Papua New Guinea Mine Sparks Human Rights Concerns
This story reflects so many of the fights that we now see from activists, indigenous people, and environmentalists over things like the Pebble Mine and our old friend, the Keystone XL pipeline.
Sometimes, a story just grabs you and won’t let go. A few days ago, when I was cruising the ‘Toobz for what was new on both the Pebble Mine projectin Alaska and the proposed copper mine in the Boundary Waters area of northern Minnesota, both of which are truly terrible ideas that threaten, in order, the world’s greatest salmon run and some of the most pristine wilderness in the Lower 48, I came upon this story in The Guardian that demonstrates even more clearly than those two imminent fiascos what happens when the extraction industry gets its way. I am now fascinated by it.
In an extraordinary intervention, 10 UN special rapporteurs have written with “serious concerns” to the governments of Papua New Guinea, Australia, China, and Canada, as well as the Chinese state-owned developers of the gold, copper and silver mine proposed for the remote Frieda river in the country’s north. The UN’s special rapporteur on toxic wastes, Baskut Tuncak – who has since retired from that role – and nine other senior UN officials, jointly signed letters in July “to express our serious concern regarding the potential and actual threats to life, health, bodily integrity, water [and] food”.
The letters ask for governments and the company, PanAust, to respond to key questions including an alleged “lack of information for free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous people” to the mine proceeding. The mine, if approved and built, would be the largest in PNG’s history, and one of the largest in the world, covering 16,000 hectares. To be built on the Frieda river, a tributary to the Sepik in the north of New Guinea island, it is forecast to yield gold, silver and copper worth an estimated US$1.5bn a year for more than 30 years.
This is a massive project. It piqued my interest for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the daughter of a very good friend, and her husband, and their children, live in PNG. But it also felt to me like it reflected so many of the fights that we now see from activists, indigenous people, and environmentalists over things like the Pebble Mine and our old friend, the Keystone XL pipeline, the continent-spanning death funnel and Republican fetish object, except on a spectacularly grand scale. Multinational corporation sees land it wants and jumps in with both feet, intimidating the local government and bulldozing the people who live there.
The UN rapporteurs argue “the project and its implementation so far appears to disregard the human rights of those affected”. There is particular concern a proposed dam to store up to 1,500 Mt of the mine’s tailings could break, destroying villages downriver. “We remain concerned that critical information about the tailings dam, including the dam break analysis have been made neither publicly available nor available to affected community members and human rights defenders who requested it,” Tuncak wrote…
In June, chiefs from 28 haus tambarans – “spirit houses” – representing 78,000 people living along the Sepik, formally declared they wanted the mine halted. University student, Vernon Gawi, said: “I grew up with the river, drank it, ate fish and sago from it and it’s brought me to where I am now. I am worried about my future generations, and if the mine were to go ahead, what will they have left?”
Until that question is answered, I’m keeping an eye on this story.