Weekly Commentaries

This is Sunday Chronicle's weekly commentaries on various issues of interest affecting the country. All individual commentators are done by elite Papua New Guineans from diverse educational backgrounds.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Trouble brewing in project sites

 ... Elk/Antelope and Juha need urgent attention

By YEHIURA HRIEHWAZI - Freelance Reporter

THE writing is on the wall in big bold letters. It's been there for some time.

The Porebada versus Boera clash was imminent but nobody appeared to take any serious note of the highly contentious issues that blew up in the face of security personnel and government agencies. Disruption of work on the world-class PNG LNG project site and associated killings has received coverage world-wide on almost all internet websites like Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal and major Australian newspapers.

This followed right on the heels of tribal wars in the Southern Highlands Province; one sparked by an exposure of a Digicel mobile phone porn to a young girl and another was a reported slaying of 11 people by gunmen.

ExxonMobil, the developer of the PNG LNG, has explained that the Highlands tribal wars were not related to its project while it stopped work at the Port Moresby end in respect of those killed.   
Perhaps the government instrumentalities were playing on time and the normally passive and peaceful character of the two neighbouring coastal villagers west of Port Moresby and hoping the problems would go away.

There are two groups claiming legitimate landowning rights; Laba Holdings which was initiated with the help of former Petroleum and Energy Minister and deputy Prime Minister Sir Moi Avei of Boera village. It claims to have representation from four companies from Boera, Lealea, Papa and Porebada. The other is BRPP, a representative umbrella group covering all the Boera, Rearea (Lealea) Papa and Porebada villagers .  The two groups have been making claims and counter-claims as legitimate landholders over a long and protracted period. They had been on radio and newspapers, confronted ExxonMobil representatives and staked their claims with the Department of Petroleum and Energy.

Their unresolved ownership issues were simmering until it boiled over last Sunday. Five young Porebada men were gunned down, their families are devastated and of course revenge is an option on the minds of the hurt and aggrieved relatives while Sir Moi's sister's house in Boera has been torched with two others and his entire village has been deserted as people fled for their lives fearing reprisals and payback killings.

With the high level of government focus given to the LNG projects in PNG, the Porebada-Boera battle is inexcusable. Government security and monitoring agents were caught pants down. 

There are rumblings coming from Elk/Antelope and Juha/Pokaiya/Strickland communities as well.
Those entrusted with project monitoring, security co-ordination, land mediation and demarcation, social mapping and genealogy studies appear to be dragging their feet. All government agencies and instrumentalities cannot sit idly by and hope that problems associated with landownership issues in resource project  areas will somehow resolve themselves. They won't. Pre-emptive actions are what's required. Not reactive.

Elk/Antelope gas project
In the case of Elk/Antelope, the developer InterOil has embraced all the local level governments in the upper Purari and Wabo areas. That's a big step forward, but the Government needs to get its act together regarding social mapping and genealogy studies to define and register Integrated Landowner Groups (ILGs) as soon as possible, if it hasn't done that yet.

Signals reaching Port Moresby from Elk/Antelope are quite worrying. People from the Highlands provinces are moving into the area and erecting tents and tarpaulin camps. They are clearing bush and making food gardens. Some bring in their young women to lure male landowners into marriage relationships in order to access land occupation - a disruptive act of disrespect and harm to the local family units.

The locals feel threatened that their territorial boundaries are being invaded by foreigners. They are angry that in a reverse situation, the Wabo people would not even be allowed to go anywhere near a project camp site in the Highlands as they would meet with the inevitable - death.

Has the government devised a policy to deal with such situations where people from afar flock to resource project areas, illegally occupy customary land and ply their illegal trade and untoward activities? This a major security issue and needs to be addressed at the highest levels of government ie; the National Security Advisory Council because any dispute between locals and encroaching foreigners will put the multi-billion investments at risk and send negative signals abroad on PNG as an investment destination.
Juha Gas project

Further to the north-west of Elk/Antelope is the Juha gas field and landowners there are becoming unsettled and increasingly concerned that people from other regions are claiming landownership rights and are setting up various associations in Port Moresby and claiming to be rightful landholders.

Just before the 2010 New Year, a man from one of the major clans in the area called Pokaiya was killed and his body chopped up like an animal. The victim's tribesmen are currently preparing for war in revenge.
The law enforcement agencies have yet to go into this remote location because it is not easily accessible. To get there, villagers pay K500 for a seat in a small aircraft for a 45-minute flight from Tari in Southern Highlands Province into Nomad or further up the Strickland River in the Western Province and walk to their villages in the Pokaiya Hewa tribal land where the Juha gas field is based. This is on the border of Southern Highlands, Sandaun, East Sepik, Enga and Western Provinces. The flight time between Tari and the Juha gas project region is same as between Lae and Port Moresby in a fast aircraft but how the Tari's could claim ownership of Juha gas project site is beyond comprehension.

This poses yet another serious security threat for the project and another case for the National Security Advisory Council. In the absence of government authority, law enforcement and registered ILGs, every man and his dog is claiming landholder rights even people from faraway tribes and traditional land boundaries.
There is already in existence an incorporated group called; Kulini Strickland Resources Holders Association Inc; (KSRHA) which represents over 25,800 people of the Pokaiya, Hewa, Sinali and Duna tribes. Their boundaries include parts of the Southern Highlands, Western and Sandaun provinces.

The KSRHA has been in existence for the past 20 years, fighting against government for compensation over environmental degradation of the Strickland River system. It has lodged a claim for K60 million and to date there hasn't been any effort from the State to make an independent assessment of the damages, if any. These are quiet, soft-spoken and humble people but if pushed to the corner, the inner beast can respond with such fierce force and brutality uncharacteristic of the outer man. See what happened at Boera!

The KSRHA has been an advocate for services into the upper and lower Strickland areas to which the Porgera Joint Venture has thankfully responded with schools, health services, airstrips and water-use fees to the people.

With that experience in coordinating and leading his group for the last 20 years, the chief chairman of KSRHA Mr Andrew Makano is calling on the Department of Petroleum and Energy and various other government agencies to get their act together and move in quickly to the Juha Gas project area for social mapping and genealogy studies to help with formation of ILG groups. If this is delayed, trouble is inevitable.

He is extremely concerned over the likelihood of tribal wars if the government does not play its part by attending to law and order issues that have already flared up as evidenced by the killing of his tribesman. He is a strong advocate for peace who is steadfast on his Seventh Day Adventist principles and wishes to see his people reap maximum benefits from the gas project in a friendly and unselfish environment.

This is the man that punched an expatriate PJV community relations staff in Porgera in the mid-nineties  giving the Australian a bleeding nose when arguing the case for his Strickland people. Mr Makano is now more mature in his approach toward developers and Government and wishes to see a trouble-free Juha gas project come on stream with the help of DPE, Lands Department, law enforcement agencies and developers.

For comments, information and inter-action email: yehiura@gmail.com

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