Govt, Exxon must pay attention

Editorial, Normal

The National, Wednesday 24th April 2013

 IN July 1997, the national government and Bougainville Copper Ltd received a claim for K10 billion compensation for environmental damage, loss of heritage and livelihood from Panguna landowners.

The media reported it and the government merely shrugged its shoulders. 

In private settings many a joke was made about the “preposterous” claim. “Outlandish”, “ridiculous”, and “nonsense” were other words used to describe the claim.

What followed on Dec 27 of that year when the country was still groggy from Boxing Day celebrations and a group of landow­ners led by Francis Ona stole into the armoury of Panguna and made off with high explosives brought far more shocking expletives to the lips of those concerned.

The Panguna landowners did not present the “prepos­terous” or “outlandish” claim because they expected it would be paid. 

They were demonstrating that the situation had reached an untenable pitch, that it was as ridiculous as the claim being made.

The BCL agreement specifically stated that it would be reviewed every seven years. The agreement was signed in 1974. 

The first opportunity for a review fell due in 1981. Sir Julius Chan was prime minister then. 

Bougainville regional MP John Momis was in the opposition with Sir Michael Somare. 

Noises were made to review the agreement but no­body paid any attention and that opportunity fell through.

The second opportunity fell due around 1987-88. Paias Wingti was prime minister. Momis was still in the opposition. 

When it seemed as if the review was not on the books, the K10 billion compensation claim was made and then all hell broke loose – literally, as history will tell.

Lesson: The national go­vernment which did not honour its own word committed in an agreement to review that agreement every seven years.

And the rest, as we all now know, is a terrible and painful part of this country’s history.

Yet as we look across the country, complaints emerge time and again from the people about the government reneging on or neglecting its clearly stipulated obligations under heads of agreements for major projects around the country.

On Monday, a very frustra­ted Hela Governor Anderson Agiru finally pulled out all the stops and threatened to take the national government and LNG developer ExxonMobil to court to stop the LNG project, claiming that the deve­loper and go­vernment did not ho­nour their contractual obligations under various agreements.

He said “it has come to a point where we have no trust in the government” and the further observation that “it is a pity Waigani has not leant a single lesson from Bougainville”. 

ExxonMobil has been accused of not living up to its obligations on nine instan­ces but we have it from the top man in the project, Peter Graham, that this might not be entirely a accurate picture. 

Rather than gloss it over with generalities, it would be good for Graham to take each of the nine points raised and say whether or not it is part of its obligations under the agreement and spell out what it has done so far.

The state has a far longer list. During the Kokopo umbrella benefits sharing agreement negotiations and repeatedly during the licence-based benefits sharing agreement talks ministers went to every group making commitments. 

These commitments have now become obligations which the state is required to pay up and which it has not.

In addition, there are exist­ing memoranda of agreement for each oil project that is yet to be honoured. 

On top of it all now comes the gas project agreement and all its obligations by the state.

The worst part is that following the construction phase of the agreement, no responsible minister has seen fit to visit the resource area or the resource area people who have been for­cing the project to close some operations at certain stages claiming that certain obligations were being ignored out of hand.

This just is not the way to go. We are dealing with frustrated people, the majority of whom are uneducated and who, if given the opportunity, can do unpredictable and totally regrettable things.

It behooves the government and developer to pay very close attention to what the people and their governor are saying right now.