by Michael Allan 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 gas resource for the PNG LNG project lies beneath a NW-SE limestone mountain ridge commonly known as Hides Ridge. The Huli name for this mountain is Mt Gigira. ExxonMobil drilled its gas wells along this ridge and constructed its vast Hides Gas Conditioning Plant towards the south eastern end of the ridge (Figure 8.1). The topography of Mt Gigira results in soft cloud formations that settle blanket-like and falling down the sides of the range (Photos 8.4 and 8.5). The effect is similar in appearance to the white smoke that oozes from the kunai-grass roofs of Huli houses when a fire is burning within. This visual phenomenon is the source of the belief that there is a fire that burns beneath the Gigira Range. Huli houses are built with a central fire place that is fed by long pieces of split firewood extending towards the doorway. The hardest and hottest-burning fire wood comes from the Lai Tree, 1 commonly known in Australia as Sticky Hop Bush, of which an unusually tall variety grows in the PNG highlands. The Huli word “tebo” refers to the glowing coals of a fire. Running beneath the length of the Gigira range is a giant, burning piece of Lai wood – the Gigira Lai Tebo. One of the LNG ships dedicated to the PNG LNG project even bears the name “Gigira Lai Tebo” (Photo 8.6).

Huli house with smoke oozing through the roof
Photo 8.4: Huli house with smoke oozing through the roof
Mt Gigira with cloud
Photo 8.5: Mt Gigira with cloud
Gigira Laitebo ship
Photo 8.6: Gigira Laitebo ship 2
Relief map showing the Gigira Range (Hides Ridge)
Figure 8.1 Relief map showing the Gigira Range (Hides Ridge)

When the extraction wells for the LNG project started to be drilled people living on the slopes of Mt Gigira fled their homes in fear that they were to be engulfed by the Gigira fire. ExxonMobil built its enormous Gas Conditioning Plant on the mountain, which includes a gas flare that further cements the legend. Photo 8.7 shows the visual impact of the PNG LNG project on the landscape. The prophecy associated with the project is widely known and was often repeated to me whenever I asked anyone about the PNG LNG project. One day a man with red legs will come to take the Gigira fire. You may share with him some of the fire, but do not give him the whole fire lest the world will end. Now it is quite clear to anyone that the Hulis have given away the whole fire.

Photo 8.7: ExxonMobil’s Hides Gas Conditioning Plant on Mt Gigira
Photo 8.7: ExxonMobil’s Hides Gas Conditioning Plant on Mt Gigira

The Gigira Lai Tebo prophecy has not featured in previous literature, and little was known about its detail prior to the PNG LNG project. 3 It is unclear how many versions of the prophecy existed, and how much has been reworked since the project began. In 2016 I did visit areas on the slopes of Gigira that I was told were now uninhabited because the people had moved away in fear of the fire spilling out. Warnings that the world will come to an end as a result of prohibited human behaviour is a Huli trope that is common to the majority of prophetic understandings. During my fieldwork signs of this prophecy playing out were expressed in observations about the general malaise of Hela Province, increasing conflict, corruption, a decline in basic services and a general increase in poverty. Yet there was not a strong commitment to the prophecy, and the overwhelming perception was of the evident government corruption that had gripped the nation as a whole. Crucially, references to the Lai Tebo prophecy were based on observations of material decline. This decline was primarily related to development, rather than natural phenomena. The 2015-16 drought that severely impacted much of the highlands was coming to an end, and its impact was noted in terms of the lack of government response and the fact that the majority of people still had to seek out an existence as subsistence farmers. 4 Development was expected to change the dependent relationship that people have with the land. Drought was therefore a phenomenon that served to highlight the lack of development and the extent of state neglect in the province. The PNG LNG project was widely regarded as a tool of the state to enable it to provide development in the form of infrastructure, health and education services, business development, employment, and cash for the landowners. Some landowners even expressed their sympathy for ExxonMobil because it, like they, had no choice but to deal with a corrupt state.

This sympathy for ExxonMobil was also expressed in a letter drafted by the group of landowner leaders who had gathered together at Hides to organise the blockade of the HGCP in August 2016. These leaders had taken their case to the Supreme Court in Port Moresby to have PNG LNG project royalty payments, that were supposedly being held in abeyance, released to them and their clans. Two leaders in particular, who had previously been rivals for the leadership of the PDL7 landowner’s group, had united in their efforts against the state. These leaders represented Hagu and Kela clans, which claim to be tene clans over the well heads. When they finally got their day in court, the court refused to recognise them as landowners. As a result they took matters into their own hands and came to Hides. I was able to witness the drafting of the letter to ExxonMobil, which is included as Appendix D. Several people lined up to be interviewed on camera and one landowner leader, as I was noting down his comments, asked if he could take my notebook and pen and simply write my own notes for me. What he wrote in my notebook amounted to a press release describing in some detail the equity agreements and the basis for their grievances. The letter addressed to Andrew Barry, ExxonMobil’s Managing director for its PNG operations, politely and apologetically explained the reason that the project had to be shut down and made promises that no ExxonMobil property or personnel would be harmed. It also specifically asked that ExxonMobil turn off the gas flare that burns within the compound. The letter made explicit the distinction between the gas agreement that had been signed between the state and the developer, and the benefits agreement that had been signed between the state and the landowners:

The gas agreement was signed in 2008 between the state and the developer. A year later in 2009, the UBSA was signed in Kokopo in May the same year between the state and the landowners which the developer was not involved.

The letter explained in some detail the grievances between the landowners and the state and finished:

Thus we do not have hope and trust in this government as they continue to dishonour the agreements entered in to in Kokopo and in Hides respectively.

Therefore we PDL 01, 07 and 09 landowners are calling on Exxon and its partners to voluntarily shut down the HGCP and well pads B and C. We also want Exxon to put off the flare in the HGCP so that the whole operation can be shut for indefinite period until the state responds to the petition positively.

Thank you so much for your cooperation.

The landowners’ grievances were quite clearly directed at the state rather than the company. They saw ExxonMobil as a pawn in a larger game of corruption that was being played out by various levels of government and the judiciary. ExxonMobil, in their eyes, was doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing: extracting gas, selling the gas for a profit and paying royalties and taxes to the state.

The landowner leaders were playing a dangerous game, and a two days after they received no response from ExxonMobil, they organised their clansmen to lock the main gate to the HGCP and blockade the project. My companions would not take me back up Hides Ridge to witness these goings on as they were concerned for my safety and were worried about the potential for a shootout between the landowners and the police mobile squad who were stationed to protect the project. When I did return the next day I was told by the main organiser of the blockade that he had directed all his people to get hold of any weaponry they had and to enter the HGCP and lock the gate. The armed landowners did exactly that before the organiser ushered them back out and the gate was locked. Landowners also attempted to shut down the gas wells as described above. When I later spoke with members of the Police Mobile squad they told me that they had no intention of going against the landowners in defence of ExxonMobil. They could see for themselves, they told me, that the landowners had not benefitted from the project and they were not willing to die in defence of ExxonMobil.

The landowner leaders stated that the project would remain in lockdown until the government came to Hides to listen to their concerns. Four days later the government did come to Hides to face the landowners on the playground of the local Para school. 5 For several hours in the baking sun the government faced a torrent of abuse and threats, the highlight being the invitation for James Marape to dindi napaya, eat the ground, as described in Chapters 2 and 6. Yet apart from this appeal to Huli tradition, there was no invoking of the Gigira Lai Tebo prophecy or any other mythological understanding. To paraphrase Sinclair and Black (see Chapter 3), the arguments were “hard-headed and pragmatic” and based on the material concerns of the “property-minded” landowners. The scene would have come as no surprise to Jim Taylor who readily recognised these Huli concerns in 1938. The landowner leaders had a very good grasp of the complexities of the gas agreement, and were able to hold their own when arguing about kroton equity, well head production values, the value of LNG shipments, and the amount of money that the government was receiving. The majority of ordinary landowners in the crowd, or random people that I met at the market also spoke of royalty percentages, the number of LNG shipments to date, and the structure of the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process that had failed to resolve any of their issues. The appeal to dindi napaya was a body blow to the Finance Minister, it was personal and a way of weaponising a shared, ancestral and spiritual connection to land. The invoking of dindi napaya was an extension of its original application in land disputes. Marape and the landowners were not arguing over land ownership, but over the truthfulness of Marape’s statement about the fate of money that had been generated by the PNG LNG project. Marape, as a son of Hela, had a moral duty to tell the truth about Hela’s resources; his duty to the state was secondary.

(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. 341-349.)

  1. Dodonaea viscosa []
  2. Found on Google image search at []
  3. According to Laurence Goldman (pers. comm.) his versions of the story included an everlasting fire, but nothing about a fire that runs underground. []
  4. The impact of the drought and the experience of severe food shortages was widespread and included high-altitude areas of Enga, Southern Highlands, Hela and Western Provinces, several districts in the Central Highlands, inland lowland areas of Western Province, and in the Islands of Milne Bay Province. (R.M. Bourke, et. al., “Estimated impact of drought and frost on food supply in rural PNG in 2015”, Development Policy Centre Policy Brief 11, January 2016.) []
  5. The government representatives included the Huli Finance Minister James Marape, the Prime Minister’s departmental secretary, the Managing Director of the Mineral Resources Development Corporation (MRDC) Augusten Mano, the Mining and Petroleum Minister Nixon Duma, the Managing Director of Kumul Petroleum Holdings, the Secretary for the Department of Petroleum and Energy David Manan, the member for Koroba-Lake Kopiago Philip Undialu, and the District Administrator for Hela William Bando. []