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PNG plans new home for islanders fleeing volcano, climate impacts

by Catherine Wilson | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 14 October 2015 06:46 GMT

Mangem is one of three displacement camps housing an estimated 15,000 islanders displaced by volcanic eruptions on Manam Island, Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. TRF/Catherine Wilson

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Land has been found to resettle people but legal delays mean 15,000 are stuck in camps struggling for food

By Catherine Wilson

MADANG, Papua New Guinea, Oct 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For 11 years, the people of Manam Island, a volcano rising out of the Bismarck Sea around 15 km off Papua New Guinea's north coast, have waited to be resettled after fleeing devastating eruptions in 2004.

In July this year, another eruption inflicted more suffering on several thousand people who had returned to the island from displacement camps on the Papua New Guinea mainland.

A new home has been found for the islanders in the remote inland area of Andarum on the mainland, but efforts to move them there have stalled.

Rudolph Mongallee, acting director for disasters in Madang Province, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation a memorandum of understanding had been signed with Andarum landowners in 2013, but a Manam Resettlement Act must be passed by parliament before the land can be purchased.

Every year tens of thousands of people in the southwest Pacific Island nation, which has a population of 7.2 million, are affected by natural disasters.

But while the National Disaster Centre responds to people's needs in the immediate aftermath, the International Organization for Migration says policies and resources are inadequate to address long-term displacement caused by environmental threats.

More than 100,000 people are internally displaced in the country due to natural disasters and tribal warfare, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimates.

Globally, the risk of displacement due to climate and geophysical hazards, including earthquakes and volcanoes, has increased by some 60 percent over the past 40 years, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

It says an average 26.4 million people worldwide have been displaced annually by disasters in the last seven years.

The numbers are expected to increase as demographic shifts, including urbanisation, and extreme weather events linked to climate change increase people's exposure to catastrophes.

In Papua New Guinea, located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the risk of homelessness due to volcanic activity is high, as lava and ash can make land uninhabitable and stop people returning permanently.


There are 44 volcanoes in the country, which threaten the lives of a quarter of a million people.

The Manam volcano continues to erupt and islanders are stranded in poorly equipped "care centres", their lives blighted by poverty, unemployment and now hunger as the country is gripped by a severe drought.

"We are facing a water shortage problem and fighting with the local people to get the materials to build proper shelter. Most of our children are not in school," said an elderly man known as Mr Danam, a resident of Mangem displacement camp, which is home to 2,872 islanders and growing.

"Now this is the worst drought we have had, and there is nothing left in the food garden."

The camp, one of three in Madang Province, is located at the end of a track leading off the coastal road running north of the main town of Madang.

Here scattered among the bush are improvised traditional dwellings, built by islanders from materials they have found. There is a limited water supply from five boreholes, a small school and a medical aid post with no equipment and few drugs.

"We feel like refugees," said Raynald Kauke, another resident.

There is not enough land in the camps to grow cash crops like betel nut, which provide much-needed income. That means many families cannot pay for their children's schooling nor afford to buy food when their gardens, now parched by drought, fail to produce root crops and vegetables.

"We are eating dry coconuts - all our sweet potatoes, taro, corn and bananas are dried up," Kauke said, claiming two people in the camp had died of starvation this year.

The struggle for survival has also led to conflict with local landowners over access to arable land and food.

This situation has worsened as the displaced population has nearly doubled in the past decade to an estimated 15,000, spread across three camps in the province.

"We had a major fight between the local people and camp communities, and about 30 to 40 people died in 2010. I believe that by the end of this drought you will hear of another fight because (it) will force people to go into one of their (host community's) gardens looking for food," Kauke said.


Challenges to resolving displacement in Papua New Guinea include widespread customary land ownership.

"Land is (mostly) owned by the people and not the state. Therefore, if the government wants to resettle displaced people it has to negotiate with the landowners," said Michael Sembenombo, programme manager for the PNG Red Cross. This can be a lengthy process.

Lack of political will and funds also played a part in the Manam Islanders' plight before the current Madang provincial governor, elected in 2012, pledged to end their suffering. Now 60,000 hectares of land is reserved in Andarum for a new community and basic services.

"This will be a provincial resettlement area for not only the Manam Islanders, but also people who have been displaced in other parts of the province due to climate change and sea-level rise," disaster official Mongallee said.

The plan is for islanders to be relocated in phases, with young people moved first and assigned to work on building dwellings and infrastructure, he said.

But after years of severe hardship, many of those displaced are wary of official promises.

"If we go to Andarum, is it going to be the same as here? We would be happy to go to our new land, but we worry about the government's capacity, so most of us are reluctant to go up there," Kauke said.

He expressed concern about the provision of essential infrastructure, services and economic opportunities.

Mongallee said the provincial government did not have all the funds needed for the resettlement programme, but after the new legislation was passed, national and international financial assistance would be sought to meet the shortfall.

(Reporting by Catherine Wilson; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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