Melanesia’s resource boom presents the region with unprecedented economic opportunity but could also lead to conflict and political upheaval, says a leading expert from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
Dr Matthew Allen, a fellow in the College’s State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, says that there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to the region’s current resource boom – where the rapid expansion of the oil and gas, mining, and logging industries has underpinned spectacular economic growth in countries like Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.
“In Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, commodity exports have underpinned unprecedented rates of economic growth over the past several years. There can be no doubt that economic growth is important for development, and the commodity sectors provide much needed revenue for national and provincial governments,” he said.
“However, there are serious concerns about whether these high rates of economic growth are being translated into positive development outcomes, particularly in rural areas where the majority of Melanesians reside. Both PNG and Solomon Islands are continuing to preform relatively poorly across the full gamut of social development indicators. So what we are seeing here could be described as a classic case of the so-called ‘resource curse’.”
According to Dr Allen the resource curse sees resource-rich, developing countries struggle to convert their new-found wealth into broad-based and positive development outcomes. Dr Allen said that while the resource curse is often thought about in economic terms, in places like PNG and Solomon Islands it was also important to look at its impact on society, culture and the environment.
“The resource boom has brought globalised resource companies and global capital into an unprecedented encounter with the small-scale agrarian societies who lay claim to the land upon, or under, which the resources sit. This encounter has produced some incredibly negative social, cultural and environmental impacts, leading, in some cases to violent conflict.”
It is the high likelihood of conflict over these resources that is one of the most worrying aspects of Melanesia’s current boom warned Dr Allen.
“I believe that the probability of resource-related violent conflict in the region is quite high. In fact, we are already seeing violence associated with the development of the giant Liquified Natural Gas project in the Southern Highlands of PNG, and with logging and proposed oil palm development in the Pomio district of East New Britain Province, also in PNG.
“The possibility of more large-scale mining throughout the Solomons chain of islands – on islands such as Choiseul, Isabel and Makira – is particularly alarming given the known relationships between mining and micro-nationalists movements seeking greater autonomy or even full independence from the nation-states of which they are a part. While one is loathe to make specific predictions about the prospects of future resource-related violence, further violence and even political fragmentation seem likely, especially if the resource boom continues as predicted.”
Dr Allen was speaking at a specially-convened public panel examining Melanesia’s resource boom and hosted by the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia program.