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Navigating the Future: An Ethnography of Change in Papua New Guinea, by Monica Minnegal and Peter D Dwyer, ANU Press, June 2017. ISBN: 9781760461232

A couple of years ago we asked, through PNG Attitude, for information about early patrol days at Nomad, Western Province. We have, at last, published our book about the Kubo and Febi people who live north of Nomad and, nowadays, are impacted by the PNG LNG Project. Our book is available for free download here - MM & PD

Seeking Souls, Seeking Resources
(Extract from Navigating the Future)

IN 1963, one year after the Nomad Patrol Station was established, the Asia Pacific Christian Mission (APCM) - later named the Evangelical Church of Papua New Guinea (ECPNG) - built an airstrip at Honinabi within Samo territory.

The small mission station was staffed by two Papua New Guineans—a pastor and medical orderly—who ran a small trade store and initiated instruction in Christian beliefs and the English language. In the late 1960s a remarkable Australian, Tom Hoey, established a mission at Mougulu within Bedamuni territory.

He and his growing family lived there for more than 20 years. He built an airstrip, wire suspension bridges across major streams and a small hydro-electric plant, and he facilitated the development of schools and community health centres. He continues to visit. His influence is felt throughout the region.

Dan Shaw, an American missionary-linguist-anthropologist affiliated with both the APCM and the Summer Institute of Linguistics, settled in Samo territory in 1970 and, a year later, Papua New Guinean pastors of the SDA Church opened a few schools at Nomad and further north towards the Damami River, including the school at Udamobi that Noah attended.

By the late 1970s, SDA was established within south-eastern Kubo at a community now known as Testabi, and had moved north across the Damami where, unsuccessfully, they attempted to build an airstrip at Tiamobi.

In the late 1970s an American missionary, John Fletcher, came to Honinabi. He sought a suitable site for an airstrip and mission station north of the Baiya River in the east of Kubo territory. His first choice was vetoed by the experienced Tom Hoey.

The final choice was an area of unused forest that, to local people, was a sacred resting place—a toi sa—of the spirits of the dead. The new mission station was named Suabi, the third location in official records to carry this name.

A Bedamuni man, Fiagone, had preceded John’s arrival. He was the first pastor here. Later, when the airstrip was completed, John relocated to Suabi from Honinabi. In the early 1990s John and his wife, Celia, returned to the United States of America and were replaced by Tom and Vicki Covington who, with their growing family, stayed for more than ten years.

To the west, on the border of Konai and Kubo territories, in 1979 a Papua New Guinean ECPNG pastor brought 60 or so Konai, Kubo and Febi people together at Sesanabi, on a tributary of the Strickland River.

Pastor Krubi was replaced by Pastor Mama in 1982, and in 1985, soon after the latter departed, the community fragmented. By the late 1980s, the Christian Brethren Church had established a foothold at Tobi in the land of Febi people.

The ECPNG missionaries and their wives were talented and practical people. They learned local languages, translated the Bible, taught pastors, promoted literacy, maintained airstrips, went on patrol to distant communities, provided medical and obstetric care, initiated and assisted local business ventures, facilitated the work of anthropologists and others and patiently cajoled government authorities into providing schools, community health centres and employment opportunities.

But always they, and particularly their sponsors living in distant places, understood their primary purpose to be more serious. By ‘planting’ the Word of God they were shedding light where there had been darkness; they were freeing local people from the evil influence of Satan.

Where possible, and within the limit of their abilities, they strove to make their own teaching culturally appropriate. As Dan Shaw expressed it: ‘As an anthropologist and Bible translator I was interested in combining the two disciplines … in order to make the “message” understandable but minimally disruptive to a specific group of people’.

Shaw was concerned by the legalistic emphasis of the Christian instruction preached by many Papua New Guinean pastors: ‘don’t smoke, chew betel nut, eat people, or fornicate’. He argued that this alienated people from the work of the mission.

Indeed, it was the pastors, rather than the European missionaries themselves, who, with varying degrees of success, discouraged local birth control practices and forms of ritual and ceremonial expression. And it was the former, though with the compliance of the latter, who routinely promoted the long-standing wish of government that people should live as larger and more permanent communities.

As much as people tried to oblige, their customary ways of living were disrupted and they became increasingly frustrated when expectations, and the imagined promises of others, were not fulfilled.

While the missionaries came to find untouched people and ‘give’ to them, others came to find untouched resources and to ‘take’. They too took advantage of the airstrip at Nomad. In about 1968 an oil exploration company, Compagnie Generale Geophysique, visited little-known areas to the north of Nomad and in 1969–70, for 12 months, Texaco undertook exploration work and drilling in the headwaters of the Baiya River.

In 1982 Gulf Oil Corporation initiated geo-surveys and drilled for oil at Juha, in mountains well to the north of Nomad though, at this time, their access point was Tari. In 1984 they completed the Suabi airstrip to facilitate access to Juha. Additional geo-surveys and seismic surveys were conducted in the area in 1991 and 1994.

To the northwest, across the Strickland River, other companies undertook exploratory work in 1985 at the Kubo–Konai border and, between April and July 1989, from a base at the Konai community of Dahamo, conducted seismic and geo-surveys in foothills and mountains to the east.

None of these early ventures led to extraction. The promising Juha sites had been put on hold and it was not until the mid-2000s that they   were revisited and two more wells drilled. At that time Esso Highlands, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, was the primary operator. Through much of 2006 and 2007 they used Suabi as a base.

Eventually, however, a conglomerate of companies joined forces to form the integrated Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas (PNG LNG) Project: the project was led by ExxonMobil and participating partners were Oil Search, Santos, Nippon Oil, National Petroleum Company  of  PNG  (representing  the government) and Mineral Resources Development Company (representing affected landowners).

Late in 2010 the PNG LNG Project was thoroughly underway. The Hides gas field was developed and readied for operation, a major airstrip was built at Komo south of Tari, and the massive pipeline from Hides and Angore to the coast and, thence, underwater to processing plants at Caution Bay, near Port Moresby, was completed.

Once again, however, the Juha field was inactive. The pipeline that would link Juha to Hides was not in place. To local people—Febi and Kubo—this was frustrating and puzzling. Their expectations were not, as yet, fulfilled. It was, as so often it seemed to be, Papua New Guineans living elsewhere who benefited from development.

Exploration continued in the area and, from late December 2012 to May 2014, Suabi hosted base camps for the explorers. In the first few months of 2013, lines were cut through rugged limestone country north of Juha to facilitate a geo-survey.

From April to June of that year the same operators—Oil Search and Oilmin—initiated new seismic surveys in the Juha area. The survey lines cut through dense rainforest reached into Hela Province, and beyond the tree line. They ceased work in late June—bad weather was implicated in a helicopter accident— returned in September, moved their campsite to Juha and, with several hundred employees, continued the interrupted seismic project.

The camp at Suabi was taken over, and enlarged, by Talisman who, for three months, undertook geo-surveys and seismic surveys on the western slopes of the Karius Range. Thereafter, to at least the end of April, the camp was put on hold—it was operated by Gama ProjEx14—while Talisman managers, based in Calgary, Canada, decided whether to continue work on the Karius Range, move elsewhere or find a new client for the Suabi camp. By late April the decision had been made and the camp was being dismantled.

From June to mid-October 2013, a preliminary social mapping study and associated environmental studies were underway along the route of a proposed pipeline that would cut southeast from recently proven wells at P’nyang, in mountains to the northeast of Kiunga. The pipeline would cross the Strickland River just south of Kubo territory, near its junction with the Damami.

Suabi provided a convenient location for refuelling and for assessing whether any Kubo people held rights to land in the impacted area. They missed out by about 5 km. And, again to the north, in the early months of 2014, from the Juha camp, a fifth seismic survey was initiated to the west near the Strickland.

From the perspectives of Kubo and Febi people, through these three decades, exploration activity was intermittent. The explorers sometimes found valuable resources and held them for the future. There was, it seemed, much secrecy.

Eventually, however, those resources would  be taken from the ground and royalties paid to land owners. In the meantime it was necessary to host the company representatives and, as possible, accept employment at base camp or in the field as labourers, assistant loadmasters, security officers, laundry workers, assistant cooks and so forth. Only one Kubo man had permanent employment associated with exploration activities, as a fully trained loadmaster with Pacific Helicopters.

Kubo people, in particular, felt disenfranchised. They hosted the base camp. To their north, east and southwest, at the borders of their land, touching it but never on it, they saw and sometimes worked with exploratory ventures.

Decades earlier a few lines had been cut through their own land but these had come to naught and the explorers had departed. Kubo people thought of themselves as being at the ‘centre of Juha’ but never received what they felt they deserved: mineral resources or gas on their own land and the unambiguous ownership rights that would follow.

Geology was the problem. What the explorers wanted was in the mountains north of Kubo territory. The backswamps at lower altitudes offered little that sustained the interest of the mineral, oil and gas hunters.

But some Kubo people saw it differently. Satan was implicated. He had stolen the valuable things—gold, diamonds, oil, gas—and hidden them deep in caves or in mountain hideaways where few people lived.

White people had learned his trickery so this is where they searched. But there were deep caves that they did not know about. One day, properly equipped, with ropes for climbing and torches, local people would gain access and claim what was rightfully theirs.


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