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Indigenous Groups in Papua New Guinea Ready For War with ExxonMobil

Image via Vice/HBO

ExxonMobil's $19 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) operation in Papua New Guinea started production two weeks ago, six months ahead of schedule. The massive project, which began construction in 2010, is expected to produce and sell over nine trillion cubic feet of gas to Chinese and Japanese clients over its lifetime.

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This partnership between the PNG government and ExxonMobil has been widely promoted as a way to bring heavy cashflow into the economy, provide jobs and opportunities to citizens, and propel the country into the Twenty-First Century. However, many in Papua New Guinea today feel robbed, lied to, and angry—to the point that armed militias are organizing to try to stop this project in its tracks.

A major catalyst for resentment against Exxon emerged in January 2012, when a landslide, coming from a quarry operated by the company, wiped out at least 27 people in their homes in Hela Province. The official reason given for the landslide by Exxon and the PNG's National Disaster Centre was excessive rainfall, and that reason was repeated across media coverage of the incident.

Image via The Garamut

Ian T. Shearn, investigating for The Nation, found that this explanation didn't make sense to locals who had seen this same quarry mined for years without problems. Neither did it make sense to David Petley, a landslide expert at Durham University who claims the NDC's assumptions are not scientifically sound.

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"Poor quarry management appears to had led to instability," Petley said. "There is a wide range of very well-established techniques available to quarry managers to avoid exactly this problem."

In addition, writes Shearn, a number of internal memos from quarry employees warned Exxon of the impending disaster before it happened. When asked for comment on these memos, Exxon did not respond.

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But perhaps most damning about this incident was ExxonMobil's reaction. Rather than searching for the bodies of the victims, Exxon insisted it needed to finish the project on time. Because the supply road had been covered by the landslide, a new path was immediately built, directly on top of the bodies of the victims.

Today, that landslide is the least of people's worries.

On last Friday's episode of Vice on HBO, Vikram Gandhi spoke with Anderson Agiru, governor of Hela Province, about Exxon's extraction of natural gas from Hela's mountain ridges. Agiru, who sees himself as the mastermind of the operation, spoke glowingly of the project: "I have a dream, like Martin Luther King said. PNG LNG is a catalyst so that all manner of investment, business and development can take place."

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ExxonMobil's LNG extraction center in Hela Province. Image via Vice/HBO

As the governor gave Gandhi a helicopter tour of new development in the province, Gandhi asked about the process of moving people from their land to make space for the drilling project.

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"Their land has been leased to the project, so they relocated to the other side," said Agiru. "It's a complicated process, but the people understand."

When Gandhi spoke to locals, he received a different picture. One resident angrily told him:

ExxonMobil came here gathering the money for ExxonMobil, taking it back to your country and you invest. And the people here suffer. They have not done anything in the Hides Area. Power lines, hydro, electricity, water supply, housing, opportunity for business, never done, never done.

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Residents seem to have no idea what happened to the money that ExxonMobil supposedly gave Papua New Guinea to operate. When asked about these complaints, Agiru told Gandhi that no money was owed. "When you talk to a person and he says he's owed money, for what?" asked Agiru. "They only get royalty for what has been developed on top of their land."

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Image via Vice/HBO

Even Agiru seems unclear on where much of the money has ended up, and perhaps for good reason. A report last year showed that $189 million intended for LNG project areas had been misused, outside of the governor's jurisdiction.

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But it also seems that leasing procedures in Hela have been mishandled, and that most of the people whose land is being drilled did not in fact consent. When Shearn's team interviewed locals, they found that ExxonMobil had allegedly handpicked residents to consent to the LNG drilling project, and those residents were essentially bribed to sign. According to those who were interviewed, Exxon only paid those who signed the agreement, and thus it was in no one's interest not to agree to the terms.

To make matters worse, Exxon has been financially propping up Mobile Police Squads which have been cited for egregious human rights violations by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These squads have made resistance against the LNG operation exceedingly difficult for local residents.

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Alarmingly, high-level police officers, while defending Exxon's reputation, told Shearn's team that Exxon's financial support for the Mobile Police Squads includes arms—an allegation that Exxon vehemently denied.

Unrest and anger with Exxon is rising among the local population. Gandhi spoke with a group that has begun creating homemade weapons, and which plans to go to war against ExxonMobil if necessary.

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Image via Vice/HBO

This type of armed conflict in Papua New Guinea would not be unprecedented. Between 1988 and 1998, the province of Bougainville led a civil war against the PNG government, largely fueled by copper mining disputes, eventually leading to Bougainville becoming an autonomous region within Papua New Guinea. The Australian government estimates that between 15,000 and 20,000 people died in this war.

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One member of the armed group Gandhi spoke with told him that "there's going to be another Bougainville."

There have been recent similar conflicts related to resource extraction in underdeveloped countries around the world, as Vice notes, including in Central African Republic, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Burma.

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While Papua New Guinea's role in the global natural gas boom is still new, we may end up seeing more violent clashes occurring there in the years to come, as ExxonMobil continues to profit.

[Investigative reporting by The Nation and Vice on HBO]

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