By Ash Pemberton
The controversial Ramu nickel mine near Madang in Papua New Guinea has come under fire for new claims of environmental damage.
The mine has been the subject of a long-running battle with locals over plans to pump 100 million tonnes of mine waste into Basamuk Bay over 20 years. The dumping threatens the pristine ecosystem of the area as well as the livelihoods of local people.
Locals who opposed the mine faced harassment from company and government representatives, including a number of violent attacks and threats on those involved in a legal challenge to the mine. People were forced from their homes to make way for mine construction and culturally significant sites were destroyed.
The mine is majority-owned by Chinese company MCC. Australian company Highlands Pacific owns a minority stake.
A Supreme Court appeal against a decision to allow production to go ahead was rejected in December. Highlands Pacific said in a report that the mine “has been commissioned and is now in production and nearing first sales in coming months”, the PNG National said on April 20.
As the mine prepared to come online, locals reported that several ships supplying the Ramu mine processing plant spilled chemicals into Basamuk bay, bleaching the coral reefs, PNG Mine Watch said on April 27. It was unclear whether the spills were accidents or intentional discharges.
MCC admitted to a “minor” spill of sodium hydroxide at its processing plant on April 18, but denied claims by locals that sulphuric acid had spilled from ships.
PNG environment minister Thompson Harokaqueh also recommended the mine stop using its 135 kilometre slurry pipe ― which carries waste from the mine to the sea ― due to its poor construction and closeness to roads, the National said on April 5.
Harokaqueh told parliament the mine owners had failed to develop a monitoring system for the pipeline or erect warning signs after sections of pipe had been pushed onto the road after a landslide.
Highlands Pacific denied reports the pipeline had shut, the National said on April 18.
A controversial meeting between the state, the Madang provincial government, landowner groups and mine owners began on April 23 to finalise an agreement covering “business spinoffs, royalties and infrastructure development projects,” the National said the next day.
The venue was mysteriously changed from Madang to Mt Hagen, almost 200 kilometres away. Media were banned from covering the meeting, the National said on April 27.
Before the meeting, the Madang government criticised the 10-year tax holiday given to the mine by the national government, the Post-Courier said on April 21.
The National said on April 27 that a rival to the Kurumbukari Landowners Association called on the government to not sign any agreement, as the land court was still to decide who was the legitimate landowner. The landowner groups at the meeting have long been criticised as unrepresentative; most have been excluded from the process.
The mine development has also raised racial tensions. Locals resent Chinese migrants who work at the mine or have set up businesses in the area. The National said on March 27 that four mineworkers were hospitalised after a brawl between Chinese and locals. Tensions were raised due to mine managers giving Chinese workers better treatment.
Locals had been in talks with mine managers over pay and conditions, in which locals demanded the same wages as Chinese workers. “Locals are paid K2.33 an hour, with those serving more than five years getting K3.50 an hour. The employees said they wanted K5 per hour,” the National said.
PNG Mine Watch also reported on January 30 allegations of corruption by senior MCC managers. They allegedly transferred about K1 million from funds set aside for local landowner associations to private accounts in China.
The Ramu mine is an example of the favouritism given to big businesses ahead of local people that plagues PNG. PNG’s elites enrich themselves by creaming off the top of big-money projects funded by foreign corporations. Little benefit is passed on to ordinary people who live in Third World conditions while billions of dollars of wealth is taken out of the country.
However, corruption has grown worse in recent times, and the head of a government inquiry declared the country had changed from “constitutional democracy into [a] Mobocracy”.
The chairperson of an investigation into corruption in government departments, Sam Koim, told AAP on May 10: “The level of corruption has migrated from sporadic to systematic and now to institutionalisation, where government institutions are dominated by corrupt people who orchestrate corruption using lawful authorities.
“Institutions that are supposed to practise openness and provide check and balance are now becoming a secrecy haven, where they sanction illegality and secrecy.”
Public pressure scored a small win in January, when the government repealed undemocratic amendments to the Environment Act, PNG Perspective said on January 20. In May 2010, the government of then prime minister Sir Michael Somare pushed through laws that protected resources projects from being sued over destruction of the environment, landowner exploitation or abuse of workers. The laws were widely believed to be for the benefit of the Ramu mine project.