Investigating the Tumbi Disaster

By Dr Kristian Lasslett*

At around 4am last Tuesday morning, a landslide 1.5km along swept through Tumbi, in Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands, while residents lay asleep.

Photo AP/Post Courier

Reporting from the ground, Andrew Alphonse conveys a scene of devastation:

The sound of wailing fills the air around the legendary Gigira mountain in Tari as mothers openly shed tears as they go about trying to locate their loved ones in one of the worst landslides ever recorded in Papua New Guinea. Clad in mud and weeping and wailing, the mothers are joined by other villagers, lucky to be spared by the tonnes of mud, huge limestone slabs and debris that came down suddenly on the sleeping village at the foot of the mountain. (Post-Courier, 25/1/2012).

While the death toll remains unknown at this stage, it is expected that up to 60 villagers may have perished. 

People’s first thoughts have, of course, been for the victims and their families. Nevertheless, questions are beginning to be asked about the cause of the landslide. In particular, concerns have been raised over the potentially destabilising effects of a local quarry, which was developed for a $US15.7 billion liquefied natural gas venture, headed by ExxonMobil. 

Bill Yomba, from Papua New Guinea’s National Disaster Office told CNN:

"We are still trying to find out the cause but at this stage we believe the gas project run by Esso Higlands Limited [ExxonMobil subsidiary] was a contributor because they had been digging for limestone in the area" (CNN, 25/1/12).

Yomba’s concerns are shared by Sir Alfred Kaiabe, a former member of parliament for the region, who informed ABC Radio that this sort of landslide is unprecedented in the area (ABC Radio, 25/1/12). 

Local residents have also raised questions. The ABC’s Liam Fox reports: 

There are people - locals are already drawing some links. How correct that is, we're not able to say yet. But they believe that the quarry next to the landslide site caused the landslide. That blasting in the past has, quote, 'softened the ground' as they have said. And that quarry was used by the LNG site for its operations. (ABC Radio, 25/1/12)

Given these serious concerns, calls are being made for an independent investigation into the disaster. The Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neil, having inspected the affected area, has promised to appoint an independent investigative team (PacNews, 26/1/12). This is a welcomed step. Too often in Papua New Guinea local knowledge is ignored. Indeed, one of the factors contributing to the country’s greatest crisis to date – the Bougainville conflict – was the dismissal of local concerns over the Panguna mine’s environmental effects, as ill-informed conspiracy theories.  

Landowners, NGOs, and local politicians have come out in support of the Prime Minister’s proposal. Speaking on the Pacific Beat program, member for Komo-Magarima claims: 

At the moment, people have their own views on what has caused the landslide, but we will wait for the investigation to happen and that investigation is most welcome by myself and all the members of parliament from Southern Highlands as well as the landowner leaders and landowners and the people themselves. (ABC Radio 27/1/12)

Local NGO LNG Watch has also rallied behind an independent investigation, claiming that it could prevent further tragedy: 

Mount Gigira, it’s a kind of range; people are sleeping along that place all the way to Hides 1, 2, 3 and 4 (numbers refer to Petroleum Development License areas) and then down to Komo. So that thing (the landslide) might happen again. So to stop that incident happening in the future, I want these people to come in and do the investigation. (Radio New Zealand, 27/1/12)

However, if local concerns are indeed to be adequately addressed it is essential that the investigation is conducted in an open and transparent manner, using a range of experts, who consult closely with those in the devastated region; landowner knowledge of the local environment must be given its proper due.

The investigative team should also have the resources to independently study the region, without over-reliance on datasets produced by ExxonMobil or its subsidiaries/contractors (unfortunately, there may be a dearth of independent data to draw on, which will make matters difficult). 

Furthermore, it is not enough to send in a team of natural scientists. While earth science specialists will of course be critical, the literature on disasters is clear, complex social factors mediate these types of events. Co-Director of the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), Prof Penny Green observes:

“it is not the climatic or geophysical hazard which kills – rather it is the political, economic and social structures which determine population vulnerability that bear responsibility” (Green 2011).

Consequently, if the right research questions are to be formulated, social scientists with relevant expertise must be utilised.

In the interests of transparency and independence, civil society should be centrally involved in overseeing the inquiry. Indeed involving NGOs, scholars, and community groups, would be a healthy step in ensuring the investigation is robust, vigilant, and unafraid to ask difficult questions. 

The parameters of the study must be wide also. In particular, critical questions must be levelled at the national government, in addition to ExxonMobil. While the O’Neil government is proving more resilient in the face of demands by major resource operators, we know from revelations involving the recently ousted Somare regime that the Papua New Guinea state has over the past two decades viewed itself primarily as a business partner of resource operators (Dateline, 26/6/11). This attitude has had a debilitating effect on the nation’s regulatory apparatus. Consequently, we saw most recently a waste disposal method banned in China, the US and Canada, approved for the Ramu Nickel mine, without adequate data on the serious social and environmental consequences of this decision.

At present efforts and resources should rightly be focused upon stabilising the landslide area, and housing the displaced. Nevertheless, for landowners who have already raised serious questions about the equity of the LNG operation, it would be provocative in the extreme, if this tragedy became the subject of a whitewash.  

Dr Kristian Lasslett is the Papua New Guinea Coordinator for the International State Crime Initiative and is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Ulster. He can be contacted at

Originally posted on the International State Crime Initiative Website and the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences Blog, University of Ulster