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Papuan Payback - Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea | by david schweitzer
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Papuan Payback - Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea

Opposing subclan members gathered together on a late January afternoon in the hills outside Mount Hagen, high in the western highlands of Papua New Guinea (1,677 m, 5,502 ft). A cool thick mist had set in. They came to “share the talk” and discuss the issues surrounding a longstanding dispute over the loss of an eye during a fight between two boys from opposing subclans. A couple of young men from one subclan showed up with a homemade rifle and axes "in case of trouble" during the negotiations.


Several public moots or gatherings had occurred previously but without much success in reaching a negotiated settlement. The victim clan was never satisfied with the number of pigs offered as payback compensation. Pigs are the favoured payback currency, seen here tied to traditional tethering stakes.


An official third-party mediator with institutionalized powers to impose judgments is often crucial in arriving at a satisfactory inter-clan settlement. The government mediator with raised hands here is pressing for a final negotiated agreement through mediation and consensus. An agreement was finally reached much later that evening as pigs were exchanged through this traditional Melanesian dispute resolution mechanism.


The cultural logic of “payback” in traditional Papuan dispute resolutions is grounded in the notion that the clan is collectively responsible for the actions of its members. It is customary to actively seek compensation when one of its members becomes a victim. Opting out of the dispute-resolution process is not a cultural option.


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Taken in February 1997