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.

by Dr. Michael Main

The Angore Tiddy Apa 1 Landowners Association (ATALA) was formed in 2014, declaring itself as the umbrella association for the Angore PDL8 landowners. According to ATALA the gas agreement that was signed in May 2009 was done so while the Angore area was part of Petroleum Retention License 11 (PRL11). Social Mapping and Landowner Identification Studies were undertaken with reference to PRL11 as required under the Oil and Gas Act. 2 Angore subsequently became part of Petroleum Development License 8 (PDL8) that was carved out of the larger PRL11 under Section 53 of the Oil and Gas Act that allows for a PDL provided the Minister is satisfied that the area in question contains a “petroleum pool or part of a petroleum pool.” The following map shows the location of the Hides and Angore PDL areas.

(Sourced from Oil Search Limited, “Investor field trip, November 2013.,” (2013).)

Part of ATALA’s argument is that the social mapping was undertaken while Angore was still part of the old PRL11 and therefore the results are of this process are null and void. Section 47 (5) of the Oil and Gas Act does require a full scale social mapping study to be submitted with the application for a PDL. It is beyond the scope of this thesis to undertake an analysis of the legal framework around petroleum development in PNG and I make no comment about the legitimacy or otherwise of ATALA’s claims, rather my intention is to provide an outline of the group’s own point of view. The PRLs are an amalgamation of several graticulated blocks and clans within these blocks have organised themselves into groups representing those blocks. The following map shows the graticular blocks within the former PRL11.

Map 8.2  PRL11 graticular blocks
(Sourced from Colin Filer, “The intractable problem of landowner identification in the PNG LNG
project: a historical perspective, SMLI Seminar, September 2016,” (Development Policy Centre,
Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University, 2016). )

ATALA claims the support of all clan groups within these block areas, which have formed themselves into smaller groups that include the Angore Wellhead block 1715 (comprising the central ATALA leadership), Pureni block 1642, Komo block 1787, Awatangi block 1788, and Hogobe block 1716. ATALA claims the support of 150 clans totalling around 100,000 people. 3 The gas resource tapped by the Angore wellhead is a later addition to the main resource at Hides and was planned to connect to the existing HGCP via an 11km pipeline. The ATALA leadership is quite separate from the group that came together to blockade the PNG LNG project in August 2016, but ATALA during that time gave their support for that action via their Facebook page, which has been the main forum for ATALA to communicate its objectives, which included asking “the Member for Tari Pori, Minister for Finance and Government Business Leader, Honorable James Marape to acquit the Angore PDL8 Project Area Funds which he has been paying to his political cronies.” Between 2016 and February 2018 ATALA was primarily a political voice that was generally well informed and articulate and engaged in online debate around PNG LNG land ownership issues and royalty payments. The 26 February earthquake induced a seismic shift in the attitude and approach taken by ATALA. The last post published prior to the earthquake was a lengthy and considered statement related to the continuing issue of landowner identification and included the observation that “Failures of successive attempts by the key State Agency stakeholders of the project is embarrassing for such an important project that underpins the economy of PNG for the next 30 years.” 4 The first post published after the earthquake simply stated, “Our struggle is a struggle that has no definition to the Government and Stakeholders of the PNGLNG Project. One day, Hell will break loose!” 5

On 21 June 2018 heavily armed ATALA representatives unleashed hell on ExxonMobil’s Angore camp, destroying buildings and machinery and shutting down the Angore tie-in project for the foreseeable future. Sources based in Tari told me that during this action 35 PNGDF soldiers were flown by helicopter to secure the camp. The soldiers positioned themselves to mount an attack against the landowners but
withdrew at the last moment when they realised that they were vastly outnumbered and outgunned. When the soldiers retreated their helicopter was shot at. ATALA published an account of the attack on their Facebook page that included the statement, “Exxon, we missed that chopper but its gonna come down. Look across and look at the smoke and flames. When you say so we talk.” ExxonMobil supplied the helicopter to the PNGDF for use in their action against the landowners. At the same time landowners at Komo under the umbrella leadership of ATALA placed a log across the Komo airfield and shut down the facility, also for the foreseeable future.

The founding document published by ATALA includes references to Gigira Lai Tebo in its vision and mission statements (Appendix E1). The vision statement:

In all the things we do – do them as all is for one and one is for all!;
in the guiding philosophies and underlying principles of the laitebo
The mission statement:
Work with honesty and integrity, and equitably share all benefits with
neither fear nor favour.
Work hard and transform the wisdom of the laitebo prophesy into
socioeconomic and political achievements for the Angore people
now and into the future.
Negotiate without violence, and work honestly and diligently with
the key stakeholders of the PNGLNG Project.

Like any good corporate vision or mission statement, the founding principles of the organisation rarely get a mention outside of their founding document context. “All for one and one for all” is an interesting rendering of the Gigira Lai Tebo idea, and a perfect illustration of the ways in which Huli mythology is at all times a living document available for the purpose of advancing Huli interests and endlessly adaptable
to ever-changing contemporary conditions. The principal of negotiation without violence was buried with the earthquake, and this change in approach is documented in a statement released on 21 May 2018 (Appendix E2) that includes, “Since the EQ Disaster in the Hela, Southern Highlands, Gulf and Western Province; the shift of the negotiating power is now with the people.” This statement gets to the core of the fundamental shift in power relations between people and the state that was permitted by the earthquake. The earthquake provided ATALA with the moral authority to assert itself militarily and to bypass the practice of negotiation and instead deploy violence to achieve its ends. In this action ATALA has made concerted effort to gain the support of a great number of clans across a greater part of Hela. State neglect in the context of the earthquake and its aftermath has become a form of violence in itself, as the inability and unwillingness of the state to provide adequate disaster relief has resulted in increased suffering for a great many people. Furthermore, the failure of the state to respond to natural disaster of such magnitude removes the previous logic that accompanied previous efforts at negotiation and the pursuit of state-based mechanisms such as court actions and political directions. For ATALA and its supporters violent action has become both a morally justifiable and rational method of advancing their cause. Hela must assert itself as a nation without the need for a state. State neglect has become more than just a source of frustration, but is revealed as a form of negative agency that must be combatted.

The boldness of ATALA was expressed not just through violent action, but in its demand for a standalone gas stripping facility for the Angore resource, and its offer to buy ExxonMobil out of its gas resource at Angore. A statement released by ATALA on 20 June 2018 (Appendix E3) asserts a sovereign claim to the gas resource, something had previously been ceded to the state in the expectation that the state and developer would act in the best interests of the landowners:

In Angore, ATALA Incorporated is the landlord, not the government of Papua New Guinea. ATALA Incorporated has taken over Angore PDL8 Operations including the 5.4 Trillion Cubic Feet of LNG.
This project, the PNGLNG Project, has brought curse and suffering to the people of Angore and we will need that now. ATALA Inc as the landlord is taking over the Angore PDL8 and will develop separately from the PNGLNG Project.

The document then outlines in some detail the economic mechanisms by which the Angore gas resource is to be utilised specifically for the benefit of the landowners within PDL8. It goes as far as demanding “a standalone gas stripping facility so as to determine and quantify how much LNG and Condensate are produced from our reserve which is an independent service to other gas-fields within and outside of the Hela Province.” On 2nd July ATALA published a Facebook post, which stated:

ExxonMobil, the Operator of PNGLNG Project is giving scare tactics that it will abandon the Angore PDL8 as part of the PNGLNG Project.
ExxonMobil abandoning some 6TCF proven reserve including additional 3TCF of probable reserve can be scary to its financiers and shareholders but is a welcoming news to ATALA Inc. Give us your SUNK COST at atalainc2020@gmail.com and we will pay you off to move out of Angore PDL8. ATALA Inc has the technical and financial capacity to develop Angore PDL8 as a standalone project for Hela and Papua New Guinea. If ExxonMobil and the Government do not want to take responsibility for their negligence than ATALA Inc has an easy way out for them. ATALA Inc proposes to pay the PROJECT SUNK COST! We either have a new deal to offload the Angore Petroleum Assets to ATALA Inc or the Government and ExxonMobil take responsibility for what is owed to ATALA Inc under current arrangement! PAY UP OR SHIP OUT!!!!

It would be easy to dismiss such rhetoric as a characteristic Huli display of hyperbole, melodramatic bombast and performance, if ATALA had not already attacked and destroyed ExxonMobil’s Angore base camp along with all of its machinery and successfully repelled a platoon of PNGDF soldiers in the process. The political impact of the earthquake was to negate the state and its development apparatus in ExxonMobil as legitimate entities. What remained was Angore PDL8 as a mini-state within the nation of Hela that had no choice but to go it alone backed by a legitimacy based on a concept of Gigira Lai Tebo that provided both the entitlement to the benefits of the gas resource and the moral authority to control it.

(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. 360-367.)

  1. It is more common to spell “Tiddy Apa” as “dindi apa”, “land father”. The Huli “d” is pronounced closer to the apical consonant sound of “t” and is often interchangeable with “d”. It is unclear why the “n” has been left out. []
  2. Laurence Goldman, “Full-Scale Social Mapping and Landowner Identification Study of PRL 11 – PNG LNG Gas Project,” Report commissioned by ExxonMobil (2008). []
  3. Lucy Woods, “Papua New Guinea landowners take up arms against natural gas project,” Mongabay (2018), ttps://news.mongabay.com/2018/06/papua-new-guinea-landowners-take-up-arms-againstnatural-gas-project/. []
  4. https://www.facebook.com/pg/angorePDL8/posts/?ref=page_internal, 10th November 2017 []
  5. Ibid. 28th April 2018 []