By Noelene Nabulivou, DAWN *
There is a need to situate any discussion about mining in Fiji and the Pacific within a deeper and more complex discussion that touches on issues of regionality, trade, aid, militarisation, gender and ecological sustainability.
While this can happen over time, there is currently a more immediate and pressing need. The final public submission process for the planned bauxite mine in Vanua Levu, Fiji is on RIGHT NOW. Provisional mining licences have already been granted to Aurum Exploration Limited, a Chinese mining company.
It is also clear that Fiji, with other Pacific countries such as Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Bougainville are keen to continue and upscale further partnerships with Chinese, Australian and other companies. Harvey Probert, the Chairman of Fiji’s Mining and Quarrying Council has predicted, for example, that mining will be Fiji’s number one export earner within 5 years.
So let’s begin with some information on bauxite mining, itself. This is the first planned bauxite mine in Fiji. What processes does this type of mining involve? 
Step 1 usually involves bulldozing large areas of local growth and existing wildlife habitat. Bauxite is the name given to the ore body for aluminium. In order to get to the bauxite deposits, vast areas of forests must be cleared with bulldozers and giant chains.
Step 2 usually then involves turning the masses of trees into huge bonfires. It is not yet clear if this will occur in Vanua Levu, or if there will be an alternative clearing process. Much of the land was already monoculture pine plantations, but there are also some pristine areas of indigenous forest that will be affected. Usually at such mines, forests, flora and fauna are simply regarded as waste, wildlife are killed and/or flee the area if they can, and massive amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the air.
Step 3 generally involves removing topsoil and digging a huge hole in the ground. This is how they get to the underlying bauxite (and the soil is stockpiled for later use in “rehabilitation”, which we will come to later…) The amount of bauxite removed is generally 4 or 5 metres deep, but can go deeper than 10 metres. So the landscape becomes basically a huge red pit. This affects the way water moves across the land and into springs and streams. The exposed earth also creates problems of erosion and poor water quality.
Front end loaders and dump trucks take the bauxite to processing centres, so of course this puts pressure on local roads, especially in Vanua Levu with its generally single main roads. In other global south mining sites there have also been child deaths from transport accidents due to increased heavy traffic, falls into extraction and tailing pits, and more.
At this point we must note that as much as local employment has been emphasised in public communication on this project, there will come the inevitable concerns about gender based violence and other social issues arising with fast inundations of external short-term workers. It is also unclear how many of these will be Chinese workers specifically brought in for the project, but in the other instances in Fiji and abroad of Chinese initiated infrastructure and development projects the use of Chinese labour is integral to the project contract. Is that the case here? In any case, any large number of male non-local workers into small rural communities has worrying consequences. Will there be trafficking of foreign and local women as sex workers? Increased sexual abuse and violence against women and children? A rise in sexually trasmitted diseases including HIV as seen in other mining locations around the world? There will definitely be scarce local resources from government and civil society in Vanua Levu to handle any major health and social issues that may ensue. Our health and social welfare sector has its own scarce resources and urgent priorities, as it is.
Step 4 involves massive use of water to process the bauxite. It is still unclear as to the water supply that will be used by the Vanua Levu mine. Is it going to be taken from the existing water table and what is the consequence on local water supply for surrounding villages? How else will it be sourced? How will it be extracted? And if rivers are utilised, what impact will this have on personal and household washing, drinking water, sewage systems, etc?
At the onsite processing facilities, the bauxite will be crushed, screened and washed with this precious water. The Wilderness Society estimate that Rio Tinto Alcan used about 1,100 megalitres per tonne of bauxite for its operations in Australia, most of it extracted from finite groundwater! Often mining companies also set up huge extra tailings dams to store ‘leftovers’, with further risks of contaminating nearby water sources, and also increased dust.
At Step 5, the bauxite is sent off by ship to aluminium smelting plants. The smelting process is a major greenhouse gas emitter, and consumes major electricity. The mine requires significant port facilities and this pristine area in Vanua Levu could soon be a noisy, smelly, industrial centre. The communities involved in the mining include not just the mine site and accommodation quarters, but also those around the access roads and the port facilities.
Earlier this year at Lovonidalo settlement in the district of Navakasiga the then Minister for Lands and Mineral Development Netani Sukanaivalu presented lease documents to Aurum Exploration (Fiji) Limited allowing for the construction of a wharf. The 60 acres of pristine land which belongs to the Mataqali Nalutu will now be used to construct an 800 metre wharf where ore will be shipped directly to China. At a leasing ceremony, Commissioner Northern Lieutenant- Colonel Inia Seruiratu handed over a cheque of FJD$101,930 as premium and lease payment to the Mataqali Nalutu. FJD$275,000 was presented to the Vanua Navakasiga and Vanua Lekutu as compensation for the loss of fishing rights at Galoa Bay, the proposed construction site for the new wharf. Yes, the profit of the mine will possibly be in the 100s of millions. Yes, the government has arranged Trusts for local landowners. But it is unclear to the public just what future profits will flow to the national government, and of critical importance, to local landowners. Surely this is of urgent public interest.
It is also still unclear as to the extent to which local landowners are really, fully aware of the scope of potential changes to the physical landscape of the area, potential biodiversity loss, changed land and shoreline access to ‘iqoliqoli’ (designated fishing grounds), and the huge amounts of water required for processing needs. How full and open were the consultations? Were women part of those discussions as it is they who are the primary fisherwomen of the beaches and coasts?
Step 6. So after the bauxite supplies are exhausted (perhaps after 15-20 years) there will of course be rehabilitation projects. In Cape York Peninsula the stockpiled topsoil was spread back across mining pits, and planted with native trees. But by then the water flows had dramatically changed and the soil structure was degraded. The Wilderness Society states that the “rehabilitated” forest is prone to fire damage, and completely lacks the old, big trees important for nesting birds and other wildlife. Ecologists in Cape York say that the area has been changed forever.
Step 7 is where the mining company ‘walks away with millions of profits’ The mine in Vanua Levu may only be planned to last 10-15 years, but the long-term scar it will leave is potentially enormous. What will the people of Vanua Levu walk away with? What will the government and people of Fiji do in 15 years when faced with the consequences of decisions made today?
There are important community dialogues already being held, but as the final weeks of the public submission tick by there is an urgent need for more community submissions to the Ministry for Land and Mineral Resources, from affected individuals, communities and civil society.
Why? This issue of whether to have extractive industries in Fiji is not just a decision about immediate job creation and addressing the national debt. It is not merely about land productivity and landowner compensation. Some see this project as an example of a politically progressive development to provide payments to indigenous landowners after decades of neglect, and internal and external corruption.
But at what cost this so-called development? This struggle to end all extractive industries in Fiji, the Pacific and indeed around the globe is about our ecological sustainability in the face of what global south feminist network DAWN call ‘the fierce new world’  which is one of urgent and interlinked crises of food, fuel, finance and ecology (including biodiversity loss and climate change).
Governments all over the world are struggling to make those longterm economic decisions that do not compromise the future through short-term gains. These are not easy times, nor easy political decisions! Human rights and social justice gains are often sacrificed in the name of profit, and indeed are encouraged by the neoliberalist multilateral systems that always put profit first. This is made more difficult for communities in times such as this where the state is heavily militarised.
We have not even really hit our stride yet on national and regional dialogues on ecological sustainability, much less plans and policy development reflecting the level of transformation required… But meanwhile the entire globe must already urgently move to development alternatives with a core that is ecologically sound.
Meanwhile Fiji would do well to listen to our Pacific neighbours in PNG, Cape York and Bougainville because many local communities can already show and tell us just how dangerous is this extractive mining path we now seem to be on…We must choose another, safer path.
* DAWN – Development Alternatives for Women with a New Era – www.dawnnet.org