Wewak | Project Sepik | 9 June 2021
The Supreme Sukundimi Follow up Workshop
From 26th April to the 2nd May 2021, Project Sepik organised a week-long workshop in one of the villages along the Sepik, the Korugo village*.
Korogu is located along the Sepik river in the Middle Sepik region. It is home to eight clans, who all speak the Yatmul language. In the Yatmul language, the Sepik River is known as Avisak.
The workshop was a follow up to the Supreme Sukundimi Declaration, which we organised back in 2019. Here, the leaders of 25 villages along the Avisak asserted a total ban of the proposed Frieda River Mine.
Korogo, as other villages along Avisak, is governed by the n’gego ( also known as spiritual, cultural, haus tambaran and the house of governance). The n’gego is located at the heart of the village.
The events were kicked off by an official welcome song and dance event (singsing). This was performed by the people of the Kembian village, who live in the forests and swamps, about 2 kilometres from the Avisak.
During the opening of the workshop, Emmanuel Peni, who spoke on behalf of Project Sepik, welcomed all the clan, spiritual and community leaders, and others who came to witness the events and the training facilitation team.
In his welcome remarks, Emmanuel, fighting back the tears of nostalgia, feelings of connectedness, and excitement, stated by acknowledging the traditional dance and singing (singsing):
today I see a singsing I have never seen before. I am grateful to be reacquainted with my inland people. I feel the spirit of solidarity and courage sweeps through me. I do not understand much of the meaning of this performance but I see and hear you singsing about our life, our river and our fight to save our home without uttering a single word. I believe everyone here heard you.
In the days after, three main events were carried out:
- A training on the decolonisation of development where we questioned what development is and who it is for
- Spiritual and cultural meetings with additional cultural activities
- Interviews with clan, spiritual and community leaders exploring a legal strategy to protect our sacred River
The Governor of East Sepik Province and Member of the National Parliament, Allan Bird, visited to show his support. During his visit, he declared his position on the Frieda Mine:
mi laik strongim yupela long tingting bilong mi olsem, as long as mi stap olsem governor, mi no laik lukim wanpela samting olsem bagarap em kamap antap long Sepik wara. (I wish to assure you. As long as I am the governor, I do not want to see anything which will damage the Sepik river).
Marai Kone, a former Local-Level-Government member from Avitap village in the Ambunti district said:
Frieda Mine will not operate. Frieda mine is not here to benefit us. We have heard, read, and see what is happening all over the world and in other parts of PNG.
A village chief from Middle Sepik region spoke with frustrations,
Mipla nau kam bung em ino bilong stori, pairap nating na sindaun kaikai na hamamas. Mipla kam long laitim paia, paitim garamut, singsing na tromoi buai long Sukundimi. Fopela taiya bilong Frieda Mine em gavana bilong Oro Garry Juffa na gavana bilong Sipik Alen Bird i rausim pinis. Mipela kam bung long Kilim Engine. Em Stret!” (We did not came here to tell stories, make noises, eat and be happy. We are here to light up the fire, beat our “garamut” drums, sing and offer betelnut to Sukundimi. Governor Juffa, and Governor Bird have dismantled four tyres of the Frieda Mine already. We are here to stop the engine. All must agree!)
Tangic is a cultural ceremony that symbolises the signing of a contract for a common purpose. It was carried out by Project Sepik during the workshop, through the Sumbolrumang n’gego of Korogu for all other n’gegos that were represented at the events.
In this ceremony, betelnut, mustard, lime, pork meat, and baskets were given to the leaders of n’gegos from different villages by Project Sepik. The Tangic at Sumbolrumang n’gego sealed the agreement with all the other n’gegos for solidarity.
The events at Korogu have most likely reminded the proponents of the Frieda Mine that the n’gegos are united. The n’gegos are active and the conversations about the fears of the people of the Frieda Mine and their resolve to resist the mine is ongoing.
The Tangic consolidated an confirmed the agreement among the n’gegos who are now ready for the next instructions in the fight to save the Sepik. Project Sepik understands that ‘a Papua New Guinean can be educated at Harvard University or Melbourne University, but this person will be scared and respectful of the sacredness of the n’gego and the power it has on life’.
The conversation with the n’gego leaders has given some insights into the work of Project Sepik on decolonising the Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) process.
The right to FPIC regarding the control over, use of and access to resources for indigenous peoples and local communities has been recognised at international, regional and national levels.
However, challenges remain to ensure that it is not used as a tokenistic tool by multinational corporations to tout exploitative projects at the expense of local people. Instead, FPIC must be exercised in a legitimate, accessible, and transparent way that respects local cultures and practices, where the right not to give consent is a possible outcome.
Project Sepik intends to lead the discussions surrounding the processes in ensuring the voices of the people and Melanesian Governance of the Land through central leadership and in the case of Sepik, through the n’gego is given more standing.
It is essential that the decisions from Melanesian Governance practices are given adequate visibility and reach in policy and legal spaces. Any plans of development by outsiders on customary land must be dealt with using Melanesian practices and governance systems to ensure that the voices and aspirations of every lifeform and non-life forms are fully captured in all processes.
The workshop allowed Project Sepik to collect and document valuable information from cultural, spiritual and clan leaders who could possibly be the witnesses who will be representing the Save The Sepik campaign in legal and administrative battles in the Courts and other Legal Institutional bureaucratic levels.
In a surprise move, the n’gego leaders gave the ultimate endorsement for Project Sepik to lead them, guide them, speak for an on behalf of them and also to ensure spaces are created for them to speak for themselves.
The n’gego leaders also gave Project Sepik the mandate to represent the River and all its all life and non-life forms. Additionally, information gathered will contribute to the endeavour to register the Avisak in the World Heritage listing for two things:
Biodiversity and Cultural Diversity.
Finally, Project Sepik was able to celebrate life through cultural activities.
* Disclaimer: This was a Covid safe event where a protocol was followed diligently to ensure no one’s health was compromised. The Project Sepik team put a lot of effort and thinking into getting Covid protocols in place and liaised with relevant local and international organisations prior to the program. The team received technical support across various levels, including the local authorities. No one experienced any symptoms of covid during the event or in the weeks after.