Serenity lost

Main Stories, Weekender

THE windswept grassy plain cascades and rolls over the hills from beneath the distant mountains over the salt flats, on into the mangrove swamps and finally into the sea.
This scenery was always a true pleasure to enjoy when driving through to Papa and Lealea villages outside Port Moresby.
Personally, these idyllic serene surroundings have always offered me a brief retreat for solace and quiet moments of retrospection, enabling creative inspiration and insight to come into the fore on whatever issues I had on hand. Sadly, this will no longer be so, for me and more so, for the local people.
The area is now a bustling hub of activity with massive Cat 777D dump trucks, excavators, other heavy machinery and teams of workers being used on major road works to widen and improve the existing road network.  Base camp sites for operators and major early works contractors are springing up, fenced off by razor wired fences and patrolled by troops of guards.
The area is classified simply as State portion 152 and is the site for the LNG liquefaction and storage facility to be operated by ExxonMobil. It is located several kilometers past the turn off to Boera towards Metago Bible College and spreads from the distant mountains through to the salt flats and mangrove lined beach where the processed gas will be pumped onto LNG tankers when production begins.
This land was originally the site for a rope factory in the early 1900’s and later was the Fairfax cattle ranch in the immediate pre and post WWII era. The local villagers have always continued to used the land as hunting grounds and for subsistence gardening.
The people have already been forced to abandon agricultural, fishing and hunting practices and must now be given preferential treatment in receiving the necessary training and experience to be able to participate in meaningful employment with the project.
From collective lessons learnt by multinational corporations from such projects in Africa/South America/Asia  – ExxonMobil  must tread with caution and have in place clear systems and processes in place to ensure that the vast wealth and opportunities generated by the project trickles down to the local people within the vicinity of the project.
ExxonMobil’s  corporate commitment to best practices in environment health & safety (EH&S) is exemplary. However, despite all it can do to minimise environmental footprints and set safety records – it needs to note, that the socioeconomic impact of the project on the livelihood and lifestyle of the people within the immediate vicinity of the project is set now to change it forever.  Therefore, measuring the quality of their lives over the duration of the project must be a factored into their KPI’s (key performance indicators) and measured on their scorecards in the same way as safety hours and environmental impact is done.
There are extreme examples such as the experience of Dutch Shell in the Niger Delta of Nigeria where despite vast wealth created by the petroleum, the benefits have been slow to trickle down to the wider majority. The competition for oil wealth has fueled violence between innumerable ethnic groups which has seen the militarisation of a whole region by ethnic militia groups along with the military and police.
This is a scene not too difficult to imagine in PNG as portion 152 has already been the scene of brutality resulting in six deaths, all related to land disputes amongst neighbouring villages earlier this year.
 Our people expect to see an improvement in living standards with the development. This should include an improvement in housing, infrastructure, roads, schools, creation of job opportunities and the identification, up skilling and training of our people to be able to take up employment opportunities within the project.
“However, land issues need to be resolved first and foremost if the project is to continue to operate peacefully. The Government and all parties concerned have not done enough to initiate and mediate talks and to come to a compromise on outstanding land ownership issues.
“The recent clash between Boera and Porebada villagers is example of what can happen with the continued non action,” 76 year old Papa village elder – Samuel Samuel said .
The village elder continued to highlight another startling trend which Papua New Guineans are becoming all too familiar with, but also becoming all too tolerant and accepting of.  This is the emergence of new landowner companies claiming a legitimate traditional right to the land adding another dimension to an already complex issue. It is often the case that such groups are affiliated  with politicians , business groups and other Highlands-based landowner groups who even though do not have any direct links to the land, see it as an opportunity to further their own greedy self interest . 
In a nutshell, this article provides a little insight and portrays an all too familiar scenario being duplicated wherever the LNG project has touched.