By David Robie
After years of dumping tonnes of waste into rivers supplying many indigenous communities around the world, several major mining companies have been accused of damaging fragile ecosystems and found "guilty" in a controversial trial.
Mining companies operating in the Papua New Guinea Highlands, the rugged Cordillera region of the Philippines and the Rio Malo source in Chile, and international bank consortiums and government developers responsible for hydro-power plants in the Amazon, Bangladesh and Cree Indian territory in Canada are among those convicted the Amsterdam-based International Water Tribunal.
The tribunal is an independent body established in 1981 to adjudicate in disputes over the use and allocation of fresh water supplies.
Eleven cases have been heard by the tribunal of nine international jurors and a panel of world experts on water technology. The second hearings to be conducted by the tribunal in a decade, these cases have all involved indigenous communities whose lives were alleged to be at risk from exploitation by large-scale development projects.
Although not binding on governments or corporations, the judgments are an acute embarrassment and have already led to threats against individuals and groups who filed the cases.
The detailed verdicts on each case and recommendations by the jurors are being presented at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in June.
Funders of the tribunal include the European Commission, Norway's Environment Ministry, the Danish and Swedish Foreign Ministries, and the Nature Conservation Ministry, development funding agencies and private foundations in the Netherlands. Cases are divided into four categories — mining, dams, pollution and water management.
In a declaration at the end of the trial, the jurors said: "All members of present and future generations have the fundamental right to a sustainable livelihood including the availability of water of sufficient quantity and quality".
They stressed that the right to sustainable livelihood was not only a right of those living now. "We also have to act now to safeguard the right of members of future generations."
The declaration said people whose lives were affected by decisions over water resources had a right to take part in decision making, to be informed of projects which could threaten water supplies, to review and appeal projects and to "obtain measures to prevent further damage."
Welcoming the verdicts, Roger Moody, author of Plunder! and a spokesperson for the London-based Minewatch organisation, warned that several of the indigenous representatives who had presented cases before the tribunal were now at risk in their countries.
"Threats were made against Catalino 'Bong' Corpuz, Filipino director of the Mining Communities Development Centre, within hours of the jury's verdict being published in Manila", said Moody, who visited mining sites in New Zealand and the Philippines last year.
"And when his colleagues, Cristeta Godio and Maurice Malanes, returned home, they were shadowed from Hong Kong to the Cordillera mountains capital of Baguio — where three agents were awaiting them.
"Although physical harassment was not present on these occasions, the possibility of further arrest, or worse, cannot be ruled out."
Indigenous people's organisations in the Cordillera campaigning against the operations of the Benguet Corporation, seventh largest gold producer in the world, plan to focus international attention on the devastation caused by open-pit mining with a Cordillera Day rally on April 24.
Benguet Corporation uses 400 kilos of cyanide a year to extract gold and in 1989 opened the Atamok open-pit god mine in which 93 million tonnes of rock and soil are being stripped, dumping heavy metals in the Ambalanga, Agno and Luneta river system, polluting the water supply for an estimated 58,000 people.
Shortly before the tribunal hearings began in Amsterdam, the Papua New Guinea government warned against foreign interference, and Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu announced plans to deport two German scientists and black-list them.
The researchers had issued a report calling for the closing of PNG's controversial Ok Tedi copper and gold mine on the basis of alleged gross environmental abuses.
Before leaving Port Moresby, the two researchers were shot at by unknown assailants, and some of their documents were stolen.
Foreign affairs minister Michael Somare warned director Harry Sukulas of the Wau Ecology Institute, the PNG organisation which filed the case against OK Tedi before the Water Tribunal, to "stick to research" and keep out of "environmental activism".
Environmental campaigners accused the PNG government of pressuring local newspapers to report only government-sanctioned press releases on the tribunal hearing.
In the case against Ok Tedi, the tribunal concluded that the mine's waste disposal practices had polluted the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers in the PNG Highlands. The jurors found that the resulting silting of the river bed had caused flooding and destruction of food gardens, subsistence fishing practices and boat transportation.
The tribunal recommended that Ok Tedi Mining Ltd review the mine's long-term social and environmental effects and seek a safe way to store and treat the waste.
It said: "If no such storage or no cost-effective storage is feasible, the jury believes that the externalised costs of the projects grossly exceed the benefits and, consequently, the activities of [Ok Tedi] should be phased out"
Ok Tedi Mining Ltd is consortium owned by the PNG government (20%); Amoco, US (30%); BHP, Australia (30%); Metallgesellschaft, Germany (7.5%); Degussa, Germany (7.5%); and DEG Bank, Germany (5%). PNG's secretary of the Minerals and Energy Department represents the national government on the company's board of directors.
As the metal content of the ore is less than 1% on average, a vast discharge of waste rock and tailings into the drainage system since the mine opened in 1984 has caused severe environmental damage to both the Ok Tedi and the 1100 km Fly River downstream.
The Australian government has commissioned a $4 million study to gauge the extent of damage from the Ok Tedi tailings to coastal fisheries and coral reefs on Torres Strait.
The Wau Ecology Institute's case against Ok Tedi accused the company of "showing disregard for the environment" of PNG; taking advantage of low environmental standards in a Third World country, operating a mine without waste retention facilities — "which would not be permitted in any of the shareholders' home countries"; and taking advantage of economic pressures on PNG to avoid cost-effective
environmental protection measures.
PNG's Minerals and Energy Department was accused of repeatedly bowing to pressures from the mining company; failing to implement environmental protection measures to protect the environment; being unable to fulfil its duties as an impartial regulator due to its double function as both an Ok Tedi shareholder and monitoring body.
As a shareholder, said the tribunal, the PNG government should not be in charge of monitoring whether environmental regulations are being complied with. Monitoring should be carried out by a state agency not involved in managing the mine.
The tribunal concluded that the mine's foreign shareholders must ensure that Ok Tedi meets environmental standards comparable to those in their countries, as well as those appropriate for the Ok Tedi region. It added that the case also demonstrated the need for holding foreign shareholders liable for damage caused by the national counterpart.
Welcoming the tribunal's ruling, a spokesperson for the Rainforest Action Network called on Ok Tedi to construct a tailings dam to hold the mining waste — "or they should shut down their operation".