Komo Airfield, in the Hela Province in Papua New Guinea’s mountainous southern highlands, was constructed specifically for delivery of equipment for a liquefied natural gas project, PNG LNG, led by ExxonMobil. Construction of LNG production and processing facilities, connected by 700 kilometres of pipelines, began in 2009. Gas fields and pipeline routes were carved out of steep slopes, in close proximity to thatched hut villages and small terraced farms. Komo Airfield enabled delivery of heavyweight, outsize and delicate equipment for construction of pipelines, a gas conditioning plant wellpads and other LNG facilities that would be difficult or impossible along the area’s narrow, dilapidated roads. Komo Airfield’s 3.2 kilometre runway, the longest in Papua New Guinea, can accommodate Russian-built Antonov An-124 aircraft, the world’s second largest freighter with a 73.3 meter wingspan and sufficient capacity to carry 140 tonnes of cargo. Komo had already been the site of gas exploration activity, predating commencement of PNG LNG and there was an existing airstrip at the Komo Airfield site. PNG LNG’s 2009 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) specified a smaller runway that that which eventually materialized: 1,900 meters long and 30 meters wide, although possible requirement of extra runway length was mentioned. The EIS also specifies Komo Airfield infrastructure comprising a helipad, fuel storage and dispensing facilities, services building, guardhouse, a 2.4 meter high galvanized chain mesh security fence around the facilities and a new road between the airfield and the Hides Gas Conditioning Plant.
A landslide buried two villages
Ten million cubic metres of earth were used to level the undulating ground for construction of Komo Airfield. A limestone quarry above the villages of Tumbi and Tumbiago was excavated to supply aggregate. Early in the morning of 24 January 2012, mud and limestone slabs from an area immediately to the northwest of the quarry cascaded downwards, obliterating the two villages. The Red Cross estimated that 60 people were buried alive under the debris. Just two days later Papua New Guinea’s National Disaster Committee (NDC) published a hastily assembled report which pinpointed heavy rainfall as the cause of the landslide. Yet there were no previous problems with geological instability; inhabitants had long withstood heavy rain and earthquakes. Indications that operations at the quarry might have been a key, or contributory, causative factor in the landslide, one of the worst ever recorded in Papua New Guinea, were swept aside. Local residents thought that excavations might have loosened the ground and that blockage of two rivers by construction activities could have resulted in a build-up of water pressure which would have eventually given way. Calls for an independent inquiry, backed by international landslide expert Professor Dave Petley and credible testimony from local people with intimate knowledge of the landscape, went unheeded. Resumption of PNG LNG took precedence over helping surviving victims, or respect for the dead. A section of the access road to the Komo Airfield site was covered by landslide debris, but, even though bodies lay unrecovered, bulldozers were in operation removing debris so that the road could be reopened. Landowners formed a blockade and delayed the reopening of the road for two weeks, but by the end of March 2012, bereaved relatives watched as heavy vehicles ran over the remains of the dead.
An IPS News report by Catherine Wilson documented an alarming disregard for landslide survivors. Several weeks later, humanitarian aid had not been released and 3,000 people were still living in temporary shelters. Effort was focused on clearing the road to resume the airfield construction. Bereaved relatives claimed that they were 'placed under duress with threats of repercussions' should they attempt to obstruct clearance of the road so that it could be re-opened. Jokoya Piwako, chief of Tumbi and Tumbiago villages, who lost many members of his family to the landslide, said, "In our culture, when a body is dead under the rock, there should be no-one going in there…We respect our dead, but the government and companies they did not listen. They just did the road on top of the bodies. They used force." A grieving mother said, "My son is down there and on top the vehicles are running. How can this be? The companies know all the peoples are down there. They shouldn't be doing this I am really angry." Dr. Kristian Lasslett of Ulster University, Papua New Guinea Coordinator for the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) was critical of the cursory government investigation into the landslide which was confined to analysis by natural scientists, disregarding local people's intimate knowledge of the landscape and observations of the impacts of the PNG LNG project. Moreover the government failed to act as an effective regulator, instead undertaking the role of a business partner supporting ExxonMobil and its contractors. The quarry had long worried villagers living near the landslide area. During 2010-11, as the quarry expanded up the mountainside, they had raised concerns over the impacts on geological systems and waterways.
The forgotten landslide
In September 2012, International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), with assistance from Papuan watchdog blog LNG Watch providing access to testimony from eyewitnesses, published a report on the landslide The Forgotten Disaster: Outstanding Issues Arising from the Tumbi Landslide. There was still no official death toll, just the Red Cross estimate that between 25 and 60 people were killed. The NDC investigation had been compromised by collaboration with ExxonMobil which protected the firm from scrutiny. Examination of documentation uncovered the fact that, during the months preceding the disaster, the project's own Independent Environmental and Social Consultant (ISEC), D’Appolonia, had flagged up failing safety precautions and risk assessment at the quarry next to the landside site, stating that ‘the Project has circumvented correct procedures in the interests of schedule', driven by pressure to meet the 2014 target date for commencement of LNG production. Surviving landowners of the buried villages of Tumbi and Tumbiago blamed the landslide on the quarry, claiming it had ‘profoundly destabilized the area’s geology/waterways’. One local resident said “we have been living on this land for the past 6000 years this is the first time our mountain has killed us”. In February 2013 Kristian Lasslett reported that, in response to angry villagers who at one stage threatened to shut down LNG operations, an independent inquiry into the landslide which destroyed Tumbi and Tumbiago had been promised. But the inquiry never happened. A memorial plaque honouring the victims, reported to have been pledged by ExxonMobil, had not materialized. The Tumbi landslide was not the first incidence of unstable ground leading to an accident at the PNG LNG project site. A contractor at the Komo Airfield site was buried alive in November 2011, when a trench collapsed. Less than a month after the landslide there was another construction worker fatality on the Komo Airfield; a contractor died after being run over by a front-end loader. A year after the disaster, in January 2012, another large landslide occurred not far from Tumbi, fortunately not causing any fatalities.
Soil erosion and sediment runoff
There appears to have been a pattern of minor problems with unstable ground at PNG LNG. A series of incidences of soil erosion and sediment runoff during PNG LNG construction and operations, including Komo Airfield, is documented in reports from regular site visits by the project’s ISEC, D’Appolonia. Issues flagged up in the March 2011 report include a mudslide on 13th November 2010 at the Hides Gas Conditioning Plant (HGCP). Fish were killed by the turbid water and mud that flowed into Akara Creek. The mudslide occurred in spoil deposited by subcontractor CCJV, the firm which, together with joint venture MCJV was awarded the contract to construct Komo Airfield and had extracted aggregate from the quarry next to the 24th January 2012 landslip. The report also noted that ‘community complaints continue to be registered for surface runoff from the Komo airfield construction activities’. D’Appolonia’s March 2012 environmental and social monitoring report noted that MCJV was no longer operating the quarry next to the landslide, named QA1, from which aggregate for the airfield had been extracted. The report described the landslide as a major incident not directly related to the Project’ but mentioned continuing problems with soil erosion and sediment controls at Komo Airfield, stating that: ‘Uncontrolled dumping of soil at the edge of the construction area creates a situation that is difficult to manage. Freshwater ecological monitoring has found probable ecological impact downstream of the Komo Airfield, interpreted to most likely relate to increased turbidity or sedimentation, which is an indicator that the control systems are not effective. This observation by itself indicates that more effort needs to be undertaken to control sediment runoff at the Komo Airfield’.. The November 2017 report stated, ‘Erosion and sediment control has been one of the most difficult issues to manage over the course of the Project. The problems have traditionally been the most severe at HGCP and Komo’. The report’s assurances that control systems were now in place were undermined by the fact that thorough environmental monitoring was impeded by civil unrest which prevented a ground tour of the Komo area. Observation was only possible from the air, revealing that ‘big erosion gullies’ observed in the past had been remediated and ‘problem slopes’ were ‘for the most part, stabilized by vegetation’. Security concerns meant it was not possible to visit some areas in Komo that, when previously observed in 2015, were not stabilized or regenerating due to soil erosion problems.
PNG LNG’s plans for resettlement of people living within, or with claims to, the 5.2 kilometer by 1 kilometer corridor of land earmarked to be cleared, levelled and fenced off for Komo Airfield were detailed in an action plan published in November 2010. At this time, 23 households comprising 323 members were living within the airstrip area. Their gardens were planted with sweet potato (a key staple food), sugarcane, highlands pitpit, various types of greens, bananas and cordyline. Some families also cultivated economic trees including avocado, casuarina and pine. Pig husbandry was another form of subsistence farming and income generation. But absentee landowners, between 1,700 and 2,000 people, also claimed to own land in the airstrip site. Under complex customary land tenure systems clan members who have relocated elsewhere often retain claims to interest in land and contest ownership. Such disputes can remain unresolved for generations and PNG LNG’s Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) predicted that land rights conflict would be likely to emerge. The Komo Airfield site was further complicated by a conflict between two sub-clans in the late 1990s and early 2000s during which the majority of dwellings were burned. Most of the displaced residents were living in the wider Komo area with others said to be elsewhere in the country. The 23 families referred to above had returned, rebuilt homes and replanted gardens. Another seven families remained in houses outside the airstrip site but had begun to cultivate land within it. In addition, a listing of some 2,000 people who were absent from the area, but said to be ‘landowners’ and acknowledged as such by present residents, was compiled from consultations conducted for PNG LNG. Many of these people had planted economic trees and coffee within the airfield site. The RAP explained that that due to their absence and almost ten years of re-growth on previously cultivated land, ‘it is extremely difficult to locate and count coffee gardens, or to know with any level of confidence who are or were the true owners’, noting that ‘It is unlikely that the Komo Airstrip was settled by such large numbers of people’. The RAP then states ‘These claims will be verified during the implementation phase’.
Extension of the airfield and an agreement for commercialization of the facility signed by ExxonMobil and the Civil Aviation Minister caused tensions with landowners. In February 2015, Komo Airfield Landowners Association (KALA) called on the government to establish a new agreement for current development of the airfield, or 300,000 people would miss out on community project or spin-off benefits. They said no formal agreement had been signed for extension of the airfield and that the government must involve 70 major clans in a 500 hectare area as they had given up their hunting and gardening grounds for the development.
Michael Main spent seven months with the PNG LNG landowners in 2016. The largest resource project in the country was situated alongside abject poverty. Landowners were immensely frustrated and angry that, after four years of operations leading to windfall profits for PNG LNG’s venture partners, the project had delivered ‘almost nothing’ to benefit them. He witnessed ‘constant outbreaks of fighting by heavily armed clans, young men gunned down by military assault rifles, and many dozens of houses shot through with holes and razed to the ground’. Main reported that intensification of pre-existing inter-clan land disputes and fighting was directly attributable to payments to landowners displaced by PNG LNG. Land compensation had ended up in the hands of individuals who failed to distribute the funds properly, and was invariably paid to men. Disputes over the 1,500 hectares of land occupied by Komo Airfield had resulted in ‘sporadic warfare over the past several years and dozens of deaths’. Government interventions including a gun amnesty had failed to curb proliferation of weapons. Residents said that ExxonMobil staff arriving at Komo Airfield were being transported to a gas conditioning facility under heavy armed guard.. On Shaky Ground: PNG LNG and the consequences of development failure, a comprehensive report by Jubilee Australia on the social impacts of PNG LNG since commencement of operations, was published in May 2018. Escalating tensions marked by a series of violent incidents, sabotage and kidnapping were clearly connected to discontent over PNG LNG, particularly among landowners still living in abject poverty. No royalties had been paid to Hela communities, partly because landowner identification and vetting had not been completed. PNG LNG had proceeded in spite of warnings that landowner vetting would be complex. The majority of the promised infrastructure and services – schools, roads and power supply – had not been delivered, was incomplete or languishing as unutilized white elephants. A hospital in Komo stood empty with no beds, no equipment, no staff and no fuel for its generator. The perimeter fence around Komo Airfield had cut off many families’ access to Komo township and market and an access road that was promised had not been built. Verbal assurances that the airfield would open for public use had spurred some locals to start building guest houses in expectation of an influx of tourists. Yet Komo Airfield remained closed to the public and usage was strictly confined to ExxonMobil. PNG LNG had specific negative impacts on women’s land rights. The vast majority of citizens impacted by the project are ethnically Huli. Under complex, long-established Huli traditions of land ownership and residence women, although only granted secondary status, had rights to their own garden land. The On Shaky Ground report explains that reconfiguration of land ownership due to PNG LNG caused women to be increasingly excluded from their already limited rights to land. All payments for land taken up by the project have gone to men, all clan representations were made by men and demands for royalties were made by men. Landowners repeatedly halted Komo Airfield operations
Landowners who were dissatisfied with what they had gained from benefit sharing agreements from Komo Airfield, such as compensation for use of their land, and business development grants, protested by bringing Komo Airfield operations to a halt in 2011, 2013 and 2018. On 7th September 2011 landowners from five clans brought construction of Komo Airfield to a halt. Demanding release of business development grants, a key component of the PNG LNG benefits sharing agreement, to enable them to participate in economic activities, owed to them since 2009, they marched to the gates of the access road to the airfield site, locked the gate and presented a petition to representatives of ExxonMobil and MCJV, the joint venture awarded the contract to construct Komo Airfield. In 2018, landowners’ demands for benefits from Komo Airfield resulted in a prolonged closure of the facility. In January a group of landowners threatened to shut down the airport, issuing a 14 day ultimatum for settlement of their claims. Chief of the principal landowners of 13 clans surrounding the airport said they had not benefitted from the facility in terms of services or monetarily. Ever since construction of the airfield locals had not utilized it, it was used exclusively for transportation of PNG LNG materials and employees. In May the heads of 16 clans, stated that in spite of owning land that hosted the airfield they had been left out of formal benefit agreements and that all they had received was about USD200 per hectare as rental for the airfield. The clans gave ExxonMobil and the government a maximum of ten days to respond to their seven page petition demanding a new agreement between them. On 19th June, in response to the government’s lack of response to their petition the landowners shut down Komo Airfield. Landowners reiterated their demands at the end of July. A spokesman said that the government must stop making excuses and compensate 16 clans excluded from benefits, warning that unless there was a response their closure of the airfield would continue indefinitely. A spokesman said that for eight years no development forum had been held and that the rights of the landowners had not been recognized in spite of the signing of three MOUs (memorandums of understanding). Landowners allowed re-opening of Komo Airfield on 25th September 2018, giving the state team a week to meet with them for dialogue. The landowners’ spokesman said that their main grievances originated from failure of the government and ExxonMobil to facilitate benefit sharing agreements after they missed out in 2009.