THE RESOURCE CURSE
Papua New Guinea’s boom gas project is burning up
PNG LNG has yielded gas worth billions for its Western operators. Local landowners have received no royalties at all. With anger rising, dire consequences were predicted. Then disaster struck.
Brisbane, February 17, 2010. A clutch of ExxonMobil executives gathers for a briefing from Papua New Guinea specialists: a geographer, an epidemiologist and an agronomist. All academics at the Australian National University, they’ve clocked up decades of fieldwork in the remote highlands. They’ve assembled some slides that they hope will give the overseers of ExxonMobil’s $US19 billion liquefied natural gas project, PNG LNG, insight into the lives of the people whose resource they are preparing to pump out of the country’s hinterland and ship to markets across Asia. The specialists’ pitch is a hard-headed evaluation of looming risk. And it is pointedly plain-spoken, assuming little, if any, knowledge of Papua New Guinea’s geography, history or staggeringly complex cultures. The good news, they say, is that local people, and the provincial and national governments, want the project. And the bad news? Expectations are perilously high. The desire for PNG LNG is founded on the belief that it will bring not only wealth to landowners in its footprint but also desperately needed services, roads, power, jobs and economic growth to the region. Health care for most locals is a long walk to an aid post that in all likelihood has no health worker or medicines. Child mortality rates are almost 40 times what they are in Australia, and markedly worse than elsewhere within the nation. Education levels are woeful – 64 per cent of men and 77 per cent of women living around the gas source have no formal education. The PNG LNG operation will be dropping into a landscape in which the state barely casts a shadow. Violence is rife, and police and justice elusive. Tribal conflict, deeply rooted, has waxed and waned over the years in what is today called Hela Province. Now anxieties and rivalries are flaring around who will and won’t benefit from the gas mother lode, the experts say, with the potential to escalate to blockades, sabotage and armed resistance. Colleagues have been warning about the stockpile of heavy weapons in the highlands for years. While numerous promised works were built into the benefits-sharing agreements wrangled with landowner representatives a year earlier, these PNG specialists in Brisbane urge ExxonMobil to invest deeply in education, health, livelihoods, infrastructure, security and monitoring. They point to the junior project partner, PNG veteran Oil Search, which has long-established health programs that are highly valued by local people – why not piggyback on those relationships? Next slide. “Contexts: other large resource projects.” There’s the Porgera goldmine (“Police attack migrants and locals, burn houses, shoot people – company accused of breaches of human rights”) and Ramu Nickel (“Chinese company ignored local social and employment conditions – Riots … Mine closed temporarily”). And then there’s Ok Tedi, which in the ’80s became shorthand for BHP’s international shame after a monumental environmental disaster when a tailings dam collapsed. At the top of the list is Bougainville, a shattering and multilayered episode distilled thus: “Second generation unhappy with benefits … [Bougainville Copper Limited] said it was the PNG Government’s responsibility to fix … Power supply sabotaged / PNG Defence Force soldiers attacked civilians … Years of civil war result [in] permanent closure of mine and high death rate.” The PNG LNG operation, however, is touted as a game changer, the biggest resources project in the AsiaPacific, with capacity to double GDP. The Australian government has backed it with a $US350 million investment. Compared to the mines in the slideshow, its environmental footprint is light. But PNG LNG will sit in one of the most culturally fascinating and incendiary landscapes imaginable. The Huli people of Hela Province, keepers of the gas flame, have forever seen themselves at the centre of the universe. For better or worse, the implications of this project – regionally, economically, geopolitically – are seismic. The last slide is titled “The beginning, not the end”. A small Huli boy is juxtaposed with a barefoot youth crouched by a roadside and nursing a high-powered automatic rifle. “I will be 18 years old in 2022,” says the caption. “And if I have not been educated and I am still a subsistence farmer living in relative poverty, I am going to be really angry! I may be armed and dangerous!” Tari, capital of Hela Province, February 1, 2018. By the time the Air Niugini Dash 8 drops through the highlands pall we’re almost jumping distance above the forest canopy. It’s broken by the contortions of rivers and the odd road, and clearings occupied by round huts and crops of sweet potato and greens. Beyond the blur of the propeller, the clouds close like shutters on the distant ranges. There was no world beyond this fortressed horizon for the Huli until first contact in the 1930s. The first permanent colonial patrol post didn’t arrive in Tari until 1951. Then came the missionaries. The prospectors. The oilmen. And then, a decade ago, after a few false starts, the advance guard of PNG LNG. The ancestors had seen them coming, these “redlegged” men. The Huli knew all about the subterranean power buried within their country, the fire (gas) and water (oil). They navigated around it with ritual. Their lore was selectively enlisted for the PNG LNG hard sell. It was destiny that the underground fire the Huli call Lai Tebo would “light up the world”, bringing in wealth that
“When the white people come to take the power from the earth, there will be terrible fighting and Huli culture will fade away.”