By Christiane Oelrich
Mindere, Papua New Guinea – The refinery next door is set to produce huge quantities of nickel and cobalt, and generate jobs. But the villagers of Mindere in Papua New Guinea want to shut it down for fear of devastating environmental damage caused by the toxic slurry the miners leave behind.
Ramu Nickel Mine refinery near Madang on the north-east coast aims to produce 32,000 tons of nickel and 3,300 tons of cobalt a year. Extraction of those minerals, vital for a modern economy, leaves behind waste containing traces of metallic elements and the solvents used to extract them.
Neville, Bustin, Joe, Mina, Awan – their names have been changed – live within sight of the refinery operated by China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC). Their hatred for former colonial masters – Papua New Guinea was under Australian control until 1975 – has faded and they now have a new target.
‘Australians, Americans, Europeans – they were all welcome, but the Chinese are unscrupulous,’ one of them says. The inhabitants of Mindere are engaged fighting against the mine, the metals extraction plant and a pipeline for dumping the slurry offshore at a depth of 150 metres.
That kind of sea disposal of tailings is hazardous, as studies have shown, but other methods are more expensive. ‘They are coming here with their 1960s technology. They are raping our country. The government profits, but we’re left with nothing,’ Bustin says.
The men are holding a village meeting under a large mango tree. ‘Our stream has gone since the people up there built a hostel and allowed their effluent to flow into it,’ Mina says. ‘They promised us electricity, and what did we get? A miserable little solar panel,’ Joe says.
‘The main drinking water source is on the site of the refinery,’ one of them says. ‘They installed a pipe for us, but it soon broke. And then they said it was our problem. Now we have to walk 4 kilometres to fetch water.’
MCC declined to respond to written questions.
A dispute between the locals and the Chinese at the Ramu Nickel building site in 2009 led to unrest across the country in which The villagers are angry for several reasons: fear of environmental harm, worries about whether the village will survive, frustration at their own government and mistrust of the Chinese, who show little desire to integrate.
They accuse politicians of selling out the country by issuing mining licences and lining their pockets. ‘Development has both good and bad sides to it, but we see only the bad side,’ Neville says.
Six years ago there was optimism, with locals hoping for jobs and income, but the Chinese preferred to fly in their own workers – who now number 2,000 – leaving only a few menial jobs for the Papuans.
That policy has effectively divided Mindere’s community of 700, where some families live on the income of a member who works for MCC, while others are suing to stop the project.
‘I’m one of those bringing the legal action,’ Awan says. ‘I worked for a copper mine and I know what disposal in the sea leads to. The water is polluted, and thick mud washes up on the beach.’
‘If the lawsuits fail, I wouldn’t like to guarantee the safety of that pipeline,’ Joe adds.
Tempers are near the breaking point in Madang, with a population of around 35,000, where the Chinese have taken over most small businesses.
‘Apart from one shop and a fuel station, everything here belongs to the Chinese,’ says a young environmental activist who declines to be named. ‘They live over their shops and scarcely dare to go out, because everyone is against them.’ hundreds of Chinese businesses went up in flames.
Riots broke out in November in Lae, the second-largest city, after Chinese businessmen attempted to move in on the street trading sector that Papuans regard as their preserve, according to Martyn Namorong, a promnent blogger in the capital Port Moresby.
Daniel Wong, a Lutheran priest of Chinese origin sent to mediate, says Chinese businessmen see the environmental arguments as a Western conspiracy aimed at keeping China down.
According to Wong, the MCC management says the government asked it to take over the operation, and Beijing did so partly for political reasons to increase its presence in the region. And they mistrust the motives of the protesters.
‘It’s not about the environment at all. If you give them money, they’re happy,’ is how many Chinese businessmen feel, according to Wong.
New York-based Human Rights Watch points to corruption as another serious problem. ‘Papua New Guinea’s extractive resources have proved to be as much a curse as they have a blessing,’ it says.
‘Extractive projects and the economic resources they represent have fueled violent conflict, abuse, and environmental devastation in Papua New Guinea. Government revenues from extractive industries are often dissipated through official corruption and mismanagement, without having any positive impact on ordinary citizens’ lives.’