Home > Corruption, Human rights, LNG, mining, Papua New Guinea > Civil strife serious possibility in PNG due to vulture capitalism

Civil strife serious possibility in PNG due to vulture capitalism

February 17, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Antony Loewenstein

The story led the busi­ness pages in Papua New Guinea’s Post-Courier in early Feb­ru­ary. “An­a­lyst: PNG on verge of change” screamed the head­line. British-based mar­ket an­a­lysts Bdaily Busi­ness Net­work praised the $US17.3 bil­lion Exxon-Mo­bil led LNG pro­ject. “[It] is the most im­por­tant sin­gle de­vel­op­ment in the his­tory of PNG”, it stated, com­ing on­line for over­seas mar­kets in 2014.

But the re­al­ity away from cor­po­rate spin is a sim­mer­ing con­flict. A source close to the South­ern High­lands land own­ers, the site of the major LNG pro­ject, pre­dicts civil strife in the com­ing years. Lo­cals are start­ing to col­lect weapons and grenades for the com­ing fight. Sab­o­tage and at­tacks on pipelines are likely. Weapons are being smug­gled in from In­done­sia, in­clud­ing West Papua and Thurs­day Is­land near Aus­tralia.

“I fear what is com­ing un­less some­thing changes soon,” he says at a local Chi­nese restau­rant cov­ered in Coke-coloured wall­pa­per. “We are not being heard and feel we have no choice. We know we will be out-gunned, and Exxon, being an Amer­i­can com­pany, may re­ceive US gov­ern­ment sup­port, but this is about dig­nity and our rights.”

Stan­ley Mamu, ed­i­tor of the LNG Watch blog, fears a Bougainville-style war over re­sources. It is al­most in­evitable, he ar­gues, un­less Exxon and the gov­ern­ment lis­ten to the griev­ances of the local peo­ple. Ten­sions are al­ready high after a deadly land­slide in Jan­u­ary was blamed on nearby min­ing blasts.

LNG pro­ject man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Peter Gra­ham told Radio Aus­tralia last year he was sat­is­fied with the “ex­tra­or­di­nar­ily con­sul­ta­tive process” with the landown­ers. That would be news to most of them.

A story in PNG’s Sun­day Chron­i­cle in mid-Feb­ru­ary high­lights their anger. Two landowner chiefs de­manded Exxon “ful­fil re­lo­ca­tion” plans pre­vi­ously agreed to. They com­plain about Exxon-hired pri­vate se­cu­rity firm G4S — the com­pany has im­planted it­self in the high­est ech­e­lons of the na­tional gov­ern­ment, I am told by count­less NGOs — and local po­lice using ex­ces­sive force to re-open a key ac­cess road to the LNG pro­ject. They warn that other res­i­dents will heed a call to join them in re­sist­ing the de­vel­op­ment.

A for­mer com­man­der in the PNG army dur­ing the Bougainville “cri­sis” of the 1990s warned in 2010 that the pres­ence of a for­eign mili­tia com­pany such as G4S height­ened the chances of an­other con­flict:

“They [G4S] have no ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the local cus­toms, cul­ture and the peo­ple.”

I re­cently trav­elled to Papa Lea-Lea, about 30 min­utes from down­town Port Moresby, to in­ves­ti­gate a key LNG hub of the pro­ject. Dri­ving through im­pov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing along­side the shore, we pass small vil­lages along the cracked road — small houses built of stilts to keep them from sink­ing. “They would have to move if a cy­clone hit,” an Oxfam PNG staff mem­ber who ac­com­pa­nied me says mat­ter-of-factly.

Pass­ing a road­block — our dri­ver is forced to pay a small bribe to a po­lice­man be­cause he doesn’t hold a dri­ver’s li­cence — we soon see kilo­me­tres of high fences be­hind which sit LNG fa­cil­i­ties in var­i­ous stages of com­ple­tion. Se­cu­rity guards watch us drive past. On one side of the road is the beaten-up land of the pro­ject, the other is lush, rolling hills. Oxfam tells me some landown­ers have done deals with Exxon for the use of their prop­erty while oth­ers com­plain they aren’t prop­erly con­sulted be­fore work has begun.

Oxfam re­cently re­leased a re­port on the LNG’s im­pacts in the area after en­gag­ing an LNG Im­pact Lis­ten­ing Pro­ject. The re­sults were de­cid­edly mixed and ex­plained how al­co­hol abuse by men and women was lead­ing to a spike in HIV in­fec­tion, do­mes­tic as­sault and in­fi­delity. One woman from Pore­bada said that road con­struc­tion caused ex­ces­sive dust that af­fected the growth of ba­nanas, man­goes and paw paws. “Every time we go to find our gar­dens pol­luted.”

The cur­rent Peter O’Neill gov­ern­ment sup­ports the LNG pro­ject as strongly as Michael So­mare’s. Aus­tralian bil­lion­aire Clive Palmer re­cently an­nounced his likely entry into the LNG race, say­ing: “If we find gas, we de­velop it and make bil­lions of dol­lars out of it.” Dur­ing my visit the re-en­try of Shell into PNG was also warmly em­braced as a key dri­ver of LNG op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Aus­tralia still pours mil­lions into the coun­try as a sup­posed in­sur­ance pol­icy against im­mi­nent col­lapse. For­mer for­eign min­is­ter Alexan­der Downer re­cently wrote in The Na­tional that his gov­ern­ment “re­built PNG’s econ­omy” and “helped end the Bougainville cri­sis” when in re­al­ity — as Crikey has re­ported —  the Howard years en­trenched the rot that has con­tin­ued under the ex­panded Labor aid pro­gram (much of which goes on “boomerang aid”).

My time in Madang with the pro­gres­sive NGO Bis­marck Ramu Group (BRG) was a wel­come change, one of the few or­gan­i­sa­tions in the coun­try that be­lieves the only sus­tain­able way for­ward for PNG is to re­ject all Aus­tralian sup­port and find al­ter­na­tives to min­ing and forestry pro­jects, such as agri­cul­ture.

BRG’s Rosa Koian tells me there were count­less ex­am­ples just in her province — a pol­lut­ing Chi­nese-owned Ramu Nickel mine and an equally pol­lut­ing Fil­ipino-run can­nery — that show how cor­po­rate gi­ants can mis­lead lo­cals. Poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion was a fac­tor so BRG’s com­mu­nity work­ers take lo­cals being ro­manced by cor­po­ra­tions to areas where such firms have set up. “We have had 250 years of failed cap­i­tal­ism here,” Rosa says.

Terry is a key los­ing lit­i­gant in a re­cently com­pleted case by landown­ers against the Chi­nese-owned MCC, which runs the Ramu Nickel mine in Madang. He claims vi­o­lent in­tim­i­da­tion by the com­pany and has wit­nessed pol­lu­tion in the water near his vil­lage.

“Every day I hope the world comes to an end,” he says to me in de­spair. The top courts, min­is­ters and fed­eral gov­ern­ment are all col­lud­ing to sup­port the mine, he says.

MCC ad­ver­tis­ing in the local press claims the com­pany is “ready to de­liver”. But per­haps not for the peo­ple in Madang.

*Antony Loewen­stein is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist cur­rently work­ing on a book about vul­ture cap­i­tal­ism. 

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