In a defiant move that has reverberated across the globe, the people of Okisai and Wabia in the Frieda River Area presented a resounding petition on December 21, 2023, challenging the Mineral Resource Authority (MRA) and mining giant PanAust.  This served as a subsequent document to a position paper they previously submitted to the company on September 11th, 2022. Their voices, their concerns, their fears and their dread of a future muted and silenced by the company and the government.  Meanwhile the MRAConservation Environment Protection Authority (CEPA) and the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) marched on with their narrative, a song, Frieda Copper and Gold Mine will be developed tomorrow’.  Today, the nation has heard for the first time, the voice of the people at Frieda River. The international spotlight now shines on them and the Sepik River communities as they fiercely advocate for their livelihoods and well-being. 

Rejecting the proposed resettlement and the looming construction of a tailings dam, the communities voice their concerns about the irreversible impact on their lands, the sources of sustenance. The spectre of becoming squatter settlers on foreign lands haunts their aspirations for development, for change. The conflict for the safety of their home, their ancestral spiritual sites and the illusionary development presented to them, is a reoccurring mental gymnastics. Josaiah Tekie, a fiery youth leader from Okisai, emphasized their opposition with conviction and defiance. “We are not against the development of the mine but against the idea of being forcefully uprooted and carted off to some barren, unlivable place for the sake of the construction of the Integrated Storage Facility (ISF), the Dam. We are simply against Resettlement and against the Dam”. Bob Onengim, a charismatic and respected local clan leader and elder, expressed deep apprehensions about the resettlement plans, highlighting the rugged and mountainous terrain upstream and the fact that the land in which the government and the company is proposing ‘belongs to others’. He poignantly questioned, “Where will we go? We have lived here for generations, our ancestors thrived here. Where will we make our gardens? Every other land belongs to someone else.” Ongengim, also seeks answers from the CEPA and the Government of PNG regarding their petition and the outstanding position paper. 

“Every other land belongs to someone else.”

Bob Onengim

Onengim’s statement “Every land belongs to someone else” is understood and echoed by Project Sepik, a Non-Government Organisation (NGO) based in Sepik region. Where will the 400,000 people along the Sepik River go when the Dam breaks and when the overburden is dumped into the river? Every other land is someone else’s. The state owns less than 4% of the land in PNG which is inadequate to cater for the people who are displaced. This shared understanding has germinated the growing and bold alliance between the people of Wabia and Okisai and the Save the Sepik Campaign. The people’s resolve, sublime. 

Despite the deafening silence from PanAust and MRA in response to the impassioned petition, a statement to RNZ Pacific outlined the Frieda River Project’s purported benefits. It promises to fortify communities by establishing Critical Public Infrastructure, generating Skilled Employment, and Creating Business Opportunities for localsThe caveat: the project won’t commence until all required permits, agreements, and authorizations are secured.

The statement may sound like innovative solutions for fundamental services such as transportation, healthcare, education and sustainable commercial opportunities. However, it is crucial to critically examine the implications that such innovative ideas might entail. Who exactly will benefit from the described “development” picture presented by PanAust? How can the displacement of entire communities be labelled as development? How will the affected communities thrive from that “purported benefit” when they will have no land, resources and a home? PNG cannot risk whole communities being plunged into extreme poverty just for the sake of a “development image” sold as development benefits from mining. The sociological, physical and environmental impacts of the proposed mine development cannot be understated. The impact tremendously outweighs the development promises made by PanAust.

Forced resettlement poses sociological and psychological consequences for the well-being and identity of affected individuals and communities. Displacing generations-old residents from their ancestral lands disrupts social structures and cultural bonds; leading to the potential loss of traditional practices, eroding their sense of community and subsequently a sense of self. The psychological torment of being in unfamiliar surroundings strips away their dignity and soul. In the context of PNG, removing communities from their ancestral land is equivalent to death which cannot be compensated by monetary means, rendering it irrelevant in this transaction. 

The construction of the Dam poses a threat to the natural terrain and ecosystem of the Sepik river basin due to the volatility of the active seismic region on which the mining plant is proposed to sit. The potential risks associated with dam failure, overburden dumping into the Sepik River, excessive sedimentation, blocking of the major tributaries of the Sepik and the alteration of water courses poses the horrific reality of the threat towards the safety and livelihoods of these communities.

From an environmental perspective, the irreversible impact on the lands and sources of sustenance cannot be overlooked in this context. The livelihood of 400, 000 people depend entirely on the river and the surrounding rainforests for essential resources like building materials, food and drinking water. The essential necessities for life. The Sepik River basin has an extended floodplain of more than 70 km wide in which, like the Amazon, its flood waters replenish the hundreds of lakes and swamps with fresh nutrients that is momentous for the breeding and development of the multitude of fish species and wide array of flora and aquatic fauna. If the river perishes, it will take with it 50,000 years of ancestral knowledge and practices. The loss of the free staple makau (talapia) and saksak (sago) which the Sepik is known for, will be replaced by the 1Kg packet of rice and the 170 gram can of tuna, the bare minimum, not even enough to feed a typical Papua New Guinean family.  The demise of the Sepik River means the demise of everything Sepik. 

In challenging the innovative development narrative, it is imperative to weigh the costs against the benefits. Asking the question, “Can critical public infrastructure, skilled employment, and business opportunities truly compensate for the sociological, physical, psychological and environmental toll on the lives and heritage of the Frieda and Sepik river communities?” The battle for a self-determined future demands a thorough consideration of these complex and interconnected factors.

“If the government and the company evicts us from our land, where will we go? We do not have land anywhere else but here.”

Josaiah Tekie

As the struggle for survival intensifies, the thoughts and reflections conveying concerns, fears, wishes and aspirations expressed by Tekie and Onegim linger. Their experiences resonate with numerous landowners guiding indigenous communities, groups, clans, and tribes in PNG and worldwide, as they question, define, and redefine development on their own terms. In Tekie’s words: “It’s not that we do not want development but we are against the Dam and Resettlement. When the government issues the permits and licenses to the company to begin construction, we will have no time to speak or voice our concerns. Since the time of our ancestors, we have already adapted well to this land – we mine alluvial gold for cash, we eat food from our gardens and thrive. If the government and the company evicts us, where will we go? Where will we source resources? We do not have land anywhere else but here.” The Frieda and Sepik river communities prepare for a critical juncture where decisions made by political leaders will lead to an epic resistance in the coming months. This battle’s reverberations will endure for generations. The people will scrutinize their elected representatives, faced with the decision to either stand with their own people or yield to the pressures of foreigners, corporations, and neocolonialistic China, jeopardizing their ancestral lands, cultural heritage, and the lives of their own people.

The dilemma of the people of Frieda River, has re-ignited the fight for a future defined by wisdom. The world watches as the PanAust, CEPA, MRA and politicians engage in a complex beguiling choreography.   The people of Frieda River stands firm in their struggle for self-determination and preservation of their cultural and environmental legacy. Steadfast alongside Their kin, the people of Sepik River, their fight is the fight to Save the Sepik.  

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