An Entry in the Essay Award
The highlands province of Hela is host to a multi-billion dollar liquefied natural gas project. But operating alongside the wonders of modern technology is a culture full of rich tradition and custom.
Hela functions on the patrilineal system, where the man owns everything: the land, the pigs and he is the heir of the father’s riches, knowledge of the sacred rites and traditional history.
In traditional Hela, pigs play an important role. The men use pigs to pay compensation, make feasts, pay bride price and meet communal obligations. Through pig wealth, the man becomes beneficent to the community.
A man’s wealth is determined by the number pigs he has. Men marry many wives to look after their pigs. If they have many pigs, they will build many pig houses.
To be a real man, there were many prerequisites. A man must be brave. He must run towards fear, not retreat. He must fight courageously in battle and kill many men.
But he must also own a lot of pigs. Before the emergence of modern billionaires, a traditional rich man was defined by the pigs he owned.
Today Forbes magazine nominates the rich list, but then the people in the community nominated the richest man. There would be consensus among the people as to who was the richest man.
Young women in the village had to fight to marry the richest man, a boon and a blessing to her family and tribe. Families wanted to be aligned with the rich man to build and gain prestige and hegemony over the clan and warring tribes.
During pig killing ceremony, the big man killed many pigs and distributed the meat to his extended family and neighbouring clans. He gained pleasure by seeing his pig killed and the meat distributed and given to his relatives to eat and celebrate.
The carcass of the beast was distributed amongst his vast extended family, so they could reciprocate when their time came. In the process, the big man gained fame and popularity, built new relationships and cemented existing ones.
The village folks who feast upon the big man’s generosity praised him and called him the man who kills pigs. He was praised by friend and foe alike.
The pig killing exploits increased his status and he became a big man in the community. He assumed leadership roles. He became the spokesman at important gatherings. He was consulted before the community performed a traditional ceremony. The community expected him to contribute more when there was a pig exchange ceremony.
It was culturally improper for someone else to kill a pig, cut it and give him a lesser share. If this happened, a heated argument erupted which usually resulted in tribal fighting. This could last many months and cost many lives.
Houses and other property including trade stores were burned down, all for the loss of a pig. The pig was a cultural icon that gave identity and value to the owner. To kill someone’s pig was to touch a cultural commodity that was highly prized. The pig gave the owner prestige, power and fame. For pigs, men were willing to fight to the last man. For their pig, they would die.
To the modern day Hela people, LNG is their biggest pig.
It is owned by the Hela people. It is found in their land and they are the host to the multi-billion dollar project.
Traditional legends predicted the time when the LNG project would come, symbolised by fire coming out of the earth. The ancient myth of their fathers was fulfilled before their eyes. They own the LNG gas.
Culturally, they have the right to a big say about how their pig is to be killed and distributed to their family and their extended tribesman around this beautiful nation. They should have been consulted with a sense of respect.
The decision to kill the pig and distribute it was made at a Kokopo hotel at a Landowner Benefit Sharing Agreement (LBSA) signing between government and illiterate land owners.
The landowners were induced to sign away their birthright after the offer of free beer, women and money.
To villagers who for most of their life had never seen civilisation, the LBSA ceremony was their moment when fantasy became reality. For many old folks who grew up hearing the legend, the LBSA ceremony was a dream come true. They were excited about what was taking place.
But what were they getting in reality? They had agreed to allow the developer to pipe their gas and export it. For this, they would receive a royalty a million times less than the developer.
The major beneficiaries are Exxon Mobil and its consortium of overseas investors and the PNG government. Moreover, some of the major decisions about the LNG project are decided in corporate boardrooms in America and other places.
Like the proverbial Esau who sold his birthright for a pot of soup, the Hela people were conned to sign away their heritage for a pittance.
Today, more than 10 years and 200 LNG shipments after the signing, many people in Hela are beginning to see that they were truly cheated by the developers and the government. They are still waiting for their money and many have borrowed substantially from private lenders in anticipation of the royalty windfall.
Instead of realising their dreams they are being chased by loan sharks. They are under pressure and many are dying without tasting even a small benefit of their long waited royalty.
Culturally, it is an insult to trick someone to get their biggest pig and give the owner less than he deserves. Rightfully he deserves a big portion because he is the owner. To deny the rightful heir and owner is unjust and immoral.
What is likely to happen is a rebellion by the Hela people against the developers and the government for taking their LNG and giving them less than they are entitled to.
When you give a Tari man less pig than he deserves he says, “Bring my pig back.” He is a child of his culture. He is conditioned by the assumptions of his culture. Tari men are also fearless fighters. They are not afraid to die. Fear is not in them. They are known even to kill themselves if things don’t go their way.
Some of the big ethnic clashes in the suburbs of Port Moresby have been ignited by Tarians. To deal with Tarians foolishly is to play with fire.
If the government and developers do not soon meet the demands of the landowners by giving them a fair share of the LNG proceeds, the people’s long impatience may explode causing another crisis in the new Hela Province.
When this happens it will shake the nation’s weak economy whose brightest hopes are bound in LNG. It will also undermine investor confidence in this nation.
What the government and investors need to do is remedy the mistake of yesteryear. They have to revisit the Landowner Benefit Sharing Agreement and give the owner of the biggest LNG a bigger share of his beast.
The British mining law adopted by Australia and the PNG government, which gives the government absolute right of all minerals under the ground, is draconian because it robs the people of their birthright.
This law makes foreign investors richer while the original landowners are marginalised on their own land.
When the men from Tari discover they have been marginalised, they will react with violence and it will be a seismic event whose tremors will be felt widely.