The muddied waters of mining in Papua New Guinea
Just north of Australia, the island split into Papua and Papua New Guinea is famously underexplored, though over the years inroads have been made and tantalising glimmers of hidden mineral wealth have been quickly followed by some of the world’s biggest miners. Scarlett Evans look at the state of mining in the area, and just what the future holds.
Mining Technology | 20 APRIL 2020
Papua New Guinea plays host to a wealth of mineral deposits – from copper, gold and nickel to liquid natural gas. Yet despite its vast mining potential, the country’s resources sector has a history dented by environmental and social turmoil. Its largest mines, Ok Tedi and Porgera, were disrupted by a devastating earthquake in 2018, and mining tensions even led to a civil war between 1988 and 1998 – a conflict that saw the loss of 20,000 lives.
With a spate of new projects on the horizon, Papa New Guinea’s mining dark days are seemingly over, and a World Bank report forecasts new large scale resource operations will boost the country’s GDP to 5%. However, environmental and humanitarian concerns are beginning to plague upcoming projects, casting doubt on just how beneficial they will be for the region. One such operation is the Frieda River project from Australia-based PanAust – a gold and copper mine that has faced widespread backlash for its potential environmental damages. Considering the country’s long-standing grievances with the sector, tensions are high, and navigating the industry will be critical in avoiding exacerbating an already unstable situation.
The Frieda River project
Despite claims it will generate A$12.45bn in tax, royalties and production levies for the Papa New Guinea government and landholders, the Frieda River project has been hounded by fears of potential ecological damage and social disruption. A report, The River is Not Ours, authored by research centre Jubilee Australia and community group Project Sepik, investigated the project’s rumoured impacts.Largely based on the findings of an awareness tour of riverside villages, the report raises questions about the project’s potential damages to the Sepik River, which the mine will rely on for access, transport and tailing dispersal. As well as contaminating the river itself, any pollution from operations would cause serious detrimental effects on the 400,000 indigenous people who rely on the river for food, drinking water and transport. “The Sepik River’s biological and cultural diversity is comparable to the Amazon, and its people will not be compensated for the use of their river,” says Emmanuel Peni, Coordinator of Project Sepik. “Even if there are some discussions (which is still highly unlikely), the cost of destruction is far greater than any form of monetary value. Put simply, the river and all its lifeforms are priceless.” PanAust recently released its environmental impact statement, which Luke Fletcher, executive director of Jubilee Australia, said in an email that his organisation is in the process of analysing. “We and our partners are having experts go through the various sections,” he says. “I don’t want to preempt what they find, but suffice to say that we have grave concerns that this project can be done in a way that is environmentally safe.” Speaking with Peni on the statement, he calls it ‘jumbled up and convoluted’, and giving a misleading impression of economic development. Closer inspection, he says, “reveals that there is no economic value to the people of the Sepik River.” Resentment over the presence of foreign organisations is a major thorn in the side of the project. Responding to a question posed to him at a previous PanAust meeting on the project’s potential economic benefits, Peni said: “We do not need an outsider to come, to dig up the land, to destroy the trees and rivers and then say they will give us development. We will develop ourselves.”