by 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.

My first encounter with Huli people and culture was in late 2009 when I was employed to manage a team of PNG national archaeologists and anthropologists to conduct cultural heritage surveys in the Komo region. The surveys were required to collect data on aspects of cultural heritage that were to be disturbed (destroyed) or moved to make way for ExxonMobil’s PNG LNG project. This project required the bulldozing of sizeable portions of land prior to the construction of access roads, lay down camps, the 3.2km Komo airfield, the Hides Gas Conditioning Plant (HGCP), a waste management facility (incinerator and landfill), and several quarries for the mining of road and runway base. Komo at that time was a charged atmosphere full of anticipation and desire for the development bonanza that was a promised feature of the PNG LNG project. Komo was also mired in deep poverty and was viewed by Huli themselves as something of a neglected backwater. Intense warfare during 1999-2000 had resulted in almost every building of the former Komo patrol station being razed to the ground, and the centre had no functioning airstrip, hospital, or police station. The re-emergence of Huli warfare during the 1990s can be distinguished from earlier forms not only by the use of modern weaponry, but by the fact that warfare is now fought in the context of poverty and neglect. This creates layers of complexity that challenge the neatness of my ideas about conflict and abundance described in Chapter 2. I interviewed some people involved in the razing of Komo station because I wanted to understand why government property, which was seemingly unrelated to the conflict, had been attacked. The logic behind the attack against state property was based on frustration with the lack of government services, such as a police force, that would have prevented the conflict from getting out of control in the first place. Anger that government neglect had resulted in people not being able to live in peace fuelled such resentment that the fight spread to an attack against the station itself. The state was viewed as having abundant wealth and capacity but corruption and neglect had changed the material relationship between the state and the people. In this context, that there should exist an intense desire for material change to be brought about by the PNG LNG project among the local population was obvious. Yet equally as clear was the eagerness for the landowners to abandon their cultural heritage in the embrace of the anticipated changes to come. There was no sense of loss, and no concerns were expressed about the new built environment that was to occupy large tracts of ancestral land; a land that was saturated with storied sites, ancestral history, spirit beings, and cosmological connections. It was as if, in their embrace of the PNG LNG project, the Huli landowners were taking possession of something that already belonged to them.

By the time of my fieldwork in 2016 Komo was in a very sorry state. Since April 2014 the PNG LNG project had been extracting and selling the landowners’ gas reserves offshore for a vast profit, and yet Komo was still without a functioning hospital, police station, power supply, or proper market. The PNG LNG project began construction in 2010. The project took around four years to construct at a reported cost of US$19 billion, making it the largest and most capital-intensive resource project in the history of the region. In August 2015, Oil Search, which owns a 29% stake in the PNG LNG project, reported a net profit increase of 49% on the back of exports from the project after it began production in 2014. 1 The project is also structed around fiscal terms that are extraordinarily generous towards the corporations, to the extent that in 2016 the “greatest source of taxes” were from the PNG LNG employees themselves. 2 The most noticeable change was the huge influx of high-powered rifles and the constant outbreaks of warfare. During 2009 I had been able to walk anywhere I wanted along narrow tracks into remoter areas without any concern for my safety, and I never heard a shot being fired. During 2016 I saw many guns, attended the funerals of young men and boys killed in battle, and found myself cowering inside the house as gun battles raged close by. A beautiful new hospital had been constructed in 2012, but on closer inspection it was revealed to possess no equipment, beds, staff, or fuel for its generator. The Komo hospital had been built by a local politician using LNG-generated funds paid to his own landowner company, which he used to construct the hospital at vastly inflated prices. He also constructed several houses for non- existent staff that the locals reported cost 1 million Kina each to build (approx. $380,000 AUD). The hospital building was a shell and a classic white elephant. A letter from the Acting Officer In Charge (OIC) of the Komo Health Centre was posted to the door of the hospital (see Appendix A). The letter was addressed to the OICs of the Mananda, Yuni and Para health centres and read:

I, Mr Felix Hape, the A/Officer in charge of Komo Health Centre, make it my compulsory duty to alert and advise your respective Health Facilities not to accept ill patients under our care seeking care and treatment at your Health Facilities and re-direct them back to Komo Health Centre to get them served unless with written referral notes from us.
Despite many attempts of awareness and explanations on similar types of services we all provide, many people constantly by-pass our presence and rush into your respective centres for help adding extra workload on your backs. They only judge by covers and not by contents and draw into conclusions on the quality of services we provide which they perceive wrong.
On the other hand, many mothers don’t bring their children to MCH clinics though we urge them to come and when illnesses attack them and their children, they come there pretencing [sic] as though they’ve been faithful with their attitudes under the guise of the sun. As us being health professionals, such people cannot continue to cheat and mislead us as if we are their tools and fools. Therefore, reject them out-right and send them back to their own Health Facility.

The Komo hospital situation is enough to stand for the absurdities of life in the era of PNG LNG, and the corrupted and resource-cursed province that Hela has become. Yet the changes that had taken place in Komo were not so much about the material impact of the PNG LNG project, since it was lack of material impact that was of most noticeable concern. It was clear that the project had brought as little as possible in terms of material changes to the lives of the vast majority of the local population. Komo had changed culturally as the reality of the PNG LNG project, which had been embraced as a prophetic and cultural phenomenon since before its inception, manifested as an historical and cultural failure. In 2009, I was introduced to wane labo or female water spirits that dwelled in caves beneath waterfalls, forest locations for the haroli bachelor cult members to live in isolation, dama spirit lakes, a liru ali who was the keeper of sacred spirit stones known as ni habane (‘sun’s egg’), sincere fear of female pollution, and families that practised separate living between husband and wives. The cultural landscape at Komo was charged with the presence of spirit beings, ritual practices, and an altered but, in many respects, unbroken connection to pre-contact Huli life. 3 In 2016 it was not possible for me to explore any further these aspects of the Huli cultural environment. Many of those with whom I had worked had either died, moved away, become “marijuana men”, or were not present for reasons unknown.

Although forms of knowledge that I had encountered during 2009 were still present, moving around the Huli landscape in 2016 was an altogether different experience. The salience of particular forms of knowledge had disappeared. The historical context in which that knowledge had been produced, transformed, reproduced and reconfigured was no longer relevant. A generational change was taking place where a distinct knowledge loss was occurring. The PNG LNG project, in spite of bringing little change to people’s lives in terms of material development, had marked a radical turning point in Huli history. The PNG LNG project could not be understood in terms of an encounter with modernity, unless modernity is to be defined as a form of theft. The PNG LNG project is an encounter with history, and its impact is the failure of the ways in which history was perceived and understood. As an enterprise, the PNG LNG project is overtly materialist, yet as an encounter it is inextricably bound within a Huli cultural and historical tradition. The PNG LNG project did little to transform Huli culture towards a materialist modernity, rather the Huli historical project was already a materialist venture within which PNG LNG was, in cosmological terms, an easy fit. With the advent of PNG LNG, it seemed to Huli as if the promise of their great material transformation had finally come of age.

(An extract from, “Until Hela Becomes a City”, The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity. Michael Main. A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the Australian National University. Canberra, April, 2020., pp. 120-128.)

(Photo courtesy of Wigman Photography)

  1. Oil Search Limited, “ASX Announcement 2015 First Half Results” (2015). []
  2. Paul Flanagan and Luke Fletcher, Double or Nothing: The Broken Economic Promises of PNG LNG, (Sydney: The Jubilee Australia Research Centre, 2018), 22. []
  3. The vast and complex field of Huli spiritual practice and cosmological belief has been well-covered in the literature and this thesis does not attempt to add very much to that field that is new, particularly since very little remains that is available to the ethnographer. For information about various spirits, haroli, and liru ali see, inter alia, Stephen Frankel, The Huli Response to Illness, 150-54; Laurence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, 235-40. []