Bad places turned good: security in Melanesia’s settlement communities

Credit: Daniel Evans
Credit: Daniel Evans
Written by Daniel Evans

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s it was rare to read anything about PNG without being confronted by warnings about the dire law and order situation that befell the country. The key bogeyman of scholars and mainstream commentators alike were ‘raskol’ gangs – predominantly male criminal groups associated with settlement communities. The last two decades, however, have seen a marked reversal, with declining gang membership and crime, as well as a drop in academic and mainstream attention towards raskols.

Just how and why change occurs is the predominant question to befuddle development scholars and practitioners. Nascent research from PNG’s and Solomon Islands’ settlement communities provides tentative pointers around how these environments change – how places once perceived to be wracked by crime and home to a criminal underbelly turn good. And the findings have little to do with technical fixes or state-assisted interventions.

Burns Creek is a peri-urban settlement located eight kilometres to Honiara’s east with a population of around 5,000 people. It is a relatively new community, habitation of scale occurring in the early 1990s. A dominant contemporary public narrative around Burns Creek relates to its reputation as a breeding ground of criminality and a place of anti-social and criminal conduct. While there is no police data to shed light on this position, limited quantitative evidence, court records and anecdotal evidence suggests that from the end of Solomon Islands’ civil conflict in 2003 until around 2010, Burns Creek was home to a number of young men who were actively involved in crime within their community and across Honiara.

The extent to which Burns Creek was subject to mainstream demonisation was demonstrated by the levels of such provocation. In 2006, the Sydney Morning Herald, in a rare case of mainstream Australian interest in urban Solomon Islands, did its best to convey the lawlessness of the community. Burns Creek was comprised of a ‘lost generation’ on the verge of delinquency. Parliamentary debates within Solomon Islands were somewhat more measured. In 2008, the Leader of the Opposition stated that Burns Creek residents had “become an easy target to lay blame on for crimes committed in the city”.

The Burns Creek story, however, ultimately tends to redemption and rejuvenation, demonstrating that places can change, and relatively quickly. Today the position around crime in the community has almost wholly reversed. The 2013 data from an annual survey showed a remarkable turnaround on earlier iterations. Burns Creek respondents were asked how they would describe the “law and order situation” in their community. In 2009, some 71 per cent nominated that there were “many problems”, with none agreeing that Burns Creek was “safe and peaceful”. Come 2013, only 12 per cent of those surveyed agreed with the former proposition, and 16 per cent believed the community was “safe and peaceful”.

My discussions with Burns Creek residents concurred with these findings. If anything, since 2013 the place had become even safer and more peaceful. What had led to this dramatic reversal? Although describing ‘gangs’, in part, my findings accord with those recorded by Craig and Porter concerning urban PNG: “… PNG’s urban gangs have failed to institutionalise in recent decades. Gang members have been “growing out of crime” in numbers that have outpaced generational renewal…”.

In Burns Creek, a common explanation proffered for a perceived decline in criminal conduct was that those men who had once been involved in such behaviour no longer were. Over and over, residents pointed out that one-time instigators were now married with children. As Craig and Porter suggest, their criminal behaviour had not “institutionalised”. But transition brought about by a mellowing passage of time was only one reason proffered, and not necessarily the most important, particularly because there had been ample generational renewal in Burns Creek capable of replacing now senior, once criminally-inclined citizens, and alternative community-led regulatory arrangements had not evolved. Rather, for residents, a collection of perhaps banal reasons – none of which were related to direct state intervention – were key.

Sporting-related sanctions: The structured engagement that came from organised sport provided a periodic reprise from anti-social behaviour. But the key deterrent was not involvement in sport alone, but the exclusion of participants if they were found drinking alcohol during competition periods. Given an apparent positive correlation between criminal conduct and alcohol consumption this simple rule, largely enforced by peers, was identified by many as being a surprisingly effective, albeit temporary, fillip to stemming anti-social behaviour.

Church and school: As the settlement had grown, so too had the physical presence of churches. Now, Burns Creek is home to seven churches. Multiple denominations existing in rural Solomon Islands’ have been identified as a source of potential conflict, but it is possible that in more anonymous urban environs the opposite is true. For some young men, church-affiliated youth groups were nominated as the most positive influence in their lives. Likewise, a primary school had sprung up in the community – started by residents without state assistance.

Acculturation: Burns Creek was a relatively homogenous environment, comprised mainly of two language groups from Malaita. Historically, subterranean antagonisms had characterised their relationship, occasionally erupting into violence. Various informants pointed to population growth as a cause of increasingly varied inter- and intra-ethnic affiliation and as a means of stemming such hostilities. Inter-ethnic marriage was becoming increasingly common. Similarly, pushed by the expense of living in the city, the settlement had become home to a sizeable working class. Teachers, police, nurses and even a national member of parliament resided there. A number of informants suggested this working populace had a ‘cooling’ or ‘civilising’ effect on the wider community.

Oversight: In a variation of the phenomena of CCTV cameras, an increase in the settlement’s population had resulted in more eyes on potential troublemakers. This assisted in deterring less hardened perpetrators, particularly when combined with there being fewer public spaces where groups could congregate without potential intervention. One informant linked this with (Malaitan) ‘kastom’ strictures, with news of nefarious activities quickly spreading amongst ‘wantoks’. This had the potential to ‘bring shame’: indelibly staining an individual’s, and, perhaps more importantly, their kin’s, reputation.

None of the above is to say that Burns Creek is now a model community. Crime still occurs regularly. But for the reasons outlined, and others, it is no longer the hotspot it once was. Similar to parts of urban PNG, lingering perceptions amongst the wider populace have been slow to catch-up with this contemporary reality: Burns Creek is now no more dangerous than any other location in Honiara, and in some respects may be even safer.

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Daniel Evans

Daniel Evans is a PhD candidate in the ANU Coral Bell School.

9 Comments

  • Although my observations of Port Moresby are anecdotal, it seems that where certain notorious settlements have mellowed, others have risen to replace them, for e.g. in the 1990s surbubs like Hohola and Gerehu surbubs were most feared and known to produce ‘raskols’ and gangs. These days, settlements like the Kila Mahuru, Wildlife, 2mile hill, and Erima vie for notoriety. On the other hand, areas like Sabama and Kaugere have been perenially unsafe. In my view, institutionalization and other factors may amount to little in the way of improving these settlements, if poverty is rife in these areas, and there is little access to education, training or employment. It would also be interesting to see if there is a link between relative inequality and violence – which may explain a recent phenomenon of burning cars in Port Moresby. It’s become a trend that cars which stop along the road due to mechanical problems, are first stripped of valuable parts (which has largely been the norm), and then torched, presumably out of spite by those who do not own vehicles themselves.

    Cheers
    Maho

    • Hi Maho, thanks for sharing your observations. Very interesting. I’ve been thinking out the various correlates between crime and settlements, mainly in the Solomon Islands’ context. I think a number of factors are at play, including longevity of place: newer settlements seem more prone to violence … at least in Solomon Islands. But this alone is not determinative.

      On the link between relative inequality and violence, one PNG-related study which you might find of interest is:

      Ivaschenko et al, 2017. ‘Can public works programs reduce youth crime? Evidence from Papua New Guinea’s Urban Youth Employment Project’. Available at: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1186%2Fs40176-017-0101-7.pdf

      This study had mixed results, finding that those involved in a Moresby-based donor-funded youth employment program (UYEP) were less likely to associate with others involved in criminal activities but that decreases in participants’ involvement in property damage and alcohol-related crime were statistically insignificant. Declines in the incidences of assault and theft/stealing amongst UYEP participants were comparable to those of the control group.

      I guess also problematising a neat association between unemployment and crime in PNG is past research which has suggested that people may leave formal employment to partake in criminal activity or undertake both simultaneously.

      The burning cars trend seems more acute in PNG than Solomons, although it’s not unheard of in Honiara. I don’t however get the sense that in Solomons it’s wholly linked to relative inequality … opportunism seems to be an important explanation.

  • Hi Daniel. Thanks your interesting insights into developments at Burns Creek in SI. That’s good news if it holds. PNG may be different – from first-hand experience visiting settlements in Port Moresby from the 1970s until 2016, I believe the situation is dire – not only the issue of ‘raskol’ gangs, but more broadly, incorporating health and other issues – one of the impediments to good anaylsis is the lack of statistics on just about everything to do with settlements. The ongoing rapid growth of settlements in Port Moresby will ensure that addressing the issues they generate will take time and considerable effort – and effective coordination of those efforts will be important. Regards

    • Hi Derek, thanks for your comment. While I don’t have a good first-hand understanding of urban settlements in PNG I don’t doubt for one minute what you say. I’d really recommend dipping into the work of Craig and Porter that I reference in the blog. Melissa Demian at St Andrews has also recently engaged with settlements in Lae. You are spot on about a lack of statistics and analysis. Part of the problem in Solomons, and, as I understand it, PNG, is that there is no geo-specific police data. It makes it hard to measure longitudinal crime trends in these places. Unfortunately, there are (to-date) few signs of the coordination you mention in Honiara.

  • Thanks for the post Dan. Super interesting. And resonates with my own (limited) experience in other communities in Sols – particularly around “what works” with youth engagement. I have heard many stories over the years of the positive impact of alcohol free sporting events with sanctions for breaking the prohibition – particularly where the sanctions are enforced by peers and / or respected local “elders”. Unsurprisingly, I am also really interested to read more of your research regarding interventions from outsiders…appreciate if you could keep me posted about that book chapter?

    • Hi Louise, thanks for your comment. The effectiveness of the sporting/alcohol connection came as a bit of a surprise to me. Like you, I have heard it over-and-over in a number of communities over the years. Of course, it’s only a temporary relief, but the fact that it works at all is, and is largely self-enforced, is interesting, and worthy of further attention. I’ll email you the draft chapter.

  • Great insights Dan. I wonder how much this change had to RAMSI and/or other donors/NGOs, or is it all community driven? If the latter is the key message that donors and others should get out of the way when it comes to security? Or should they cautiously support sporting programs that stress players not drink, etc? On another note, the mellowing of Raskols due to marriage and kids reminds me of the fate of the main protagonist, Alex, in A Clockwork Orange (the first book version published in the UK, the second US version and film omits the final chapter on his love-inspired mellowing). So, a request: can you reference ACO in the thesis – at least once?

    • Thanks Grant, funnily enough, that SMH article I reference in the blog incorporates commentary on ACO which I include in my thesis. Maybe I should expand! Great question concerning RAMSI and donors/NGOs. To keep you on tenterhooks, the approach of international NGOs in Burns Creek – and how they contribute to change, both positive and negative – is soon to be broached in a book chapter. The short answer is that outsiders have a role to play, but (as has been said a squillion times) context is key. Their interventions are welcomed by communities, but can play out in unexpected ways, becoming causes of divisiveness, competition and, at times, violence. I think that very cautious support backed by evidence is required … and an appetite for failure. Happy to share the draft chapter if you are interested Grant.

      • Clearly the Sydney Morning Herald journalist read the wrong version of A Clockwork Orange! The UK version’s 21st chapter (only 20 chapters in US version) is critical.

        Yes, very interested in the book chapter, can you email it? I’m working with Sinclair Dinnen on a project on security assemblages in PNG…hope to get to the field later this year…

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