Set to ‘transform’ Queensland’s electricity market and improve lives in southern Papua New Guinea (PNG), the recently announced plans for hydro-electricity project in remote PNG to power northern Australia have provoked as much praise as they have condemnation. On the one hand the project may represent a mutually beneficial and sustainable energy partnership and, on the other, it raises serious questions about land rights, livelihood and voice.
A manner of speaking
The project’s leaders enthusiastically assure us that the project will adhere to internationally recognised social and environmental standards, set by the World Commission on Dams (WCD) and the International Hydropower Association (IHA). These protocols set criteria that are designed to minimise negative social and ecological impacts. Additionally, they call for compensation of local groups and investment in regional development. Indeed, it is not unlikely that this project could catalyse improved healthcare, education and livelihood for people in the region while simultaneously reducing Queensland’s carbon footprint.
However, ‘compensation’, ‘equitable’ distribution of benefits and ‘sustainability’ are lofty ambitions at the best of times; who, for example, defines what these terms actually mean and how they are implemented? In many cases, these definitions, however well-intentioned, are removed from the realities, perspectives or priorities of local communities. Perhaps more worrying are claims made by International Rivers (IR) that the IHA’s ‘protocols’ are essentially a set of voluntary scorecards, as opposed to obligatory standards. These claims throw into question their capacity to defend the rights of local people and environments. Moreover, little evidence of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) processes has been found. FPIC ensures the right of customary landowners to grant or withhold approval for actions affecting their right to self-determination. According to some observers, local people are currently unaware of the recent proposals. Their reactions to previous hydro-power dam and gas pipeline plans as recently as 2009 suggest that opinions would, at best, be mixed.
Of course, such processes are not new to the shores of PNG. Unfortunately, while the country’s resources have indeed generated substantial funds, the benefits have not been shared equitably, environmental protection has been lax and local people have been largely excluded from decision making.
PNG’s Ok Tedi mine makes for a good case study for comparison. Just a few kilometres upstream, the mine accounts for 32% of PNG’s entire export earnings and has contributed to significant economic growth. Impressively, the company, today PNG-owned, invests 52% of its profits into local development programmes and employs 2000 Papua New Guinean people. However, its social and ecological impacts have been severe and include loss of livelihood, human displacement, slurried rivers, contaminated drinking water and destruction of around 2000 square kilometres of rainforest.
Such impacts have been disproportionately experienced by women. While the resultant ecological change has hampered their capacity to procure clean food and water for their families, the introduction of a cash economy, consumer goods and alcohol has contributed to increased rates of domestic violence and sexually transmitted diseases. In large-scale development operations like Ok Tedi it is common for women, and other marginalised groups, to be left out of consultation processes, creating a feedback loop through which these projects exacerbate their marginality.
We do not yet know how this project will look; whether the project developers will opt for lower impact micro-hydro options or go for the more conventional mega-dam approach. Nor do we know to what extent local voices will be involved in decision-making and planning. What we can be sure of, however, is that, should the project go ahead, local people should expect significant social change. What is important is that they play an active and meaningful role in its development to ensure that change happens on their own terms and that in practice this project embodies the concepts of sustainability and partnership it strives for on paper.