The Frieda River Mine is a project in development in PNG’s West and East Sepik Provinces, which seeks to exploit the copper and gold deposits there via an open cut mine and associated infrastructure including a hydro-electric plant and an integrated tailings storage facility.
Copper mineralisation was discovered in the Frieda River in the 1960s, but the project in its current form has been in train for the last ten years, first via the efforts of the Anglo-Swiss giant Xtrata, and now via the Australia-based PanAust, which is 100% owned by the Chinese provincial government of Guandong.
The Frieda River flows into the Sepik River, which is a 1126 km long watercourse that flows across the West and East Sepik Provinces on mainland Papua New Guinea (PNG). Along with the Fly River to the South and the Marembo river to the West, it is generally considered to be one of three major river systems on the island of New Guinea. The Sepik catchment area is some 78,000 square km and is inhabited by more than 400,00 people, 70,000 of whom live on the floodplain.
This report is about the desires of the people who live on the Sepik river to have their say about this project which, they believe, could have a huge impact on their lives and on their environment. It is a collaboration between the Australian-based Jubilee Australia Research Centre and the Papua New Guinea-based Project Sepik.
One of the biggest challenges for the Frieda River project is how to build a safe and effective tailings storage facility, that can manage any acid rock drainage that might be generated.
Although the company reportedly submitted an environmental impact statement (EIS) to the Conservation and Environmental Protection Authority (CAPE), it has not been publicly released, nor has Jubilee been able to find one in its research.
Three factors magnify the concerns about the tailings issue: the substantial amounts of tailings that will be generated, the inaccessibility of the terrain and the extremely high rainfall and preponderance of seismic activity.
In October 2018, a seven-member team from the community organisation community organisation Project Sepik conducted an awareness tour of 23 villages on the Upper Sepik. The seven-member team included officials from Project Sepik (co-publisher of this report).
The purpose of the tour was threefold:
1. To determine what impacts that the people living in the villages of the Upper Sepik had observed on their local environment.
2. To ascertain the attitude of each village towards the planned Frieda River Mine;
3. To share the concerns of Project Sepik about the impacts that the mine might have on the Sepik region.
The awareness tour found that communities were concerned that increased sedimentation, bank degradation and flooding along the river had impacted fish stocks and sago and food cultivation. The communities believe that the Frieda River mine will further exacerbate these problems, impacting their food security and livelihood.
Project Sepik also found that communities had either not been consulted about the proposed mine, or already opposed to the mine, refused to meet with those responsible for the consultation. An atmosphere of animosity and lack of trust has developed, including acts of sabotage and resistance on behalf of some villagers. There are reports of official (mainly police) intimidation of anti-mine activists.
‘ The river is not ours, it belongs to the future. We are only vessels of the Sepik spirit that dwells to celebrate and protect it. We will guard it with our life. ’
Emmanuel Peni, Project Sepik
The report makes three conclusions:
1. The lack of information released by the company about its environmental management plans are continuing to cause uncertainty about whether the company’s environmental management plans will be fit for purpose;
2. The potential for this project to lead to damaging social conflict and unrest is real and must be taken seriously;
3. It does not appear that the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the communities living downstream of the Frieda River mine has been secured.