How will the Hela legend end?

Editorial, Normal

THERE is an ancient legend from the Hela region of the Southern Highlands province which talks about a certain fire in the ground, the “gigira laitebo”.
It goes that when that fire in the ground fires up in the land of the brother Tuguba, who occupies the region now known as Hides, it would also flare up on a mountain in the land of brother Opene (now Enga).
At this time, there would be a big gathering in the land of brother Huli in the region around Tari, where there would be commerce, people and material items of all manner of descriptions, before it would erupt. It is a strange story really because it does not conclude properly as any other legend would.
This bit about eruption or dispelling all in every direction sounds chaotic. Then perhaps it is not.
Anyway, the common belief among the 350,000 plus people of the Hela nation who comprise the present region covered by the districts of Komo-Margarima, Tari-Pori, Koroba-Lake Kopiago and Kutubu is that the legend has come to pass.
The development of the oil reserves at Kutubu, Moran and Gobe rekindled the “gigira laitebo” but it was finally lit up when the Hides gas field was used to supply electricity to the Porgera gold mine. Fire in the land of the Tuguba had indeed flared up in the land of the Opene as the legend had predicted.
With the sanctioning by the Government yesterday of the PNG LNG project, the legend advanced further to the land of the brother Huli in Tari where a lot of activity will be concentrated.
We are left in the same spirit as the legend leaves us – in suspense and not quite knowing what is to come. That the LNG project is signed is one of the most significant milestones in the history of PNG. It admits the nation as the 17th member of the club of LNG producing nations on earth.
“Difficult” is an understatement for the kind of hurdles that the State’s negotiating team has had to overcome. Most difficult has been the task of negotiating terms with its own citizens from the project areas.
There is no joy in the signing. There is significant dissatisfaction and unease, particularly with many of the keepers of the “gigira laitebo”, the Tugubas, not agreeing to the terms of the agreement. Time will tell whether the gathering in the land of the Hulis will result in an eruption of wealth and progress or violence and discord. For now, PNG is committed to a process that will see millions of kina pumped into the economy.
Some K1.26 billion has been expended to identify the best route for a 700km gas pipeline from the Southern Highlands to Konebada just outside Port Moresby and for initial work for the LNG plant and shipping facilities.
Substantial investigations have been carried out on site and social mapping studies done to determine the exact numbers of people in the project footprint areas from where the gas is discovered and all along the pipeline route in four provinces.
Experts in other fields have been working on technical, financial and marketing issues in Japan, China, Australia and the United States.
In the words of the Prime Minister, these exhaustive studies have given all the project participants including the Government of PNG “full confidence that this is a credible, world class project”.
PNG is poised to enter an era of unprecedented wealth but harmony and happiness are not necessarily part of the deal.
These will have to be earned, well, managed into the deal.
There is a phenomenon in economics called the “resource curse”.  It is sometimes referred to as the Dutch Disease. The disease is caught when much attention and money are spent on one or a number of high-profile projects to the exclusion of all else.
It results in an appreciation of the currency, making it uneconomical for other export commodities such as in manufacturing, which PNG does not have, and in agriculture, which PNG has plenty of potential in.
Many have diagnosed PNG to be chronically ill with the Dutch Disease already and that the LNG project will only exacerbate it. Australia has already suggested a sovereign fund which is a tested remedy for the Dutch Disease. This will enable PNG to park excess boom funds in an account off-shore and draw them down evenly rather than erratically as it has done with the boom funds of the last seven years.
The key to curing any nation of the disease is management or governance. It is up to the Government today to complete the Hela legend and determine where we end up.