My four years of consistently frustrated effort
Good friends treat each other with respect

Getting the right mix: Digging up Papua New Guinea


IT SEEMS AXIOMATIC that whenever mining and petroleum companies set up shop in Papua New Guinea, conflict with the local landholders follows.

These conflicts set the tone for the future and generally dog a project for the rest of its commercial life. In most cases it doesn’t have to be like that. 

There are countless examples of bad practice, the most significant being the Panguna mine on Bougainville, but no one seems to learn from these mistakes. 

There are a number of reasons for this and while it is never constructive to play the blame game it should be noted that it is occasionally not all the direct fault of the companies.

For some reason, which I am yet to fully fathom, mining and petroleum companies approach traditional landholders as if they are the enemy.  This just doesn’t happen in Papua New Guinea, it is widespread in Australia too.

There is generally no recognition that traditional landholders are legitimate stakeholders in any resource development.  Perhaps it is an historical thing: the companies see the protests that have accompanied previous developments and assume it will inevitably happen to them. 

Maybe that is the lesson that they learned from Bougainville – landholders are an enemy hell bent on stopping a project and must be treated as such.

In Papua New Guinea, as elsewhere, traditional landholders regard both the surface of their land as well as what is above and below it as their property. 

You can tell them that the rights to minerals are vested in the state until the cows come home but the message will never get through – the land and the resources belong to them, full stop!  If there is to be any development of those resources they expect to receive benefits too.

Whether it stems from this or not, most companies display a profound disinterest in the landholder’s point of view.  They don’t want to know what makes them tick; they just want to know who they’ve got to pay to make the project a goer.

Landholders, understandably, take this attitude as an affront.  They want to know what the company is thinking and they cannot understand why the company doesn’t want to know what they think.

When the concerns of the landholders are voiced and continually ignored they tend to coalesce and focus in a few key community individuals who take up the task of spearheading the campaign to be heard. 

This suits the companies admirably because it personifies their problems.  The landholder spokespersons then become the face of the company problems and are demonised. 

This is very stressful for the individuals concerned and they can become overly subjective, even irrational and messianic.  Stopping the company becomes a cause celebre and logic tends to fall by the wayside.

In Papua New Guinea there is a culture of greed and corruption among politicians and administrators.  This has led to an open slather approach to resource development. 

Not only are landholders faced with a hostile company that has no interest in them except as impediments to their plans, they also have to deal with a similarly inclined government.

You can’t really blame the company for being like a kid in a lolly shop.  When they are presented with the opportunity to ignore proper safeguards and save money they grab it with both hands. 

Mineral exploration is a very fickle business and only the large and experienced companies, the old hands like Oil Search, realise that this approach is not going to do them or the country any good in the long run.

If a company takes the time to get to know the traditional landholders before it starts a project and sits down and cooperatively plans out a mutually beneficial program within a process of open and transparent consultation its chances of success are going to be good.

They will also avoid those seemingly insignificant blunders, like slapping a helicopter pad on a sacred site or sending a highlander in to negotiate with coastal people, and vice versa, which build up resentment and ultimately get blown out of all proportion and colour the relationship into the future.

Getting to know landholders will also allow a company to appreciate the strong environmental concerns held by them.  These concerns are generally not of the conveniently imported trendy and tree hugging variety but are ancient and deeply held beliefs.  In the Australian context this is referred to as “caring for country” and it is the same in Papua New Guinea.

In the highlands, for instance, what may appear to an outsider to be a random scene of past and present settlement and cultivation is, in fact, a carefully “landscaped” environment nurtured over many generations. 

In densely populated areas like the Simbu every significant stand of trees figures in a complex scheme coordinated through consensus by consecutive clan leaders.

There are ratbags, gris men and carpetbaggers in every society on earth and this is also true in Papua New Guinea.  Those that don’t get themselves elected to parliament see mining projects as a perfect way to make money.  They have no compunction about ripping off their fellow clansmen and women.  They will set up as many bogus claims as they think they can get away with.

Again, if a company has done its homework, it will have no trouble identifying these rogues.  They give legitimate landholders a bad name and they are also interested in exposing them.  A company that hasn’t done its homework and which has already been burnt will thereafter regard all landholders as potential conmen and this contributes to an ‘us-and-them’ mentality.

So, dear reader, are you getting the point of my disjointed ramblings?  Early consultation and equal and open partnerships between mining companies and landholders are the way to go!

Someone once described Papua New Guinea as mountains of gold floating on a sea of oil. 

Sometimes it is not in the best interests of anyone to exploit these resources, especially when environmental damage will be extensive and irreversible, but where it can be done safely there can be huge benefits in terms of social development and advancement.  You just need to get the mix right.


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Alex Harris

Well said Phil.


Maybe we can get Rebecca Arnold from ExxonMobil to explain her own feelings and thoughts on PNG landowners. I wonder whether she will be game enough?

Michael Dom

Well said.

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