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C'est qui, le patron? Kinship and the rentier leader in the Upper Watut

CollectionsANU Resources, Environment & Development Group (RE&D)
Title: C'est qui, le patron? Kinship and the rentier leader in the Upper Watut
Author(s): Burton, John Ellissen
Keywords: Upper Watut
mining companies
landowning communities
rentier leaders
Publisher: Canberra, ACT: Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program (RMAP), Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School for Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University
Series/Report no.: Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program (RMAP) Working Paper: No. 1
Conclusion: A good deal more analysis needs to be given to the concept of the patron before we can say that he exists as a consistent leadership form. If he does, he succeeds in the tradition of the ‘despot’ leader discussed in the 1960s by Watson, Brown, Salisbury, Strathern and others. It may be that he is a creation of the postcolonial period with its growing emphasis on the ownership of resources, or that, if present before, his despotism was contained by the need to secure the military support of his clients. Unlike the big-man, who dies without support, he can get away without sharing benefits with anyone if he has to, or feels able to run the gauntlet of panga, or just wants to be aggressive in the manner that Anga men say their ancestors have shown them. How does what I have said sit with another discussion of Anga leadership, namely that focusing on the hypothetical transition of great men to big-men in Lemonnier’s (1990) book Guerres et festins? Lemonnier identifies sequences of homicide compensation as providing the springboard for the men who organise them to become big-men. This is certainly yes in Western Highlands where wu ombil/wu embil, ‘man’s bones’, payments of pigs lead off several types of major pig festival. The answer is that it does not lead anywhere in this direction, as the key ingredient of collective responsibility for group warfare is absent in the Upper Watut. I cannot say how this fits with circumstances in western Anga groups where clans, tribes and group warfare are vividly described. What is the relevance of what I have said? Have I over-objectified the patron as an identity? In response to this, current struggles for control of resources exist quite independently of me. At least five previous consultants were hired by the mining company before I was—I did not invent the company’s difficulty in establishing a constructive dialogue with the landowners—and in some cases the positions of particular leaders have been objectified by decisions won in court on the strength of their own wits, beginning a decade ago. In many discussions of the control of resources, examples being legion in forestry as well as in mining, it is clear that a distinctive new kind of ‘work’ for some varieties of Melanesian leader has appeared consisting of a deep engagement in wresting control of benefits from potential rivals, often at the expense of politically weak sections of village society such as women and the young. Lumping benefits together as ‘rents’, the new leader is a ‘rentier’, and those who benefit with him, a ‘rentier class’. In the Upper Watut, the patron is a ready-crafted template of a rentier leader, and he and his peers and their families, not their supporters and close agnates, prospective members of an exclusive rentier class. Mining companies are often portrayed as destructive of village societies by causing divisions within them. However, it is important to distinguish between exploration projects with a small scale of operations, and operational projects where, as is well-documented and as CRA, the prospector at Hidden Valley, is painfully aware, social and environmental dislocation can be immense. In the exploration phase, experienced mining companies have no intention other than to direct benefits as fairly as possible to all those identified as members of the landowning communities. Unfortunately, at Hidden Valley, the rentier leaders of the communities have been quite successful in thwarting the company’s efforts to do this up to the present. I cannot not say this is an entirely promising analysis.


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