Papua New Guinea

Not quite two weeks ago I visited Daru, a town of some 20,000 people on an island of the same name situated near the mouth of the Fly River in the southwestern part of Papua New Guinea. Daru is the current administrative capital of Western Province, a vast area about the size of Maine and New Hampshire combined, with some 150,000 inhabitants and a mere 50 miles of road. The Fly River itself, together with its tributaries, is the main thoroughfare of the province down which barges full of copper ore from the Ok Tedi mine and rafts of logs have been floated down to the sea to be taken to Japan and China and other destinations. The Fly is also the superhighway along which, twice a year, the inhabitants of the North and Middle Fly districts travel hundreds of miles in dugout canoes and aluminum dinghies with Yamaha outboard motors down to Daru to collect their “compensation” payments. [click to continue…]

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Last week was a busy time in Papua New Guinea. On Tuesday the Treasurer presented the 2010 budget to Parliament, and as these things tend to do it had something for everyone, most notably a 7.5 billion Kina ($3.2 billion) increase in spending and no increase in taxes. Major beneficiaries were education and government employees, whose pension benefits rose.  The gap is to be funded by an expected rise in revenues from mineral royalties and taxes as the world economy recovers, and from the long-awaited natural gas boom. The agreement between ExxonMobil and the government on a $10-billion investment in a liquefied natural gas (LNG) project was signed earlier this month and the final project go-ahead will come on December 8, with construction expected to start before the New Year.  In a departure from its normal budget guidelines, which call for any windfall gains from higher mineral prices to be spent on major investment projects and to pay off public debt, this year’s budget allocated over 500 million Kina for additional “priority expenditures.” It’s uncertain how quickly the multiplier effects from the LNG investment will result in higher tax revenues for government, but it’s unlikely that it will happen within the next budget cycle.  Meanwhile, government plans to draw down its trust accounts in anticipation of the coming bonanza. [click to continue…]

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This past Thursday in the village of Tari in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea a delegation of senior government ministers and members of Parliament were pelted with stones by an angry mob. The police fired several shots in the air, which were met by a single shot from the crowd. No casualties were reported. The group was in Tari to hold a forum on the agreements, currently under discussion, for sharing of benefits between government and local landowners from a huge project that will take gas from the Southern Highlands, transport it by pipeline to the capital, Port Moresby, where it will be converted into liquefied natural gas and shipped to China, Japan, and other markets. Universally referred to as “the LNG,” the project, led by ExxonMobil in partnership with several other companies and the government of Papua New Guinea, will cost an estimated $10 billion to develop, and will produce direct government revenues from royalties, taxes, and the government’s equity stake, of about $30 billion over the 30-year project life. This is a lot of money sloshing around in a country of 6.5 million people. Oil already accounts for a significant chunk of export revenues and there is another, even larger, gas project in the planning stages and several huge mining projects, which together are expected to at least quadruple the country’s GDP over the next 30 years or so. [click to continue…]

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To anyone who has studied anthropology – it was my major in college – a visit to Papua New Guinea can’t fail to excite. PNG, a country with over 1,000 tribes and 700 languages – nearly half the world’s total – has almost certainly been the source of more anthropological monographs than any other place on earth. They include Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic “The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia,” about the Trobriand Islanders, and Margaret Mead’s “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies,” which became part of the feminist canon for its depiction of three tribes in the Sepik River basin, one of which was determinedly pacifist, one female dominated, and one in which women and men were equally warlike. The body of Mead’s work tends to reflect her own sexual and political fantasies more than it does closely observed social behaviors, but never mind that. [click to continue…]

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