by Dr. Michael Main

Michael Main Portrait
Michael Main has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University. Michael’s PhD research focused on the Huli population in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) highlands and the impact of ExxonMobil’s Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas project. Michael has a professional background in geology and environmental science, which underpins his interest and work in the anthropology of development and resource extraction.

The marked increase in fighting since the PNG LNG project commenced production in 2014, and especially since 2016 when frustrations over the lack of development and royalty payments began to boil over, invites the question as to how violence might be associated with the project. Proponents of the project are quick to claim that, since tribal fighting has a long history in Hela Province, none of the violence experienced since the project commenced can be attributed to the project itself. Huli themselves do blame the development failures of the project on a wider breakdown in social relationships and a resulting increase in violence. This impact invites new ways of theorising Huli warfare that more closely examine the identity of the objects of possession that warfare is about.

In Tari I witnessed a fight break out that involved the construction of a chain-wire fence around the perimeter of a small trade store in the village of Kikita. The trade store was located on an intersection of road near to where I was staying and the owner wanted to erect the fence along the border with the public roadway. A dispute erupted over the positioning of the fence; not whether the fence intruded into someone else’s property, but whether the fence intruded into the public space occupied by the roadway. The argument became extremely heated and fist fights broke out and the situation became (from my point of view) extremely dangerous. The dispute amounted to a few centimetres one way or the other on the piece of ground that lay between the road and the trade store. The material difference was insignificant in terms of the advantage or disadvantage to either the shop owner or any member of the public, and no official survey of the land boundary existed upon which to base an argument that demanded millimetre-scale accuracy. Yet the perceived opportunism of the shop owner in perhaps demarcating a portion of land that did not rightly belong to him was treated as an issue of the utmost seriousness. The conflict was about the symbolic act of taking something that belonged to a collective. A video of the dispute is provided in Video 6.2 below.

(Photo courtesy of Remote Lands)

A second situation that I want to describe involved myself as a form of material possession that became the object of a dispute. In September 2016 some friends of mine who were landowners at Mt Haliago offered to take me to the summit of Haliago to construct a bush-material shelter where we would spend a couple of nights and learn about the various plants, animals and stories from the mountain. The trip involved several hours’ walk from Komo station to the foothills of Mt Haliago where we followed a track through settled areas and then high into the forest beyond the zone of human occupation. We took a walking track that has been used for many generations as a trading and hunting route between Huli and their Etolo-speaking neighbours. At some point well into the high forest we were chased down by a group of men armed with home-made shotguns. The first of these men to arrive was clearly very agitated and immediately pointed his gun at me while yelling instructions in Huli. Shortly thereafter a second man arrived who also held me at gunpoint and my companions began to negotiate for my survival. Several others also arrived armed and stood around to watch the proceedings. This was no idle threat as during the proceedings one of the men made genuine attempts to shoot me, only to be thwarted by the quick action of one of my companions who was able to rush at him and prevent his aim. The negotiations continued for a very long period of time and long enough for me to reflect a little on the meaning of the event. It was clear that the issue was about me as a form of property. My friends had not informed the other land owners that they were bringing me to the forest, and being a white man I was considered to be a form of valuable property that was not being shared. The method of rectifying this situation was to kill me, thus destroying the property of those that had kept me for themselves. My friends were at pains to explain that I was a student who had come to learn about Huli culture and that as such I belonged to the whole community. One of my friends was running the argument that if they wanted to kill me then they were welcome to go ahead but be warned that there are witnesses present who will later come to take revenge. This was a strong argument as it forced the gunmen to consider a broader picture in that their method of rectification would have undesirable material consequences. At no point did the gunmen demand anything from me, they did not want money or any of my equipment. 1 I was a chattel brought to a shared piece of land but the fact of my presence was not being shared and therefore had to be eliminated. It was the equivalent of building a house on a shared piece of land and other owners of that land responding by burning down your house because the capital improved value of the land was something that was not being shared. In the end the matter was resolved and friendly relations ensued. My friends were able to argue successfully that I was of no major capital value and that the reprisals that would follow my death would outweigh the issue in question.

In both cases the conflict was not about the materials themselves, but about the symbolic value of the materials. Huli warfare, as described in Chapter 2, was always fought in the context of abundance. Any closer examination of Huli conflict reveals that most fights are about other fights. These may involve unpaid compensation for a previous fight such as when someone who has assisted you in a fight gets killed or injured and you are then obliged to pay compensation to them or their family. If the compensation payment demanded is too great then you must avenge the death of your clansman by killing someone on the other side, which considerably reduces the amount of compensation. That is one of the reasons why Huli conflict can quickly escalate into major war. There exists a complex network of issues such as unavenged killings, adultery, unpaid compensation, and any number of interrelated issues that stem from previous conflicts. It is quite rare to actually resolve a major fight, and, as Glasse observed, it is still the case that “the majority of Huli wars end inconclusively”. 2 The major fights are mostly about land, but in the context of an abundance of land it is more accurate to say that the fighting is over control of the historical narrative as it relates to land. Crucially, people are able to choose which unresolved issues to be aggrieved about as part of a broader strategy for gaining land. Huli wars are fought over the control of history. History is the most important possession of any Huli clan or individual because knowledge of history, of dindi malu, is of fundamental importance in the ability to make claims over land. In the context of resource extraction, certain portions of land have been endowed with great monetary value, and some fighting does occur because of this added value. However, most of the increase in fighting is still over portions of land that are unrelated to the PNG LNG project.

During the construction phase of the PNG LNG project there was very little fighting and no major warfare. The reasoning given to me by Komo residents was that at that time there was a lot of activity and many people were given jobs. Construction was proceeding at pace with new roads and infrastructure being built and landowners were focussed on the new future that was dawning and rising in front of their eyes. The Huli population was future-oriented, while expectations were being fuelled by grand development promises and the fact of material change that was occurring in their lives. Since 2014 the PNG LNG project has established itself as a development failure, with the result that the future has become a vacuum. If the PNG LNG project had fulfilled its grand promises then the future would still be being played out and Hela Province would not have descended into unprecedented levels of violence. Children would be in the promised schools that would have been built, promised roads would be being built, teachers would be paid, power lines put in, fuel would be available outside Tari, businesses would be opening up, and tourists would be arriving at the promised Komo International Airport. Instead, history has moved in to fill the vacuum left by the future that was taken away by the broken promises of the PNG LNG project. The PNG LNG project has raised the stakes over the control of history because in the absence of development there is nothing else for the people to possess.

At first glance the relative peace that was experienced during the construction phase challenges my argument that warfare needs to be viewed in the context of abundance, when it was an influx of abundance that brought about peace. Abundance, however, much like its counterpart poverty, is a perception that must be viewed in relative terms. Amartya Sen’s ground-breaking work on the measurement of poverty revealed the importance of judging deprivation “in comparison with the experience of others in society.” 3 Poverty can only be understood in the context in which it is experienced. Pre-contact Huli were not living in a state of poverty except during times of famine, during which deprivation was a more or less uniform experience. Likewise, abundance as a uniform experience can only be measured historically; that is, the experience can only be compared either to the past, or expectations of the future. In order to understand conflict it is the relationships with material abundance that must be examined. During the construction phase of the PNG LNG project the desired future of material abundance had become the present and, during this period, the relationship with the present and the future had combined into one. The material desires of Huli amount to a desire for history to come to an end. The desired future is an eschatological end time characterised by the final realisation of peace and prosperity for all. Warfare is not a feature of this relationship and history has come to an end. Prophesies are fulfilled and the Huli project is complete. There has always been a profound ambivalence about the desirability of this Huli endpoint, but the over-hyped corporate promises of the PNG LNG project did much to mask this underlying ambivalence. Warfare resumed once that future had disappeared, yet the abundance remained and continued to be extracted and exported, and to fill the pockets of the corrupt.

The view that violent conflict in Huli is largely about history brings Laurence Goldman’s analysis of Huli dispute language into a different light. History can only exist through language, which is materially embodied and for Huli has tangible material agency, and the oft-repeated causes of conflict (land, women and pigs) are the objects of a materialist history that is the subject of Huli warfare. I now turn my attention to the issue of trauma and violence, because it is only by describing the lived experience of trauma that tribal warfare can be freed from the possibility of the “othering” that does so much to prevent the possibility of its solution.

(Extract printed with permission of Michael Main. “Until Hela Becomes a City: The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity”. Doctoral Dissertation, Canberra: Australian National University, 2020. pp. 259-267.)

(Photo courtesy of Remote Lands).

  1. Including an emergency satellite beacon inside my backpack that one of my friends had kindly insisted on carrying for me, and that I was unable to access as I was frozen to the spot. []
  2. Robert Glasse, Huli of Papua: A Cognatic Descent system, 98 []
  3. Amartya Sen, “Issues in the Measurement of Poverty,” The Scandinavian Journal of Economics 81, no. 2 (1979), 289. []