CÉLINE ROUZET | Le Monde Diplomatique
THROUGH THE CRACKED WINDOWS of the local minibus we watched Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, flash past: potholed roads, concrete and sheet metal buildings baking in the sun, weed-covered walls crowned with barbed wire.
Port Moresby is dangerous, and foreigners are advised not to travel by bus, by taxi, or on foot.
The slums that surround the city have swollen since ExxonMobil’s huge Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas (PNG LNG) project started in 2009.
Benjamin, a politics student who used to rob banks, took us to the Badili slum, his home of the past 11 years, where a group of men gathered around us, chewing betel paste and eyeing us with a mixture of curiosity and distrust.
“People kill each other here,” said Benjamin. “There are all sorts: people fleeing tribal fighting or accusations of witchcraft in their villages, people looking for a better life in the capital, civil servants, professionals, criminals, prostitutes… we do what we can to survive.”
Has anything changed since the PNG LNG project began? “We’ve got nothing out of it, the only difference is that now more people live here.”
In four years, the arrival of the second biggest oil company in the world and its $19bn project (20% financed by the government) has transformed the capital. It aims to supply China and Japan with gas for 30 years, and is the biggest development project ever undertaken in the Pacific. But it has caused a dispute between the US and China.
On 2 March 2011 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even accused Beijing of trying to push ExxonMobil out of the project: “We are in a competition with China,’’ she told the Senate foreign relations committee. Papua New Guinea is rich in natural resources and has become a strategic pawn for the US in its attempts to counter the growing influence of China, which quadrupled direct investment in the country between 2005 and 2010.
Luxury international hotels and apartment blocks for foreign executives have arrived in Port Moresby with ExxonMobil, raising prices. An average apartment in this dusty little city now costs $1,300 a week; offices and accommodation are more expensive than in Manhattan.
“Exxon and its subcontractors only house foreign employees in Moresby; most local workers live with their families in the slums,” said Benjamin. Around us skinny children fought over empty beer bottles on the ground. A drunk staggered by and showed us his finger, stained purple with ink:
“Look, I’ve voted! But our politicians are corrupt; they don’t care about us. In a year or two, this place will probably disappear. ExxonMobil wants to build tower blocks here.”
It is hard to find any of the 8,000 foreigners who work for the company and its partners. “They are invisible,” said Nicolas Garnier, a French anthropologist who has been teaching at the University of Papua New Guinea for almost 10 years (locals call him “the white man who chews betel”).
“During colonisation, certain areas were effectively reserved for whites”. Until 1958 locals were subject to a curfew at night. “Rents are so high now that entire areas are inhabited only by foreigners and a few local rich people. This has created a de facto apartheid, economic rather than ideological.”
The new apartment blocks stand on the top of Paga Hill, overlooking the centre of Port Moresby, or between the Royal Papua Yacht Club and the headquarters of PNG LNG. These air-conditioned fortresses with ocean views, private pools and security guards house the project’s senior employees.
ExxonMobil’s obsession with security means employees staying at the Crowne Plaza hotel are not allowed to walk the 30 metres to the office, and there are many “prohibited zones” in the city, considered too dangerous for employees to enter even in their chauffeur-driven cars.
They use different security measures in Hela Province, where the underground gas reserves are.
“Armed squads chased us from our land like we were wild pigs,” said Robert Dale, a landowner in Hides, a village in the middle of Hela.
Opposite us, the Hides 4 treatment plant cast its shadow over the small reed huts and banana trees; on the horizon, mechanical diggers cut deep brown gashes in the hillside.
For weeks Dale had been hanging about the plant’s barbed wire-topped gates hoping to get a job. In March 2012 thousands of people blockaded it to demand infrastructure, jobs and compensation for their lost land.
“We protested, but the LNG police shot at us. We want the company to re-house us and provide the public services they promised,” said Dale.
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