“Fighting is a way of life”

Papua New Guinea’s increase in tribal conflict is exacerbated by presence of multinational oil companies in the region and an influx of firearms.
Photo: Thomas Jordan/CC BY-NC 2.0/ Source: Flickr

Tribal fighting in Papua New Guinea (PNG), where loyalty to tribe trumps loyalty to country, and an attack on one is viewed as an attack on all, is certainly not new.

While PNG has not kept official records of deaths as a result of tribal conflict, conflict is regularly used, at times even encouraged, and viewed as an acceptable way of dealing with disputes and seeking justice.

However, since 2010,  the violence in PNG’s Hela Province, located in the most remote region of the island’s highlands, has reached an unprecedented level.  The result is hundreds of deaths a year and over 20,000 people living in protracted displacement as entire villages are burned to the ground.

Hela Province is home to PNG’s resource boom, namely in oil and gas, but the associated unequal distribution of wealth has instilled a sense of jealousy and injustice among and between local tribes, acting as one of the primary causes of the escalated violence in the region.

With a population of 7 million, PNG is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world; over 800 languages are spoken and there are hundreds of distinct tribes and social groups. Moreover, over 80 percent of the population live in rural areas, many of which lack access to basic infrastructure and services.

In the past, fighters abided to traditional laws that cherished principles of protection of women and children, forbade burning houses with people inside, and prohibited the use of tear gas or bombs.

Those rules, a group of fighters who spoke to a team from the ICRC explained, no longer apply, “our traditional law has been forgotten and now we kill women and children like wild pigs.”

Largest underdeveloped oil reserves outside of Qatar

There are a number of factors at play accounting for the increased violence in PNG’s highlands.

Situated in the Hela Province is the largest resource extraction project in the Asia-Pacific region, known as the Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas Project (LNG).

Constructed at $19 billion, the LNG is the single largest investment in the country’s history and is operated by American oil company ExxonMobil in a joint venture with Papua New Guinea oil company Oil Search and four other partners, including the PNG government.

These multinational oil companies have come to PNG Southern highlands in order to exploit what is thought to be the largest underdeveloped oil reserves outside of Qatar.

Lauded Internationally, releasing hell locally

The project began eight years ago, ExxonMobil undertook a public relations campaign with the promise of bringing prosperity to local communities, including road sealing, infrastructure, cash royalties to landowners, and further social benefits.

ExxonMobil notes investments made in local communities on their website, such as investing in large infrastructure projects and supporting agricultural production. The LNG project is often lauded by government institutions, and even the UN, due to its potential to raise GDP (up to 150 percent) and triple export revenue.

However, on a local level, many of the social benefits promised by the project partners have failed to materialize. Locally, PNG has actually dropped two places on the human development indicator index, from 152 to 154, since the project began, echoing the surge in violence.

Land Ownership and war

Over 97 percent of the land in the Hela Province of PNG is occupied by indigenous communities in which land is owned and administered by means of tribal customs and transferred orally. In a country consisting of over 800 ethnic groups and languages, this is not an ideal system for a multinational company to conduct business in.

Much of the violence in the Hela Province is associated with land ownership disputes, this occurred before the LNG project but has been exacerbated with the prospect of compensation.

One example of this is the Komo airfield which was built to fly materials in for the construction of the LNG and occupies an area of approximately 1500 hectares. Numerous tribes claim ownership of the land that the airfield sits on and the site has subsequently caused multiple clashes and dozens of deaths between the numerous tribes who claim ownership of the land.  

Fighting also occurs overcompensation when money is paid to individuals (always men) who fail to distribute the funds properly or even support their own families. In this way, the violence in the Hela Province not only occurs between tribes but also within them.

The rise of gun culture

The escalating violence in the Hela Province has been made worse by the influx of firearms in the country; associated with an 82 percent increase in the mortality from interpersonal violence.  In the Hela Province, there is a constant, overt demand for firearms which are possible to purchase due to the large amounts of cash paid to people for land compensation.

In this way, PNG separates itself from the rest of the islands in the Western Pacific where demand for firearms is small to non-existent.

As well as becoming a symbol of status for men young and old, the motivations for the acquisition of firearms are mainly associated with the noted tribal fighting as well as to perpetrate crime and to coerce and influence political activities.  

Recent accounts talk of tribesmen creating road blockades to demand compensation for adversities caused by LNG activities, holding hostages in exchange for the release of clan members, and recently, blockading an ExxonMobil conditioning plant and demanding the company honour a benefits-sharing agreement.

There is little that police can do in these situations as they are greatly outnumbered by the armed local population.

Bleak outlook

ExxonMobil and its partners are not all to blame for the rise of violence in PNG. It is also worth considering that PNG is ranked 136th by Transparency International on the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index. The frustration many Papua New Guineans have towards the LNG is directed towards both the oil companies as well as their own government for what is viewed as neglect and a lack of accountability.

Empty promises made by oil companies, and in turn, the PNG government who does business with them, take the form of new hospitals with no staff, beds, or fuel, new staff houses but no staff, and a lack of the tangible benefits locals were told they could expect.

The violence and warfare which are a part of daily life in PNG’s Hela Province are, in part, a representation of the disregard for the cultural context in which a multinational company conducts business. Lack of accountability by the PNG government and an influx of firearms exacerbate the problem.

If the LNG project continues the way it has, it is unlikely that the conflicts in the Hela Province will end anytime soon, as one tribesman told a reporter, “fighting is a way of life, and we will fight to the death to protect what is ours if we have been cheated.”

EnvironmentHuman Rights
Claire McMahon

Claire is a researcher at a non-profit in San Francisco which is dedicated to engaging the public in a broad range of international affairs issues. Previously, she worked in Nepal where she conducted a study on women's workloads and the gendered division of labor in the context of community forestry. She received her MSc in International Development from the University of Edinburgh in 2017 and has bachelor’s degrees in international policy and anthropology. Claire is particularly interested in advocating for gender equity and human rights, whether that's in her own backyard or within a global context.
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