Evicted for a showpiece project, this PNG community fights for justice

  • Papua New Guinea has embarked on a surge of building projects in Port Moresby as the capital city prepares to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.
  • In the buildup to the summit, thousands of people were evicted from a settlement in Paga Hill, which is next to the conference hall where the APEC Leaders’ Summit will be held.
  • Former residents of Paga Hill say their experiences of eviction, demolition and resettlement are a cautionary tale for others in the country who face relocation in the name of development.

“I lost everything,” says Joe Moses, recalling the day homes in his community of Paga Hill were demolished.

Moses is one of thousands of Papua New Guineans who have lost their homes to make way for new developments as the country prepares to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which begins Nov. 17. Plans for the gathering in the capital, Port Moresby, were underway as early as 2011, when the summit was held in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The government has since embarked on a building spree to accommodate the world leaders and business executives expected to attend. Throughout Port Moresby, roads have been resurfaced, cathedral-like conference centers have gone up, and endless billboards and flags proclaim the start of the summit. Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, complain about the poor state everywhere else of infrastructure and basic services, including roads, hospitals and schools.

The event’s climax, the APEC Leaders’ Summit, will take place in a glass conference hall built on reclaimed land right next to Paga Hill.

The APEC Haus, photographed in June 2018, which will host world leaders during the APEC summit in November. Construction is said to have cost 120 million kina, around $37 million. Image by Lucy Woods for Mongabay.

Given Paga Hill’s central, seaside and APEC-integral location, development plans for the area, which had previously been proposed and dismissed, accelerated into one of the nation’s biggest development projects.

Moses had just graduated from studying sociology and anthropology at the University of Papua New Guinea at the time, and was looking forward to finding employment and living a quiet life taking care of his family.

This dream dissipated on May 12, 2012, the day Moses says bulldozers turned up at Paga Hill “without any notice.”

Moses became one of 350 people rendered homeless that day, according to the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), a research forum based at Queen Mary University of London.

“I lost two dogs, two fridges, a TV set, two [diesel] generators,” Moses says. “My books were all over the place, everything was just destroyed.”

Construction along the Ela Beach Road. Preparations for the APEC summit have included a boom of infrastructure development within Port Moresby. Image by Lucy Woods for Mongabay.

Paga Hill

Surrounded by the Gulf of Papua and abutting the white sands of tourist-favorite Ela Beach, Paga Hill covers roughly 23 hectares (57 acres).

During Word War II, people from around Papua New Guinea moved to the area to work as farmers, providing food for the Australian military. Since then, friends and relatives have emigrated there in search of employment in Port Moresby. “That’s how our community evolved,” says Allan Mogerema, a Paga Hill youth leader.

According to the ISCI’s investigation, while the first Paga Hill settlers didn’t have formal land title, the traditional landowners, the Geakone, granted land use rights to the growing informal settlement.

Permanent and semi-permanent houses, gardens and fences were built, as were basic services, such as water and electricity, says Mogerema. By 2012, around 3,400 people called Paga Hill home. There was a pharmacy, a preschool and a church. On paper, however, the area was considered “open space” until 2000.

As the community grew, so did rumors of development, eviction and demolition, says Moses. But nothing came of the rumors until 2011, as plans shaped up for Port Moresby to host the 2018 APEC summit.

The Paga Hill Development Company (PHDC), a private enterprise, led a campaign to redevelop Paga Hill, offering compensation for people to move out.

PHDC, and a related entity called Paga Hills Development Holding Company, had been seeking since 1996 to have the area rezoned for development, according to a study by Kristian Lasslett, a social sciences professor at Northern Ireland’s Ulster University.

Thwarted by the planning board, the company found powerful backers in parliamentary members Michael Nali and William Duma. Nali was appointed minister for works and implementation after the 2017 election, while Duma was named minister for public enterprise and state investment.

With Nali’s influence in parliament, and later Duma’s too, Paga Hill was recognized as a “Property of National Significance.” In 2009, PHDC obtained a 99-year business lease to develop the area.

The lease was awarded on condition the company invest in the Paga Hill area and improve its infrastructure. Its completion was “expected to be ready to play a key role hosting the Leaders’ meeting at the APEC Summit,” PHDC’s website states.

After the lease was approved, both Nali and Duma took a financial interest in the Paga Hill development project. In December 2011, Nali acquired a 9 percent stake in PHDC, and in 2012, a Supreme Court judicial review revealed that Duma had acquired state leases over Paga Hill land.

In this YouTube video, an architect involved in the project explains the vision for the Paga Hill Estate.

PHDC’s development plans include a casino, an underwater aquarium, cable car, WWII museum, hotels, apartments, commercial buildings and a ring road. The developer touts the bill for the Paga Hill Estate showcase at 3 billion kina, or about $900 million.

It’s sought to raise some of that investment via promises of profits from future rental income. It’s also looked to China for help fulfilling its grand development plans. The company signed a memorandum of understanding with the city of Shenzhen and Chinese state-owned contractors China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) and China Overseas Engineering Group (COVEC). PHDC says this was for help with “hotel funding and development cooperation […] ahead of the 2018 APEC summit.”

PHDC also continues to garner support from the PNG government, signing an MOU with the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority, Port Moresby City Authority (NCDC), and the Department of Trade, Commerce and Industry.

In a memorandum of information, the minister for trade, commerce and industry, Richard Maru, hailed “the largest property development approval ever to be issued in PNG” and said the project had “the full support of both the government and the local community.” The tourism minister, Tobias Kulang, was quoted in the MOI describing the development of Paga Hill as “a crowning jewel” in the government’s tourism master plan.

With overwhelming government support, PHDC became a 50-50 public-private partnership project.

Moses describes this intertwining of government and corporate interests as “the most frightening thing.” The state “becomes your enemy, and the developer becomes your enemy,” he says. The use of government resources, including armed police, siding with PHDC made Moses feel as if “anything can happen to you and your family at any time.”

PHDC did not respond to requests for comment by telephone and email.

Port Moresby’s International Convention Centre. Built in 2016 with 70 million kina (around $21.5 million) of Chinese government aid, the center benefited from an additional 20 million kina from China for refurbishment in preparation for the summit. Image by Lucy Woods for Mongabay.


A few months before the bulldozers arrived at Paga Hill, an unsigned eviction notice was circulated to the community, Moses says. It was “just on a plain white paper saying that you have to move out, because we will be moving in to destroy all the houses.”

As is common in other development projects in PNG, the notices were passed late at night to a handful of individuals, as a means to claim consent on behalf of the entire community.

Moses says that two older men, both of whom had moved to Paga Hill more than 40 years ago, gave their signatures, agreeing to move with the understanding that there would be generous compensation and that beneficial infrastructure would be built in Paga Hill. “They did sign,” Moses says. “It was a big mistake that they made.”

These two signatures were taken as sufficient consent to evict 3,400 people: in February 2012, PHDC obtained an eviction order from the National Court.

In response, the community decided to organize itself and fight back. Moses was appointed as a community leader, and asked community members to take an approach of non-violence.

Citizens facing threats to their land or way of life have been known to take up arms and threaten developers in Papua New Guinea. “You never know what sort of weapons are among 3,000 plus people, and people are showing their retaliation,” Moses says.

If anyone was hurt or killed, Moses swore to step down. “It’s about time that we started using our brains to fight our case, no more physical violence,” he says.

Four other parties sought legal action against PHDC’s development of Paga Hill, alongside Moses’s community: the state’s National Housing Corporation, the National Museum, the Department of Tourism, and a collective of individual residents living at the top of Paga Hill. All five parties presented their cases against PHDC at a district court hearing on May 11, 2012 — the day before the demolition.

“We went to court, and we produced all the documents, and the court just ignored our evidence and awarded the case to the company,” Moses says.

They filed an appeal immediately, and a National Court hearing was scheduled for the next day, May 12, a Saturday.

On the day, Moses, Paga Hill community members and their lawyers were at court by 9 a.m. The judge arrived at 2 p.m. By 3 p.m. he had ruled that the eviction should be suspended, citing “gross irregularities.”

However, demolition workers and equipment, aided by armed police, arrived at Paga Hill “while we were still in court,” Moses says.

Police “employed live rounds of ammunition on residents,” as they protested against the planned eviction, the Ulster study says. There were “more than one hundred policeman,” say Moses and Mogerema.

A Paga Hill resident told ISCI that the police chased people “like animals.” Video shot that day shows police firing guns at community members.

Sam Moko, a United Nations Development Programme officer, told Mongabay that police assaulted and arrested him. “Cops took my camera [and] punched me,” Moko says.

Video shot during the 2012 eviction of Paga Hill shows heavily armed police discharging firearms.

Among the bulldozers, armed police and the debris of crushed family homes, Moses presented the newly obtained order of cessation to the commander in charge of the demolition. But “he did not accept it,” Moses says.

Not until the local police superintendent was informed did the demolition finally end. By then, 20 families had lost their homes.

It then “started raining, some mighty rain, and it came down and just soaked everything,” Moses says. It was now also dark. Newly homeless, 20 families took shelter in the church.

Over the next two years, thousands more people would follow.

Between May 2012 and July 2014, PHDC and the state cooperated in pressuring people to move, offering small handouts to a few households. Moses and other activists say the police beat people who refused to move, or threatened to burn their houses.

Other Paga Hill residents have also spoken out about police brutality during the demolition.

In a statement dated April 5, 2012, opposition MP Dame Carol Kidu described a PHDC lawyer offering “hardship allowance” to the Paga Hill community of 2,000 to 10,000 kina ($600 to $3,000) toward the cost of a new home if they bought land elsewhere. Kidu said the community was told to accept these offers or be forced out.

But the families that agreed received only 1,000 to 1,500 kina ($300 to $450) each, Moses says. “They did not pay everybody,” he adds. “The rest were left to fend for themselves.”

On its website, the company says it has provided a “comprehensive relocation solution for the on-site informal settlement community,” and notes that “In contrast to the forced evictions that regularly take place across PNG, PHDC has achieved a harmonious resettlement to a donated site that makes for transformative life outcomes for the residents.”

On July 22, 2014, the last home in Paga Hill was demolished. “That’s when the final bulldozer came in,” Mogerema says.

Six years later, the legal battle is still raging; the APEC delegates arrive later this month, and Paga Hill resembles “a mine site,” Mogerema says.

Buildings, fences, trees and plants have been cleared. There are huge dirt steps dug into the sloped rock face to level plots for new apartments. The sole infrastructure to be completed is a fresh asphalt ring road, which circles the Paga Hill peninsula on a loop from APEC Haus on the seafront all the way to the center of Port Moresby.

“We used to jump from these rocks into the sea,” Mogerema says, pointing above the ring road. “This is where my house used to be, and the church, and the school.”

A resident of Gerahu, one of the resettlement sites for Paga Hill residents, showing wounds he says were acquired during a fight with the area’s customary landowners. Image courtesy of Allan Mogerema.

Resettlement Claims

The people of Paga Hill were told to relocate to one of two separate sites: Six Mile, so named because of its distance from Paga Hill, to the northeast of Port Moresby, or Gerehu, some 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) to the northwest.

PHDC claims its promises to the Paga Hill community — for generous compensation, rehousing, jobs, infrastructure, development and improvement of the land — have been fulfilled with the resettlement at Six Mile.

But it makes no mention of Gerehu.

Gerehu is a strip of land roughly half a kilometer (0.3 miles) long, with a dirt track through the middle and one water tap. An estimated 500 people were forced to move here from Paga Hill.

The single tap was put in by a private citizen, who is building a house next to the Gerehu resettlement. Steven Temo told Mongabay he paid 18,000 kina ($5,400) for the tap to be installed, “to help myself and the people here.” Water, he says, “is life, to cook, to clean, to drink.”

Before that, people had to walk to neighboring villages to ask for water. Those relocated to Gerehu had to “start from scratch,” says Moses, “rebuilding their own lives without any support from the state or the company.”

“[There’s] no access, no fishing, and no proper [housing], there is nothing we had before,” says Serah Maiga, 24, whose family was relocated from Paga Hill to Gerehu. The area is also “not safe for girls and mothers,” she says. “I don’t want to stay here. I miss the sea.”

Like many young people in the community, Maiga says her education was disrupted after the demolition of her home in Paga Hill. “We missed about four months, so some students had to repeat grades.” On top of that, Maiga says the new settlement is 15 kilometers away from a school, a commute that requires an hour and as many as three public buses.

Money for the commute into the city center is scarce, says Mogerema. Gerehu is inland, and fishing used to be a key source of income for the Paga Hill community.

There’s also fighting between the former Paga Hill residents and the Gerehu area’s customary landowners, the Kitavu people. One such dispute ended with three houses being burned down, Mogerema says, pointing to grassy patches still black with ash where temporary shelters once stood.

The Kitavu people “are not happy,” he says. “We could be evicted again.”

The charred remnants of a destroyed house at the Gerahu resettlement site. Image courtesy of Allan Mogerema.

Present Day

Today, Moses is a wanted man in Papua New Guinea. After the 2012 eviction, he spent a year in hiding, and another year limiting his movements, fearing for his life and the safety of his family.

In November 2016, Moses left Papua New Guinea and sought asylum in the U.K.

Moses says he is often told by friends, former neighbors and lawyers that if he goes back to his homeland, “you are a dead man.”

He hasn’t seen his wife and two children, now aged 19 and 15, in nearly three years, though he talks to them every day on the phone. He says he still hopes for justice and compensation for the Paga Hill community, and to be able to one day return home.

Mogerema echoes the call for justice: “Just simple justice.” He says the community is “all for development,” but doubts it will benefit from the projects being carried out for the APEC summit.

The summit, he says, is “just another meeting for the top sorts, the affluent communities.”

The administration of Prime Minister Peter O’Niell was elected, and re-elected, on promises to build roads, schools and hospitals. And while the elites of Port Moresby benefit from infrastructure gains such as a new road from downtown to Jacksons International Airport in the city’s east, the rest of Papua New Guinea is still crying out for basic services and infrastructure.

The story of Paga Hill should be seen as a “cautionary tale,” Mogerema says; a warning for others to prepare for forced development in Papua New Guinea, “to be one step ahead of what’s coming.”

Banner Image: An APEC sign outside John Guise stadium in Port Moresby. Image by Lucy Woods for Mongabay.

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