When disaster capitalism strikes, Papua New Guinea is on front line

Barely a day goes by when another report emerges of locals in PNG not gaining anything from multinationals pillaging the vast natural resources of the country.

This week’s Guardian features a story on the subject and explains how the PNG government is more than happy to allow rapacious corporations to extract the valuable assets from underground but the resource curse is never far away:

The issue of resource ownership continues to dominate public discussion in a country experiencing an unprecedented resources boom. The biggest development now under way is Exxon Mobil’s $15bn gas field project in the remote Highlands. The oil giant plans to pump the product down a 850km pipeline across several provinces, starting in 2014.

Peter Graham, the managing director of Exxon’s subsidiary Esso Highlands Ltd, who is managing the project, says Papua New Guineans should benefit from the development. “Some analysts forecast a doubling of the GDP of the country; I think education and health will also benefit in the communities,” he says.

All this sounds promising for a country beset by failing public administration and systematic corruption, and that looks set to fail all of the UN Millenium Development Goals despite strong economic growth of the last few years.

But even in the midst of construction, the gas field project is clouded by landowner issues, particularly among those who didn’t sign up to a benefits sharing agreement that the government oversaw in six weeks of negotiation in 2009. One of these is Simon Ekanda, a landowner from Tugubu in Southern Highlands. He says the focus of those talks on thousands of individuals who claimed, often illegitimately, to be land rights holders is in conflict with customary culture.

“We’ve been here for a long time,” Ekanda says. “The land is owned by the tribe, not the individual. Individual ownership is a western concept. That’s not our culture.” Ekanda claims that the state, which has 19.4% equity in the gas project, is playing the wrong role in developing the country’s natural resources. “Developer should be dealing with landowner directly and the government should be the regulator alone.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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