HELA Province is the host to the multi-billion dollar liquefied natural gas project. But, operating alongside the wonders of modern technology, is a culture full of rich tradition and custom.
Culturally, Hela functions on the patrilineal system, where the male owns the land. Men gain prestige by marrying many wives who look after their pigs. During a pig killing ceremony, the big man kills many pigs and distributes them to his extended family and other neighbouring clans.
He gains pleasure by seeing his pig killed and observing the distribution of the meat to his people. In the process, the big man gains fame and popularity. He builds new relationships and cements existing relationships.
The village folks who feast upon the big man’s generosity praise him and call him man bilong kilim pik )- the man who kills pigs. He is praised by friend and foe alike. His status increases and he becomes a big man in the community as a result of his pig killing exploits.
It was cultural improper for someone else to kill a pig, cut it and give him a lesser share. If this did happen, a heated argument erupted which usually resulted in tribal fighting. This could last many months at a cost of many lives. Houses and other properties including trade stores were burnt down for the loss of a pig.
The pig was a cultural icon that gave identity and value to the owner. To kill someone’s pig was to touch a cultural commodity that was highly prized. The pig gave the owner prestige, power and fame. For pigs, men were willing to fight to the last man. For their pig, they would die.
To the modern day Hela people, the LNG is their biggest pig. It is owned by the Hela people. It is found in their land and they are the host to the multi-billion dollar project.
They have the right to have big say on how their pig is to be killed and distributed to their family and the extended tribesman around this beautiful nation.
The decision to kill the pig and distribute it was made at a Kokopo hotel at the LBSA [License-based Benefit Sharing Agreement] signing between government, developers and illiterate land owners.
The landowners were induced to sign away their birthright after the offer of free beer, women and money. To villagers who had never seen civilisation for most of their life, the LBSA ceremony was their moment when fantasy became reality.
But what were they going to get in reality? They had agreed to allow the developer to pipe their gas and export it. They would receive a royalty a zillion times less than the developer is earning.
The major beneficiaries are Exxon Mobil and its consortium of overseas investors and the PNG government. Like proverbial Esau who sold his birthright to his younger brother for a pot of soup, the Hela people were conned to sign away their heritage for a pittance.
Today, 10 years after the signing, many in Hela are beginning to see that they were truly ripped off by the developers and the government. The first shipment of LNG has reached the shores of Japan but it will be a long wait before the people receive royalties.
This wait is due to the government having to repay its one billion kina USB loan before it pays anything to the landowners.
Culturally, it is an insult to trick someone to get their biggest pig and give the owner less than he deserves. Rightfully he deserves a big portion because he is the owner.
These factors were not considered by the developers or the government. The social mapping experts engaged by the government failed to take into consideration such cultural dynamics and advise the government accordingly.
What is likely to happen is a rebellion by the Hela people against the developers and the government for taking their LNG and giving them less than they deserve.
When you give a Tari man less pig than he deserves he says, “Kisim pig bilong me kam bek”. Bring my pig back. He is a child of the culture. He is conditioned by the assumptions of his culture.
And remember, Tari men are fearless fighters. They are not afraid to die. Fear is not in them. They are known even to kill themselves if things don’t go their way. They can die for what they believe is rightfully theirs.
Some of the big ethnic clashes in the suburbs of Port Moresby have been ignited by Tarians. To deal with Tarians foolishly is to play with fire.
If the government and developers do not address the cultural imbalance caused by the signing of that LBSA in Kokopo, we may well experience another Bougainville crisis in the new Hela Province.
When this happens it will shake the nation’s weak economy whose brightest hopes are bound with the LNG project. It will also undermine investors’ confidence in this nation.
What the government and the investors need to do is to remedy the mistake of yesteryear. They have to revisit the LBSA agreement and give the owner of the biggest LNG pig a bigger share of his beast.
The British mining law adopted by Australia and the PNG government, which gives the government absolute right of all minerals under the ground is draconian because it robs the people their birthright.
This law makes the foreign magnates richer while the original landowners are marginalised on their own land.
When the men from Tari discover they have been marginalised, the violent reaction will cause a seismic shift whose ripples will be felt both domestically and internationally.
Simon Davidson is a theologian from Enga, considered traditionally ‘brothers of the same father’ of Hela. Among the the same cultural values in both provinces are the value of pigs and the prestige one gets for killing a pig and distributing it.