Katua Niugini - the story of the mine at Pangkirangku
Mixing past and present in Papua New Guinea

Listen, learn, respect – all so simple yet too hard for some


It's a real monsterA LITTLE WHILE AGO two interesting events in the Southern Highlands were reported on a number of blogs, including one called Mangi Tari.

The first event involved blasting by contractors to enable the PNG LNG pipeline to be laid between Hides and Iagifu Ridge in Fasu country.

The second event involved the capture, killing and consumption of an unusually large python.

According to the blogs what followed both events was catastrophic but entirely predictable.

The area where the blasting took place is a sacred site which local people avoid at all costs; they don’t hunt near it or gather food there.  The reason why they fear the place is because it is the domain of a gigantic mythological snake ancestor.

FloodWhat followed the blasting and the killing of the snake, according to the blogs, was that “the mountains started trembling and the rivers started flooding to unprecedented levels” and there were deadly landslides.

As a result the construction of the pipeline was halted and sections that had already been laid underground were exposed by the flood.

On a personal level, a girl who had handled the dead snake was mysteriously crippled and the house of one of the clan leaders who ate the snake was submerged in the flooding.

The Huli, Duna, Fasu, Foi and other groups in the Southern Highlands have a complex and interconnected set of creation myths which includes sacred sites dispersed over the landscape which are associated with the deeds and abodes of their mythical ancestors. 

These places are connected by great subterranean networks.  From time to time these mythical ancestors require placating and reification through appropriate rituals.

Draipela sinekThe place that was blasted was the home of one of these ancestors.  The “Man” who was captured and eaten, the blogs intimate, might have been a fleeing ancestor.

What silly superstition you might think.  The events were simply unrelated incidents with no connection to cause and effect.

That may be so but it doesn’t get away from the fact that many people in the Southern Highlands believe explicitly in these myths and they form a large part of their personal cosmos and universe.

The blasting of the sacred site also begs an important question.  Why didn’t the contractors ask someone whether it was okay before setting off the charges in that particular spot?

The answer points to one of the most significant failings of resource developers in Papua New Guinea.  Further, it encapsulates what is one of the biggest banes of those dedicated community affairs officers working in the industry.

From my experience, I would guess that someone probably did ask the question.  In fact I would guess that a community affairs officer probably told the contractor that they were in danger of damaging a sacred site and should find a way to go around it.

If I’m right, why did they blast it?

Again I’m guessing, but I suspect the problem went up the line and a manager somewhere distant scoffed at the whole idea and ordered the blasting to go ahead.

From the manager’s point of view there was no corporate program which catered for mythological snake ancestors therefore he dismissed the problem out of hand.  Or maybe he asked one of his Papua New Guinean colleagues who chuckled in embarrassment at his unsophisticated bush cousins and also agreed that it should be blasted. 

Somewhere, no doubt, there was a social mapping report outlining the possibility of such a problem mouldering away unread.

Thus we saw Mangi Tari’s headline “Southern Highlands Oil Head Owner [the snake ancestor] Murdered by Americans” echoed on blogs all over Papua New Guinea.  What a great public relations coup!

This disjunct between the bosses on high and the people on the ground is widespread and very noticeable in the resources sector in Papua New Guinea.

Earlier in the year I was asked by a mining company to help them deal with a recalcitrant landowner who was causing all sorts of grief and disrupting their drilling program in Central Province.

When I talked to the landholder and the other clan leaders I discovered they had a legitimate beef with the company.  Among other things, and the reason why I mention it here, is the company had built a helicopter pad on top of a sacred site related to an important origin myth.

When I wrote my report and recommendations for resolving the impasse it was exactly what the company community affairs officer had been telling his company bosses for months.

I recommended that in future they use a method called a Work Area Clearance Survey.  WAC surveys are very simple; all they involve is asking landowners along to places where some activity is planned and asking them if it is okay to do it there or should it be moved somewhere else nearby. 

The landholders are paid a small fee for their trouble and sign off on a document “clearing” the site for the work.

This idea didn’t go down too well with the hierarchy in Brisbane.  They accused me of colluding with the community affairs officer and making the situation worse. 

The community affairs officer, in their opinion, was too timid and easily intimidated by the landowner and I had fallen into the same trap.

It was with some satisfaction that I later learned that the bosses in Brisbane had been moved on, the community affairs officer was still with the company and had finally been listened to and the landowner had made his peace and was actually helping out.

One of the few things that a good community affairs officer can do when a resource project falters because of bad community relations is say, without much satisfaction,  “I told you so”.

Listen, learn and respect – it is all so simple yet it seems to be so, so hard.


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Phil Fitzpatrick

According to the Chinese this is the Year of the Snake Frank. The Chinese New Year was celebrated a few days ago with the full moon.

So your visit may be propitious.

Frank Gipa

Thanks PF for the article,

It is very saddening to learn that foreign companies and their community relations officer do not respect our cultural heritage because they are blinded by their own greed to make more dividends for their shareholders.

Howver, I write to confirm that mythical serpents do exist in PNG and they guard over sacred areas that have abundant riches like gold and other minerals. One needs to do a thorough research and find out.

I have a sacred place where my grandfather used to visit a serpent who was the guardian of my family's treasure and riches. I am planning to visit the serpent this year 2013. I have heard several times from my grandfather and mother that the serpent is only a form taken by the guardian spirit to scare off intruders and unwanted people.

This is the reason why nobody should take our serpent myths as 'bullshit' in PNG.

Bomai kaupa

People of Papua New Guinea did you all see this. The picture and story there. I was scared when my lecturer emailed it to me. That shows what we lost, our traditions, culture, resources and dignity.

The extraction of our resources has caused a lot of changes to our lives. Through the process our environment is spoiled, some of our rare species are gone, and the untouched sites and ritual areas are exploited and damaged.

We are not stupid we all grow up in a society and live in a community, we know every little thing back to front about tribe/community.

So people, as you have heard and seen, through the exploration of our resources many mysterious things happen.

This is not funny, it's scary. It shows that we lost our dignity.

Harry Topham

Pedantry is not confined solely to the provenance of the messiahs so I, as another old ex kiap, will poke his head into the scrum even if the only positions on offer is that of a hooker or perhaps a breakaway.

Perhaps what some of these line managers in the exploration industry need is a bit of KT treatment. What is KT treatment one might ask?

The initials stand for a decision making structured methodology for gathering information, prioritising and evaluating it.

The genesis of this system was developed by Charles H Kepner and Benjamin B Tregoe in the 1960’s and at its kernel defines that rational decision making models involves a cognitive process where each step follows in a logical order from the one before.

The cognitive connotation is based on thinking through and weighing up the alternatives to come up with the best potential result.

The Kepner and Tregoe model for accomplishing the best outcome for solutions required when problems present suggest that there are 5 steps required in the decision making process namely:
-- Define the situation/decision to be made,
-- Identify the important criteria for the process and the result, --- Consider all possible solutions,
-- Calculate the consequences of these solutions versus the likelihood of satisfying the criteria, and
-- Choose the best option

I was one of the first guinea pigs introduced to this new innovative management tool when in the mid 1970’s I attended a two-week in-house and very intensive training course.

At the end of the 2-week period I came away with my head swimming from too much exposure to cognitive cogitation.

Initially I thought that the process was somewhat too intellectual in nature, read navel gazing, however in later years when confronted with making difficult decisions relating to very complex problems I found that by adopting the approaches suggested that more constructive outcomes would result.

The realisation came after a coming up with a simple solution to what was initially seen as a simple problem however having that problem later exploding into a near disaster.

The fault - Lack of proper analysis of the original problem by ignoring the hidden subset problems contained in the original problem.

As a result these subset of problems later caused dire consequences far greater than that envisaged in the original solution suggested.

For those interested in this see the following link

Michael Dom

I find the story and the images very disturbing.

What have we lost? A small part of the world that we could never create let alone conceive in our poor hearts. Now we are poorer still.

And we wonder why PNG is such a poor little rich nation...

Johannes Johannes

If the snake is a nature man then why would the people hold or even eat the snake, when they know exactly the consequences of destroying the place or even going to the extreme by eating it.

Definitely the people should be blamed.

Joe Boine

Thanks Phil

I appreciated your response. To clarify my background, I am an exploration geologist and have made my way up to be an exploration manager over the years operating in PNG.

With much (due) respect to old kiaps who have fair idea about PNG and its society's beliefs and myths passed down from generation to generation, I think we can present a much better story than an expat hired from the greenfield.

An indigenous person from an area of operation will present a better story but again, as Phil pointed out, literacy and writing skills over the years have dramatically declined. A hands on management style would suit nationals very well for the job.

As Papua New Guineans, our way of life is based on what our forefathers did, which we believe to be our origin, sustenance and ultimate destiny.

In turn, it is now our duty to uphold. An indigenous person or whoever understands our way of life (may sound funny to outsiders) has particular responsibilities to protect and maintain sacred sites.

Some may say it may be coincidence when things unpredictable happen!

Phil Fitzpatrick

Hiring expatriate community affairs officers puzzles me too, Joe.

There are still a few old kiaps and the like in the game (including National kiaps) but we are all rapidly reaching our use-by date.

Also, being an old kiap doesn't automatically qualify anyone to be a community affairs officer. For starters things have changed a lot and what we knew in the 1960s doesn't necessarily compute today.

Also, quite a few kiaps were and are right wing rednecks who regard local people with disdain rather than compassion. If you don't believe me about this check out the Exkiap website.

Some of the expatriate community affairs officers that you come across have been pulled from elsewhere in the industry. It is remarkable how many are ex-drillers for instance.

Their only qualification is that they've been working in the country for a long time. These sorts of people tend to bring their past prejudices with them into the present.

The company that I work through make a point of only using National community affairs officers. Sometimes they have a great deal of trouble explaining this to a client.

These sorts of clients seem to have a problem accepting advice from a Papua New Guinean. They would much prefer an expatriate who presumably understands better their point of view and can sympathise with them. This is the problem I am trying to highlight in the article.

The other thing they want is a professional looking and sounding report that will go down well with their bosses and shareholders.

Unfortunately this is where some of the National community affairs officers have problems and it may, in fact, be at the crux of the problem.

At the same time it has to be acknowledged that literacy and writing skills have declined in all areas in Papua New Guinea in recent years.

In this sense I think that it would be really good if community affairs was recognised as a legitimate profession with appropriate training provided in either technical colleges or universities.

I'm not sure what your background is but I've noticed that a lot of National community affairs officers come from National and Provincial Lands offices or have done time as Mining Wardens and the like.

The experience and the skills are certainly there and its a shame they are not being utilised more often by the resource developers.

Joe Boine

Agreed with all said PF. Been around this industry for almost more than 15 years and seen the differences one party can portray. At times it puzzles me to hire an expat to fill in for a community affairs role!

Harry Topham

At an inaugural lecture of MAN101, a lecturer after his initial introduction posed the following question to his students.

How many of you are IT students?

A half a dozen hands were then raised.

The lecturer with a deep sigh then added: “I can only try, but feel reassured that compared to engineers you may yet have hope”.

Bob Cleland

Here's another old kiap airing his opinion . . .

This story related by Phil recognises one of the reasons behind my sponsorship of the Cleland Prize for Heritage Writing within the Crocodile Prize awards.

Any society's beliefs of their origin or in the stories of their ancestors, passed down generation to generation, is basic to their whole existence and in the way they relate to each other and the world around them.

I believe that these beliefs and stories must be recorded for future generations - regardless of anything introduced and adopted. The two can exist side by side.

An extra benefit of such records might be that in any given situation, the record will add strength to villagers' arguments against any specific action of a development company or other entity.

Mrs Barbara Short

Keep up your good work Phil. I agree with Erasmus, "landowners are not stupid people." They must be listened to and respected.

Tribal groups, who have lived in the same area for a long time, will have acquired a great understanding of their land, and their belief systems are often closely connected to this understanding. Mining companies will not survive in PNG unless they "work in with the locals".

When I was running Manggai High School I remember being taken to a quiet place by the local senior landholders and had it explained to me why I should not allow the tall trees to be sold off to raise money for the school.

In the end we were given money by the New Ireland government, some sort of Kina for Kina scheme, and my plans for new houses went ahead without losing the trees.

Erasmus Baraniak

PF, this aricle brings out a very important lesson for everyone who has anything to do with resource or other projects dealing with landowners.

Landowners are not stupid people. Like anywhere every society has its loud mouths and trouble makers etc, but in the main the landowners of PNG are decent honourable village people who have survived for thousands of years with their belief systems and their cosmic outlook.

Who is a money hungry contractor to wander on to their lands and do as they please?

What right does a contractor have to dispute or disregard the belief system of a people, or argue the veracity of it based on his reality?

These are complex matters, and Iam heartened to see we still have sensitive and sensible people around, even if they are old Kiaps!

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