The first event involved blasting by contractors to enable the PNG LNG pipeline to be laid between Hides and Iagifu Ridge in Fasu country.
The second event involved the capture, killing and consumption of an unusually large python.
According to the blogs what followed both events was catastrophic but entirely predictable.
The area where the blasting took place is a sacred site which local people avoid at all costs; they don’t hunt near it or gather food there. The reason why they fear the place is because it is the domain of a gigantic mythological snake ancestor.
What followed the blasting and the killing of the snake, according to the blogs, was that “the mountains started trembling and the rivers started flooding to unprecedented levels” and there were deadly landslides.
As a result the construction of the pipeline was halted and sections that had already been laid underground were exposed by the flood.
On a personal level, a girl who had handled the dead snake was mysteriously crippled and the house of one of the clan leaders who ate the snake was submerged in the flooding.
The Huli, Duna, Fasu, Foi and other groups in the Southern Highlands have a complex and interconnected set of creation myths which includes sacred sites dispersed over the landscape which are associated with the deeds and abodes of their mythical ancestors.
These places are connected by great subterranean networks. From time to time these mythical ancestors require placating and reification through appropriate rituals.
What silly superstition you might think. The events were simply unrelated incidents with no connection to cause and effect.
That may be so but it doesn’t get away from the fact that many people in the Southern Highlands believe explicitly in these myths and they form a large part of their personal cosmos and universe.
The blasting of the sacred site also begs an important question. Why didn’t the contractors ask someone whether it was okay before setting off the charges in that particular spot?
The answer points to one of the most significant failings of resource developers in Papua New Guinea. Further, it encapsulates what is one of the biggest banes of those dedicated community affairs officers working in the industry.
From my experience, I would guess that someone probably did ask the question. In fact I would guess that a community affairs officer probably told the contractor that they were in danger of damaging a sacred site and should find a way to go around it.
If I’m right, why did they blast it?
Again I’m guessing, but I suspect the problem went up the line and a manager somewhere distant scoffed at the whole idea and ordered the blasting to go ahead.
From the manager’s point of view there was no corporate program which catered for mythological snake ancestors therefore he dismissed the problem out of hand. Or maybe he asked one of his Papua New Guinean colleagues who chuckled in embarrassment at his unsophisticated bush cousins and also agreed that it should be blasted.
Somewhere, no doubt, there was a social mapping report outlining the possibility of such a problem mouldering away unread.
Thus we saw Mangi Tari’s headline “Southern Highlands Oil Head Owner [the snake ancestor] Murdered by Americans” echoed on blogs all over Papua New Guinea. What a great public relations coup!
This disjunct between the bosses on high and the people on the ground is widespread and very noticeable in the resources sector in Papua New Guinea.
Earlier in the year I was asked by a mining company to help them deal with a recalcitrant landowner who was causing all sorts of grief and disrupting their drilling program in Central Province.
When I talked to the landholder and the other clan leaders I discovered they had a legitimate beef with the company. Among other things, and the reason why I mention it here, is the company had built a helicopter pad on top of a sacred site related to an important origin myth.
When I wrote my report and recommendations for resolving the impasse it was exactly what the company community affairs officer had been telling his company bosses for months.
I recommended that in future they use a method called a Work Area Clearance Survey. WAC surveys are very simple; all they involve is asking landowners along to places where some activity is planned and asking them if it is okay to do it there or should it be moved somewhere else nearby.
The landholders are paid a small fee for their trouble and sign off on a document “clearing” the site for the work.
This idea didn’t go down too well with the hierarchy in Brisbane. They accused me of colluding with the community affairs officer and making the situation worse.
The community affairs officer, in their opinion, was too timid and easily intimidated by the landowner and I had fallen into the same trap.
It was with some satisfaction that I later learned that the bosses in Brisbane had been moved on, the community affairs officer was still with the company and had finally been listened to and the landowner had made his peace and was actually helping out.
One of the few things that a good community affairs officer can do when a resource project falters because of bad community relations is say, without much satisfaction, “I told you so”.
Listen, learn and respect – it is all so simple yet it seems to be so, so hard.