Death sparks new controversy over mine waste dump

January 14, 2012
Ramu tailings pipeline. Photo from PNG Mine Watch.

Tensions were high after a prominent supporter of the controversial Ramu nickel mine near Madang in Papua New Guinea died suddenly on January 3.

This comes after the PNG Supreme Court rejected an appeal on December 22 against the decision to allow the Ramu mine operators to dump 100 million tonnes of toxic mine tailings into Basamuk Bay over 20 years.

PNG Mine Watch said on January 6 that police burned homes of local people “in a bizarre attempt to restore order”, after the mysterious death of mine supporter David Tigavu. The Post-Courier said on January 6 that Tigavu's death was believed to be caused by diabetes. However, tensions rose due to claims his death was the result of sorcery, PNG Mine Watch said.

As the head of the Kurumbukari Landowner Association, Tigavu led a small group of “representatives” chosen by the PNG government and Ramu mine owners to counteract community dissent against the mine. Many of the rightful landowners have not been correctly identified.

Tigavu had recently served a 12-months prison sentence for threatening lawyers and plaintiffs challenging the mine owners' plan to dump waste into the sea.

Days before his death, Tigavu praised the Supreme Court decision in favour of the mine owners, the Post-Courier said on December 29, claiming “landowners have suffered badly” from the delay to the mine development.

However, most locals opposed Tigavu and the mine, and 1040 people joined an application for a permanent injunction against the dumping, which was rejected by the National Court in July.

The damage caused by dumping highly toxic mine tailings is likely to be catastrophic. Basamuk Bay is a key site for biodiversity and is vital for the livelihood and food security of locals. It is set to put the environment and people's lives at permanent risk.

Locals have campaigned against the project since 2005. The mine is owned by the Chinese Metallurgical Construction Company (MCC). Australian company Highlands Pacific and the PNG government hold minority stakes.

MCC was banned last year by the World Bank from taking World Bank-financed contracts for three years, said in September. Its Sanctions Board cited “fraudulent misconduct” during MCC's work on the Dhaka Urban Transport Project in Bangladesh.

Despite promises of development and infrastructure for the Medang area, the Ramu mine has brought social dysfunction. Racial tensions have risen. Local people resent Chinese migrants who have been drawn in by the mine project, Deutsche Presse Agentur said on December 27.

Many locals have also been forced from their homes to make way for mine development. Mine owners have been accused of using police and thugs to intimidate opponents.

The project has also come under fire for the alleged use of Chinese convict labour, appalling health and safety, and poor construction standards. Photos posted at PNG Mine Watch on August 15 showed the mine's tailings disposal pipeline starting to collapse only 18 months after it was built.

The decision over the Ramu mine came during a constitutional crisis over who was the legitimate government in PNG. Prime Minister Peter O'Neill was sworn in by parliament in August after former PM Sir Michael Somare had been seriously ill in a Singapore hospital since March.

Somare, known as the “Grand Chief” of PNG politics, had become increasingly unpopular due to the nepotistic behaviour of his cronies and family, undemocratic style of government and brazen obedience to corporate interests.

O'Neill's government moved to curb some of the excesses of Somare's corrupt regime. However, it has since backed away from its early talk of economic nationalism and its promises to give landowners property rights over minerals under their land.

The talk of reform angered sections of PNG's ruling class and provoked Somare's shock return in September in an effort to regain power.

After a legal challenge, the Supreme Court ruled on December 12 that Somare was still the legitimate PM, ABC Online said. Both sides claimed to be the legitimate government, and a deadlock developed that threatened to break into violence.

The Australian Financial Review said on December 16 the Australian government had a plan to “step in” militarily if the situation degenerated.

The deadlock was broken when governor-general Sir Michael Ogio reversed his earlier decision to swear in Somare, and swore in O'Neill as PM on December 19, due to his overwhelming support in parliament, ABC radio's AM said the next day. Somare, still claiming to be PM, vowed to continue to fight to regain power. Elections are due by mid-year.

Despite its dubious legality, Australia supports O'Neill's government. On taking power, O'Neill said he would make closer economic ties with Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald said on August 9. Australia regards PNG as its economic turf and prefers a stable regime to serve the corporate exploitation of the people and environment.

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