they burn witches here
November 2, 2015 11:31 AM   Subscribe

"In Papua New Guinea (which was fully 'opened' to the outside world only in the late 19th century), the tradition of witch hunting has not simply persisted in the face of Western intervention—it has become much worse. The ritual is warping, the violence is metastasizing." [cw: graphic content]

In 2013, shortly after the parliamentary repeal of the 1971 Sorcery Act, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Pacific Region released a statement on sorcery-related killings in Papua New Guinea, but years later, accusations, torture, and executions related to witchcraft persist.

As of early 2015, up to 15 PNG residents were being evacuated from their homes every week due to fears that they would be killed after being accused of sorcery, creating a new class of intranational refugees. Despite work by the UN, Oxfam, and local activist groups, including the creation of an official Sorcery National Action Plan, "witchcraft killings are proving to be one of the country's most persistent problems."

More information can be found at Stop Sorcery Violence (also on Facebook and Twitter) and the Witchcraft & Human Rights Information Network (Facebook, Twitter).
posted by divined by radio (22 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Pensions greatly reduced witch-hunting in parts of South Africa, FWIW. Whether PNG can afford them, though, is doubtful, given that most of PNG's resource money is being sucked out by multinational mining corporations.
posted by clawsoon at 12:20 PM on November 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

Metafilter once again showing me something I had no idea about. Jesus.

It plays over and over again....whenever we're shaken and fearful, the most sadistic bastards in our societies will step forward to assume control and we will nearly always acquiesce.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:23 PM on November 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ugh, thanks to Westernized multinationals and the lip-service they pay to due process and rule of law, vigilantes now publicly torture and give their victims show trials before murdering them.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:33 PM on November 2, 2015

infinitewindow, I'm not sure I understand why you think Westernized multinationals are to be blamed for this? My understanding of the article is that witch hunting in this part of the world long predates the introduction of Western-style capitalism.
posted by Aubergine at 12:39 PM on November 2, 2015 [9 favorites]

aubergine: & show-trials, too.
posted by lodurr at 12:44 PM on November 2, 2015

According to the article, Western intervention has turned witch-hunting from an occasional and relatively swift (although still horrible) to a much more frequent and drawn-out process. The article didn't make a lot of clear connections -- it wasn't clear to me how much, for example, Christian ideas, ideas about due process of law, and disruptions of the material economy feed into the problem.

I have done some reading about witchcraft in the West (mostly Colonial Americas, but some European), and the two things don't seem to map exactly -- both seem arise generally out of social and economic anxiety which some specific trigger "vents" the tension into an accusation, but the problem in PNG seems to be much more endemic, and the article doesn't make it clear why.

Violence, political and otherwise, seems to be pretty common on the island (some geoscientists I met who worked there said that they were never sure whether to be more afraid of rebels, locals, or the authorities, and were taken to and from their work sites by security teams who were also not entirely reliable. I'm guessing that the culture shock and societal disruption caused by contact with the West as well as the primary interests of outsiders being a) colonization, b) mineral exploitation, and c) religious conversion have left the area with types of social violence constrained neither by custom/traditional circumstance or strong modern centralized authority, but I have very little firm knowledge to base this on.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:01 PM on November 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

What I wonder about is whether it's always been gendered violence. The quote from the "progressive" college-educated chief-to-be, where he was all "well, this is just how we run things here, we don't want to get rid of this tradition, we just want it to be not fucked up"....yabbut killing women who had nothing to do with someone's death or misfortune seems to be a bad idea, even if it's an infrequent ritual to preserve social stability. Rather rough on the women, at least.

I think it's possible to understand a thing as bad on the face of it and then made worse by colonialism.
posted by Frowner at 1:05 PM on November 2, 2015 [10 favorites]

I think it's possible to understand a thing as bad on the face of it and then made worse by colonialism.

Absolutely. I was frustrated by the article's lack of detail on ow things used to be (although, part of huge social upheaval is losing that connection with the past, so maybe no one knows anymore). Colonialism has a terrible record of exacerbating appalling local customs as an unintended consequence of "civilizing" the local population -- partly through making clinging on to those customs a form of resistance and partly through willful misunderstanding of local systems where administrators, mineral exploiters, and missionaries just sort of jerk on threads and then avoid responsibility when the the social fabric catastrophically unravels.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:13 PM on November 2, 2015

ty Frowner and GenjiandProust.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:14 PM on November 2, 2015

I wonder if Jared Diamond thought about witchcraft at all while he was writing Avifauna of the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea back in the '70s.
posted by clawsoon at 1:19 PM on November 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am by no means an expert but I think that part of this is deeply rooted in Melanesian culture (the island of New Guinea, which includes PNG, is the ancestral home of Melanesians). Beliefs about witchcraft are still very strongly rooted in Vanuatu, for example, where I lived for 3 years. People from the island of Ambae are especially feared for their supposed magical abilities, laying curses and so on. I also don't think it's particularly gendered, at least not from the anecdotal evidence that I've received.

I've been told, by ni-Vans that I genuinely like and respect, about the supposed magical abilities of particular people (men and women), some of whom are even able to fly. "I know you white people don't believe in it," said one, "but it's real for us." Before cruise ships arrive in Port Vila the taxi and bus drivers hire a witch doctor to make it rain so they'll have more business. Here's a story about witches on another island that took place last year.

As an outsider it's absolutely astonishing.
posted by orrnyereg at 2:37 PM on November 2, 2015 [12 favorites]

Here's more about the Father Gibbs mentioned in the article and his efforts to protect women.
posted by resurrexit at 3:31 PM on November 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Excellent post! Flagged as fantastic!
posted by jason's_planet at 4:59 PM on November 2, 2015

The great failure in humanity is the willing to believe that "those people" are what is truly at fault in the world, and that killing them will make the world better.

I honestly don't think we will ever get over it. We will just keep killing "those people" rather than actually try to solve the problem -- and eventually, the problem will kill us.

And to be blunt? And given the the least humane creature I know of is Humanity, maybe we should just die. If I were an alien watching us, I'd put a big cordon around the planet and make damn sure Humanity doesn't escape.

Or maybe I'd just blow the star and make sure. Other life in this solar system might have the same genetic material. No. That's the Human answer to the problem.
posted by eriko at 5:48 PM on November 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Fascinating article.

Colonialism has a terrible record of exacerbating appalling local customs as an unintended consequence of "civilizing" the local population...

Yep. And this phenomenon can be extended more broadly to describe a lot of what happens when "developing" countries go through the pains of "developing." Nicole Pope's book, Honor Killings in the Twenty-First Century is a really good read on how modernization/Westernization can exacerbate practices like honor killings, acid attacks on women, arranged and child marriages, etc. An interesting example she gives is through the transformation of the practice of brides coming with a dowry. With the rise of consumer culture, some families use dowry obligations to harass daughter-in-laws to provide more and more goods throughout their marriage, to the point where she could get killed because her family failed to provide their in-laws with a new refrigerator.
posted by adso at 6:25 PM on November 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think that yes, multinationals do share some of the blame. When you completely upend societies, there are ramifications. Do I think simply kicking them out solves the problem? No, but they can certainly play a vital role and contribute to the solution.
posted by herda05 at 7:20 PM on November 2, 2015

A friend of mine witnessed a shoot out over a beetle nut drug deal. The villagers ran away from the market to avoid being caught in the crossfire. Before the police arrived someone stole everything from the market including the beetle nut !
With or without witch killings this is a violent country, ( and will armed with old guns from World War2 weapon stashes).
posted by Narrative_Historian at 12:43 AM on November 3, 2015

Nicole Pope's book, Honor Killings in the Twenty-First Century is a really good read on how modernization/Westernization can exacerbate practices like honor killings, acid attacks on women, arranged and child marriages, etc.

Acid attacks on women are, as far as I can tell, an originally Western phenomenon, presumably since Western countries are the places where industrial acid was first commonly available. Unfortunately Google News no longer has the functionality to scope its searches by historical dates, but it used to be that when you did a search for the word "acid" and set it to search only articles from before 1920 or so a fair proportion of the results were local stories about acid attacks. I only remember looking at one or two where the victim was a man.
posted by XMLicious at 3:19 AM on November 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

A few years ago I linked to a few of the stories about acid attacks in the U.S.; the one in the NYT is about someone attacking a Catholic nun in 1904. Here furious mentions a 2007 case in Vermont of a guy who beat his wife with a baseball bat and doused her with lye.
posted by XMLicious at 5:17 AM on November 3, 2015

I just got back from a conference on responsible business where I submitted and did not get to ask a question citing numbers from the article linked here to a guy from Sime Darby. It was a Not Great panel at all about justice with PNG land rights heavily featured, and I asked why MNCs like Sime Darby, despite enormous profits, did nothing to invest in strengthening civil society in PNG like basic justice access.

Upside was that my angry hissing and outrage at my table over not being able to ask about the corporate whitewashing tactics up on stage led to a very good conversation with someone sitting next to me.

But I am sorry I did not push harder and stand up without a mike and just ask him "What about Kepari Leniata?" She deserved to have her name heard. So does Monica Paulus.

I'm still angry hours later. Justifying their negligence as well, it's all local culture and we can't interfere or rush them, that would be wrong, and we'll get it right sometime but it's all about these millennium goals and nothing to do with profits, we're very environmentally conscious, did I mention we see ourselves as conservators of the land? Partners, we're partners with the local community. Gag.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:32 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

qcubed: Ugh, those fucking missionaries. That's some fucked up tourism they're doing there.

You might note that, in the story presented, the secular organizations involved did pretty much nothing but talk, while one of those "fucking missionaries" was one of only two people who saved any women from being killed.
posted by clawsoon at 7:19 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

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