Paga Hill – a model for the future of the Pacific Islands?

February 17, 2012 11:10 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Rapid urbanisation is putting pressure on infrastructure and public services in the urban centres of developing Pacific Island states, as much as it is in Asia. But in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital, a further factor is a chronic lack of affordable housing. This has resulted in professionals and public servants moving into informal settlements, as they shun available, but unattainably priced private homes. The situation is presenting a challenge to urban planners, but also bringing benefits to marginal communities, such as Paga Hill and 8 Mile Settlement.

According to the World Bank, more than 90% of global urban growth is occurring in the developing world. UN-Habitat estimates that unplanned settlements are home to one of every three people living in the cities of developing nations, and further predicts that the worldwide number of shanty town dwellers will increase by five hundred million by 2020.

Governments of Pacific nations are struggling to build infrastructure capacity to match the rate of migration from rural to urban areas. It is a challenge confronting the entire region, with the Third Asia Pacific Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development held in Indonesia in 2010 declaring the need for governments to proactively address urban development and plan for escalating housing needs.

In Port Moresby, several factors have contributed to informal settlements being home to approximately half the city’s population. These include a decrease in the minimum statutory wage in the 1990s and high income tax rates of up to 42%. Many people in public service and formal private sector employment earning less than K500 per fortnight are unable to pay rental costs of K5000 per week for a two bedroom apartment, or the average purchase price of K1.3 million for a three bedroom house in central Port Moresby. The private housing market mainly services expatriates and workers living in employer provided accommodation.

Paga Hill Settlement, home to about three thousand people from at least nine provinces in Papua New Guinea, is situated on customary land owned by the Lohia Doriga people in a prime city location adjacent to the downtown business area of Port Moresby. Customary or traditional land rights are a strong tradition in Pacific Island societies. Many customary landowners view their land as essential to providing a livelihood for the next generation of the clan. At Paga Hill, settlers have been given permission to reside on the land by the traditional landowners.

However, the community of makeshift homes constructed from found materials and corrugated iron, which clings to the side of Paga Hill at the end of an unsealed access road, defies many of the stereotypes of squatter settlements. It is home to decorated civic leaders, World War Two heroes, successful public servants and business people, as well as the unemployed.

The original inhabitants migrated from Kikori in the Gulf of Papua in the first half of the twentieth century in search of work in the city. From a network of bunkers on Paga Hill, the Papua Infantry Battalion of the PNG Defence Forces, many of whom were Kikori settlers, defended the entrance to Moresby Harbour during the Second World War. Their descendants have been given authority to protect the legacy of historic shelters and relics which still scatter the site.

The settlement is also respected for its high standards of community leadership. Chief of Paga Hill Settlements, Daure Kisu, who has been Chief for thirty years, is Commissioner of the National Capital District and President of Local Government for Moresby South. In 2000, Kisu was awarded a Silver Jubilee Medal by the government in tribute to his outstanding leadership during the 25 years following PNG’s Independence in 1975.

Kisu’s generation includes renowned artist, Ratoos Haoapa Gary, who has worked to promote international appreciation of Papua New Guinean art and culture. His improvised home on the edge of the water at Paga Hill seems incompatible with his national stature.

According to resident, Joe Avapura Moses, a significant proportion of Paga Hill residents today work in the formal sector:

“Many of our people are working as public servants, university students, artists, court officials and in real estate. We have business people, as well as truck drivers, carpenters, plumbers, mechanics and bricklayers.”

Joe, a graduate with a university degree in anthropology and a further qualification in business studies, has lived in the settlement for twelve years. He is one of the present generation using his education and professional connections to empower the voices and rights of informal settlers.

According to World Vision Asia Pacific, the needs of unplanned urban communities can be addressed “through the power of information, networks and partnerships. This involves equipping common interest or identity groups with knowledge of their rights, what is available to them, and linking them with potential partners who can advocate with or for the urban poor.”

With the permission of the settlement’s leaders and customary landowners, Joe joined a team of academic researchers and consultants at the University of Papua New Guinea to produce a sociological mapping and anthropological report of Paga Hill.

“The report aimed to identify why Kikoris are living in this place and their right to reside on this land,” he said, “The report fee of K30,000 will be paid by the Chairman of the Kikori Pipeline Landowners Association [in Kikori, Gulf Province].”

Joe is also in the process of establishing the Paga Hill Settlers Association, thereby pioneering the first settlers association to represent an informal settlement in Papua New Guinea. The association will represent the community in negotiations with developers and dialogue with NGOs or other official organisations.

In contrast, residents of 8 Mile Settlement, on the Northern outskirts of Port Moresby, are considered illegal settlers on state land. Founded in the 1970s, 8 Mile is home to 15,000 rural immigrants. Similarly, public servants, university lecturers and successful business people reside alongside the unemployed, who reap a living in the informal economy.

David Motsy, Head of Performing Arts at the University of Papua New Guinea, has chosen the sprawling informal settlement as his home. He has employed his talents and connections for the community’s benefit, in particular, organising visits to residencies in the settlement by international artists and postgraduate university students.

Australian photographer, Sean Davey, visited 8 Mile Settlement in 2009 not only to take photographs, but also nurture the talents of the settlement’s youth, some of whom are no strangers to drugs or crime. During a week-long arts workshop, facilitated by the University of Papua New Guinea and funded by the Law and Justice Sector, hundreds of youths from the community participated in painting, storytelling, music and drama.

Photographic works by participants featured in an exhibition at the University of Papua New Guinea, entitled ‘Life in 8 Mile is Hard,’, with some works travelling to an exhibition at the Monash Gallery of Art in Melbourne, Australia. 8 Mile is also the first settlement to have its own website ( which showcases photographs, artworks, poems and stories by members of the community, further promoting the settlement’s human face and diversity.

But while there is hardship in squatter communities, Luna Itiki, Secretary of the Community Development Committee at 8 Mile, says there are also advantages.

“We have more space than we could living in Moresby,” Itiki said, “We have proper areas where we can plant bananas and other garden areas. Our children also go around free. They get together, they come to know each other and then they come back to our houses. We don’t find some problems, like car accidents, where we might find in Moresby where roads are very busy.”

“Our living costs are low,” he added, “Where we don’t have to pay for houses, water, lights. Sometimes we pay nothing. Some of us, we have no lights, no water, but we live and we go to work. Some of us who are not working, we have access to a little market for what we have planted, like peanuts and bananas.”

Nevertheless, there is still the need for basic public services and a standard of living commensurate with human dignity.

According to Joe Avapura Moses, Paga Hill Settlement urgently requires sanitation, electricity, proper water pipes, a health centre, elementary school, a village style court house, community hall and sealed access road.

When a settlement is deemed illegal, the government is under no obligation to provide services. However, Papua New Guinea has committed to the Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme (PSUP), launched by UN-Habitat in 2008, which aims to reduce poverty and manage urbanisation.

Mary Bonjui, a community leader in 8 Mile, believes the established nature of the settlement, now home to a second generation, should be officially acknowledged.

“We want the government to recognise us and maybe release this land to us, so that we can be urbanised and developed and services are brought here. I want to see the government listen to the voices of the settlement.”

This may yet happen at Paga Hill, where community leaders are aiming to set a precedent. By legitimising their existence with a professional anthropological report, and forming a settlers association to advocate for service improvements and help plan a viable social and economic future, Paga Hill could be a ‘model settlement’ in Papua New Guinea.


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This post was written by Catherine Wilson

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