Sadly, the game begins! Last October LNGWATCH wrote: "Given that Exxon Mobil will be operating in a highly contested region, where their operations will come under threat from landowner protests, will they be able to responsibly control the security agencies protecting their operations ... Will Exxon Mobil [Esso Highlands parent] accept assistance from a paramilitary force (i.e. the Mobile Squads) with a sustained history of human rights abuses?". Of course, no response was ever given to these questions.
Now that villagers living near the LNG project have staged direction action protests, that have left Esso Highlands employees with minor injuries (of course, it is in the interests of Esso to play down the event, danger = higher labour costs), these issues are back on the cards in a very big way.
It appears that staff in the affected areas have been withdrawn. Esso Highlands' public relations manager has told the Post Courier: “The shutdown will continue until the safety and security of project personnel can be assured”.
This is what we might call a corporate euphemism. What Esso Highlands are asking for is more support from the mobile squads, or some national force that can protect their operation, supplemented by increased ministerial attention to landowner grievances.
Thus, over the coming weeks more mobile squad officers will no doubt be dispatched to affected regions to protect Esso Highlands' operations. The Somare government will also most likely announce a new initiative of some variety to resolve existing tensions.
Though in real terms, Esso Highland's request for assurances is unrealistic. For some in the Southern Highlands they are an unwanted exploiter, for others they are a welcomed but distrusted guest, who must offer serious benefits. With executives and government officials clearly overwhelmed by the complexity of the social systems they are dealing with, tensions will explode again, that is a certainty. In such an environment safety cannot be assured, especially if we take into account virulent arms circulation and the rugged terrain which punctuates the operation.
Consequently, over the coming months Esso Highlands and their parent company Exxon Mobil will need to innovate. There is no Indonesian style military in Papua New Guinea to force consent, despite the well documented authoritarian aspirations of Somare and co. Perhaps attention is being turned to a Sandline International, who can send in ex-special force troops from the US, Britain, Australia and elsewhere to install 'a bit of order' in the local communites. However, a more offensive use of private security forces would seem unlikely under present conditions.
Most likely enhanced strategies to win the peoples’ hearts and minds will be employed. However, when your objective is to make billions of dollars in profit in a context where local villagers live several days walk from basic medical attention, disparities in wealth and dislocation of culture, may be too palpable for any innovation to withstand.
Of course, those in the oil, gas and minerals industry will cry, “what’s the alternative”. For them profit, plunder, and growth fuelled by big capital, are sacred and unquestionable truths. In their eyes, there is no ‘realistic’ alternative to it. This is the mantra of modern day missionaries come to spread the word of neoliberalism, they are zealots for a social system that has undermined communities around Papua New Guinea for decades, while fuelling a state system beleaguered by corruption and cronyism.
Alternatives, of course, exist but it is often difficult for community leaders and activists promoting them to have their voices heard when the majestic prophecies of wealth and economic growth elicited by the elite and their intellectual cadre is so loudly trumpeted in the press and parliament. There are also very real risks associated with dissent at present in Papua New Guinea, especially when money is to be made, as the recent litigation over Ramu Nickel illustrates. Indeed the risk of beatings or worse now seems part of the course for those offering alternative solutions to the elite.
Meanwhile villagers in the Southern Highlands will do their best under extreme conditions to observe an oft forgotten constitutional duty: "We declare our first goal to be for every person to be dynamically involved in the process of freeing himself or herself from every form of domination or oppression so that each man or woman will have the opportunity to develop as a whole person in relationship with others".