Correct information critical in resource districts


IMAGINE being at a table of a meeting house in a remote hamlet when suddenly a wayward youth appears and swings his bush-knife at the table and barks at those gathered to disperse.
That is the untoward scene that doctoral research student Kevin Pamba (now doctor) found himself in one day during the fieldwork of his doctor of philosophy (PhD) study in remote Komo in Hela province in October 2013.
“I thought the next swing of the bush-knife would land on me because the youth man was agitated that his people were having a meeting with me,” said Dr Pamba recently.
“Apparently the youth was upset that I was in the hamlet to talk to the indigenous people here as he mistook me for someone there to ‘strike deals’ with landowners,” he added.
The incident happened as the Divine Word University-based researcher was beginning a focus group discussion with some landowners in this part of the PNG LNG Project footprint.
“The young man was shouting and telling his fellow villagers in Tok Pisin not to get together and ‘hait na mekim dil nambaut’ (strike deals in secret) at the back of other landowners.
Dr Pamba said despite the aggressive behaviour of the young man based on a misconception, the villagers told him not be bothered. The villagers then took Dr Pamba and his guide and interpreter to the meeting house and the discussion proceeded.
However, to Dr Pamba’s surprise the young man followed them into the house and struck the table as they were starting the discussion.
Dr Pamba said when the youth struck the table and demanded everyone to get out, he told the villagers around him that the meeting should be cancelled as he did not want disharmony.
“When I said to cancel the meeting the village head man, who happened to be the father of the wayward youth and other adult male and female villagers gathered pleaded with me not to as the youth is high on substance abuse and acting alone.
“The people said I should not be worried and insisted that I stay on and hear their views about the project and what was going on,” he said.
“At that point I really sympathised with this remote village people impacted by a huge extractive industry operation nearby who wanted to tell their stories to me.
“At the same time I could not underestimate the sentiment of the youth in an indigenous society where violence at the slightest provocation is an ingrained cultural attribute,” recalled Dr Pamba.
He cancelled the meeting reluctantly and bid the locals farewell and walked out of the meeting house accompanied by the headman and other villagers.
“As me and my guide and interpreter were moving out of the perimeter fence of the hamlet and onto the main road to head to my vehicle, I saw several young men holding two high-powered guns and three home-made guns standing by the roadside near the vehicle,” said Dr Pamba.
“That was another shocker for me as I have never come across ordinary villagers holding modern weapons in such quantities and being out and about in the countryside like scenes in an old cowboy movie.
“Before my heart could beat any faster than in the other incident minutes earlier, I recognised two of the young men were those that I knew as residents of Madang town some years earlier.
“They also saw me and smiled with their high-powered guns in hand.
“So I took reprieve and walked straight to them and greeted them.”
The obvious question for Dr Pamba was to ask these former Madang residents what was going on.
“They then replied that there was tension about an ongoing landownership issue between their clan and another across the valley and they were guarding their community and showing off their fire-power.”
After exchanging pleasantries with this heavily-armed villagers Dr Pamba said he drove away to return to Tari town about an hour’s drive away.
After several more days doing fieldwork in other areas in the project sites he arranged to meet some other landowners in the Juni area near the gas-to-electricity power plant to make up for the aborted meeting.
Dr Pamba said tension was also high among these next group in Juni therefore he had to transport some of the landowners away from their area so they could speak openly.
“Apparently, at the time I was in Hela, the staff of the Department of Petroleum and Energy and a contingent of PNG Defence Force soldiers and a police mobile squad were on the ground to begin the clan-vetting or identification of landowners.
“At the same time the ‘who-is-who’ of landowner leadership and other elites of Hela based in the urban centres were in the area trying to seek election as office bearers for the various landowner associations in the different project areas.
“So there was much politicking and jostling for mandate going on and it was interesting to be on the ground observing all the landowner power-play as a research student,” said Dr Pamba.
The situations retold above are presented in Dr Pamba’s thesis as some of the dynamics of landowner discourse in the PNG LNG Project areas in Hela at the height of the construction phase.
He said they are part of the overall stakeholder communication and engagement issues which is the subject of his doctoral thesis.
Dr Pamba’s thesis is titled “Communicating with indigenous landowners in a liquefied natural gas project: A Papua New Guinea case study” and is available online at the DWU Friendship Library site.
The research found that landowners were predominantly concerned about their benefits, whether mandated or perceived, and their sentiments in the mass media and other forums were centred around them (benefits).
The landowners were also concerned by the absence of forthright and regular communication and engagement with the State and to many extents, the project developer.
Dr Pamba’s thesis also noted the employment of traditional forms of leaders or spokesmen identified in Huli language as Agali timbuni homoko (clan and tribal leaders with resources and great oratory skills) and waijeli (outspoken men with warrior attributes in the traditional sense) by the developer and government as corporate bastardisation of an indigenous tradition for corporate gain.
The thesis records that the agali timbuni homoko and waijeli were employed by the developer as villager liaison officers (VLOs) and community affairs (CA) officers in the project areas.
The landowners who participated in Dr Pamba’s study were also concerned about the security apparatus in the project areas which they claimed prevented them from expressing their concerns.
Some of the landowners were also disappointed with their own leaders who they said stayed away in Port Moresby or were employees of the company were subjective.
The study also found that landowners and the district and provincial government authorities were perturbed by the lack of presence of the Department of Petroleum and Energy (now Department of Petroleum) on the ground to deal with matter there.
Dr Pamba’s thesis also noted that absence of landowner identification through clan-vetting (renamed Landowner Beneficiary Identification or LOBID) and subsequent “handpicking” of landowners to participate in the development forum and signing of the Umbrella Benefits Sharing Agreement (UBSA) in Kokopo in May 2009 was of concern to the local people and Hela leaders in the study.
Given these challenges in the project areas in Hela, the recent call by the Department of Petroleum to post its officers in petroleum project sites and to complete LOBID can be a positive way forward.
Dr Pamba said the recent media reports stating that the DP is going to have its officers on the ground in petroleum project sites and the LOBID exercise was concluding were important steps going forward.
“It is unfair to have citizens, whether they are legitimate landowners or not, to spend their own money and resources to fly down to Port Moresby for basic information and engagement with line agencies that can be done back in the province if appropriate government officers were stationed there.
“The State’s role as custodian of resources should translate into it properly equipping its lead agency, whether it is DP or the proposed National Petroleum Authority, and for it to be on the ground in project host districts and provinces to constantly communicate with stakeholders there so everyone is on the same page,” said Dr Pamba.
“Problems start because people in the resource host districts are either not properly informed or not informed at all about their rights and responsibilities in project areas.”
“It is unfair to the citizens for the State to under-resource line agencies like DP, and expect them to engage optimally with well-prepared multinational corporations who are here to harvest the resources on terms most convenient to them,” said Dr Pamba.