The presence of police and mobile brigade soldiers at construction sites for the PNG LNG (liquefied natural gas) project in Papua New Guinea ― majority owned by Exxon Mobil ― is an indication of the community discontent surrounding the project.
Fears have been raised that conflict over the project could provoke violence like that of Bougainville in the 1990s.
Exxon Mobil and its partners plan to invest US$15 billion in the project, including a production and processing site near Tari, Hela Province, in the Southern Highlands, and a liquefaction and storage plant near Port Moresby, Inter Press Service said on April 16.
Once operational, the project is expected to double PNG's gross domestic product.
Landowners in affected areas have held many protests against the company since building began in 2010, over claims that many were ripped off in deals for compensation and infrastructure funding.
Many landowners complained of being left out of negotiations altogether.
The Post-Courier reported on November 8 last year that MP Francis Potape said many landowners were angry at not being paid when “certain 'handpicked landowners' who are friends with cabinet ministers and key people in departmental heads” had received government funds.
Locals in the Southern Highlands region have stopped building several times with road blockades and site occupations. Some of them involved threats and violence against workers.
Police used tear gas and fired warning shots at a landowner protest outside the prime minister's office in Port Moresby on March 6, the National said the next day. Police said they would treat future protests as “unlawful assemblies”.
The government announced on April 2 that soldiers would be sent to Hela and Porgera in neighbouring Enga province to help police control protests, Radio New Zealand International said that day.
Spokesperson for Hela landowners Sir Alred Kaiabe told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat on March 26 violence was likely to escalate.
"It will definitely get worse,” he said. “Far worse than the Bougainville crisis.
“We are Highlanders and we are known for fighting. Fighting is a way of life and we will fight to the day to protect what is theirs if they have been cheated."
Two deadly events related to the project have already occurred this year, causing further outrage against the company and government.
The first was a landslide in Hela Province on January 24, believed to be caused by work at a quarry used for the LNG project. The villages of Tumbi and Tumbiago were destroyed, killing up to 60 people.
Instead of searching for survivors, the government and company chose to clear access roads for the LNG project, LNG Watch said on April 11. This included building a road over the dead.
Locals were forced to dig for their relatives by hand.
When locals blocked earthmoving equipment in protest, officials threatened to withhold 10 million kina (nearly A$5 million) in disaster response funding, Radio New Zealand International said on February 16.
LNG Watch said on February 23 that Exxon Mobil and partner Oil Search Limited had helped manage the National Disaster Committee (NDC) investigation into the landslide, whose report found that “heavy rainwater” was responsible for the disaster.
The NDC was later forced to admit the report was flawed and that they were yet to conduct a proper investigation or establish the cause, LNG Watch said on February 14.
Official inquiries into the disaster promised by the government and company have failed to happen.
The second deadly incident took place at Tamadigi camp on April 3, when one worker was killed and another had his head grazed by a bullet when police guarding the construction site opened fire, LNG watch said on April 5.
The incident was sparked when workers began arguing with officers over the police's treatment of local residents protesting against the LNG project.
However, an Exxon Mobil spokesperson denied the worker was killed by police, PNGIndustryNews.net said on April 11. However, the spokesperson gave no alternate explanation for the death. A company inquiry into the incident has yet to produce any results.
Workers on the PNG LNG project have also complained of “discrimination, unfair dismissal, and a lack of union representation in the workplace”, LNG Watch said on May 1.
The police in the area have acted as a security force for PNG LNG. The National said on May 3 last year an investigation had recommended the memorandum of understanding between police and the company be terminated.
It said mobile brigades were specially reassigned to project sites and that officers' expenses, accommodation, food and body armour were paid for by the company.
LNG Watch said on November 10, 2010: “A figure of K2 million has been cited as the per month subsidy Exxon Mobil are/will provide the RPNGC for security services.”
Government complicity in the activities of PNG LNG reflects the state's commitment to fostering corporate profit-making and enriching PNG's elite while most people languish in Third World conditions.
People directly affected by the project may eventually see some development in their area. But it will be only crumbs compared with the wealth taken out of the country by the Western companies involved.