"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".

- Papua New Guinea National Goals and Directive Principles

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A Political Economy of the Tumbi Disaster

PM O'Neil comforts a woman who lost her young son at Tumbi. Source: Post-Courier

All is quite in Tumbi.

While LNG Watch is doing its best - with no financial resources - to contact local residents, report on their concerns, and relay vital information from key experts, the press is entranced with mutinies in Port Moresby.

Surely more than one plate can be spun at a time; after all we are talking about one of the worst disasters in PNG's history. For those who can remember Australia's Thredbo landslide,  they will recall the media was camped out at the disaster site 24/7, relaying news of survivors, conveying the suffering of victims, and keeping a spotlight on the issue to ensure politicians acted.

This is not occurring in Tumbi. As a result of this silence, the public are unaware of the desperate humanitarian situation. They are also unaware that two leading international landslide experts - Prof Dave Petley and Prof Tim Sullivan - have gone on  record and demanded  a vigorous, wide-ranging investigation.

The O'Neil government has promised an independent investigation, which is good. However, we should be under no illusion about the complexity and difficulty of the task ahead. First, there is the scientific challenges investigators will face. However, these challenges may pale into insignificance in comparison to the political hurdles.

It would appear ExxonMobil, despite their loud claims to the contrary, are extremely worried that they will not meet the 2014 production date. Were this to occur, the consequences for the LNG operater would be severe. ExxonMobil have forward sales contracts - if they fail to meet their obligations in this respect, they will suffer financial penalties and possibly the loss of significant business. Consequently, they will not want investigators stirring up untoward findings that could inflame already tense relations with landowners. A major shut-down of the operation, would leave the project reeling (and a lot of people, not only foreigners, have a lot of money riding on the operation; look at the luxury hotels popping up in Port Moresby).

Compounding matters, the O'Neil government are faced with almost daily challenges from the ousted - and corrupt - Somare regime. In order to consolidate their own position in power, the O'Neil government has enacted a large program of public spending designed to woo voters. In this political climate, the O'Neil government cannot afford to take steps which might upset the very future income stream their grand gestures are based upon.

Therefore, while we hope to be proven wrong, it would appear better for both ExxonMobil and the O'Neil government if this sorry saga is allowed to gently drift off into the night. It is a Pandoras box, which no one in power really wants to open. Nevertheless, they do not lack the capacity. The O'Neil government includes a number of capable Ministers (e.g. Sam Basil) who have the credentials, respect, and ability to ensure a robust investigation occurs.

The more feet drag on this issue, the more suspicions will grow that there is something to hide. If this indeed was simply a tragic act of nature, then it would be in everyone's interest if the government and LNG venture cooperated to get a robust investigation under way. Moreover, this should be accompanied by a program of humanitarian assistance. People are in desperate need, and many families need to be relocated to safe areas, without being thrown into dependency.  

Now is the time for journalists to stand up and be counted; it is during these periods of crisis and turmoil that the media can prove its critical worth to the public. There is only so much NGOs and bloggers can do. Therefore, we hope renewed efforts will be placed into shining a spotlight on the disaster.

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