Papua New Guinea plays host to a wealth of mineral deposits – from copper, gold and nickel to liquid natural gas. Yet despite its vast mining potential, the country’s resources sector has a history dented by environmental and social turmoil. Its largest mines, Ok Tedi and Porgera, were disrupted by a devastating earthquake in 2018, and mining tensions even led to a civil war between 1988 and 1998 – a conflict that saw the loss of 20,000 lives.
With a spate of new projects on the horizon, Papa New Guinea’s mining dark days are seemingly over, and a World Bank report forecasts new large scale resource operations will boost the country’s GDP to 5%. However, environmental and humanitarian concerns are beginning to plague upcoming projects, casting doubt on just how beneficial they will be for the region. One such operation is the Frieda River project from Australia-based PanAust – a gold and copper mine that has faced widespread backlash for its potential environmental damages. Considering the country’s long standing grievances with the sector, tensions are high, and navigating the industry will be critical in avoiding exacerbating an already unstable situation.
The Frieda River project
Despite claims it will generate A$12.45bn in tax, royalties and production levies for the Papa New Guinea government and landholders, the Frieda River project has been hounded by fears of potential ecological damage and social disruption. A report, The River is Not Ours, authored by research centre Jubilee Australia and community group Project Sepik, investigated the project’s rumoured impacts.
Largely based on the findings of an awareness tour of riverside villages, the report raises questions about the project’s potential damages to the Sepik River, which the mine will rely on for access, transport and tailing dispersal. As well as contaminating the river itself, any pollution from operations would cause serious detrimental effects on the 400,000 indigenous people who rely on the river for food, drinking water and transport.
“The Sepik River’s biological and cultural diversity is comparable to the Amazon, and its people will not be compensated for the use of their river,” says Emmanuel Peni, Coordinator of Project Sepik. “Even if there are some discussions (which is still highly unlikely), the cost of destruction is far greater than any form of monetary value. Put simply, the river and all its lifeforms are priceless.”
PanAust recently released its environmental impact statement, which Luke Fletcher, executive director of Jubilee Australia, said in an email that his organisation is in the process of analysing.
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“We and our partners are having experts go through the various sections,” he says. “I don’t want to preempt what they find, but suffice to say that we have grave concerns that this project can be done in a way that is environmentally safe.”
Speaking with Peni on the statement, he calls it ‘jumbled up and convoluted’, and giving a misleading impression of economic development. Closer inspection, he says, “reveals that there is no economic value to the people of the Sepik River.”
Resentment over the presence of foreign organisations is a major thorn in the side of the project. Responding to a question posed to him at a previous PanAust meeting on the project’s potential economic benefits, Peni said: “We do not need an outsider to come, to dig up the land, to destroy the trees and rivers and then say they will give us development. We will develop ourselves.”
Mining in Papua
This is not the first time mining operations in the region have sparked concerns amongst environmentalists and locals alike. These sites often stir up existing conflicts, and bring with them worrying reports of human rights abuses that only serve to exacerbate the situation.
One example is the Freeport gold mine in the Mimika regency, the largest gold mine in the world, which saw protests from thousands of West Papuans, who described it as a ‘symbol of oppression’ that brought no economic benefit to locals. In the province of Enga, an industrial gold mine was found to have numerous reports of human rights abuses, which were investigated in a 2016 independent study from a team at Columbia University. Communities in the area were also said to have only sporadic water security and suffer from poor sanitary conditions – grievances exacerbated by the influx of people looking for work afforded by small-scale gold mining.
In both instances, the primary call has been for independence from those living near the mine – a situation we are seeing manifesting once more with the Frieda River project. Speaking with Human Rights Watch activist Andreas Harsono, he says that in general, the presence of external mining companies only works to exacerbate existing problems.
“There is a poem by a famous Papuan poet, which essentially says ‘go, please take away our forests, go take away our gold. Let these people take away what they want from our land, just let us just live in peace,’” he says. “Indigenous Papuans don’t like the presence of foreign companies who often do not speak up on the human rights abuses and environmental degradation of the region.”
So, what’s next for mining in the region?
For some, putting locals back in control of operations in the region is imperative. Peni, for one, is in support of bringing more opportunities to locals.
“The Papa New Gunean Government should be in the driver’s seat, its people (land owners), in tow,” he says. “They should mine this region for its prosperity, with the ultimate focus being on the safety of the river!”
For others, it is more a case of including locals in the decision-making process. Speaking with Harsono, he says consultation with local communities is imperative in avoiding conflict.
“Companies that make more of an effort to consult locals tend to have far smaller controversies surrounding operations,” he says. “One example is BP, which is having less controversies than others because they’re consulting local populations. It is important to note as well that when women are included in consultation, there are even fewer instances of violence and human rights abuses.”
Inclusion of vulnerable or marginalised groups has also been identified as a means of improving overall tensions in the country, and an article on the Papua development roadmap stresses the need to raise the quality of life of Papuans to that of other Indonesian citizens.
“At present,” it reads, “policy discussion remains focused on development alone. Yet the issues of recognition of Papuans as traditional ‘owners’ of the land, human rights abuses, and claims for independence will never fade from the hearts and minds of Papuans.”