Papua New Guinea: Resource colonialism bleeding people and nature

December 8, 2012
Mining projects in PNG, 2010.

Sydney's prestigious Hilton Hotel hosted the “PNG Chamber of Mines and Petroleum Investment Conference” over December 3-5. The event summed up the nature of the resource industry in PNG.

PNG Mine Watch said on December 1: “The Papua New Guinea Mining and Petroleum Conference in Sydney will be a room full of white men dicing and slicing PNG’s assets with little or no participation or informed consent from the people of Papua New Guinea.

“The smattering of Papua New Guinean faces will be from government departments and government regulatory bodies looking on benignly while the nation's assets are stolen in front of their eyes.

“It might be shocking, but it is the truth of the mining and petroleum industry in PNG ― foreign companies completely in control of resources with Papua New Guineans either silently observing from the sidelines or being completely left out and in the dark.”

Despite achieving formal independence from Australia in 1975, PNG still operates as a colony in many ways.

Large foreign-owned companies pillage the vast natural resources of the country, leaving little wealth for local people, who suffer with the environmental damage left behind. Local elites enrich themselves by helping this exploitation.

The companies involved are mostly from the West ― with a big portion from Australia ― although investments from China are growing.

A report titled Troubled Waters from showed the environmental destruction brought by mining in PNG. In world rankings, PNG has three of the top six dumpers of mine tailings into water systems each year, and has six of the top 12 water systems under threat by mine pollution, the report said.

At the top of the list of threatened water systems is Basamuk Bay, the dumping area for 100 million tonnes of tailings from the Ramu mine over the next 20 years.

The mine owners, Chinese company MCC and Australia's Highlands Pacific, began production in May after a long battle against local communities. Locals fought the mine for years due to fears over the destruction of the bay area that provided their livelihoods.

The campaign against the mine was marked by intimidation and threats from mine supporters, including people linked with the PNG government, and police. The former government led by Sir Michael Somare favoured the mine owners heavily, giving them a lucrative tax and royalty deal, as well as changing environment laws to protect resource companies from legal action over ecological damage.

Some of these measures have since been rolled back, but the Ramu mine still operates with little scrutiny or regard for local people.

The area has since been affected by fumes from sulphuric acid production at the mine site, PNG Mine Watch said on August 20.

One of the most notorious mines in PNG is Ok Tedi, which releases 22 million tonnes of tailings a year into the Fly River. The mine is owned by Ok Tedi Mining Ltd (OTML), which took over from BHP Billiton in 2002.

BHP Billiton handed its 52% stake in Ok Tedi to the PNG Sustainable Development Program Ltd ― a publicly owned body ― in return for an agreement that it would not be liable for any more environmental claims. It had already paid an estimated US$500 million in 1996 after it settled a lawsuit brought by mine opponents, Troubled Waters said.

BHP Billiton still wields influence through its control of three of the seven board members of the PNG Sustainable Development Program Ltd.

The Fly River is also used as a dump by the Porgera mine, owned by Barrick Gold. The Troubled Waters report said 60-80% of fish had been wiped out in the river and the remaining fish were heavily contaminated with cadmium and lead.

There are also concerns the pollution is spreading beyond PNG's waters into the Torres Strait, World News Australia Radio said on November 16.

Many cases of mysterious health problems have been reported along the Fly River. The Post Courier said on November 5 that several women had died from “abnormal bleeding” and other people had developed large lumps and ulcers.

The Ok Tedi Development Fund ― a body “that manages community development benefits from Ok Tedi mine operations” ― has been accused of neglecting promised health services in the area. Instead it has paid millions to foreign consultants to conduct “feasibility studies” for unneeded services, PNG Mine Watch said on November 7.

The Ok Tedi Mine Impacted Area Association, which represents more than 70,000 people, said on November 5: “We, the people of Western province, demand the immediate closure of OTML and all monies payable to the people of Western province be made immediately available to us so we can start to reconstruct our lives from this environmental devastation.”

However, OTML representatives told the PNG Mines and Petroleum Investment Conference in Sydney it had secured permission to extend the mine’s life for 11 years, ABC reported on December 4. OTML said it had made an agreement with seven out of nine landowner groups, and disregarded complaints about environmental and health problems.

Sadly, there are many other examples of destruction and exploitation in the PNG mining sector. From islands like Bougainville and Lihir, to highland areas like Freida River and Porgera, the wealth that should benefit local people is plundered by rich and powerful companies from around the world.

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