Feature

Agreeing after 20 years-an account from Hela

BY ALEXANDER NARA

It was a little past four o’clock that Sunday afternoon when we arrived at Ambua Lodge, nestled amongst the Doma Peaks near Tari town, Hela Province.

Light drizzles that seemed to have followed us from Mt Hagen had ceased and the gravelled car park lay wet and soft under the surrounding thick trees, wreathed with fallen leaves and greenish moss.

Few resident birds probably disturbed by our arrival chirped sharply somewhere in the dense canopy then joined their friends in a melodious chaos of trills.

I visited Hela Province several times but never had the chance to come closer to this “award winning and eco-friendly” lodge.

A sweet smell of cleanliness embraced the air, rich with the fragrance of leaves, flora and loam.

She was still closed to the public at that time following devastating earthquakes in 2018, but when collecting information for this story, the management confirmed that her doors would open very soon.

The main reception opens into an attractive work of architecture, displaying a comfortable lounge area and the restaurant built around a nicely designed fireplace, like a scene from those royal homes in old 1970s English films.

At almost 7000 feet above sea level, her sparkling green and flowery backyard slid downhill over the western hillside with its edges crashing into the entire Tari valley below.

Serrated mountain ranges loomed behind blanket of mist in the distant west.

These mountains hold the fount to some of Hela’s many natural resource projects including PNG LNG project with source areas of Hides, Angore, Kutubu, Moro, Moran, Juha and Mananda Oil Fields.

I was on another trip into the township that week when I met Chairman of Angore Wellpad B, Hari John Akipe who is also the Secretary for Defence.

They would be travelling into Undupi village the next morning where Wellpad ‘C’ is located, one of the key sites within Angore PDL 8 area for a special ceremony.

Also coming to witness would be the members of the Hela provincial administration, and representatives from Kubak lawyers standing in for ExxonMobil, Police and Defence Force personnel and representatives from the company’s security.

For over twenty years, drilling at Wellpad ‘C’ had remained frozen, untouched with all agreements shelved as the Principle Landowner, Mango Kurali and his tribesmen refused to allow ExxonMobil to drill.

This came after the company took out a permanent injunction that restrained Mango and his tribesmen from entering land within fenced area of Wellpad A and B, which is their own land.

Kurali ended up on the wanted list by disciplinary forces for questioning that sparked a long standing tension between the company, his tribesmen and him but that is a story I am not interested in.

Mango Kurali has finally agreed to sign the agreement for ExxonMobil to access the land and conduct environmental damage and Improvement assessment as well as commence drilling at the site.

A decision that would open the floodgates to a fountain of wealth for his tribesmen, their women and children.

I asked to join the team to watch the agreement signing because I know there would be a lot of pork meat.

He agreed.

He was accompanied by Principal of Kamuta Lawyers, Tau Kamuta representing Mango Kurali and other advisors to the landowning group.

It was the next morning when we left the lodge and headed for Undupi village, almost a two hour drive out of Tari Town to witness that ceremony.

Wellpad ‘C’ sat at the edge of a hillside, looking back over the basin below.

Weeds and thorny shrubs grew around the drilled site with thick iron bars lined across its opening, obviously untouched over those years.

Along the edges on the other side, freshly butchered pork were sprawled across a long dugout ‘mumu’ pit in the Hela way, so they told me.

Some mothers shy away from the camera which I choose to respect as I watched them prepare the meat with bananas while the young men tendered the red hot stones.

Elderly men barked a few orders which everyone obeyed, citing a strong tribal correlation that seemed to hold them together.

A feeling of understanding can be sensed in their midst, knowing that their gardens would be destroyed and their valleys and rivers would be taken away but it is a decision they have to take.

Kurali also said he understood the inconveniences he had caused and want to let it all go and to stand with his tribe to see the drilling get off-ground.

When signing the agreement that afternoon, he said the disagreements over the years is now a thing of the past and he will make sure strong support is provided by his entire tribe to ensure the gas is piped to the PNG LNG Project.

He said he respected the fact that PDL 8 itself grants ExxonMobil service rights to fulfil its obligations and construction to work and to upgrade its existing gas lines under its licence.

Kurali appealed to ExxonMobil to recognize the signing with his tribe as a sorry from the heart and call on the company to resume drilling.

The ceremony proceeded into the afternoon hours, sealed off with handshakes and full dishes of pork meat, chicken and so many cans of coke.

“This is a family thing and we have to sort it out as a family for no one will do it for us,” Wellpad B chairman Hari Akipe told the tribe as he provided guidance throughout the signing.

It was almost dark when we arrived back at Ambua Lodge, only to be hypnotised by a sickly sweet aroma of grilled beef, onions and broccoli.

A moment that made me pity my skinny frame and tight little stomach.

Dinner that night was cosmic, full of untold stories and jokes until the lodge’s warm beds dragged us all into her comforts, dreams and silence.

I left for Port Moresby the following afternoon.