Social sustainability, governance, and accountability

A new documentary examines the intersection of a natural gas project, a landslide, and governance in Papua New Guinea. When we were Hela and the accompanying report suggest that negligence on the part of ExxonMobil has created damages to the area in the form of human rights abuses and the landslide in January 2012 that killed at least 27 people. The film also implicates government officials, claiming that government corruption allowed ExxonMobil to bypass local government and landowners.

The short documentary is poignant and no doubt controversial; the last minute includes responses from ExxonMobil and a report of non-response from the government of Papua New Guinea.

The film explores themes that have become commonplace in the contemporary world: resource extraction initiated by non-local organizations bringing suffering and few actual benefits to those who live and work in the area. I teach an entire course that examines interactions like these, and how powerful interests can silence entire communities. Anthropologists, geographers, sociologists, and others provide detailed studies of these kinds of processes, and the long-term results including impoverishment, increased vulnerability, and other related problems. We also examine how communities can contest these kinds of abuses, though happy endings are rare and usually bittersweet.

These kinds of events, repeated in many places over time, emphasizes the need for a comprehensive understanding of sustainability. Beyond the environmental and economic concerns, real sustainability requires that people and communities have a say in their present and future. My work with participatory processes shows how often these can fail to really involve those who will be most affected by a project, but to ignore local voices and concerns is deeply immoral.

Actual sustainability would involve self-determination that would be respected at all levels of governance and business – a bottom line un-compromised by theft, corruption, and abuse. Stories like When we were Hela should do more than shock and sadden us, they should move us to demand better governance and accountability.

Image: Ok Tedi Mine Papua New Guinea by AK Rockefeller. Used under a Creative Commons License.