Violent clashes have once again erupted between local people, police and company security guards at the giant Porgera gold and silver mine in Papua New Guinea's highlands, operated and largely owned by the Canadian corporation Barrick Gold – the world's biggest gold mining company.
Green Left Weekly has been informed by a Porgera-based human rights group called the Akali Tange Association that major riots broke out following the December 2 fatal shooting of four local people by company security guards and members of the notorious PNG Police Mobile Task Force. One security guard was also killed.
On December 3 local people massed in their thousands around Porgera station, forced the mine to curtail its operations and clashed with paramilitary police.
One more local was reported to have been shot dead in the afternoon hours of that day when the angry crowd marched towards Paiam town.
“According to eyewitnesses the victim received bullet wounds on the head. The shooting occurred at Pogema bridge.
“Police blocked marching crowd from advancing towards Paiam when the confrontation triggered of shooting. Soon after, the raging mobs returned towards Porgera in rampage and anything on their way was destroyed.
“The crowd then advanced towards the mine site but police I think managed to take control. Meanwhile night shift employees commuting to work from Paiam and Porgera station areas have been advised not to show up for work.
The situation is still tense at the moment. The final dead toll is not yet confirmed and we will confirm the number of deaths when the final numbers are collected from relatives of the victims.”
The locals were killed while they were scavenging in the mine tailings for any gold-bearing rocks that might be left over – a desperate and dangerous occupation that impoverished customary landholders have resorted to since the mine began in 1990.
While PNG law recognises their customary title, the local owners have been poorly compensated. They have faced violent displacement, their land has been devastated and their rivers poisoned by toxic mine waste. And when they enter the mine site to scavenge for scrap, they are treated like trespassers even though they are on their own land.
In a damning 2011 report, Human Rights Watch noted that while the locals remain desperately poor, an estimated US$20 billion worth of gold had been extracted the mine operators between 1990 and 2010.
Toronto-based Barrick Gold acquired majority ownership of the mine in 2006 from another Canadian company called Placer Dome. Barrick Gold now has 95% ownership, the rest being held by a local state-owned company.
“This is not first clash,” the ATA explained to GLW. “Since 1989, there have been many clashes and reports of over 30 local people have been killed from similar incidents.”
“The main issue is that two groups have an interest on the Porgera Special Mining Lease (SML) area. Under common law Barrick Gold possesses exclusive rights under the PNG government's mining permit. But under customary law the indigenous local landowners possesses the 100% right by birthright.
“Both groups occupy the land were the mine pit is located. Barrick does mechanical mining to extract gold and the locals do artisan mining.
“We have been asking all along for Barrick to resettle the indigenous population out of the SML but that call has never been answered adequately. Instead Barrick has been buying time under high security installation with rule-by-gun with the support of the PNG police.
“The PNG government heavily relies on revenue from the extractive industry [the Porgera mine alone accounts for 12% of PNG's exports] so the state does what its paymaster asks – forgetting its own citizens. Our politicians are corrupt and the state is weak in terms of delivering basic service like health and education to the 95% of the PNG population that lives in rural areas. Porgera is no exception.
“And the Australian government uses its aid funds to support the PNG police force.”
Paramilitary units of the PNG police along with the mine's security guards have been accused of serially burning down villages, raping women and killing local miners.
After Amnesty International took up these outrages in 2010, the company was forced to concede that such incidents may have occurred and it offered some weak compensatory programs on condition that the victims – including women who had been raped – sign legal waivers of their right to take any further action.
In January 2013, Mining Watch, Rights & Account ability in Development and EarthRights International released a scathing report on Barrick’s gang rape remediation program in PNG.
Just how bad Barrick Gold's practice has been in its mines all around the world is well documented by human rights activists and environmentalists. The latest summary of this corporation's crimes is Debunking Barrick, produced in April 2013 by ProtestBarrick.net, a global network of human rights and environmental activists tracking the company's operations.
“Barrick is the world's largest gold-producing company but that tag is covered with human blood. The ways and methods Barrick employs all around the world to extract gold is very dirty, very bad,” sums up the ATA.
Whether it is Barrick's mines in PNG, Australia, Tanzania, Zambia, Chile or Peru, the pattern is one of violence, pollution, impunity and a total disdain for the rights of indigenous people, explains Natalie Lowrey, an Australian-based campaigner and co-founder of ProtestBarrick.net :
“Barrick robs indigenous people of their lands, poisons waterways and agricultural land, supports brutal police and security operations, and sues anyone who tries to report on it. In Australia Wiradjuri Traditional Owners have waged a protracted and bitter legal battle since 2001 to stop Barrick from developing and operating an open-pit cyanide leach gold mine in Lake Cowal.”
Barrick Gold is rich and powerful but the truth about its bloody global record is coming out despite the company's strenuous efforts to hide it. For instance, on December 3, a UK High Court granted an injunction against Barrick Gold against suing locals protesting excessive force by mine security and police at its mine in Tanzania.
Angry local residents in Porgera. Photo by Jethro Tulin.
The Porgera mine site the day after the riots. Photo by Jethro Tulin.