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Kago, Kastom and Kalja: The Study of Indigenous Movements in Melanesia Today

Marcellin Abong
Marc Tabani

Chapter 5. Instant Wealth: Visions of the Future on Lihir, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea

Martha Macintyre

Texte intégral

‘This is something really good for Lihirian people. It gives them the confidence they need to stop being dependent on the mine.’ (M, Lihirian Businesswoman)

‘Some things are very good, because we Lihirians are ignorant about business. PV teaches us how to make money and keep it.’ (K, Lihirian mining company employee)

‘It’s just a course that teaches people how to have a work ethic and how to think about money and not throw it away. I don’t think it tells us anything new about being Christian. It makes you think about how to build up your family.’ (H, Villager from Niolam, Lihir)

‘This will enable us to really develop our place. It has a strategic plan for development that will enable us to all be rich long after the mine has gone. We are concerned for our future and the future of Lihirian people for ever.’ (F, Local Level Government Councilor)

‘Petztorme [the women’s organization] should organize Personal Viability training for all women. Because then we will find money.’ (Lihirian village woman)

‘Well, I don’t know about this ‘Personal Viability’, it seems a bit (pauses, searching for word) ‘cultic’ to me.’ (B, Local Government Councilor).

‘There are lots of good things [about PV] but, it’s a bit (pauses, searches for word) outrageous thinking you can do anything just by putting your mind to it.’ (L, Lihirian Businessman)

‘This is just another way of trying to get people to support his way, it’s all trying to distract people from the broken promises he made. It is just politics. It is really MS’s fault. He’s the one who went around telling people that when the mine came there would be so much money they’d be using kina to shoot birds with. He created the unrealistic expectations about instant money.’ (M, Lihirian woman – mine employee)

‘It’s the same as Nimamar and Society Reform – just another cargo cult.’ (Mesulam Aisoli, New Irelander who had been working in Community Relations at the mine since 1986)

1The variation in local responses to the emergent social movement on Lihir over the years echoes the range of interpretations that anthropologists have offered for cargo cults (Lindstrom 1993). The yearning for economic ‘development’; for the new businesses it will generate and the prosperity it promises; for political self-determination and the chance to acquire the knowledge and skills that until now have been monopolized by white men, are all elements of the ideology that is being offered as ‘Personal Viability’. But this movement is the latest in a sequence. While it is new in some respects, Personal Viability as it is now manifest has incorporated the ideas and many of the political and economic aims of its predecessors (see also Bainton 2006, 2008, 2010).

2The Lihir island group in New Ireland Province has been the site of a large gold mine since 1996. The mine site is a caldera adjacent to a large harbor and initially required the relocation of three villages. It has transformed people’s lives as the company has built roads, an airport, schools and a thriving township. People have employment now, in the mine and in numerous businesses that have emerged in its wake and over a thousand employees work there on a fly-in/fly-out basis (see Bainton 2010: 13-39). The wealth from the mine has meant that the Government of Papua New Guinea and New Ireland Province have gained material benefits and new infrastructure associated with economic development. Lihirian people are now materially richer than ever before, yet like its predecessors, this new social movement has been able to attract large numbers of followers. Many are disenchanted with the ‘development’ the mine has brought as some have benefited more than others; few have gained the wealth they dreamed of when the mining company was negotiating the lease on Niolam, the main island. Lihirians have been unable to control and manage the mining operation that they see as their own. Moreover, the relationship between white expatriates (who mainly work in managerial or senior positions) and black Lihirians (who are predominately unskilled workers or unemployed by the mining company) has perpetuated the old colonial hierarchy. The wealth has come, but it has not transformed society and Lihirians see themselves as having been duped by the government and the expatriate mine owners and managers.

3The current organization is known by various names – its political manifestation in 2004 was the Lihir Pawa Mekim Kamap Asosiesen, perhaps best translated as the ‘Lihir Development Association’. The use of the Tok Pisin term pawa (power) is significant of the relationship between knowledge, especially esoteric knowledge, and the capacity to exert control over people and things. Powerful knowledge (Lihirian anitua) is considered to be embodied and to constitute the basis for effective action. When applied to a sorcerer, for example, the knowledge of words that can cause something to happen is manifest in the sorcerer’s capacity to change form (to become a snake or an insect, for instance). Spirit beings (Lihirian tandal; Tok Pisin masalai), epitomize this fusion of esoteric knowledge, shape-changing and the capacity to influence events and effect change.

4The doctrinal basis of this new movement is a motivational course called Personal Viability offered by a Chinese businessman from Rabaul, Samuel Tan, who runs a franchise company that operates out of East Sepik Province. His training program has been taken up by many businesses, government departments and organizations throughout Papua New Guinea. On Lihir it has inspired a complex social movement that extends its scope beyond self-improvement and the development of entrepreneurial skills to encompass every aspect of people’s existence. Its manifesto or vision for the future is known as the Lihir Destiny (Bainton 2010). Led by a group of influential, educated Lihirians who are members of the committee that formally negotiates with the mining company over benefits to Lihirians, this new movement represents the latest manifestation of a cultic movement that began in entirely different economic and political circumstances more than thirty years ago.

5Lihirian people are familiar with ‘cargo cults’– indeed it is about the only thing the island was known for prior to the discovery of gold – for at one local election in the 1970s the majority of people were persuaded by the cult leader to vote for Jesus Christ (see also Bainton 2010: 55-72). But as the comments cited above illustrate, people adhere or object to the cult ideologies for quite different reasons. Cargo cults have been analyzed and interpreted in ways that tend to smooth out the debates within communities in their attempts to explain the rise of cults and cultic adherence in broad social or cultural terms. Lihir fits many of the theoretical models. In some ways it conforms to Worsley’s view that cults arise in situations of relative deprivation (Worsley 1957) and this explanation is often voiced by Lihirians. In the past the island people were a marginal rural community with a small population who saw themselves as excluded from the benefits enjoyed by New Irelanders who lived close to the provincial center, Kavieng. Lihirian political movements, in both their cultic and ‘secular’ manifestations, have consistently been anti-colonial, anti-State and exclusive. They have also been millenarian, looking to a utopian future when their deceased ancestors would return with the material goods that white people had unjustly kept to themselves.

6The political and social changes that have been identified as catalysts for such movements affect everybody – but individuals and groups respond in a range of ways. Moreover, some of the people who are in similar social positions differ in their interpretation of the meaning of the movement and in their reasons for joining or keeping their distance.

7The ‘irrational’, the puzzling and the strikingly ‘exotic’ or theatrical responses are those that attract attention – and make for more entertaining reading – but in foregrounding these, we obscure the range of adherents and homogenize the people involved. For on Lihir, as my brief collection of quotes reveals – there are skeptics, opponents, people who embrace one aspect of the movement and reject others, as well as the enthusiasts, the timid adherents, and the opportunists. In the search for explanations and analyses that produce typologies, anthropology perhaps has glossed over the internal dissent that accompanies cargo cults and homogenized the motivations of those who join. But as the history of these movements on Lihir demonstrates, the perduring element is that their adherents join in the hope that they will gain access to wealth. While there are some, like Bruno, who perceive this as access to jobs and to markets for their produce (who in effect accept Western ideas about the ways that wealth can be generated) and participate in the movements because they see them as vehicles for economic development; there are many who do not. They stress the access to capital as the starting point for wealth generation – and that capital, in the form of cash, is often conceptualized as suddenly appearing without having been ‘earned’. It is, I maintain, a mystery that has to be tapped and mastered. Once this mastery is effected, then it will instantly appear.


8In 1969 people all over Lihir were caught up in a social movement that began on the island of New Hanover. The New Hanover cult has been written about by Dorothy Billings, who followed its various manifestations from 1964 to the present (Billings 2002). Known initially as the Johnson Cult, the cult attained international fame, for one of its political objectives was to persuade President Johnson to take over the government of New Hanover (Lindstrom 1993: 155-6). To this end people collected money from members which was meant to be sent to the United States and pay for Johnson’s fare. The aim was to oust the Australian government (who had done nothing to advance the economic development of New Hanoverians), and to attract wealth, support, and knowledge from America. As with many other such cults, some followers believed that Americans were ancestors. One of the catalysts had been the visit of several US military mappers, who had placed cement markers with brass plaques on them in various places. These objects, with the mysterious message “US Army – War Department – Corps of Engineers. Bench Mark. $ 250 fine or imprisonment for disturbing this mark.” (Billings 2002: 80) were interpreted as signs from ancestors in the form of Americans.

9In 1966 the Roman Catholic priest at Lavongai, Father Bernie Miller, effectively intervened in the Johnson Cult and was instrumental in ‘converting’ it into a social movement that drew people together through co-operative copra production projects. The membership was almost exactly the same, but the activities were directed to more mundane material ends. It was renamed TIA (Tutukuval Isukal Association – “Stand Up Together and Plant”). It was this organization that became the prototype for the TKA (the acronym for the same words in Lihirian) on Lihir.

10A Lihirian, Theodore Arau, who had been living in a village near Kavieng moved back to Lihir in August 1969 and began to persuade people there to set up their own ‘branches’ of the organization. Within three months more than half the population (of 4500) had joined (Ramstandt: 1) and it continued to expand throughout the early 1970s. In many formal respects it was similar to the TKA as it was institutionalized on New Ireland. People paid membership fees of $ 12 (that were sent back to NI to be used to pay ‘for the Americans to come’), they had regular meetings and bought plantations. By Ramstadt’s estimations these were small and ‘a rather poor foundation for economic development – averaging only 6 palms per member’ [p1]. Arau’s leadership rested not only on his being the originator but on his reputation as having magical knowledge and familiarity with the ways of white people. Stories of his travelling by submarine to New Ireland, communicating with ancestral spirits and being able to magically influence people and heal illness reinforced his reputation and were part of his ‘charisma’. But Ramstadt observed that he ‘…represent[ed] an extreme example of a trait common to all charismatic leaders, namely that their followers attach to them qualities representing their own hopes and needs’ (nd. 2).

11In conversation with Ramstadt, Arau voiced the common belief that the ‘real’ secrets of European wealth and power were being withheld – ‘they learn[ed] a little, but only ‘about books’ and not how to do the important things that made people rich’. (nd: 3) The idea that whites withhold the ‘secrets of their success’ by not teaching the critical knowledge that brings wealth has been observed in many cargo cults. Paradoxically this often generates activities that are imitative of schooling, such as reading and writing, at the same time as adherents refuse to accept institutional education (Swatridge 1985). The appropriation and cultic transformation of observed educational practices into rituals that will effectively redeem and empower people who have been disenfranchised and demeaned by being ‘illiterate’ or ‘school dropouts’ (cf. Lattas 1998: 79) has been a consistent feature of Lihirian cultic activity.

12Nimamar, as the cult was renamed, encompassed many of the attributes of the classic ‘cargo cult’ – it held out the promise of access to wealth; it looked forward to a time when Lihirians would not have to work so hard for a living and incorporated activities that were imitative of the ‘work’ of white men who organized development cooperatives. It also involved ritualistic emulation of aspects of colonial or European collective behaviour (especially the creation of social groups that cut across or expanded traditional kin and clan ties) with strong rhetoric about economic self-determination, political independence and the commitment to Christian (Catholic) morality. While the majority of people were committed to its activities, some thought it irrational and irreligious. One man, who often ridiculed cultists and believed them to be gullible fools, climbed a tree above the ritual meeting place in his village one night, with bags of Twisties (cheese pops), biscuits and some kerosene. He sprayed the kerosene from his mouth and lit it with a match, creating a flash of fire above the crowd. He then threw down the food and people below scrambled to gather what were at that time luxury items. Many people believed that this was a sign of the efficacy of their rituals. He allowed the excitement to spread and the stories to be exaggerated and then he (and some of his fellow skeptics who had been in on the ruse) revealed his trickery. While it had the effect of humiliating people momentarily, it in no way dented their faith in the efficacy of their rituals.

Cargo Cults

13Within the anthropological literature cargo cult became an embarrassment for anthropologists during the late 1960s and 1970s, mainly because it appeared to endorse some of the colonial (and often racist) assumptions about colonized people. Monty Lindstrom’s study of the popular and academic representations of ‘cargo cults’ Cargo Cult: Strange Stories of Desire from Melanesia and Beyond (University of Hawaii Press 1993) is a history of the concept that documents its origins in colonial discourse that was both racist and paternalist. The emphasis in both administrative and anthropological writings was often placed on the bizarre and economically irrational elements and the ways that Melanesian people appeared to believe that ‘economic development’ and the attainment of equality with whites could be effected through novel rituals and communication with ancestral spirits. Writers of all persuasions recognized that the politics were usually anti-colonial, pro-independence and political autonomy as well as being directed towards the acquisition of wealth, status and goods associated with whites. But the ritualistic means for achieving these ends were perceived as irrational and indicative of the ignorance, lack of education and social deprivation that characterized Melanesians under colonial domination.

14Attempts by anthropologists to retrieve the dignity and intellectual perspicacity of Melanesians have taken many forms. As Lindstrom (1993) and Lattas (1998) have observed the major way was to ‘nativize cargo cults’ by rendering cult adherence comprehensible and in keeping with deeply engrained traditions, beliefs and modes of action: “Cargo and cult emerge as standard operating procedures for Melanesians. Thanks to anthropology, Melanesians are now known to be cargo cultists even when they are not actively having a cult.” (Lindstrom 1993: 62) Lindstrom and others have also drawn parallels with the irrational consumerist desires and ‘cargo’ fantasies of Westerners.

15Lattas and, in a quite different way, Billings emphasize the ways that the mimetic appropriation of Western technologies or behaviours enable Melanesians to manage ways of being ‘white’ that are simultaneously novel and draw on their cultural traditions, thereby affirming adherents’ agency and their moral integrity. In designating the Lavongai TIA as ‘theatre’ and characterizing the social activities as ‘performances’ Billings suggests that in some ways cults are self-conscious parodies of ‘white’ activities and behaviour.

16In the case of Lihir – where involvement in TKA was enthusiastic and widespread, the image of activities as deliberate humorous parodies cannot be sustained. First, because as Ramstadt and others observed, the members who believed that their organization was nothing more than a communally organized development project were often acutely embarrassed by some of their fellows who spoke of Americans arriving and the triumphal return of ancestors with cargo. Some dismissed these ideas as backward and superstitious. I have no doubt that the unanimous vote for Jesus Christ was a deliberate protest and did not really entail millennial ideas about a new era. The voters wanted to show their contempt for the State and its neglect of their economic and social welfare. As criticism it was a deadly serious, even angry rejection of the false promises Lihirians believed had been made by successive administrations. As a demonstration of their righteousness and faith in the Catholic religion, it was done in earnest. But the chiliastic aims of the movement were to be realized through more complex processes – by consistent Christian practice and by creating wealth through their own endeavors in growing copra and cocoa.

17Burridge (1969) stressed the cargo cult as the expression of a longing for moral equivalence and Ramstadt argued that on Lihir, the millennial element was inevitably tied to the longing for deliverance from the feelings of humiliation and shame that they associated with the colonial relationship. In 1995, when eleven of the people who had been members talked to me about their beliefs in the promise of a ‘new life’ free of work and dependence on Europeans, I was made very aware of this element.

18At that time, a few thought that I was a returned ancestor called Apollonia Weskon and the substance of their conversation with me was directed towards gaining my approval by answering my enquiries ‘correctly’. As I was then unaware of their motive for calling me to meet them and of the identity they attributed to me, much of the conversation was at cross purposes. But it did enable me to glimpse both the formality and seriousness with which meetings must have been held and the ways that tenets of the Association were held to be prophesies that were now being fulfilled – by the presence of the mining company and by my own visit.

19As someone ‘writing a report’ and asking questions about Lihirian ways of living, I was perceived as enacting a prophecy. In asking questions about the reasons why they had joined Nimamar (as the organization was then called – the syllables being taken from the first letters of each island in the group – Niolam, Malie, Masahet and Mahur) I was deemed to be ‘testing’ their commitment. One elderly man explained that those who were members recognized that the treatment by white ‘bosses’, the humiliation they felt and the shame when they were exposed as ignorant was something that they had to overcome. This would be achieved by being moral, peaceful, not jealous and by ‘being like white men’ in joining together to achieve development through business enterprise and cooperation. Engagement in communal work, attendance at meetings, having a ‘number’ that marked you as a member (which some people tattooed on their arms) were simultaneously demonstrations of commitment and rituals that were thought to effect change and win ancestral approval.

20The mining project, then under construction, was deemed to be the outcome of this work, the manifestation of their hopes and the opportunity to fulfill their desires for social changes that would usher in both moral and economic equivalence with the white men. In particular, compensation payments for loss of trees, access to land and other impacts were at that stage generally perceived as ‘winmani’, money that was like a windfall or lottery prize. The emphasis was placed on the fact that it was not a payment for work. On the basis of interviews over the first decade of mining development I maintain that it is this notion of ‘instant money’, money that simply ‘blows in’ without being earned, that inspired and continues to inspire, many Lihirians to participate in the various cults as well as to invest money in fraudulent money schemes. It is also because many people believe that white people have access to sources of money and wealth that are kept secret from others. This is one reason why they place so much faith in people whom they see as having ‘bridged’ the gap by acquiring knowledge about how money works. I offer three examples of conversations about this:

“This money for compensation that I received is ‘winmani’. It came from nothing, no work; the way that expatriates find their money. You see, you just go to the bank and get your money. You go to the store and buy your food – you don’t have to work in your garden. You know the ways of money. That is what will happen here when we have Nimamar as our government.” (Londolovit Villager, October 1996)

“I gave some money to M… P…. to put in U-Vistract [A money scam operated out of Bougainville] because that will make my money grow. You look at him, he wears good clothes and goes to America because he has learned the secret and little by little we will learn these ways. I know some of the words already because I gave him my money.
MM: What are the words?
ZP: Me, I’m a village man, but these words are “World Bank” and “Global Economy”. These are big words.
MM: But you have put in money now for over three years and received nothing. You would have got more putting it in the bank and keeping it there.
ZP: No, it will come. Arau prophesied that the gold mine would come. It is here. MP knows these things and the way that money grows, he will lead me. I can wait.” (Kapit villager, July 1999).

“We Lihirian people have always looked for money and ways to get the things that we see other people have. All of these ways, TKI and Nimamar and now PV push us along, because the people learned the ways of white people. But first we have to find our winmani and then use it the ways that PV teaches us. Then it will grow and we will have plenty of money. That is why I want some compensation. It will be my winmani.” (Kinami Villager, August 2002)

21The idea of a world in which people do not have to work for their sustenance is common to many millenarian movements (see Cohn: 1970). In 1986, when I undertook a study of the social impact of mining on Misima, in Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea, one of the main reasons that people wanted to limit the employment of outsiders was to ensure that the people of the island would earn sufficient money to be able to buy all their food. It is clear then that working for wages was not seen as ‘work’, which is primarily defined as physical labour. On Lihir this distinction was very marked during the construction phase of the project. Their was a hierarchy of ‘non-workers’ with the category of ‘landowner’ as the highest – as the large amounts of compensation meant that people had money without any work at all. Employment on the mine, while it did involve physical labour for some, was viewed as much less tiring than gardening and buying food from a store was a luxurious option.

22Nimamar’s ‘cultic’ dimensions prior to the gold mine construction are undeniable. It was in many respects a millennial religious movement in which the attainment of economic development was an integral part of a moral transformation in preparation for the arrival of ‘America’, the ancestors and the cargo. When Colin Filer and Richard Jackson undertook the research for the social and economic impact study prior to the negotiation of the agreement with local people, the President of Nimamar presented Filer with an account of the movement’s beliefs and objectives. He was insistent:

“All this is not a dream or a manifesto. It is a form of knowledge or belief, but men still have to work at it. God put men on this earth, and men must work to follow his plan, to develop the earth in accordance with our Father’s own will. To accord with the will of God the Father, God himself has a plan. It is the TEN Commandments. If men are going to change this earth and renew it, Jesus alone is the road and the law by which it can be done.” (Filer and Jackson 1989, 369)

23But in discussion with others who were members of Nimamar the religious and chiliastic elements were sometimes completely denied. Bruno from Mosoi village explained Nimamar to me thus in 1997:

“It was not a cargo cult. It was simply a business development association. Lihir had been neglected for so many years. The Germans, the Australians – they did nothing to advance the economic situation of people on Lihir and we decided to do it ourselves. During that time plantations were established, cocoa and copra. There were two fermenteries on Niolam, people worked cooperatively and sold their produce. Many of us who had experience outside, educated working people, saw this as a way of gaining some money and improving our way of life. When people voted for Jesus Christ it was just a way of saying that we wanted nothing to do with government”

24Opposition to the State has been a central tenet of the various manifestations of the organization since its inception and has increased since the mine was established. But this separatist stance is tied to the idea of Lihir as a place exclusively for Lihirians and to the Las Kos - ‘Final Course (or Cause?)’ which is unambiguously religious and chiliastic in its promise. For most members of TKA/TIA/Nimamar their adherence was not to a ‘business development organization’ and the melding of religious and political aims and the promise of economic transformation brought about by the arisen dead was essential. In his written description in 1989, the President concluded:

“We here make known a number of ideas or statements, but they all come from one basic belief. The association believes that the dead will return to life. The Bible strengthens us in this belief. Throughout the history of the TKA [which then became] the TSA, TFA, TIA, and now Nimamar, this belief has not changed. Only the name has changed, while the belief remains the same…

25Here are some further points on which the Nimamar Association is United:

The Final Course:
The nature of money will change.
The State will be abolished.
The Association will become the government.
Lihir will become a city.
Schools will be abolished.
There will be universal literacy.
There will be two classes of people:
“Life forever”
“Summon Prize”

26During the height of commitment to the Nimamar Association movement in the 1980s when mining exploration, feasibility studies and negotiations for a mining lease were happening, the majority of educated Lihirians and those who had businesses lived elsewhere. Some were involved in the negotiation process and others were not. Most of the leaders on Lihir were members of Nimamar and during that period they were elected to the Local Level Government. This was then named the Nimamar Development Authority and later Nimamar Local Level Government – thereby fulfilling the promise that ‘the Association will become the government’.

27Similarly, as the coming of the mining project was interpreted by many Lihirians as the dawning of the long-awaited new era – one that they had predicted would come – many of their demands were directly drawn from Nimamar’s vision of the future. The building of a ring road, and the commitment of almost the entire village development fund budget to building houses were crucial to making Lihir ‘a city’. While most people recognize that this transformative process requires human labour, some older people clearly thought that it would be in some respects a ‘magical’ instantaneous process.

28In 1998 I spoke with a man who had just moved into a Village Development Scheme house in Londolovit. He was very happy with the house, but very disappointed that it did not come with a flower garden like those he had seen around the houses of some of the white people in the new township. He made it clear that he believed that whites had some special knowledge about making gardens appear in ‘one day’ that they were withholding from Lihirians in order to maintain status differences in housing. I attempted to explain that the maintenance of this status difference rested in differences between incomes (and that expatriate wives did not grow food and so had time to plant and look after flower gardens) which enabled expatriates to employ Papua New Guineans to make and maintain their gardens rather than on any secret knowledge. He rejected this entirely, insisting that the Nimamar had told them that Europeans had knowledge that could make gardens grow ‘between sunset and sunrise in one day’, that this knowledge would be given to Lihirians and he was angry that the mining company was not doing so. I use this simply to illustrate the ways that some people continued to believe the old ideas of magical transformation, even though most did not.

29But it also reveals aspects of the notions of ‘secret’ knowledge that permeate the cult. Here knowledge is conceptualized in similar terms to the magical power of sorcerers and tandal. It is linked to mastery of an esoteric vocabulary, analogous to the effective use of spells used in other contexts. It is conceptualized as knowledge that is transformative in itself, a belief that often results in a dedication to rote learning and the view that obtaining proof of qualification (in the form of a certificate, for example) will lead automatically to the acquisition of a job. The failure of students who complete high school to obtain high-level employment is thus interpreted as indicative that the school curriculum has withheld crucial (Western-derived) knowledge and therefore issued ‘false’ papers.

30While some of the members obviously held fast to the religious and supernatural nature of economic changes, by the late 1990s more of the highly educated Lihirians were returning to participate in Lihir’s development, and their ideas of that process were not inspired by ideas of ‘secret knowledge’. The leader of the Landowner’s Association Mark Soipang (who was also the Lihirian representative member of the Lihir Gold Board of Directors) was the main negotiator with the mining company and government. He returned to Lihir part-way through a course at university in Lae and was instrumental in convincing Lihirian people to proceed with the lease agreement. His promise that ‘They would be shooting birds with kina’ was a hyperbolic statement about the wealth that he thought would flow to Lihirians rather than a restatement of the promise that ‘the nature of money would change’.

Society Reform

31At the time when the first Integrated Benefits Package (see Banks 1998 for a discussion of this on Lihir) was being prepared, a new organization arose, led by Soipang and another prominent educated Lihirian, Leo Glaglas – who had been one of Papua New Guinea’s first airline pilots. It was called ‘Society Reform’ and its explicit aims were to ensure that Lihirian society adapted to the changes brought by the mine in ways that were consistent with ‘tradition’ and with the Christian religion. This organization was the transitional movement between the TIA/Nimamar and the new social movement that has arisen during the last couple of years around a program called Personal Viability.

32The mining company gave, as part of the Integrated Benefits Package, an annual budget of several thousand dollars to Society Reform to operate, a vehicle for the purposes of promoting its political ideology around the island and the services of a member of the Community Relations department to assist in developing community projects under its aegis. The leaders wrote lengthy plans and diagrammatic illustrations of the ways that it would integrate modern ‘development’ with the customary practices and social organization of Lihir and with the spiritual values of Christianity.

33Society Reform was a program that in many respects was less ritualistic, more secular and overtly political in its aims than its predecessor – but it failed to spark the interest of the majority of Lihirians. It was presented to people in terms of ‘strengthening custom’ so that Lihirians could respond to the negative effects of modernization by asserting their ‘traditional’ laws, ceremonies and social values. The verbose and often incomprehensible plans and programs prepared by Glaglas did not capture the imagination of villagers – who at that time were caught up in the dramatic changes associated with construction. Very often his speeches were dismissed as ‘mauswara tasol’(just blather) and his non-separatist arguments about the mine being the means of proper integration of Lihir into the nation of Papua New Guinea were treated with general skepticism – not least because they seemed at odds with the demand that all benefits should be enjoyed exclusively by Lihirians. Many of his neighbors dismissed his talk of ‘sharing benefits with all Papua New Guineans’ as thinly disguised self-interest – for he had a Tolai wife and many of his relatives from East New Britain province had arrived on Lihir already, hoping to find jobs. Glaglas was the only Lihirian whom I heard dispute the value of the “Lihirians First” policy that others had argued had to be the crux of employment and other benefits.

34The rise and fall of Society Reform provides an instance of a movement that failed. Its demise was undramatic – it simply did not ‘take off’. The four-wheel drive vehicle was used by relatives for their business enterprise. The villagers lost interest in starting their own ‘community projects’ that remained vague and unfunded. They wanted ‘free money’ as capital. They wanted paid employment. Enterprising individuals were availing themselves of the interest-free loans that the company was awarding to fledgling businesses. Ideas about codifying customary laws were abandoned in the heady period of construction when almost all Lihirian men were employed and the compensation money and beer were flowing freely. I suspect that there are many comparable cases in other parts of Papua New Guinea and the reasons for failure might provide insight into the success of others. People were interested at first, but the rhetoric, the use of complicated language, incomprehensible diagrams and vague high-minded objectives sounded too much like the talk of politicians – and Lihirians were mistrustful of it.

35The negotiations of the first Integrated Benefits Package, which began in 2000, were conducted in terms that were much more pragmatic and with an emphasis on financial compensation. But underneath lay the grand vision of Lihir as a city and the separatist ideal of development that had been nurtured in Nimamar. These surfaced once again in the renegotiation of the benefits by the Joint Negotiating Committee, but this time an entirely new organization is involved. Nimamar became institutionalized as the local level government. As a socio-political movement, the Lihir Pawa Mekim Kamap Asosiesen, is as all-encompassing in its ideology as its predecessors, but its form and its aims reflect new economic forces and a familiarity with the language and modus operandi of the corporate sector. Whereas the Church and the colonial state provided the inspiration for Nimamar, the mining company and its plans for community benefits in the form of infrastructural, business and social welfare improvements, have supplied the blueprint for attaining Lihir’s new destiny.

36Once again the urge to see the manifestos, strategic plans and development strategy plans as self-conscious parodies is strong – but I think misguided, for ‘development’ remains a serious business for those involved. The flow charts, budget projections, legalistic vocabulary and complicated programs are now produced on computers. The plans often read like their models – mining company documents, NGO project designs and government programs. They are replete with the language of managerialism, but their vision of future prosperity is in essence the same as that of their forebears in its utopianism.

37The leaders and protagonists are almost all Lihirians who have some tertiary education. One of their major political aims is the assertion of their sovereignty over the mineral resources of the island. They have revived some of the moral and religious elements of Nimamar, but in a framework that is mimetically modernist rather than mystical. They know where the white man gets his money – the campaigns for equity and payment of dividends have ensured that most Lihirians understand that the large shareholders in Lihir Gold are mostly investors outside PNG. Even if there are many who do not understand the workings of international money markets, fluctuating gold prices and the stock exchange, the leaders of the new movement are determined that Lihirians should play a role in the running of the mine on their land and receive a far greater share of its profits. Having had to accept that their equity is not going to be more than 5.2%, they decided to push for greater financial benefits. It is in this context that the socio-political movement based on ‘Personal Viability’ has arisen. The language for their proposals derives from a novel mélange of jargon from motivational courses, ‘self-help’ books, corporate managerialism, New Age ideas of ‘spirituality’ and ‘holism’, development critiques from institutions such as AusAID and the United Nations Development Program, the ‘project planning’ ideas of aid organizations and NGOs, from Christianity and Lihirian neo-traditionalism.

Personal Viability

38Nicholas Bainton has written on the way that Lihirian people have embraced the ideologies of Personal Viability (Bainton 2005; 2010), an enterprise that offers motivational and self-help courses. Here I want to stress the ways that its apparent departures from ‘cargo cult’ activities have in fact incorporated earlier ideals and practices.

39The main agents are members of the Joint Negotiating Committee for the revision of the benefits package, who pressed for the company to fund and support the proselytizing activities of Personal Viability and its objectives as part of renegotiating benefits. They have all undertaken courses run by the Entrepreneurial Development Training Centre (EDTC).

40The EDTC program is a motivational human development program devised specifically to encourage economic self-reliance and self-determination among Papua New Guineans ( Its entrepreneurial vision has been used in a range of government departments and community programs and has been endorsed by a number of prominent citizens. Its intellectual inspiration is an eclectic mix of popular ‘self-improvement’ psychology, broad socio-economic analysis drawn from such diverse sources as the United Nations Development Program, Non-Government Organization literature, popular psychology, Marxist critiques written in the 1980s by UPNG academics, nationalist rhetoric and the Bible. Its founder and main proponent is a businessman who operates the educational program as a franchising business. Participants pay to attend courses which are structured so that they progress through various levels. One of its major aims is the establishment of “grassroots universities”. In PNG the idea of calling institutions and programs ‘Grasruts Yuniversiti’ appears to have originated in Bougainville as secessionists defined the post-war reconstruction in ways that were distinct and in accord with the ideals of cultural revivalism that emerged during the civil conflict. Given that many Papua New Guineans cannot go to university, and those who aspire to hold senior positions are told tertiary qualifications are required, the idea that these can be acquired locally, drawing on local experience and knowledge, is immensely attractive. So too is the idea of building a large institutional complex (funded by the mining company) that enshrines Lihirian achievements and knowledge. Indeed, the emphasis on the built infrastructure absorbed far more time and energy amongst adherents than did the education that was to be offered. The educational aims remained vague.

41On Lihir PV has gained momentum and incorporated many elements that were formerly platforms of the Society Reform Program – specifically the aims of integrating aspects of ‘traditional’ social organization and customary values with a program for economic development and improvement in living standards, while strengthening Christian adherence. It shares characteristics with the TDK Movement of the 1970s in that its leader is an outsider whose organisation is directed towards quite different ends. Like TDK, it has been introduced to Lihir where it has its own charismatic leader (Soipang) who has, with the help of other adherents, developed a manifesto and strategic plan that encompasses every aspect of Lihirian people’s lives. The new organization, The Lihir Grasruts Pawa Mekim Kamap Association (Lihir Grassroots Power Development Association) is in many ways far more political.

42Like many similar grassroots movements in Melanesia it has a complex hierarchical structure and numerous committees. The leaders have produced several manifestos outlining their aims, which are encompassed by the idea of the ‘Lihir Destiny’ – notably the ‘Strategic Development Concept’ and two ‘Development Action Plans’ – one relating to mining and the other (presumably for the long term) to ‘non-mining’. These plans entail management of projects and programs through the Personal Viability Coordination Unit which monitors the progress of people through the educational programs.

43All the literature produced by EDTC stresses self-reliance, the avoidance of indebtedness and the need to eliminate dependence on external capital, by concentrating on small-scale enterprises and ‘working up’. The presence of the mining operation obviates the gradual embrace of capitalism by individuals who ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’, as Lihirians now see their future security in a constant stream of ‘external’ capital in the form tens of billions of dollars ‘rent’. In effect, it has developed its economic policies in the context of increasing demands for money, infrastructure and services to be funded through the Integrated Benefits Package. The plans are highly elaborated and in many respects assume that the Local Level Government and the Special Purpose Authority will operate under the umbrella and in accordance with the doctrines and organizational structure proposed by the Lihir Grasruts Pawa Mekim Kamap Association. In this sense then it is in fact a political organization and might be seen as having evolved in the ways that Worsley predicted, from a magico-religious cult to one that is primarily political in its aims and ideology. Certainly, unlike its predecessors, the current movement looks to the future rather than concerning itself with any ‘return’of ancestral beings.

44The modernist assumption of earlier analysts (Worsley, Lawrence) that there will be a natural, progressive trajectory whereby the cultic, ‘irrational’ elements in these social movements will be rationally discarded as people gain more (Western) education and knowledge have not proven true. In many instances, the political aims have been primary from the beginning of the cult – indeed the perception of disadvantage is often rooted in the recognition of race relations as politically oppressive. The mechanisms of colonial or white domination are perceived to reside in the institutions that discipline and regulate the lives of Melanesians. Overt resistance has been relatively rare, but as Lattas has demonstrated, the mimetic appropriation of ‘disciplinary’ regimes, whether these are schools or military drills, is a way of asserting an alternate view of power, entitlement and resistance (1998, 37-40).

45On Lihir, where there have been constant elements in the cults in varying political circumstances, each new phase has allowed for the continuity of earlier features of the cult. Thus the call for the establishment of a “grassroots university” is new and has arisen in other areas of the country in quite different contexts, but older adherents link it back to the Nimamar promise of ‘abolishing schools’ and ensuring literacy by working through indigenous institutions. The arrival of two SIL linguists is linked to this aim and interpreted by many older Lihirians as confirmation of the accuracy of Arau’s prophecies. But for those modernists who see PV as breaking with the past, the wealth from the mine also represents the means for obtaining educational institutions that will ensure that Lihirians receive an education commensurate with that of the expatriates (and the Papua New Guinean elite) at International Schools funded by the mining company rather than the government community and high schools.

46The Grassroots University idea has taken off since Francis Ona appeared in an Australian-made television documentary and referred to the fact that on Bougainville, during the period of sanctions, people rediscovered their traditional knowledge and learned its value. It has great appeal as it connects with ideas about pride in tradition and celebration of custom, breaking ‘dependency syndrome’ and affirming traditional values over those introduced by whites. From its early manifestation as TKA and Nimamar, Lihirian cults have been nativist, celebratory of Lihirian ‘tradition’, with great emphasis on finding ways for economic development that are entrepreneurial, but maintain core traditional Lihirian values and ways of doing things. The codification of customary laws and opposition to some introduced ‘customs’ have been central to cultic political ideology. At each phase, adherents to the earlier cult are able to subsume the new as in some way fulfilling the prophecies of the past. The malleability of cultic ideas ensures that for many, the magico-religious elements remain crucial if submerged.

47The political aims that are attached to this latest movement are clearly secessionist, in spite of some attempts to disguise this. But a central tenet is that the era of Peketon (a Lihirian term that appears to refer to the transformative millennial moment, which I believe is a Lihirianisation of ‘eschaton’; see also Bainton 2010: 59-60) is at hand – when Lihir will become the centre of wealth and the agent for economic transformation of Papua New Guinea. At one stage demands for company funding of their Sustainable Development Plan reached 3 billion kina (roughly equivalent to the national budget) and there are still plans for a bank and a financial institution linked to PV and located on Lihir. One stated objective of the leaders is to subordinate all government functions and management of funds to the authority of the leaders of the Central Coordinating Clearing & Monitoring Agency (CC-CMA) – which comprises those converts to PV who have received training to a high level. While at present the leaders are careful to avoid presentations of their aims as explicitly anti-State, the specific aims are based on a vision of a political system (which is designated ‘The Lihirian Destiny’) which gives the legitimate government very little authority over political and financial matters on Lihir, no authority at all over money from the mine and implicitly subverts the authority of elected representatives.

48The EDTC program has some of the classic elements of a ‘cargo cult’ – whereby commitment (both financial and moral) to an ideology of self-determination and attainment of particular achievements (certificates that show that the individual has completed ‘levels’ of training and degrees from the proposed Grassroots University) will bring prosperity and self-reliance to the adherents. The ideological component is similar to many that have preceded it in Papua New Guinea – its mix of Christian principles and entrepreneurial values are reminiscent of the Moral Rearmament Movement’s campaign in the 1970s. The progression through various levels, each time being awarded credentials, fetishize the educative process and are viewed in analogous ways to the former system of allotting numbers to ensure that members could ‘win’ their money.

49Like other personal development and motivational courses, it attempts to inspire and direct people. It teaches strategies, behaviours and attitudes that can assist individuals in achieving their personal economic goals. Personal Viability (like Moral Rearmament) ideology incorporates Christian morality and so promotes principles of cooperative enterprise, ethical dealings with others and concern for the common good. While these are all commendable aims that could have very positive social effects, realistically only a few will be able to attain their goals (especially those for economic advancement) as so many other factors determine their success or failure. As corporations and institutions in advanced industrial countries find, such courses (whether they are for team-building, personal development or to assist people in adjusting to structural change) work well for some people and not others, and often have a limited period of impact.

50In the Papua New Guinea context, the tendency of such programs to incorporate other elements such as religious cultism and ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes, or to become the vehicle for political advancement of charismatic leaders, makes them far more complex. Within many cultures in PNG, the desire for development and political power is often expressed in cults and ritualistic adherence to codes of behaviour and conduct that people believe will in themselves generate the desired outcomes. Thus, learning precepts by rote, wearing ‘uniforms’ and engaging in activities that emphasize special status are often the drawcards for adherents. The Nimamar cult on Lihir had many of these elements and it appears that for many ordinary Lihirians the Personal Viability program represents a revision and ‘upgrading’ of the cult so that it deals with ideals of modernization derived from their new economic circumstances.

51The cultic dimension of Personal Viability is not in the foreground at present – in fact it has operated mainly as straightforward personal development course. The organization of activities in the villages does have elements familiar from other so-called ‘cults’ – ritual singing and meetings of ‘cells’, overtones of secrecy about the ‘superior, exclusive knowledge’ of adherents, formal levels of enlightenment and meetings that enable people to air their views, hopes and plans for the future. Mark Soipang has assumed a leadership role and has indicated that he believes that the landowners’ association (his former power base) should be subordinated to the new organization and become a vehicle for implementation of its objectives. His selfdefined role now includes ideas of divine purpose. Prior to this Soipang presented himself as the hard-headed modernist – recently he has declared that the abandonment of his academic studies and return to Lihir was inspired by a dream or vision in which God told him to return and lead his people and revitalize traditional activities. The exclusionist aims have been most elaborated in a ‘Sengseng (Outsiders) Policy’ aimed at restricting the influx of migrants from other parts of Papua New Guinea and ensuring that they do not have access to any of the material benefits (such as housing, employment or businesses). The mistrust and hostility towards outsiders has been a component of all previous movements on Lihir and is in some ways the most likely ‘rallying call’ that would draw others behind the Lihir Pawa Mekim Kamap Asosiesen.

52The members of Personal Viability reject the idea of State sovereignty over minerals and in 2002 one of them fraudulently attempted to sell gold to a foreign company. In recent negotiations they have proposed the establishment of the Lihir Surveillance Company that would monitor gold production and enable them to subtract a percentage of the product at source, rather than waiting for royalties and grants to be paid. Assuming management of the mining operations is an objective that has been voiced constantly – both to government officials and to the current management company. There is no doubt that most Lihirians believe that the gold reserves are theirs by right and that Lihir’s continued neglect by the state legitimates their views about political autonomy and the exclusion of other Papua New Guinean citizens from any economic benefits.

53Technocratic and economic vocabulary are used in the plans, documents and PowerPoint presentations in ways that simultaneously convey familiarity with the language of the corporate world while revealing confusion about its meanings and disciplinary foundations. For example, the Joint Negotiating Committee presented a complex development plan which they believed offered an alternative to the company’s plans for economic development. Phrased in terms of the ‘Lihir Destiny’, it promised to fulfill the ‘Lihir Dream’ and ‘Lihir becoming a City’ by implementing the ‘Ultimate Success Formula’. This involves policies that are ‘self-reliant’, dispense with ‘the handout mentality’ and ‘based on converting “people” as liabilities to becoming assets (sic)’. (JNC n. d., 4). Terms such as ‘ supply and demand’ are given a metaphorical twist so that they become modes of planning that are either company-inspired (Supply) or PV/Community-inspired (Demand). The language of foreign aid – ‘empowerment’, ‘capacity building’, ‘institutional strengthening’ - is sprinkled throughout documents; and terminology from environmental science is used (usually inaccurately) in place of ordinary words about the natural environment. Cryptic aphorisms such as ‘Openness disqualifies negotiating with reservations’ jostle with clichés of self-help books and managerialism such ‘adding value’, ‘win-win situations’ and ‘guesstimates’. After three years of negotiating, the committee called for a speedy conclusion thus: ‘… it is time to align all stakeholders involved in the Lihir IBP Review and mobilize them into not only using the same thinking cap but responsibly walking the talk momentarily to concluding the review process.’

54The novel use of language, mystification of concepts and appropriation of English words are recognizably strategies to convince the mining company that the JNC and Local government have a ‘better’ way of dealing with the development needs of Lihirians that draws on understandings of the business world. In displaying familiarity with what they perceive to be the shared jargon of the global business community they are engaging in mimesis that in many ways is analogous to the activities that characterize cargo cults of the past.

55But in bandying around such vocabularies they are also engaged in a familiar Melanesian political game of words. Knowledge and use of esoteric (usually magic) words and claims of ‘ownership’ of language that facilitates access to sources of power over wealth, productivity and people have long been crucial elements of Lihirian political authority. The garbled flow charts, spread sheets and often incomprehensible documents produced in the context of negotiating benefits from the mine are aimed in part at convincing ordinary Lihirians (many of whom cannot read English, although increasingly English is spoken in daily life because it is the language of the mining company) that their destiny is in the hands of ‘save’ (Tok Pisin – knowledgeable, educated, intelligent) men who understand the language of business, economics and development and can so represent their interests better than traditional leaders. The plans, documents and meetings are their armoury in a political struggle within the Lihirian community. This is between generations of men, the older, less-educated men whose power derives from traditional exchanges and cycles of feasting and the generation of men who have been educated and locate their power in control over the wealth generated by the mining project.

56These grand plans of the leaders and their aspirations for Lihir’s destiny are only partially accepted (or understood) by the majority of Lihirians, whose support for PV derives from their discontent and present disappointments rather than visions of a glorious future. While the JNC talks of Lihir’s need to ‘position itself to enter the global market by connecting the Lihir Economy with the global economy” (JNC n.d, 15) the majority of Lihirians have the more modest objective of getting a job that will allow them to participate in the national consumer economy. For the mine has not brought mass employment. Most of the highly-skilled employees come from elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. Nor have the infrastructural improvements transformed Lihir into the city that was envisaged – with sealed roads, reticulated water and electricity to houses that would all be built of milled timber with iron roofs. The training and educational programs instituted by the mining company have not transformed all Lihirian men into managers and successful businessmen who can buy beer, cars and flash clothes. After almost a decade, all but one managerial position were held by expatriates. The wages of Lihirians do not allow them to live like the senior staff in the township. Even those with jobs still have to grow the bulk of their food, as prices at the supermarket (which had been optimistically called Ataniom – the local word for garden – as many Lihirians expected that they would all be able to buy all their food) are too high for employed men to be ‘breadwinners’. Besides, expenditure of money on food would mean that it could not be devoted to buying beer, motor vehicles and other goods that are valued as markers of status.

57While ordinary villagers resent their continued economic marginality, their aspirations are comparatively realistic. They want to have small business projects that will generate income and they want their children to get good jobs at the mine. If any group is consumed by feelings of relative deprivation, it is the educated Lihirians who are PV leaders – most of whom are relatively rich (see Bainton 2008b). They aspire to the status and wealth of the senior expatriate managers and the rich shareholders. It is the wealthy Lihirians, those who have received large sums in compensation and royalties as well as contracts with the mining company, who have optimistically ‘invested’ thousands of kina in various fraudulent moneymaking schemes. It is they who send large sums to confidence tricksters who send them emails from Asia and Nigeria promising millions in return for their ‘investment’. It is this group who harbour the most paranoid convictions that the company is concealing its true financial situation and withholding information that would enable Lihirians to become wealthy.

58In this respect then, we might argue that it is the educated elite who are now the cultists while the Lihirians who are unemployed or working for low wages are the pragmatists, waverers and sceptics. The high cost of attending PV courses, the obscurantist language and the fact that some of the leaders gained great personal wealth from compensation, royalties and contracts with the mining company, rather than hard work and personal initiative, are regularly cited as reasons for not wholeheartedly supporting the JNC and its Strategic Plans or visions of a glorious future. For those who have undertaken the courses and participated in the IBP negotiation process, planning and politicking for the ‘Lihir destiny’ – the dream of Peketon – the wealth from mining is merely the means to a utopian future.



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Currently the editor of The Australian Journal of Anthropology and an honorary Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne. She gained her PhD from The Australian National University and has held positions at The Australian National University, Monash University, La Trobe University and The University of Melbourne. She has undertaken research in Papua New Guinea since 1979. Her research interests include historical ethnography, economic anthropology, gender, the social impacts of mining, medical anthropology, fisheries in Melanesia, environmental anthropology and human rights. Her publications include Human Rights and Gender Politics: Perspectives on the Asia Pacific Region, co-edited with A. Hildson, V. Mackie, and M. Stivens (2000), and Women Miners in Developing Countries: Pit Women and Others, co-edited with K. Lahiri-Dutt (2006) and Managing Modernity in the Western Pacific (2011), co-edited with Mary Patterson.

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