To Get and Get Out: The story behind Lihir

It seems an immutable trade off: the greater the rights of corporations, the less the rights of real persons, we indigenous people…

“The company has spoilt our environment…I don’t know what the future holds for us”. Mrs. Francisca Wesparo and Thecka Inial are the only remaining elderly women at Londolovit.

“The company has spoilt our environment…I don’t know what the future holds for us”. Mrs. Francisca Wesparo and Thecka Inial are the only remaining elderly women at Londolovit.

Cyril Gare | PNG Blogs

When the Airlines PNG Dash 8 aircraft touched down on Lihir airport on Aug 9, 2015 I couldn’t believe that this rich gold mining township airport runaway is bare soil, sending clouds of dust backwards as we taxi in to park at the small terminal nearby. For a first timer, first impression counts. The miner is not serious in sealing the runway. ‘They’re here to get and get out’. The ring road around the airport parameters are bare soil. Even Camp 1 and 2 which houses the official residence of the Newcrest Mining Limited (NML) general manager, Craig Jetson is bare soil causing dust everywhere each time a vehicle passes through.

Parts of Lihir Island have sealed roads and permanent houses because of mining benefits except the West Coast where almost nothing is there; roads are neglected for years, people leave in traditional hamlets and evidence of neglect are sporadic. But thanks to the missions especially the Catholic Church for being there with them and providing basic health and education opportunities.

Newcrest Mining Ltd (formerly Lihir Gold Limited, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto) is the world’s sixth largest gold producer. It abstracts gold from the Luise Caldera, an extinct volcanic crater that is geothermally active, and holds one of the largest known gold deposits in the world.

Lihir Island has a population of about 8,000. This is about the size of one big Motuan village alone. One wonders why the rich gold mine operating on their island or group of islands provides for few and not all.  In fact, the Lihir mining agreement – which I wasn’t privileged to see a copy – covers for Kapit and Putput villages only all to the great disadvantage of the rest. Their landowner company – Lihir Mining Area Landowners Association or LMALA is currently under fraud investigations causing uncertainties among beneficiary villagers.

There isn’t a thing called ‘mine affected villages’ like in other resource development agreements in Papua New Guinea. Hence, villages in the West Coast and that of Londolovit situated in the bay miss out greatly.

To the left is the Lihir township and to the right is the mine wastes from both the town and mine impact on Londolovit. NML dumps waste rocks into the sea to reclaim land by some 200 metres so far and is still extending is prowess on reclamation. Land claimed is where the processing plant, incinerator, etc are built.

Whether land reclamation is in the mining agreement or not cannot be ascertained. The facts are that the beautiful shoreline between Londolovit, Kapit and Putput villages is gone forever. Their children now can only see photographs to imagine their once very beautiful coastline.

Villagers say fish and other marine lives are not as tasty like before and each day fear is mounting among villagers whether mine wastes (tailings) that are being dumped into the ocean do not affect marine lives which people feed on.

“In the past things were ok. Today mining has damage our natural environment.

“In the past we use salt water to cook with. Today, we are scared of using salt water because of mine wastes being dumped into the sea so we are forced to buy salt in shops with money.

“We use to wash and drink from fresh streams and creeks. Today there are no more fresh streams and creeks as the company gets all the water and later sends it back in taps which we now use to wash and drink from. This is not good water.

“This is the situation today. The company has spoilt our environment…I don’t know what the future holds for us”

Asked if their worries have been brought to the attention of their local Member of Parliament and Mining Minister, Byron Chan (Namatanai Open) and other leaders, Mrs. Wesparo said: “they know about our problem but can do little”.

At the time of my visit – Aug 9-11, 2015 – several coconut trees were uprooted as a result of high sea level and crushing waves which locals blamed on NML’s waste rock dumping activity. Coupled with climate change and sea level rise, Londolovit is destined for more trouble. Yet Londolovit and all other villages on the island are not covered under the mining agreement.

The next day visit to inland deep forested mountains of Londolovit passed through resettlement sites at Sepuk Bual, Kuanmakiat, Huonatunuo, and Lilitop finishing off at 228 dead-end. It holds settlers relocated from Kapit village, one of the two coastal villages in the Special Mining Lease (SML) area.

Firstly, the Kapi villagers lost their beautiful beach after the mine started its land reclamation activity. Secondly, their whole village was bulldozed and place taken for stockpiling of ores. NML has sighted more gold beneath their village and told them to relocate with cash incentives. Relocate to where?…into the mountains on land belonging to the Londolovit people. Again, there was no consultation. NML has no formal agreement with the Londolovit people for this repatriation exercise. If any, it would base on individual traditional landowners’ consents and not with the consent of the holistic community. This is dangerous which could result in serious repercussions in future.

Electricity and Water Cables: Pardon my limited technical knowledge but true water and electricity cables are connected parallel to each other through the main highway between the mine and the township. How safe are these connections come moments of disaster? How safe come moments of road maintenance works? Scary but true as this workmanship by NML shows.

Londolovit Dam or Weir: Newcrest is currently undertaking a major expansion of the Lihir process plant known as the Million Ounce Plant Upgrade (MOPU). The MOPU includes installation of a new crushing facility, and upgrades to the ore processing plant. Additional power generation capacity and water supply is therefore planned.

Londolovit is not getting paid for the use of their traditional water hole but the State through the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) because the agreement states that “water belongs to the State”.

NML formerly through Lihir Management Company (LMC) in a 1998 agreement pays Londolovit only for damages or “impact” on the Londolovit river environment and not for “usage” of water. The dam upstream caused decrease water level and lose of aquatic lives and other social inconveniences to the community. Payment is very minimal: K35,000 per annum then to K60,000 pa to K120,000 pa and currently at K300,000 pa.

“Yes, we’re receiving these payments but it is for environmental damages and not for actual usage of our water,” said Steven Massau, spokesman for the Londolovit impact community.

Last year, Londolovit commissioned an independent water usage investigation by a consultant and the report found gross extraction of water by LMC now NML “over and above” the permitted rates: 113,949,504,000 litres of water valued at K113, 949,504.

Currently, a delegation from Londolovit is in Port Moresby pursuing the K113 million claim.

After weeks of pursue, neither the DEC, Mineral Resources Authority, or NML owns up to pay the K113 million. They are paying marbles on them and keep passing the buck.

The last time gorgors are placed at the Londolovit weir/dam and at other mining sites was on June 6, 2015 forcing the mine to shut down for 36 hours. Collaborating with the State (MRA), NML flew in 17 heavily armed policemen who removed the gorgors and prevent further disruption by resource owners.

When the creature ‘State’ compromises with corporations the end result is political suppression and economic deprivation of fair benefits and opportunities. In addition, they leave massive and irreversible damages and destructions to our environment which holds our land and cultural heritage.

It seems an immutable trade off: the greater the right of corporations, the less the right of real person, we indigenous people.

The Ailaya rock is the only landmark left along the Lihir coastline to show where the original sea boundary was. Continuous land reclamation by NML currently is suspected of causing sea level rise and damage to marine lives to villages like Londolovit but without proof of scientific studies.

The Ailaya rock is the only landmark left along the Lihir coastline to show where the original sea boundary was. Continuous land reclamation by NML currently is suspected of causing sea level rise and damage to marine lives to villages like Londolovit but without proof of scientific studies.

That once was Kapit village is now bulldozed to the ground and people relocated to inland mountains of Londolovit without proper agreements in place. NML eyes the place because of promise of more gold deposits beneath. Pics by CYRIL GARE.

That once was Kapit village is now bulldozed to the ground and people relocated to inland mountains of Londolovit without proper agreements in place. NML eyes the place because of promise of more gold deposits beneath. Pics by CYRIL GARE.

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Filed under Environmental impact, Financial returns, Human rights, Papua New Guinea

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