Global capital, local understandings: changing ecologies of knowledge in response to a major resource-extraction project in Papua New Guinea

This research programme examines wider social and cultural consequences of a major resource extraction project, the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project, that has been under construction since 2009 with first exports of gas in 2014. How do people on the margins of - but not directly affected by - such projects reorient how they understand their place in the world?

The chief investigators are Associate Professor Monica Minnegal, an anthropologist within the School of Social and Political Sciences; Dr Peter Dwyer, in the School of Geography; and Dr Florence Brunois of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (Centre national de la recherche scientifique). Also involved in the project is PhD candidate Sandrine Lefort.

An Australian Research Council Discovery grant supports the research. "Papua New Guinea is a very expensive place to conduct research," says Associate Professor Minnegal, "and without that funding there is no way the project could have been done. You really need embedded fieldwork for this." Associate Professor Minnegal has been working in PNG with Kubo people since 1986.

"My research for a long time has looked at how these people initiate change in anticipation of a very different future. Until recently, however, the form people imagined that future might take was based on rumour. Now, with the PNG LNG project, this imagining has taken a more concrete shape."

Her research centres upon the Kubo community of Suabi, in an area with no roads, mining, logging, or cash cropping. Ms Lefort's research is based in Haivaro, in southern Fasu land, which has a history of logging. This provides a comparison to see how different histories of previous engagement with development affect the ways people respond to what is happening now.

The PNG LNG project has caused major changes. Boundaries around land and people used to be permeable but, with the prospect of royalty payments and compensation for use of land or environmental damage, defining the membership of specific groups and who is associated with particular lands has become more important. As people seek to establish their own rights to royalties, or exclude others, clans have been subdivided or amalgamated and new relationships established. Associate Professor Minnegal says, "People are drawing on the past, on mythology, in different ways in order to do this."

The research is ethnographic. As Associate Professor Minnegal explains, "you go to a place, you watch, you listen, you talk to people, and you follow their lead - you engage with what they want to talk about. We want to know what matters to them now." It is not possible to be a detached, distant observer. "These are not naïve people. They have their eye on what they can get from this. Researchers going into a place like this are themselves agents of change; we bring the world in, and have to take responsibility for our effects.

The programme of research will produce at least three books. One will be based on research conducted in the area studied by Associate Professor Minnegal Minnegal and Dr Dwyer, another will be based on Ms Lefort's PhD thesis, and the third will be an edited collection derived from a planned workshop on the social effects of major resource extraction processes.

Socio-ecological shifts

"Engagement with processes of development necessarily entails objectification of people and land, evaluation of alternative claims and strategies, and rationalisation of outcomes. Land becomes valued for the wealth that can be extracted from it rather than the living that can be made by engaging with it, and people too start to be differentiated in terms of the wealth to which they have access rather than the relationships they build with others. Relationships still matter, of course, but people are likely to reorientate their efforts to building relationships with particular others - the 'owners' of the most valuable land. They must also build relationships with more abstract entities, such as the state and multinational companies. And through all this, they must struggle to make sense of how the world has come to take on this new shape."

Assoc. Professor Monica Minnegal

Global capital, local understandings

School

Social and Political Sciences

Discipline

Anthropology

Website

Anticipating change in Papua New Guinea

Chief Investigators

Assoc. Prof Monica Minnegal, Lecturer in Anthropology, School of Social and Political Sciences The University of Melbourne
Dr Florence Brunois, Laboratory of Social Anthropology (LAS), National Organisation for Academic Scientific Research (CNRS) Collège de France
Dr Peter Dwyer, School of Geography (Honorary) The University of Melbourne

Contact

For more information please contact Assoc. Professor Monica Minnegal

Email: mmam@unimelb.edu.au
Phone: +61 3 8344 4708