The Papua New Guinea (PNG) government recently signed a US$16 billion deal to process its natural gas resource in PNG and then export to markets overseas. By far the largest business venture ever undertaken by the government since its independence in 1975 and one that is expected to double the countries GDP when gas starts flowing. While the government, business houses and bureaucrats are looking forward to the revenue this project will generate, there is one very important factor that everyone is turning a blind eye on, land ownership and benefits to the people not only of PNG as a nation but especially to the people living on the land where the resource is to be extracted. We can not pretend that this is under control or in the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, Sir Puka Temu, “water under the bridge,” as it is not. We can not perceive the people of PNG to have the same thinking capacity as that of people in the western world or to assume that what is written on paper under the constitution of PNG be understood and accepted as law by everyone, no! At least not for a good part of the next 150 years. Remember, there are more than 800 languages in this land and not one of them is even close to English or Tok Pisin.
I write this article in light of a recent documentary titled “Resource Rage – Papua New Guinea,” produced by Mark Stuke of Journeyman Pictures that was currently made public on the internet through YouTube.
This 22 minute video clearly shows what is really going on in PNG. Exxon Mobile, the project developer is already in place and ready to start work because according to the company, all the necessary paper-work a has been done and the government has given the green light for operations to start. Notice I did not mention anything about landowners because this is where the problem is.
Before I proceed to the land ownership issue, let me review a comment made by a cetrain Michael McWalter, the PNG governments oil and gas consultant. He cited that the constitution of PNG has it that resources are owned by the people of PNG and NOT by the people living on the land over the resources and that there is a misconception between ‘landownership’ and ‘resource ownership’ in PNG. While this may seem logical to someone from the west who understands the difference between land ownership and resource ownership, this is one phrase that will have grave consequences and probably one of the best examples of instances where the constitution has a totally different meaning to traditional laws. Traditional land laws in PNG revolve around the fact that anything that lies within the limits of someones land is his. From the tops of the tallest trees to as far as you can dig, if it is within his boundary, it is traditionally accepted that it is his. Jurisdiction over what is his ends where the persons boundaries end, so to tell someone that while he may own the land, he does not the resources under your land is…wrong.
There are numerous groups running around claiming to be legitimate land owner groups all because they want to benefit from the spoils of the project. Unlike the coastal areas of PNG where there is one leader and people have respect for the hierarchy, everyone is a leader in the highlands. All you need to have leadership status among the highlands people is the fact that you have a piece of land to build your house, your gardens and raise pigs and that piece of land can not be disputed by anyone else. Based on this, one gets to wonder what criteria was used to identify the landowners.
Furthermore, the gas will be piped some 700 kilometers from the Southern Highlands to the Gulf and finally Central provinces to Port Moresby where it will be processed and exported, immagine how many land owner groups there can be in that stretch.
Promises have been made for better government services, monetary benefits and more employment opportunities for the people, in other words, an easier passage for these villagers to make the transition to the modern world, a passage even the government of the day has failed to deliver since independence some 35 years ago. All that they had to do in exchange for these benefits was to make a mark where their names were on the papers in front of them and they did in the hope that the promised services be delivered to their door step in the next few days. Days turned to weeks and weeks into months and for some, the months turned into years. A good example would be the people from Komo, living for 20 years next to a company using their gas to generate electricity for their operations while the locals still lived in village huts and got light from the fire.
The people are getting frustrated now over who the legitimate land owners are, some are beginning to realize the worth of the project and would want a higher equity but as in all businesses, a deal is a deal and the company would be very reluctant to discuss the terms and conditions of agreement again. Papua New Guineans, both educated and uneducated are getting frustrated because they can not get any form of employment in the project at this stage and different groups are going around talking to locals claiming to know what they are talking about when in reality, they themselves are poorly informed about what they are talking about.
Things are now at a stage where the people of PNG are more confused than before about who is actually running the show. On one hand, we have the government of the day which made the decision to sell this resource because of its commercial value and the prospect of having this project save a country that was well in its way to plummeting into bankruptcy. On the other hand, we have the resource developer (Exxon Mobil) whose interest is to develop the project and generate income for its business. This of course is a foreign owned company and does not have a single clue about the traditional laws of the land but basically abides by what was written down by a few men as guiding laws for a new country coming into self governance in the mid 1970’s. Caught in the middle are the people of PNG who to this day are not so sure if the decision to sell this resource was the right one and within this group are the landowners, ordinary village people with very little understanding of what is really going on but hope that the basic government services they needed but were denied through negligence will be provided by the company through the development of this project.
So, who do we hold responsible for this, the Company? Their interest is to make a profit, not to bring development to the people. They will provide business opportunities for the people and during the life of the project, may even support the local economy and community based projects but remember they are business oriented. DO we hold the Government at fault then? Why? The government was interested in the commercial value of the resource and they did what they saw best for a country that was on the downward trend to bankruptcy.
There really isn’t anyone to blame for this, the best solution in mind is to have waited out a few years more. During this time, proper awareness should have been carried out so everyone was well informed about the project and its benefits. Landowner groups would have been organised so that whatever they participate in is properly orchestrated and the benefits really benefit everyone.