Double anguish for landslide survivors
Near Tari, in remote Hela Province in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, the landslide which hit the villages of Tumbi and Tumbiago on January 24 has left a lunar landscape of destruction. Rivers meander around haphazard hills of rock and earth, and trees have been tossed like matchsticks, buried head first with roots sprouting toward the sky.
In a matter of minutes, all trace of two villages that had lived in harmony with the surrounding green fertile mountains for 13 generations was obliterated.
The landslide occurred two years after the start of the US$15 billion ($18.5 billion) PNG LNG Project.
The nation's largest liquefied natural gas project, which plans to start deliveries to Asian buyers in 2014, is operated by Esso Highlands, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil.
After the nine-hour drive from Mt Hagen across rocky unsealed mountain roads, I instinctively scoured the earth for the smallest sign that human life had thrived here.
Jokoya Piwako, chief of Tumbi and Tumbiago villages, who escaped the landslide by minutes, reminded me we were standing on top of the home and remains of his family.
Still deeply traumatised more than a month after the disaster, he recounted what happened.
"Early in the morning, I woke up to go to work around 5 o'clock. I went out about 1km; then I heard the landslide come [about 5:45am]. I heard a big sound of smashing of the stone.
"All the rocks and everything went up in the air and the big wall of water, the rivers came in. Then after that, all the trees and stones and rocks up in the air came down and covered all the houses and children.
"I just couldn't believe what had happened to my village, because all of my family, children, everything was gone with the house, everything."
Chief Jokoya lost two wives, four children, several uncles and 15 to 20 visitors who were staying in his guesthouse at the village.
The PNG Red Cross says 60 people died and 42 homes were destroyed.
Women, such as Nogole Toja, are grappling with the loss of children.
"I lost my two sons and I'm grieving," she said, "I am out of my mind and I can't eat and sleep well."
For those who survived, grief is now mixed with discontent over what they believe caused the landslide.
As we stood above the location of his village, Chief Jokoya pointed to the broken wall of the Tumbi Quarry several hundred metres uphill.
In the quarry, which contains the Tumbi Quarry River, Esso Highlands and its sub-contractor, MCJV/CCJV, were extracting aggregate last year to build a 5km airstrip at nearby Komo.
Villagers say the sub-contractor used explosives and chemicals at the headwaters of the Tumbi and Tumbiago rivers.
The chief also alleges that quarry workers restricted and changed the course of the Tumbi Quarry River, against his advice. He believes the waterway became blocked, gradually increasing pressure on the quarry.
Esso Highlands' spokeswoman Rebecca Arnold said: "No blasting was ever done by the project contractors at Tumbi Quarry ... The project contractor completed work at the Tumbi Quarry in August 2011."
Dr Kristian Lasslett, PNG co-ordinator of the International State Crime Initiative and lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster, commented: "What has become evident is that Exxon Mobil has underestimated the legal, political, cultural, social and environmental complexities associated with a large-scale resource operation in Papua New Guinea, and it is at risk of not meeting the production deadlines.
"Indeed, we have seen the project's independent monitor claim the current emphasis on project schedules is eroding safety at PNG LNG."
In March last year, concerns about project safety in the Tumbi Quarry were highlighted in a report by independent environmental and social consultant D'Appolonia, which said work was behind schedule, there was inadequate project stewardship and the "quarry requires substantial modification to be safely operated".
But Arnold says the consultant's recommendations on "enhanced project stewardship" were adopted, and in August last year, the consultant had said "the Tumbi Quarry appeared to be well operated".
Relatives of those who died remain unconvinced.
"We've been here for 600 years in our villages, and we have never seen that type of landslide," Nelson said.
But if the landslide was devastating enough, relatives of the deceased faced a second shock soon after.
A section of the road vital for project access to Komo was blocked by the avalanche. Still homeless, without any state assistance and with no attempt made by any agency to search for or recover remains of those who perished, villagers watched as workmen bulldozed a road across the landslide on top of their villages and the bodies of those who died.
According to Esso Highlands: "The road was reopened following repair work undertaken by the Department of Works and the PNG Defence Force corps of engineers.
"The Government consulted with the leaders in the local community about access to restore the road and they were allowed to proceed."
But relatives of those who perished said they were not given any say in the matter.
They claim they were threatened by Esso Highlands and the National Disaster Centre with repercussions if they tried to prevent the roadwork.
"In our culture, when a body is dead under the rock, there should be no-one going in there," Chief Jokoya said, "We respect our dead, but the government and companies they did not listen. They just did the road on top of the bodies. They used force."
Said grieving mother Sandy Toja: "My son is down there and on top the vehicles are running. How can this be? The companies know all the peoples are down there. They shouldn't be doing this I am really angry."
Weeks after the road was completed that anger has not dissipated. Relatives from both villages, which did not receive any benefits or services from the LNG Project, have resolved to seek an independent investigation or commission of inquiry.
"If the Government doesn't do anything about it, I'll get a court order and I'll stop the company so it is not to do the LNG Project in our area," declared Chief Jokoya.
"They are concerned about the income or revenue, but they are not concerned about the lives of the communities."By Catherine Wilson