Chaos and confusion for many two months after PNG landslide

Two months after the side of a mountain gave way in Yambali village in Papua New Guinea’s Enga Province, survivors are still to find somewhere permanent to restart their lives.

The death toll from the disaster ran to many hundreds while thousands displaced, are being cared for in neighbouring villages or in tents provided by aid agencies.

The PNG country director of aid agency CARE International, Justine McMahon, said finding land people can relocate to and call their own, is not a simple exercise.

Don Wiseman spoke with McMahon who told him that two months on the disaster zone remains chaotic and confused.

Justine McMahon: Largely because of the evacuation order, which was entirely reasonable and justified, but the authorities are still trying to locate land to move people to. So it’s quite a difficult situation. And you know, the complexities of living in that part of the world in the upper Highlands, with tensions around existing tribal fights and access to land really compounds the difficulties.

Don Wiseman: In terms of the order for people to relocate did government not make any effort to locate a site for them to go to, or sites?

JMcM: They have, but land in Melanesia, generally, but particularly in the upper Highlands of PNG is highly prized and a very sensitive issue to negotiate. So I would anticipate that it would take quite a while for the authorities to negotiate access to land. Having said that they are clearing land close to the landslide, in a place where it’s safe for people. But that takes quite a while as well. So there are lots of dynamics going on.

DW: Hopefully, they’re not locating people under a potentially unstable mountain somewhere else.

JMcM: What they’re doing at the moment is moving to the area where the school is and it’s quite flat. But they still need to see some of the land for the people to move to. One of the other difficulties is, as I mentioned, existing tribal tensions is that people are hesitant to move to another area where they don’t feel safe. So it’s quite difficult for the authorities to negotiate.

DW: CARE International has been involved previously, in Enga, working to [ avert] tribal warfare. What sort of progress has been made?

JMcM: Well, we were making very good progress Don, but I think, in the lead up to the 2022 general election, when there was significant violence in the province, it became unsafe for us to have people in the area. So we still have do have the good relationships and the connections on the ground. And we’re really utilizing those networks to implement humanitarian relief projects.

DW: Now, we hear that there are tens of thousands of people, I think a figure of 70,000 was mentioned, of people going without food, because the food gardens have been destroyed by the excess rain, and the roads blocked.

JMcM: Yes, the PNG Defence Force has been working tirelessly for several weeks to put in an alternate road. And I think they’re making a lot of progress – still might be a couple of weeks. In regards to the figures, the way that the figures is being looked at. I think that there’s a bit of confusion around those figures, both those directly impacted by the landslide, but those who may be affected by food shortages.

DW: Just down the road, of course, is the huge Porgera Mine, which only got up and running again a couple of months ago. Is it back in action – what’s what’s happening there.

JMcM: They’re doing what they can, but they’re also blocked off, so I believe they are assisting in terms of the provision of earthmoving equipment, particularly to help the Defence Force build the new road, but yeah, there are on the other side of the landslide. So it’s not an easy situation for them too and given the dynamics around the mine that were preexisting, there’s a lot of sensitivity in the whole area.

DW: CARE International has talked about the impact of polygamy in Enga Province, where it’s a significant practice, and how this impacts or can impact when you’re distributing aid. Some families get it, some don’t.

JMcM: The registration was very important. The authorities did that quickly and to the best of their ability. But I think as time wore on, what become evident is that initially, registration was only looking at single headed households. So as an example, the first wife may be included in the registration, but the other households, the second, third, fourth wives were not always included. And so there was a real disparity in the distribution of relief. Very often it would be one wife and the husband would be able to have access to relief. The others were not on the list and their children. So there were cases when they were left out. However big credit to the authorities is that they recognise that that was an oversight and that is now being addressed.

DW: How many people is your organisation helping?

JMcM: We’re working in the care centres Don. We’re working also in some of the host communities. The figures – well we know the people in the areas. It’s quite hard to work out those directly affected or those who are impacted in some way. But certainly we’re working in the care centre locations, and we will be working also in the host communities. So several thousand people.

DW: Is there enough accommodation in neighbouring villages for these displaced people, or some of them in tents.

JMcM: Some of them are in tents that have been donated by the international community. And that’s very welcome. Others are living in host communities, but again, you know, the complexities of people living in that area, they’re displaced from their own land, they’re visitors in these communities now. So they’re very much disempowered, but it also has a burden on the host communities as well.

DW: We’re two months into the aftermath of this disaster now, but it’s going to be affecting people for a long, long time, isn’t it?

JMcM: Definitely it will. I think as we talked about earlier, the issue of negotiating land for people to move to. I imagine that that will take quite a long time, given the sensitivities. So in the meantime, what happens to those directly affected/ They are either in the host communities, and as we go on, there’s the possibility of increased tension, simply because there is that additional burden on the host communities, people are disempowered. But the other issue too, is just the lack of an ability to begin the recovery process. So yeah, it’s a very, very sad situation.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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