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In the shadow of ExxonMobil’s multibillion-dollar gas venture, a business has cropped up in Papua New Guinea to kidnap and ransom foreigners. This week, a Queensland professor was released. By Jo Chandler.

The story behind PNG's kidnappings

A man with a grey beard and wearing a blue t-shirt walks across an airport runway with a plane behind him. He carries a backpack on his shoulder.
Professor Bryce Barker arrives in Toowoomba on February 27 after being released by hostage-takers in PNG.
Credit: Darren England / AAP Image

By one measure, the trouble starts in October 2019. That’s when a gang of 18 Huli tribesmen from the Hela highlands raid a logging camp in the lowland forests of Papua New Guinea’s Western Province. The murders of a Chinese father and son, shot outside their store in the Makapa logging concession, are “an initial price-setting signal”, says Dr Michael Wood, a Queensland anthropologist who has worked with forest people in the region for 25 years.

In June 2020, they return. Brandishing high-powered weapons, they ambush six timber workers – some, maybe all, are Chinese or Malaysian. They are tied up, assaulted and ransomed for 300,000 kina ($125,500), police tell the national daily newspaper, the Post-Courier. Police say a manager from the logging company goes to the camp to hand over an undisclosed sum to secure their release. According to forestry records, the concession is logged by a Malaysian company, Vanimo Jaya. (The company cannot be reached for comment.)

It’s a sweet profit, igniting a hostage and ransom enterprise that has terrorised communities across the region ever since, Wood says. There are many reports of women held in houses and “bad things” done to them. Of villages ransacked, burned and shaken down for all the kina they can muster – “their school fees, their pigs, their church money”, says one witness. By last December, Wood’s sources reported emboldened kidnappers were demanding more than one million kina from logging giant Rimbunan Hijau for a crew of their Asian workers seized in the Wawoi Guavi concession, where they’ve been chopping trees for 20 years. An RH manager reportedly made a prompt payment, and the gang went home to a very merry Christmas. (Asked for comment, RH did not respond.)

Raids are sporadic but the terror is unrelenting, says Wood. People have fled to the bush, schools have closed. The crisis played out largely invisibly until a Queensland archaeology professor and three female PNG researchers were snatched from their field site near Mount Bosavi in the Southern Highlands two weeks ago. PNG Prime Minister James Marape described the hostage-taking as unprecedented, a “random, opportunistic crime”, but there’s rather more to it.

The backstory is interwoven with political, economic and cultural realities, modern and age-old, that deserve exploration. Although international media interest will fade as Professor Bryce Barker and his PNG colleagues are reunited with their families, the anxieties for populations living in the kidnap zone are spiralling and business, research, services programs – such as they are – are largely suspended.

In a move that Wood says is likely unprecedented, the state, or a facilitator acting on its behalf, has paid an undisclosed sum for their release. “Somebody paid something,” he says. “I don’t know how much they were paid – it doesn’t really matter … you have created the beginnings of a new market if you can extract money from the state.” Marape and the police have assured the perpetrators “there is no place to hide” – but have the kidnappers made a fatal business misstep or found a fresh source of revenue?

Politics – raw, local, brutal – is central to the picture. The kidnappers come from Hela Province, where the fierce, no-holds-barred exercise of power is infamous, and which in 2022 rode through another tumultuous national election cycle. This is Big Man country, the home turf of Marape, himself a proud Huli. His predecessor and rival, Peter O’Neill, sits just across the border in Southern Highlands Province. Oil and gas from this region power the national economy. But its communities are profoundly disenfranchised and have “been screwed over and used by everybody”, in the summation of one expert, and as the violence and vote-rigging documented through successive elections attest.

A decade ago, Komo – home to many of the kidnappers – was ground zero for what was touted as the Asia-Pacific’s biggest resources project, ExxonMobil’s “game-changing” $US19 billion liquefied natural gas venture, PNG LNG. Some 1500 hectares of land was levelled for a 3.2-kilometre airfield to receive Antonov freighters hauling in the hardware. Expectations were sky-high – for jobs, money, services and facilities. But many locals have seen few, if any, of the promised benefits, and the airfield is today “a white elephant”, says Dr Michael Main, an anthropologist whose PhD focused on the Huli and the impact of PNG LNG.

Komo is a historic hotspot for tribal fighting, and today lawlessness has spiralled. “People are living in poverty, the resentment and feeling of entitlement is definitely there,” says Main. Which is not to say he has any sympathy for the kidnappers, who he adds “have been raiding villages and raping women”. He was held and threatened himself during his fieldwork.

But in the context of all the unrealised promises and hopes around PNG LNG, “this type of thing was bound to emerge”, he argues.

Professor Colin Filer, drawing on his decades of research, argues that the hostility goes back much further. “The Huli war lords emerged at a much earlier stage, these mercenaries who were basically involved in this guns-for-drugs trade.” According to Filer and other local observers, traffic along jungle thoroughfares ferrying PNG-grown marijuana to the Indonesian border and weapons back out is thriving, perhaps because Torres Strait routes are more closely patrolled.

The Huli have long been “making life hard for other people around the edges of the Huli world,” Filer tells The Saturday Paper. “They really have been pretty aggressive and expansionist for a long time, even before the whitefellas turned up.

“There’s no doubt that PNG LNG has made things worse,” he says, largely because “ExxonMobil dropped the ball when it came to managing the whole landowner benefit distribution issue”.

There’s a lot of money at stake, “and the more money there is flowing, the more aggravation there is about the way it gets distributed. So, it’s intensified a process that I think was already under way … it has deeper historical roots.”

Hostage-taking of various forms has been happening for a long time in Hela and the Southern Highlands, says Filer – sometimes to leverage the release of arrested criminals and war lords, sometimes around resources projects to extract payments, compensation and promises. Last September an Australian and three PNG contractors working for Santos at a remote oilfield in Hela were kidnapped by landowners and held for four days. Appearing in court in Port Moresby in January, three men charged over the incident said they took the hostages because they had not been paid royalties by the PNG government. “We worked closely with PNG and Australian authorities as well as the contractor to reach a positive resolution,” Santos told the ABC.

There’s also a long history of Huli raiding parties venturing across the surrounding lowlands – activities now encouraged by the ransom business and the demonstrated willingness of the logging industry to pay. The abduction of the archaeology research team may well have been unplanned – accounts indicate the kidnappers happened on them while returning to Komo from another raid on Wawoi Guavi. But the event is underwritten by “a sort of political economy that is in a sense fuelling, tolerating, co-opting these elements,” says Professor Nicole Haley, a leading authority on PNG politics who has worked extensively in the highlands.

While there’s concern in PNG that the recent kidnapping might inspire copycat actions in other regions, Haley thinks these localised factors mean they are unlikely to get traction elsewhere in the country.

Meanwhile, the reverberations across lowlands communities from Hela to the coast are devastating. “Around Mount Bosavi now, the villages are empty, people are hiding in the bush, they don’t have enough to eat,” local sources say. “People don’t have guns here. They are scared to kill the Huli because they think there are millions of them. They really want a police presence, some manning of the roads.”

As the human dramas play out, Filer wonders whether an unintended consequence may be a reprieve for the region’s remaining forests and the biodiversity they harbour. RH has for years coveted the 800,000 hectare Kamula Doso region, which neighbours its near-exhausted Wawoi Guavi operation. Kamula Doso is regarded as the jewel of PNG’s surviving rainforest and has lately been the focus of some controversial forest carbon offset schemes. For now, at least, both loggers and carbon traders are likely to be frightened off.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for RH to continue with these logging operations without having this massive police presence, which is adding to their cost of production,” says Filer.

While conservationists have fought for years to save the Kamula Doso, outlaw kidnappers might succeed where all else appears to have failed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2023 as "Ransom enterprise".

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