Papua New Guinea’s remote Hela province, in the north-central part of the country’s southern highlands, is home to the indigenous Huli tribal clan of hunter-gatherers. It’s also the only place in the world where you will find the King of Saxony “bird of paradise,” and a plethora of other winged wonders. It is a region steeped in history, mystery, myth, and diversity.
Between them, Papua New Guinea’s seven million people speak more than 800 indigenous languages. Some 80% live in rural areas where modern services have never existed and more than a third of the population is illiterate.
On a recent excursion, my travel partner and I were the only guests at a small lodge atop a hill near the isolated Tari Gap. Our hosts had both running water and electricity – luxuries after several days spent on the Karawari River, a tributary of the mighty Sepik.
As we were seated for dinner, a dozen enormous men suddenly entered the dining room. Were it not for their black camouflage fatigues, knit hats and AK-47s, one might have pegged them for a Melanesian rugby team. That we were practically in the middle of nowhere made the scene even more surreal.
We sat on silently as they reconnoitred the dining room, guns cocked. Finally satisfied with their scan, they quietly departed and, as I took stock of my cardiac health, a short, dapper, bespectacled Papuan walked in, sat down and ordered wine.
“I believe that independence came too fast for PNG, and our biggest challenge is to get people ready for the future”
And so my meeting with the Honorable Ambeng Kandakasi, a justice of the PNG Supreme Court who was in Tari for a few days to conduct a land-dispute mediation, came to pass entirely by chance.
Why all the heavy-duty security? For starters, the Australian government’s travel guidelines for PNG are one long warning list covering landslides, carjackings, gang violence, venomous snakes and civil unrest. And then there are the controversial ongoing mining and liquefied natural gas (LNG) extractions in Tari, for which local landowners believe they are not being adequately compensated. Pursuant to customary and land law, traditional landowners own 97 percent of the land, but the Mining Act of 1992 and Oil & Gas Act of 1998 provide the State with apparent absolute ownership of mineral and petroleum resources. This makes land disputes a high-risk endeavor for anyone to wade into, never mind a high-court justice. In December the PNG government stated it would deploy military troops to the region to stem violence resulting from tribal conflicts that has resulted in several deaths near the Exxon-Mobil LNG project.
“I’m aware of one case last year in Tabubil, in the Western Province, when a child’s arm was eaten”
Justice Kandakasi is originally from a very remote part of PNG’s northern Enga province, and grew up in a tiny village with parents who described WWII planes overhead as “large, strange, featherless birds.” Showing promise and drive, he ultimately graduated in 1988 from the University of PNG School of Law in Port Moresby, PNG’s capital. Kandakasi then received his LLM degree from the University of San Diego in 1991. Returning to PNG, he taught at the law school and worked in private practice before being appointed to the National and Supreme Court of PNG in 2000.
Julie L. Kessler: If you had a magic wand and could immediately change something in PNG law, what would that be?
Ambeng Kandakasi: (Chuckling) Well, the first thing I would do would be to remove sentencing guidelines completely. Instead, I would have some kind of committee oversight to aid in determining appropriate sentences for particular cases. While committee oversight might be cumbersome, I still think it would be an improvement over the current guidelines. For example, PNG currently has on the books the death penalty for capital cases, though it has not been implemented since 1954. This is so despite the fact that the PNG’s parliament reintroduced the death penalty for capital cases in 1991. PNG also has life sentences for aggravated rape cases.
The other thing I would do with that magic wand is make certain that there would be no vestige remaining in PNG of the 1971 Sorcery Act. While the Act was repealed by the government in 2013, altering long-standing traditions is difficult. Though there are good kinds of sorcery, such as [that related to] fertility and health, there are also bad kinds of sorcery, such as hexes, misfortune and the like. But the punishment aspect needs to be changed.
JLK:In parts of PNG, illnesses or deaths are sometimes blamed on suspected Sanguma, witches, generally women, and the Act legitimized attacks on those suspected of witchcraft. How can extra-judicial punishment in these kinds of cases be combated?
AK: If the formal system isn’t equipped to handle petty criminal acts, then it’s OK to punish in the field. It is much more complicated with major criminal acts, such as murder.
JLK: PNG has had a history of cannibalism. Does it still take place today in remote villages?
AK: I’m aware of one case last year in Tabubil, in the Western Province, when a child’s arm was eaten. This area of PNG in the past was known for cannibalism. Cannibalism was also prevalent among the Kukukuku and the Oksapmin peoples, but not since PNG independence (from Australia, in 1975).
JLK: How do you manage the complexity of the long bridge between your tribal upbringing in a tiny, remote village, and your travel, education, and knowledge of the rule of law?
AK: I have found strength in the traditions of Papua because I understand them. And because I understand those traditions, I can aid in positive change. Papuans are tribal people, whereas capitalism is uniquely about the individual. I believe that independence came too fast for PNG, and our biggest challenge is to get people ready for the future. Education is the key, starting with pre-school and basic Christian values.
JLK: Perhaps then Prime Minister Peter O’Neill should be concerned you may run against him in the next election?
AK: I’m happy right where I am.
Julie L. Kessler is an attorney based in Los Angeles, a freelance writer and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” Her personal website is www.vagabondlawyer.com.