Asia Pacific

Riches May Not Help Papua New Guinea

Jes Aznar for The New York Times

Hamon Matipe, center, chief of Kili, said that $120,000 given to him for village land was gone. More Photos »

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TARI, Papua New Guinea — A founding myth in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea is said to have foretold the arrival of ExxonMobil, the American oil giant that is preparing to extract natural gas here and ship it overseas.

According to the myth, called Gigira Laitebo, an underground fire is kept alive by inhabitants poking sticks into the earth. Eventually, the fire “will light up the world,” said Peter O’Neill, the national government’s finance minister. “By development of the project and delivering to international markets, it’s one way of fulfilling the myth.”

But like all myths, this one is open to wide interpretation, as a group of men and women at a Roman Catholic parish here suggested before Sunday Mass recently.

“If foreigners come to our land, you give them food and water, but don’t give them the fire,” said John Hamule, 38, as the others nodded. “If you do, it will destroy this place.”

In 2014, ExxonMobil is scheduled to start shipping natural gas through a 450-mile pipeline, then on to Japan, China and other markets in East Asia. But the flood of revenue, which is expected to bring Papua New Guinea $30 billion over three decades and to more than double its gross domestic product, will force a country already beset by state corruption and bedeviled by a complex land tenure system to grapple with the kind of windfall that has paradoxically entrenched other poor, resource-rich nations in deeper poverty.

While the West’s richest companies are used to seeking natural resources in the world’s poorest corners, few places on earth seem as ill prepared as the Southern Highlands to rub shoulders with ExxonMobil. The most impoverished region in one of the world’s poorest countries, it went unexplored by Westerners until the 1930s. Believing that this rugged, mountainous region was uninhabited, the explorers were stunned to find at least one million people living here in one of the world’s most diverse areas, largely in small, distinct communities separated by different cultures, languages and nearly impassable terrain.

Constant tribal wars over land, women and pigs — the last being prized measures of wealth, used to pay for dowries and settle disputes — have grown deadlier in the past decade with the easy availability of high-powered rifles smuggled in from Indonesia, just to the west, which are exchanged for the marijuana grown here.

Mr. O’Neill says the Southern Highlands are too diverse, too fragmented, to develop the kind of widespread insurrection that exists in the Niger Delta of Nigeria.

But local leaders worry about the continuing inflow of guns into an area with almost no government presence, and no paved roads, electricity, running water, banks or post offices. They worry that the benefits of the gas project will fall short of expectations, begetting a generation of young men who will train their anger on ExxonMobil.

Already, in fact, angry landowners have forced ExxonMobil’s contractors to suspend work temporarily at several construction sites, and local businessmen bid for contracts with unconcealed threats.

“Any outside waste management company that is given the contract will not be allowed into Komo by force or whatever means,” said Robin Tuna, 34, whose company was bidding for just such a contract in Komo, an area south of here where ExxonMobil is building a large airfield.

And ExxonMobil faces the daunting prospect of dealing with Papua New Guinea’s distinctive form of land tenure, which grants control over 97 percent of the land to customary landowners, primarily indigenous people whose ownership rights to small plots are inherited. More than 60,000 people own land where gas will be either extracted or transported.

To get their agreement, the government invited 3,000 to a meeting last year to hammer out benefit-sharing agreements. The government intentionally held the conference on an island to ward off gate-crashers, though 2,000 uninvited landowners eventually flew over, said Anderson Agiru, the governor of Southern Highlands Province. The meeting, scheduled for seven days, lasted six weeks.

And still thousands, who remain unsatisfied, have streamed to the nation’s capital, Port Moresby, to try to get their cut.

“They tell us they are busy or to come back the next day,” said Jim Tatape, one of hundreds of angry landowners milling around recently in front of the Department of Commerce and Industry, waiting to see anybody inside.

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