Munago lives in a hut alongside a pile of soda cans. He’s the sort of Huli shaman who, if you rely on Google image search, you would expect to meet in a place like Papua New Guinea—shirtless, in a grass skirt, with a thin wooden spear through his nose. With two young mohawked boys, he led me through the bush to a shrine, rolling back a leafy curtain to reveal seven skulls. He pointed: “This is my father, my grandpa, great grandpa….” and so on. After a ritual that involved his father’s rolling skull and a stretcher made of twigs and leaves, Munago had a vision of a doomed Hela Province thanks to the Exxon pipeline that’s been built throughout the region. Then, he showed me to his gift shop.
Anderson Agiru, the governor of this province, takes credit for having the vision first, but unlike Munago, he’s optimistic. From a jungle resort in Hela’s capital Tari, he proudly beckoned his chopper from nearby Mount Hagen in order to give me a tour of the Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) project he believes will transform his homeland forever.
As we glided above the lush valley, he pointed out railways, construction projects, and two international airports embedded within the tropical paradise. Agiru laughed about how one of the airports needed a complete overhaul because a runway had to be rotated only a few degrees. He pointed out a hospital built for the locals, which appeared from our birds-eye view as a half finished shell. He ran through a list of foreign companies with contracts throughout the region. Then he showed me where the gas was fracked, with pride. “This is like Avatar, the movie.” I said, to which he smiled proudly. “Yes, yes,” he said, patting me on the leg.
Had I met Agiru at cocktail party in New York, I’d have thought he was brilliant. The man came from one of the last regions touched by Western civilization and now does business on a global scale, slowly uplifting his people into the modern age after centuries of setback. If you were Munago or one of the people struggling to afford to live in Tari, you might think of him as the ultimate traitor who’s colluded with foreign imperialists to exploit the homeland without giving natives their fair share. Unlike the Na’vi of James Cameron’s epic, people here want their money. They want cellphones and air conditioning, but more than that they want the basics: schools, roads, running water, hospitals, and cars.
Until a decade ago, some people in Papua New Guinea traded with pigs and shells, or Kina. According to local writer Lucas Kawage, you could buy the entire guesthouse we were staying in for 5 or 6 pigs. Now the image of that Kina shell graces their actual Kina monetary note, and it costs more than $300 (or 4 pigs) per night. Over the last decade, $19 billion from the PNG government and Exxon has flowed into the economy and locals, all of a sudden, have become cash rich. Pipeline and road workers on the way to Lake Kutubu told me they made 100 times the money working for the LNG project than they had as farmers—and none them were saving any of it. Some spent their money in Port Moresby on alcohol, hotels, and prostitutes. Judging by the level of development in Tari, the province capital—next to none—it is also clear little money has actually been invested back into the local economy. As a result of resource development and multinational subcontractors, the economy of the Papua New Guinea has suffered staggering inflation. Just walking through Tari’s main market, where goods from groceries to solar panels are sold on sheets strewn upon the mud, you can see tell that living in PNG costs more money than living in SoHo.
I travelled around the region, stopping to talk to local people, some working for contractors, some even wearing Exxon uniforms. The general consensus was one of anger, but where that anger was directed varied. I asked a man digging the pipeline about his opinion of his employer—in one moment he answered, “We love Exxon,” and in the next, he threatened murder and mass revolt. His sentiments were echoed each time by nearby co-workers. In the bush, we met a slew of men who had homemade guns made from piping, nails, and springs—they were ready to fight Exxon, but with those improvised weapons they looked more dangerous to themselves than anyone standing in front of them. An older man with a second-hand Bob Marley shirt ran around threatening us with his bow and arrow. Stanley Mamu, a community organizer and rare blogger in Hela Province, insisted, “We are going to war.”
What’s happening in Papua New Guinea is not rare. In fact, it is so common that it has its own term (first coined by British economist Richard Auty): the Resource Curse. The idea is that developing countries with vast natural resources are twenty times more likely to have civil unrest, a sort of paradox of abundance. Perhaps curse is the better catchall label given that the blame for the terrible outcomes in countries like Chad, Nigeria, and Burma can be attributed to multiple factors: corrupt politicians, internal ethnic conflict, and multinationals throwing around money and swag.
Due to a combination of Exxon’s aggressive public relations campaign and simple rumor, people in Papua New Guinea believed the pipeline development would bring them prosperity and modern infrastructure. In local papers, there were paid articles about the coming development funded by the LNG project. But people expected more than just schoolhouses and toilets. More than one person displaced by the Hides Gas Plant told me that they believed the Highlands, which looks like endless tropical jungle, would soon become like New York City, complete with skyscrapers.
When I asked the governor how people could be so misled, Agiru explained: “Nothing was supposed to be built yet” and “this was a cargo cult mentality.” What Agiru was referring to are the religious cults formed in PNG and other surrounding islands after Western travelers and military began to arrive in the early twentieth century. The best known of these sects is the John Frum cult of Tanna (in nearby Vanuatu) that waits for the epic return of a military officer called John from the United States. These visitors, descending from the sky and the sea, apparently brought their “cargo” (clothes, weapons, vehicles), things that the people of Papua New Guinea had never previously imagined.
A bit of a self-hating Huli, Agiru believes that his people don’t understand how economics work, and that he’s forced to slowly educate them himself. As the pipeline nears completion, gets buried beneath the earth, and that cash flow begins to slow down, the people of the region seem to be slowly waking up to the fact that they have merely served as background characters in a story that is more about what is in the ground and not who lives on top of it.
After our helicopter landed, the governor and I took a selfie, exchanged email addresses, and said our goodbyes. Moments later, a young man charged across the airstrip towards him, waving a machete and shouting something in Huli. Two armed guards tackled the man to the ground, and a nearby officer said to me, “He’s drunk.” I watched the governor casually board his metal bird, and fly off high above his jungle kingdom.
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