Primo, the village chief, greeted us on the gravel landing strip in Tari. Wearing full chieftain dress, he strangely looked a bit out of place. Though the airport is actually nothing more than a thatched hut, you sensed development.
It was a bit of a miracle we made it to Tari. Our connection in Port Moresby was less than 30 minutes once we arrived late and the chances of making it were slim. The gracious Air Nuigini staff on the flight from Singapore moved us to Business Class half way through the flight just so we could jump the line at immigration. We were fortunately met by more Air Nuigini staff and hand held through immigration, customs and checking in to our other flight so that we could make it to Tari. It was the only scheduled flight to Tari this week, so we really had to make it.
The Tari airport has no electricity. We had to buy paper tickets and have them mailed. Seems stone age enough, right? That is all about to become very different.
Tari is very much on the cusp of great change. Perhaps that is even the wrong phrase – Tari is about to become the world’s foremost case study in large natural resource based foreign direct investment in the remote and primitive third world. The Tari basin, home to the Huli people, sits above some of the world’s largest and most accessible reserves of natural gas. With ever rising oil prices, that is no small matter. Earlier this year, ExxonMobil, together with a consortium of Japanese and Australian partners, formed a partnership with the local people and government as significant stakeholders and closed the world’s largest ever project financing in the heart of the financial crisis – PNG LNG. Worth more than US$ 14 billion, the project is a behemoth. This find, which was not only the headline of the financial press but has dominated the PNG news media, sits only a few kilometers outside of Tari.
Driving up from the airport to Ambua Lodge, our guide, Paulus explained what we were seeing along the road. The new road, in fact – built by ExxonMobil – that made the drive from Tari airport to the lodge, for better or worse, go from 3 hours to 30 minutes. He pointed out Huli intraditional dress walking along the road, he explained their still very traditional lifestyle led by the concept, in descending order of importance, of the holy trinity of “Land, Women, Pigs.” Despite all of the western influence in his life working at the lodge, he has three wives and more than 10 children. He explained that the concept of “compensation” is very important in Huli culture – if I were to say, kill your brother, I would owe you “15 x 15 pigs”. That debt will take a very long time to repay and I will be shamed until I pay it off.
All of this was described in a very nonchalant fashion. As we were getting closer, to coordinate lunch upon our arrival at the lodge, he drew out his cell phone and called. Ubiquitous cell phone usage, if you can call it that, is also new in PNG. Digicel, the Irish emerging markets telecom operator, started operations here a few years ago. Their marketing is everywhere and people love the service. Paulus explained, though, again in his highly nonchalant manner, that cell phones have been good and bad. He says that day to day life has certainly become easier. This, though, has been at the expense of much more strategic inter-clan fighting. Now, fighters, who execute such battles with bows and arrows and machetes, can coordinate their attacks and retreats via mobile. Probably not the development that the Digicel CEO had in mind.
After lunch we went for a few mile hike in the highland jungle forest. We saw beautiful pristine waterfalls and vine suspension bridges built by the Hulis to make their way around the forest. The wilderness was striking – all not too far from what is about to be out of the biggest gas projects on earth.
Today has been a fascinating day. We knew to expect this coming to Tari, but to see that change coming so rapidly to an area still so primitive at heart is quite an experience. For Jen and I, it was at least nice to use Digicel to text our family and let them know we arrived safely. We won’t be coordinating any clan fighting – for now.