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.

When I asked former kiap John Hocknull how Huli at Komo reacted to independence, he responded that the strong reaction was not to independence, but earlier in 1973 when the National Emblem of Papua New Guinea replaced the crown that was worn on the policemen’s uniforms. The crown had been recognised as the head of power from which all social order emanated, and its removal, according to Hocknull, was like the sky had fallen in. Today the absence of the PNG state in Hela, and especially in the remoter areas of the PNG LNG project operations at Komo and Hides, is palpable. When the landowners attacked the PNG LNG project, they were attacking not ExxonMobil but the state of Papua New Guinea. Hela, much like the imagined state of Papua New Guinea, or the imagined status of the crown, is constituted as an idea, and has more salience in its idealised form than does the material presence of the world’s largest oil and gas company. ExxonMobil is regarded as a tool, as an exclusively material entity being used by the state for its own benefit. The landowners did not attack the tool, but the entity that wielded it. The state therefore, constituted as an absence, only loomed larger as its absence became the defining issue of the conflict.

Another factor in ExxonMobil’s favour is the fact of its minimal environmental footprint in Hela. What impact the LNG project has on the landscape consists of infrastructure: the Komo airfield, the gas conditioning plant, even the waste incinerator, are all viewed as orderly and technologically advanced examples of material development. Unlike Bougainville there is no open cut mine polluting the river system through riverine tailings disposal. Land ownership, or more accurately landrights identity (as described in Chapter 7), is as much about the historical use of the land as it is about genealogical connections to land. It is possible to lose rights over land through neglect. If your garden is allowed to become overgrown and go to waste then you are at risk of someone else coming along to work and improve the land and thereby gain rights to its occupation. ExxonMobil is doing work to the land and has a degree of user rights as a result. Had the PNG LNG project resulted in pollution to large tracts of land and waterway it is likely that ExxonMobil would have been imagined as an active agent in the destruction of Hela and the PNG LNG project would be unlikely to have survived for as long as it has. In the nation of Hela, state trumps company, but land trumps them both, and Marape’s first duty was therefore to Hela.

The PNG LNG project is so vast in scale and conception that its gravitational pull has reduced the development aspirations of Hela to a singularity. Every hope and dream of every Hela citizen was expected to be realised via the LNG wealth that had been imagined without end. PNG LNG was imagined by the project’s main protagonists, ExxonMobil and Oil Search, the PNG state, as well as the Huli population, as a paradigm shift in the material landscape of the people and of the future.

Huli had been here before when the Long Island volcano erupted and changed their world utterly and instantly. By the time of the PNG LNG project the cultural memory of that event was in full retreat and its “time of darkness” no longer evoked in Huli expectations of the future. But an expectation of apocalyptic transformation remained as a habitus of anticipation that was ready and open to the promises of PNG LNG to which Huli were ancestrally entitled. PNG LNG became the new mbingi and Gigira Lai Tebo was elevated from being one of a vast collection of bi te 1 across Huli territory into the realm of truth evidenced unmistakably by the giant fire that burns day and night from the top of ExxonMobil’s flaring tower. The immoral behaviour that was threatening the realisation of PNG LNG as disaster rather than saviour was in the corrupt practices of the state, and of Huli elites.

The landowners who came to shut the project down in August 2016 spoke to me in terms of their impoverished relatives living without proper education and health care facilities, without good roads, power supply and sanitation. Yet these same leaders were satisfied with a cash payment from the state and were dutifully resent to Hela a month later when Hides locals threatened to disrupt the project again. One leader, upon his return to Komo, showed me a photo sent to his phone of a 10M Kina cheque from Kumul Petroleum Holdings. He had come armed with a pistol because he was being accused by some of his clansmen of corruption. He told me that the cheque had not been banked yet, but it was clear that the leadership group was being paid to keep their clansmen under control. He was nervous and burdened with ethical crisis and perhaps showed me the cheque as a way of trying to resolve his internal conflictions.

The Moresby-based Huli elites were in financial trouble because of their borrowings against the expected royalties that never came. This situation made it easy for the state to pay them off to keep the PNG LNG project from serious disruption. At Komo I interviewed a heavily-armed clan who were boasting to me about the amount of firepower they possessed: MAG 58 machine guns and shoulder-mounted rocket launchers. They were all scathing about PNG LNG and spoke of plans to send AIDS victims on suicide missions to attack the well heads with rockets. When I asked what was stopping them from taking action against the project they went quiet and humbly replied that they were “waiting for our leaders to give us the green light.” Their “head man” leaders, agali haguene, were traditionally the holders of inherited knowledge of land-based genealogies (dindi malu) for their clans that was deployed during land disputes. This leadership category is therefore “not subject to competition” 2 as the knowledge had to be passed down from father to son and was tightly controlled, only emerging during the land dispute process.

In the context of resource development the possession of dindi malu knowledge has taken on a broader significance as it relates to the prospect of development and cash. Clan members are extremely reluctant to challenge this form of leadership, even as the agali haguene appear to be using their knowledge and status to enrich themselves. There is simply no mechanism in place for their authority to be challenged and the prospect of organised protest and even overthrow of a corrupt leadership is extremely difficult. Huli are such staunch individualists that disgruntled feelings tend to remain expressions of individual points of view that lack the power of organisation.

Huli individuals, even political leaders, were not shy in telling me that their leaders were corrupt, yet the ability to coordinate structural change did not seem to exist. As disenchantment with the PNG LNG project intensified through the second half of 2016 the authority of the Hides leadership group began to erode. At the same time the authority of Hela as a concept only grew as both the state and those Huli leaders who were seen to be in the pockets of the state were viewed with increasing levels of contempt. The emergence of Hela as a political movement had its genesis in the 1970s when Huli started to become aware of the resource development potential of the PNG highlands. 3 In 1974 Andrew Wabiria, the member for Koroba-Lake Kopiago, moved a motion in the original PNG House of Assembly for the creation of a separate Hela Province. 4 The development of Hela’s oil and gas fields during the 1980s encouraged the incorporation of the Hela Gimbu Association, which grew out of the Hela Association of the 1970s, but with renewed impetus for the creation of a Hela Province to be in control much of this resource wealth. 5

As the PNG LNG project started to become a reality, and the start of construction works neared, the stakes were raised to such an extent that Huli leaders were threatening the existence of the project and to boycott the 2007 national elections if a separate Hela Province was not created. 6 By 2011, with construction well underway, the threat “no Hela no LNG” was still a common refrain and warnings of another Bougainville had started to become mainstream, 7 ironically voiced by the member for Tari-Pori James Marape who would later have this threat thrown back at him during the Hides blockade in 2016. By the time Hela Province was finally declared in 2012, the Hela Gimbu Association was moved to describe the future for Hela in terms of “…the Hela people now living that dream.” 8

Among the broad tranche of Huli predictions about the future and its impending doom is the common refrain that children will no longer listen to their elders. This perception, among several others, fits so neatly into the Western doomsday canon that that its familiarity causes its historical relevance to be easily overlooked. But as Ballard has shown, doomsday predictions such as those found in the Book of Revelation “are readily appreciated in the context of a Huli understanding of mbingi.” 9 The deterioration in Huli society throughout the course of 2016 was clearly evident, and was most manifest in the violent actions of those with the least to lose. During the second half of 2016 the leadership authority and power of the Hides leadership group, and of political leadership in general, began to undergo profound structural change. That at least one leader found it necessary to arm himself against his clansmen was perhaps the first sign of this change. In November my Komo host Charles Haluya was involved in an ambush when the vehicle in which he was travelling was held up at a road block at Ligame, between Nogoli and Kulu. The road block was in relation to the long-standing conflict between Tobe and Tambaruma clans and supporters of Tambaruma stopped the car in search of Tobe allies. The car contained Charles, the Hela interim governor Francis Potape, an LLG councillor, and a driver. The councillor was the target and ordered to exit the vehicle. Francis Potape placed himself between the councillor and the gunmen and dared them to shoot him instead. However, his authority was ignored and in the affray both the councillor and driver were shot dead. Charles explained the event in terms of frustrations over government corruption and lack of services from the PNG LNG project. Power now came from the barrel of a gun rather than respect for any form of office or inherited authority, traditional forms of knowledge, or even the agency of talk that has been of fundamental importance to Huli cultural praxis.

In November 2016 I had moved to Tari and witnessed with increasing dismay the regular shootouts that would inevitably occur every Friday at the Tari market. I witnessed the VSO ambulance rushing from the Tari hospital to collect the wounded while shots rang out around the town. During one particularly bad day a friend and prominent Tari business man drove me around the town to find out what was happening. We spoke to police who said that they had shot one of the gunmen in the leg and took him straight to the lockup. It was police policy to not send wounded gunmen to hospital as punishment for their involvement. As a passenger I was handed a large 32 round Glock 9mm pistol to carry, which I politely refused. The gunmen had scouts placed around the town and were able to communicate with each other via mobile phone. Any attempt by the police to capture the offenders by creating roadblocks was easily thwarted as those involved would always know exactly what the police were doing. The gunmen were young, uneducated, in a permanent state of poverty, bored, frustrated, and angry. As gunmen they were considered by their peers as heroic warriors, which was far more than they had ever received from the PNG LNG project.

For a time, the approach of the 2017 elections gave pause to the deterioration of social conditions. Elections were viewed as a source of hope and an opportunity for people to change Hela for the better via the electoral process. In reality these elections were realised in a climate of entrenched corruption that produced results that did not reflect the intentions of the majority of voters, in addition to the many eligible voters who found themselves excluded from the electoral roles. An analysis of the 2017 elections in Hela Province is beyond the scope of this thesis, however the assessment provided by the University of Sydney’s Electoral Integrity Project gave PNG a score of 35 on their Perception of Electoral Integrity Index, placing PNG alongside Zimbabwe in the category of “very low”. 10 Suffice to say that this perception at least mirrors that of the vast majority of the population of Hela. The much-maligned member for Tari-Pori, James Marape, was returned on the back of a voter turnout of 145%. 11 The elections were followed by the familiar process of endless legal challenges, particularly between the two main rivals for the Hela governorship, Philip Undialu and Francis Potape. Meanwhile the PNG LNG project continued to supply LNG to foreign markets unabated and by mid 2017 was operating at 25% above nameplate capacity. 12

Then on 2 March 2018, Reuters reported that ExxonMobil had declared force majeure on exports from the PNG LNG project, following the earthquake that hit the facility four days earlier. 13

Next: Huli Dindi Dumbirumbi (Earthquake)

(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. 349-356.)

  1. Literally “talk see”, Huli fictional story telling, mentioned in Chapter 5 []
  2. Laurence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, 81. []
  3. Ibid., 114. []
  4. Manasupe Zurenuoc and Felicity Herbert, “The Creation of Two New Provinces in Papua New Guinea – A Story of False Starts and Near Fatal Collisions” []
  5. Gorethy Kenneth, “Jiwaka, Hela get nod,” Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, 12 March 2009. []
  6. Robert Palme, “Helas to boycott polls,” Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, 17 April 2007. []
  7. Jo Chandler, “Papua New Guinea teeters on a wide political fault line,” The Age, 3 September 2011 []
  8. Hela Gimbu Association, “Hela mouth-piece thank Wenge,” Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, 1 August 2012. []
  9. Chris Ballard, “The Fire Next Time: The Conversion of the Huli Apocalypse.” []
  10. Pippa Norris, Thomas Wynter, and Sarah Cameron, Corruption and Coercion: The Year in Elections 2017, (The Electoral Integrity Project, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney, 2018) []
  11. Sean Dorney, “Lessons from the PNG elections,” The Interpreter (2017), []
  12. Oil Search Limited, “Company Upate – October 2017,” (2017). Nameplate capacity is the nominal rated maximum output capacity. []
  13. Reuters, “Exxon declares force majeure on exports from Papua LNG project-source,” (2018), []