Turns Out Exxon’s Plan Meshed Nicely With a Myth in Primitive New Guinea

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Papua, New Guinea, has a founding myth – Gigira Laitebo – that an underground fire is kept alive by inhabitants poking sticks into the earth. It also foretells that Exxon will come to the land, and “will light up the world” by extracting and exporting fire from under its ground – at least according to the current national government’s finance minister. He puts a positive spin on the prophecy. “By development of the project and delivering to international markets, it’s one way of fulfilling the myth.”

And that is exactly what Exxon plans to do, to extract this  fire under New Guinea – natural gas – and ship it through a 450-mile pipeline, then by boat to Japan, China and other markets in East Asia.

But other natives dispute the interpretation. A group of people at a Roman Catholic church gave the New York Times a completely different reading of the meaning last year.

“If foreigners come to our land, you give them food and water, but don’t give them the fire,” John Hamule, 38, told the Times, as the others nodded. “If you do, it will destroy this place.” When these locals were interviewed, it appeared as if the “fire up the world” contingent was losing the battle. After all, Exxon had to contend with more than 60,000 individual land owners to make the deal.

This week Exxon concluded the purchase agreement. Myths are handy things.

Susan Kraemer@Twitter

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