By Patrick Nicholson
“After washing in the stream, our faces became swollen and we developed a rash,” said Veronica Pili. She shows the red marks down her arms. The same spots cover the children.
Her village in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea sits high up a mountain, covered in thick forest and jungle. “We went to the local clinic, but they just told us we needed to go to the hospital. It’s a couple of hours away and we can’t afford the transport or the treatment even if we could reach there,” she said.
Caritas Papua New Guinea’s Director Raymond Ton leads the way to the stream that villagers say is polluted. It’s very murky, but what concerns him the most are the tiny bubbles he says are not normal.
Skin rashes aren’t the only problem facing Veronica’s village in Heights 1 in Hela. She shows the stunted Popo fruit (a kind of Papaya) hanging limply off the branches. Their trees don’t produce any fruit anymore, their potatoes don’t grow and recent deadly landslides scar the mountainside. The villagers say that these problems began with the start of a project to extract natural gas from the mountain.
Heights 1 sits on top of a multi-billion dollar gas deposit. The Liquefied Natural Gas Project (LNGP) is a joint venture that began in 2010 to explore extracting that gas and exporting to overseas markets. The initial investment phase is estimated to be US$19 billion. It is expected that over nine trillion cubic feet of gas will be produced and sold, generating over US$200 billion in its 30 years lifespan.
The Liquefied Natural Gas Project (LNGP) promises to transform the lives of the local with investment in infrastructure, jobs and services. Landowners will receive cash benefits once the gas starts to flow in 2014, such as royalties and equities. It will double the GDP of Papua New Guinea, improving the development prospects of not just the residents of Hela but the whole country where 4 out of 10 people live in poverty.
“We see the helicopters, the workmen and the construction but we don’t see any of the promised development,” said Beth. Her village is typical of the Hela region, where only 40 percent of children go to school and under 40 percent of adults can read and write. The local midwife says most of the babies are delivered at home. Child mortality is 15 percent higher in Hela than the national average.
People were expecting schools, hospitals, the dust roads to be covered with tarmac, electricity and clean water. “We were promised everything except a highway to the moon,” says one landowner.
Peter Don Topi is a clan leader. He has been negotiating on behalf of his clan with the LNGP company. He’s also works in construction and is a Catholic Catechist (he built the local church). “At first people were filled with high expectations,” he said. “The discovery of oil and gas was a good thing. People were promised a much better way of life. Three years later, many of the good things haven’t happened.”
Instead of visible development, the locals are left just with their complaints about the environmental and social impact. “The teachers have all left for higher wages in the gas company,” said Peter Don Topi. “Because there are no teachers, the children have given up going to school. Wages have increased, but because the nearest bank is 5 hours drive away, people tend to spend it quickly. Even though alcohol is prohibited, they buy it illegally.”
A frequent complaint is that there has been little community awareness and relations in the villages. This has led to feelings of exclusion and frustration. When six young men from the village protested about the pollution in the water, they were arrested by police.
A coalition of aid agencies including Caritas Australia warned last year of continuing major concerns that need to be addressed around the LNPG. In their joint report The Community Good – Examining the Influence of the PNG LNG Project in the Hela Region of Papua New Guinea, the aid agencies recommended proper transparent landowner recognition, community outreach, livelihoods and skills training for residents, education to be made a priority and the establishment of community planning committees
The report says LNGP should help take people out of the poverty they currently face. Whether it does so still remains to be seen. Papua New Guinea has a long and painful history of seeing its abundant natural resources exploited by the mining industry with little significant benefit to the majority of the population.
Many in Hela believe they will see their traditional way of life gone forever but will not receive their fair share of the profits. Suspicion that others are getting a better deal is rife. People fear corruption or favouritism. Tension is high, optimism low. “It’s a great blessing from God,” said a local priest. “It’s the people who are turning the blessing into a curse.”