The picture here in the Southern Highlands is not completely bleak. With the start of several ExxonMobil-related construction projects in recent months, for instance, the police have returned after a long absence.
“It was a lawless place until last year,” said Joe Wija, 43, the town administrator at Komo, where police barracks and a new provincial government building are being constructed after the end of a long tribal war. “The government is coming back now. When ExxonMobil came here, it was the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Here in Tari — the largest town closest to the gas fields but really just a series of squat buildings surrounding a recently fenced-off airstrip — a separate tribal war has given way to new businesses.
“No one from the outside dared to come to Tari two years ago,” said Peter Muli, 37, whose chicken restaurant, House-Kai, is now thriving.
One recent afternoon, Tari was swarming with villagers, most of them barefoot, who had descended from the surrounding hills, where they live in hamlets dotted with thatched huts. Here, they sold fruits, vegetables and coffee beans. Some men strutted around in traditional garb, wearing elaborate wigs and body paint, even as others, dressed in T-shirts and other hand-me-downs from Australia, competed fiercely at darts to win a can of Coke.
With gas exports a few years off, only a little money has begun flowing into the hands of the people here. But it has begun to worry the priests at the Catholic parish.
“You want to be optimistic but you have to be realistic,” said the Rev. Sam Driscoll, 78, a Capuchin Franciscan friar from West Virginia who has lived in Papua New Guinea for 50 years.
The money, the friars said, risked deepening existing problems like alcoholism, marijuana use and polygamy. “The people here are not ready for that kind of money,” said the Rev. Paul Patlo, a Papua New Guinean.
While conceding the danger of social disruptions, Papua New Guinea officials are adamant that the windfall will be used for development and not siphoned off by the well connected. Mr. O’Neill, the finance minister, said the government planned to channel the revenue into three sovereign wealth funds that would be overseen by a board of advisers, including foreigners, adding that the government would also be held accountable by the World Bank and other creditors.
But Michael McWalter, a former director of the petroleum division at the Department of Petroleum and Energy and a current adviser, said that corruption permeated the country’s political establishment and bureaucracy.
“Whether they will put the money into a revenue fund and steal it all in one go, I don’t know,” said Mr. McWalter, who is also a director of Transparency International here.
Father Patlo, 39, told his congregation at Hulia Parish here the biblical parable of the unjust steward, who misused money entrusted to him.
“The government and the company sit together and eat in the same place, so they must develop the country together,” he went on, but he also assigned responsibility to his listeners, exhorting them to spend their money on their children’s school fees and save any left over.
Earlier, he had held up a warning: a local village chief who had squandered a $120,000 windfall.
A short drive away, Hamon Matipe, the septuagenarian chief of Kili, confirmed that he had received that sum four months earlier. In details corroborated by the local authorities, Mr. Matipe explained that the provincial government had paid him for village land alongside the Southern Highlands’ one major road, where the government planned to build a police barracks.
His face adorned with red and white paint, a pair of industrial safety glasses perched incongruously on a head ornament from which large leaves stuck out, Mr. Matipe said he had given most of the money to his 10 wives. But he had used about $20,000 to buy 48 pigs, which he used as a dowry to obtain a 15-year-old bride from a faraway village, paying well above the going rate of 30 pigs. He and some 30 village men then celebrated by buying 15 cases of beer, costing about $800.
“All the money is now gone,” Mr. Matipe said. “But I’m very happy about the company, ExxonMobil. Before, I had nothing. But because of the money, I was able to buy pigs and get married again.”