ExxonMobil’s New Guinea Nightmare
“It was getting a bit tense,” said Catherine Wilson, an Australian freelance journalist who visited the site in March 2012. Local landowners told her they were summoned to a community meeting the previous month, where they were informed, she said, that “there is a document at the Mobile Police Squad station, and they are expected to go…and sign that agreement,” which allowed Esso Highlands access to repair the road. Anyone who didn’t, they were told, “will face the full force of the law.”
That same month, Joseph Warai, a local village leader, made similar allegations. According to Radio New Zealand, Warai said that “government and disaster officials, as well as police and military, have told locals that the 10 million kina [then about $5 million] in disaster-response funding promised by the government was conditional on the road being cleared.”
Fearful they would lose the aid, the landowners signed the documents permitting the work. As it turned out, the landowners received only $1.5 million. The remaining $3.5 million was spent on the road, according to both Warai and Jokoya Piwago, who was responsible for receiving and distributing the funds.
The LNG project, which will destroy 7,000 acres of tropical rain forest, has installed more than 400 miles of pipeline. (Olivier Pollet)
By early March, the road reopened—directly above the bodies of the buried victims. “In our culture, when a body is dead under the rock, there should be no one going in there,” Piwago told Wilson that month. “We respect our dead, but the government and companies, they did not listen. They just did the road on top of the bodies.”
Community protests and work stoppages continued, accompanied by frequent clashes with the police. In late March, landowner insurrection forced Esso Highlands to withdraw workers by chartered aircraft from a nearby wellhead and conditioning plant. Prime Minister O’Neill threatened to declare a state of emergency for the entire Hela Province.
Work on the project resumed two weeks later, but the protests and shutdowns were now exacting a financial toll. In late 2012, ExxonMobil announced a $3.3 billion cost blowout for its construction budget, a third of that amount attributed to work stoppages and protests over land access.
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Before the project began in 2009, there were only a handful of police officers in the area. By last year, more than 1,000 Mobile Police Squad officers, as well as army soldiers, were stationed there. Their mission was clear: to quell the frequent protests, over everything from wages and employment to land ownership and despoliation of the local environment, and keep the project running.
For years, human rights monitors have reported flagrant and systematic abuses of civilians by PNG police and soldiers, particularly the Mobile Police Squads. A 2005 Human Rights Watch report noted: “[I]ndividuals we interviewed described mobile squads raiding villages and urban settlements, burning houses, killing pigs, destroying gardens, and beating and sexually assaulting residents.” A 2009 Amnesty International report noted that earlier that year, officers with the Mobile Police Squads burned down at least 130 buildings near a gold mine in Wuangima, and in 2010 AI detailed reports of rape and assault surrounding the eviction of villagers for the project.
Kevin Munday, who was employed by MCJV as the Tumbi Quarry superintendent, said protest and insurrection were commonplace throughout his time there. “You didn’t go more than four days without a shutdown or a disturbance,” he said. According to Tumbi village leader Warai, in February 2012, a month after the landslide, police providing security for the project opened fire at a haus krai, a gathering of family and friends to mourn the deceased. That April, according to Warai, Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) officers opened fire on LNG project workers in the wake of a protest by landowners that their only source of water had been contaminated by pipeline construction. One worker was killed and two were injured.
In June 2013, Alfred Kaiabe, a lawyer and former member of Parliament, sent a letter to Peter Graham, the Esso Highlands managing director. Among several complaints, he addressed the use of Mobile Police Squads. “In recent times, your contractors have engaged the service of the police…to arrest landowners along the pipeline route and Angore wellhead areas and locked them up at Tari police cells…. They were beaten for standing up to [protest] intruders on their customary land.”
Police Superintendent Jimmy Onopia, the Hela Province commander for the RPNGC, made a similar assertion in an interview last year. He said ExxonMobil not only pays for the food and living expenses of the Mobile Police Squads; it also pays for their weapons. And former PNG police commissioner Gari Baki was even more direct in a 2010 interview with Radio Australia: “The LNG operations up in the southern highlands [are] basically being funded by ExxonMobil,” he said. “All police operations up there [are] entirely funded by ExxonMobil.”
If Onopia is correct about the weapons, it would violate ExxonMobil’s memorandum of understanding with the RPNGC, which specifies the “types of assistance that can be provided by EHL (food, lodging, fuel, vehicles, travel) and types of assistance that are prohibited (provision of weapons, ammunition).” If ExxonMobil has been paying for weapons for the Mobile Police Squads, “then clearly that’s outrageous,” said Kristian Lasslett, a lecturer with the University of Ulster and a PNG coordinator for the International State Crime Initiative. “If that is accurate, then Exxon is becoming complicit in crimes that are being committed by the mobile squads.”
ExxonMobil says that its Esso Highlands subsidiary, now called ExxonMobil PNG Limited, “is committed to conducting business in a way that protects the safety and security of its personnel, facilities and operations, and respects human rights.” It notes that the PNG government “has responsibility for maintaining law and order” and says that “EMPNG cannot, and does not, control the day-to-day operations or decisions of the PNG police or any other security personnel.” Furthermore, it insists that while “we may provide support in prescribed areas, for example, transportation,” such support “specifically excludes provision of weapons.”
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ExxonMobil’s relentless pursuit of new oil and natural gas reserves around the globe has often led the firm into treacherous terrain, requiring it to make alliances with unstable, corrupt governments and their security forces in places like Indonesia, Equatorial Guinea, Chad and Nigeria. According to Steve Coll, author of Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, the company “has tried to wring as much risk out of its operations as is humanly possible to do, through rule-making, manuals and a rigid corporate culture. But the dilemma they have is, their business model keeps driving them into places that are full of political risk.”
In Papua New Guinea, ExxonMobil went deep into the remote highlands of a country known for tribal conflict, violence and political corruption. More than 97 percent of the region is controlled by indigenous communities, in which land is owned and administered in accordance with tribal customs and conveyed to the next generation orally. It is a complex and delicate arrangement that has endured for centuries in an agrarian society that consists of hundreds of different tribes and languages, and where land disputes have often been resolved through violence. It is not a system that’s convenient for a foreign multinational looking to install 400 miles of pipeline, wellheads and a huge liquefaction plant on deadline.