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« PNG surprises Australia with request to change structure of aid | Main | A Journo’s Plight »

12 March 2017

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The author writes: "What I encountered was abject poverty situated alongside one of the largest natural gas extraction operations in the world."

In 1935 Jack Hides and Jim O’Malley made contact with ‘the lost tribes’ of the densely populated Tari basin on their epic six month patrol into the region between the Strickland and the Purari Rivers.

In his book Papuan Wonderland (1936) Jack Hides wrote: "As I gazed on this fertile valley, this wonderland where practically any crop will grow, the question of the future of these people occurred strongly to me, and I wondered whether the introduction to civilisation would make them any happier than they appeared to be when we first came into contact with them." (The Oxford Book of Australian Travel Writing, Jack Hides in Papua, page 154).

Now Exxon Mobil, Oilsearch, the PNG government, other stakeholders, in fact the whole world wonders what will become of the Tari Basin where once lived a happy and self-sustaining people.

A people who never knew that below them there was something more precious, something called liquefied natural gas (LNG) that might have transformed their livelihoods as well as the lives of other PNGeans a hundredfold for the better - but look what’s happening now in the modern era?

Greed and corruption is reducing these proud people to live like beggars on their own land.

It seems Jack Hides was right to question if "civilisation would make these people any happier."

On the news last night there was a plea from the United Nations for the wealthy countries to give money for the poor countries of Africa where wars rage and thousands shelter in camps.
They show films of life in these countries and you can see they have spent a fortune on weapons for wars, often civil war. Meanwhile we are being asked to feed their women and children.
PNG has already had one terrible civil war in Bougainville over minerals, now we see the possibility of another one over LNG in Hela. Meanwhile the government has run the economy badly and they are asking Australia to fund their health and education services.
How can the UN help them? What is the answer?

As someone who lived and worked, albeit briefly, in the former Southern Highlands, this article makes for depressing but not very surprising reading.

The trajectory of PNG as a failing state now seems fairly well established. The dismal failure of successive PNG governments to deliver honest and competent government must inevitably have consequences eventually. The developments referred to in this article may be the first major symptom of a developing socio-economic catastrophe.

Even if the PNGDF and RPNGC had the will to seriously intervene in this dispute they seem unlikely to have the capacity to usefully do so.

In this context, I note that two of the men in the photo accompanying this article appear to be carrying FN Self Loading Rifles, an assault rifle with which I am quite familiar.

If these are men from Hela Province and if there are many more such weapons in circulation this bodes very ill for the PNG government. With half way decent leadership, even a fairly small group of men armed in this way could inflict grievous harm upon even a well armed, well trained and well led military.

If they opted to pursue guerilla warfare tactics, they could basically tie up the whole of the PNGDF resources trying to protect the gas plant.

Of course, this is mere speculation on my part. It is entirely possible that the angry landowners can again be bought off by empty promises and rhetoric, with a bit of ready cash thrown in.

However, this time, if the Hela people are smart, they will take over the whole show and only allow it to operate on their terms. Certainly, that is what I would do in their situation.

A shrewd leadership group could try to negotiate a deal directly with Exxon Mobil and simply cut the PNG government out of the arrangement. Probably wouldn't work but might lead to a more transparent and rigorously enforceable funding arrangement.

I guess time will tell.

Meanwhile, in Canberra,............silence.

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