting you with a document you can’t possibly understand. They tell you, you must sign it, you have to. Memories of a war fought by strangers like these in your home are not far in the past. Do they want to fight you? Or make you fight for them? Fearing for your life and those of the women and children beside you, you say ‘We’ll sign’.
‘Customary Land’ might not be a term you’re familiar with (we’re out of the “imagine-if” bit now by the way). Before I had read into the story behind Bikpela Bagarap, it was the case for me too. The term refers to land which cannot be bought or sold and is owned by the indigenous communities already residing on it. This is the case for 97% of land in Papa New Guinea, an island around 200 kilometres North East of Australia.
It’s one of the most diverse countries on the planet with over 850 autochthonous languages spoken by a population of around 7 million, spread over a land mass just under twice the size of the United Kingdom.
Certainly a country with an unsteady political history, it had been under the rule of Australia after the end of Word War I. It was during Australia’s occupation of the land that a lucrative commodity was discovered. Kwila (or Merbau) is a huge species of tree that can be harvested for a strong, reliable timber and when the outsiders realised it’s value they were keen to exploit it.
As I described previously, ‘Customary Land’ means that an outsider can’t have any right over the content of the area and this law was already in place when the Australians became interested in logging. So, like any honest upholder of a bureaucracy they created a loop-hole in the law that enabled the state to purchase land from the customary landowners and allow logging companies to operate in the forests for a certain period of time. Now, not forgetting the fact that the people living in and around these forests were essentially illiterate, it’s clear to see how presenting them with a document written in English and telling them they have to sign it is less than fair. Nevertheless in the late 1960′s, the first Timber Rights Purchase agreements went through, the contracts were to last for 40 years.
You might imagine that the people of PNG would at least expect something in return, especially as they began to watch the world being cut down around them. Well, the companies that issued the agreements did in fact give pay out to the bewildered inhabitants of the island, in fact they were kind enough to pay them individually.
Yes indeed, the state of Australia forked out 10 Kina for each customary landowner and an extra 5 for his wife. To give you an idea of their staggering generosity, 5 Kina is equivalent to just under 1 and a half British Pounds. Unsurprisingly the lucky receivers of this money had soon eaten all it could provide them with and when they returned to ask for more, they were denied. So began an increasingly unjust and damaging process of logging in Papa New Guinea, one which continues to this day.
David Fedele, an Australian filmmaker spent nearly three months travelling alone in the Sandaun Province of PNG. Based in the capital, Vanmio, he went to speak to the sons of the original customary landowners and observe the ecological and social damage caused by the logging operations. These operations now have a new face, known to the islands inhabitants as ‘The Company’, a title that is automatically ominous and gives us the sense of a vast corporate power lurking over the lands. ‘The Company’ is actually called WTK Realty, a Malaysian company that bought the shares of Vanimo Forest Products’ previous holders. They are now continuing to run and expand logging operations that should be classified as illegal and they are doing it at an increased rate to their predecessors.
Fedele manages to capture the anger and sorrow of the people in the Sandaun Province, both directly through their words on the deception of their forefathers and by exposing the suffering they have come to accept as part of life. It’s difficult to argue against a child sifting through a rubbish tip for salvageable tins or food as a powerful image, but it has to be said the film could do with aligning itself further into an expository documentary. As I watched it I found myself engaged with the plight of these people, but with very little to draw from on various aspects of their situation. Geographically I was often unsure of ‘what was in what’ (other than all of it being in Papa New Guinea) and often found that ‘The Company’ and it’s presence in the country weren’t explained to great enough extent.That said, it does build a picture of the Malaysians as having an almost Orwellian grip over the indigenous people, their lives appear to be structured within its business model. I was astounded to see the islanders take up work for a pittance as loggers for ‘The Company’, only to then spend the money in the only supermarket in Vanimo, which unbelievably is also owned by ‘The Company’. The complete lack of concern for the people of the Sandaun Province on the part of the logging companies isn’t made clear enough until you see it for yourself. It becomes especially clear as it cuts from a mother and her seriously ill children, to a doctor informing us that one of the logging camps dispose of diesel waste into the water these people use to wash and cook.
Perhaps the absence of information on the logging companies and the external scenarios relative to the crisis are meant to be in some way allegorical of the islanders innocence to the wider world, a way of emphasising their vulnerability. As you watch them however, you will notice elements of the first world that have crept into regions like the Sandaun Province, particularly t-shirts with the crests of England’s football teams and shorts baring the faces of iconic pop stars. For me those were the unconscious marks of a new generation of people in the Province, one wiser to the manipulation of the logging companies and one that is without a doubt, angry.
Above the noble agendas of this film and the struggle it reveals to an audience, I feel it’s most commendable aspect is the fact that it’s Director, Producer and Editor are all the same man. David Fedele stayed in Papa New Guinea for nearly 3 months with only a translator at his side, he has accomplished a feat not only as a humanitarian but most prominently as a filmmaker. In this way his passion for the art of documentary filmmaking is as clear as his conviction in the rights of the people he encounters.