5 Jun 2013

Canberra in coference hopes to work out a solution to Melanesian sorcery

5:07 pm on 5 June 2013

Experts are hoping to come up with ideas to address witchcraft killings and the pervading belief in sorcery in Melanesia.

A conference at the Australian National University in Canberra has brought together academics, government and non-government organisations to try and find solutions to the problems in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The conference's convenor, Richard Eves from the university's State, Society and Governance programme, says the issues are complex.

RICHARD EVES: It's a very difficult and complex issue to deal with. On the one hand, you've got people's belief systems. It's a very hard thing to tackle. But also it's not something that there are easy answers to, so I think it's been avoided for that reason. It's a very complex problem and it needs quite complex solutions. And I think it's been avoided because it's not easy to just come up with a simple project that can address this issue. It requires a whole range of things - educational, cultural, regulatory activities.

JAMIE TAHANA: And on Wednesday, where do you begin such an issue if it's so complicated?

RE: Well, I think this is part of the reason we're having the conference is we're bringing a lot of researchers together and a lot of people with experience working in both Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. And I think there's some important lessons to be learnt from some of the other places where there are sorcery beliefs, but they don't necessarily translate into actions that involve accusations, torture and killings. So I think we can learn some lessons from some of these other contexts where those things don't happen. And they can be used in thinking about how we can bring them on board in places like Papua New Guinea where it's quite a problem.

JT: And give us an example of these places where the belief is there, but it doesn't translate into such action - how do they address that?

RE: Well, for example, I've done fieldwork in New Ireland. And while sorcery was a reason that people were putting down for deaths, from my experience it never translated into any forms of accusation. In fact, people were very scared about mentioning sorcerers or their names for fear of being brought before the village court and they would be fined for libellous talk. But that's just one example. There's other examples where people do not respond in violent ways. It's sort of happening in parts of Papua New Guinea [where it hasn't] been that long since European contact - in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea you're talking about the 1950s. Whereas some of the island regions of Melanesia have had 150 years of contact, so there's a much longer tradition of education, better health services, better facilities. Whereas in the Highlands parts, they're quite remote. They've been suffering years of neglect from the state, they don't have good health services, they have large populations and limited land - that's another factor that fuels sorcery accusations. So there's a whole combination of factors combining to make parts of the Highlands particularly difficult in this area. But it's not only restricted to the Highlands. There are reason cases in Bougainville, for example, and also in parts of Madang and the National Capital District. So while the Highlands is one area I'd consider to be a hotspot, it's not necessarily restricted to that region.

JT: The repeal of the Sorcery Act - do you expect that to make a big difference?

RE: Not really. I think Papua New Guinea has a lot of good laws and good policies on the statutes, but, in fact, getting the police and the legal facilities to actually address these issues is often the main difficulty. A lot of these things are taking place in places that are very remote. They won't even know that the Sorcery Act has been repealed. The police rarely go there, they're very isolated, and it's a sort of hidden epidemic in that sense.