Cash settlements intended for women abused by gold mine security staff claimed by wider family, while perpetrators get away scot-free.
Catherine Field | NZ Herald
In April this year, 11 women in Porgera, Enga Province, the site of a multi-billion-dollar gold mine in Papua New Guinea, were awarded undisclosed compensation payments for brutal rapes they suffered over a number of years by members of the mine’s security workforce.
The damages, negotiated in an out-of-court settlement by human rights NGO EarthRights International, with the mine’s majority owner, Barrick Gold, were applauded by international activist groups, such as MiningWatch Canada.
But many of the women, who suffered injuries and marriage breakdowns following their ordeals, have seen little justice.
“We should take them [the perpetrators] to court, take the company to court, too, and let the court make the decision,” said Saberth Yengis, interim president of the Enga Provincial Council of Women.
But the vast majority of perpetrators have escaped convictions, litigation against the company was abandoned after the out-of-court settlement and in some cases the cash awards have generated intra-family disputes.
But that seems a remote fact standing in the middle of Porgera Station surrounded by under-development. While the mine employs about 2500 people, the local population has swelled from 6000 to an estimated 50,000 following an influx of economic migrants from other provinces. Women squat on the ground selling betel nut and small shop goods, while nearby people who once lived in villages amid agricultural land are forced by expanding mine waste dumps into overcrowded settlements.The Porgera mine, located in an isolated area of the Papua New Guinean Highlands, has produced more than US$20 billion ($31.8 billion) of gold since operations began in 1990 and, as of 2010, about 280 million kina ($157.6 million) in royalties had been paid to local landowners and the provincial government.
Impacts of the extractive venture, such as environmental damage and human rights abuses, far outweigh the benefits, which include a school and hospital, claims Jeffery Simon, Secretary of the Porgera Alliance, an umbrella of community organisations defending indigenous rights.
Since 1990, more than 200 local women, many of whom were scavenging on waste dumps for scraps of gold to sell to feed their families, allege they were violently gang raped by security officers employed by the Porgera Joint Venture (PJV). The incidents occurred before and after Barrick Gold acquired a 95 per cent share in the mine in 2006. Yapi and Koson suffered this fate in 2004 when they went searching for the precious metal, an activity classified as illegal mining. However, until local activists, including the Akali Tange Association (ATA), raised the alarm about abuses in about 2008, there was no awareness of human rights in rural communities, exacerbated by low literacy in Porgera of about 28 per cent.
We thought we had no right to go and report the case to the police. We didn’t go to the police station because we were afraid that we would be arrested and put in jail.
Koson, rape victim
Illegal miners risk prison or a hefty fine and ATA said some women were told by their attackers that “if you come out and give a report to the police station we will come and arrest you and lock you up”.
Fears of community backlash because of the stigma associated with rape, illiteracy and lack of money also made many victims reluctant to report abuses.
“If you go to the police station, you have to pay the policeman to get a proper report done; it’s too corrupt. It also involves money to go to the hospital to get a medical report,” ATA’s executive officer, Jethro Tulin, said.
Koson said she wanted her assailant held accountable, “but the problem is that I couldn’t identify him now”.
Following a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, Barrick conducted an investigation which revealed evidence of the alleged abuses. The company then “provided all relevant information to Papua New Guinea Police and urged that a full criminal investigation be conducted” and further “terminated employees who were implicated in the assaults”, a Barrick spokesperson said.
But after more than 20 years, only two perpetrators, who were police officers, were charged this year and their employment terminated, according to Tulin. The Papua New Guinea Police Constabulary did not respond to requests for further information.
Yapi and Koson also believe the halt of court proceedings against Barrick Gold is a further setback. They claim that, while they participated from Porgera in a telephone conference to discuss the settlement, they were not individually asked for their consent, nor did they sign an agreement.
“Our desire was to go to court because there will be proper justice in court alone. We are not satisfied because it was an out-of-court settlement done without our consent … we were deprived [of justice] twice,” Koson claims.
The planned lawsuit followed dissatisfaction by some women with a corporate remedy programme launched in 2012. Another 120 victims accepted Barrick’s package of benefits to a total value of between $13,060 to $18,095, which included payment of medical benefits, school fees, a business training programme and start-up grants but, in so doing, waived their right to sue the company.
Now the plans Yapi had for investing the larger cash settlement she received have not eventuated, as the funds were distributed to her family, including male relatives.
“The money has created a problem within the family and some of my relatives are not happy with me. Some of them are saying, ‘I have looked after you, I have paid your medical bills, so what is my share’,” she said.
Local customary traditions prescribe that compensation is given from one clan or extended family to another to atone for wrongdoing, even though the perpetrator and victim may be individuals.
Nevertheless, ATA claims that the safety of local women in the mine area has improved after Barrick’s reform of its operations, including mandatory sexual violence and human rights training for security staff.