BY VIJAY KOLINJIVADI
The Huli peoples are promised benefits associated with natural resource extraction. However, reality paints a different picture, as local communities are concerned about the outcomes of the project on their culture and environment
I recently spent 10 days in the area, speaking with as many people as I could, with translation help of a Malua clan chief who walked into Tari town with me on numerous occasions. I attended a Huli funeral and explored the nearby forests of the Tari Gap.
I was upset by the stories I heard from the people and sights I saw both in town and in the forest. It seems the $12 billion ExxonMobil LNG project, commencing extraction in 2014, has negatively influenced social and environmental conditions in the Tari basin.
People are very confused about the project - some show optimism, but most show skepticism and, overwhelmingly, all have declared that their collective clan rights as landowners and promised benefits sharing is not being adhered to.
Several people complained that parts of their ancestral lands were acquired overnight without prior consent. A road widening project associated with the LNG project has sullied the town’s drinking water and was a visible sight from the Highlands Highway going through the town.
Further uphill towards the Tari Gap, a local Huli chief of 38 clans who runs a small eco-tourism venture has complained it has become harder and harder to spot once plentiful Birds of Paradise species such as the King of Saxony (Pteridophora alberti) and Ribbon-tailed Astrapia (Astrapia mayeri).
Steven Wari says: “Every year I notice fewer sightings of these birds. Someone ought to come and do a count”.
What could be the cause for their decline? One reason might be logging of their forest habitat. Local people are now being paid by the numerous infrastructure projects in the region to provide timber for housing construction on an unprecedented scale.
On the side of the Highlands Highway towards Ambua one can see piles and piles of logs collected from the forest and trails of underbrush destruction in their wake.
One late afternoon, I was walking into Tari town looking down at the muddy road to watch where I was stepping when a local landowner stopped and chatted with the chief. When the chief told him that I was a tourist to the region, he came and handed me K20 with tears streaming down his cheeks.
He had lost a large piece of his land from the road building and never received compensation. My friend explained to me that he and the fellow families in his clan would not be able to survive growing sweet potatoes on their remaining land and wanted me to use the money to tell the people of my country what was going on here and to help the Hela peoples.
I refused his money, but his utter despair deserves attention.
There appears to be a disconnect between the $30 billion that is expected to be generated from the project and the perceptions and experiences of this unique culture, the future of their use and access to resources on their land, and the rich and endemic biodiversity found here.
For more information on the impacts of the LNG project, check out http://lngwatchpng.blogspot.com