Hilary Beaumont | Vice News | July 2, 2016
Six months after new allegations of rape and violence surfaced at a mine in Papua New Guinea, locals and human rights advocates are accusing the largest gold mining company in the world of using “delay tactics” to ignore their claims.
One woman alleged she was shot in the stomach with a rubber bullet and her house was burned to the ground, three men said they were forced to perform sex acts at gunpoint — even though one of them was HIV-positive — and two women claimed police drove them to a secluded area and sexually assaulted them.
But Barrick Gold, the Canadian mining giant that co-owns the mine in Porgera, insists the allegations are being taken “very seriously.” The company financially supports government police forces in the area and employs its own mine security, who have been accused of similar violent acts in the past.
“It does take time to investigate,” Chief Sustainability Officer Peter Sinclair told VICE News on Tuesday. “Sometimes they can take extended periods of time.”
About 150 locals and human rights advocates marched to the mining company’s office in Porgera last week, demanding an immediate response.
“They just assure us that they will do this and do that and relocate us and they will pay compensation, but after all that they never do,” one of the activists told VICE News.
Complaints against the mine in Papua New Guinea, a country that has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world, are not new. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented in detail allegations of violence and abuse at the gold and silver open pit mine, which opened in 1990 and was acquired in 2006 by Barrick. In response to the violence, Barrick created a mechanism for people to lodge complaints in 2012, and if they can be substantiated the company says it compensates the victims. About 130 women have received financial compensation from Barrick, although some have complained it is too little, and has been unevenly distributed.
In 2015 alone, the Porgera Joint Venture mine — which is now co-owned by Barrick and Chinese company Zijin Mining Group — received 805 complaints, a Barrick spokesman told VICE News. About 315 of those complaints were requests for the mining company to resettle people who live near the mine — where gold extraction has created a population influx in the impoverished country, and violence near the mine has increased with this influx. An additional 200 complaints involved employment, contracting and procurement issues. The company would not say the nature of the remaining 290 complaints and declined to disclose any other details due to confidentiality.
Not all grievances are resolved the same year they’re lodged, according to Barrick. The company would not say how long on average it takes to resolve a complaint.
Barrick sold off half of its stake in the mine in response to financial turmoil and since August 2015 it and Chinese company Zijin Mining Group hold a 47.5 percent interest, while a local landowners group holds the remaining five percent. But Sinclair said Barrick is still accountable for what happens on-site and at the hands of its security.
“I don’t think it diminishes our responsibility,” he said of the joint venture model.
VICE News reached out to Zijin for comment but the company did not respond.
About 70 percent of the world’s mining companies are based in Canada. But Canada does very little to regulate mining companies that operate abroad, meaning complaints of human rights abuses in developing countries continue to stack up against them.
Barrick’s mine in Papua New Guinea is not alone in attracting criticism. Activists crashed the company’s AGM in April to question its president about a cyanide spill at its Veladera mine in Argentina, which leaked into the local river system.
Women at the Papua New Guinea mine have complained of unequal compensation for the rapes they experienced, which Columbia University human rights lawyer Sarah Knuckey called “some of the most vicious assaults that I’ve investigated anywhere in the world.”
At its AGM in April, Barrick president Kelvin Dushinsky said the company has accepted responsibility for the human rights abuses at both mines, which he called “completely unacceptable.” He called the remedy mechanisms “very successful.”
While some complainants have been compensated, others are still waiting for a resolution.
In December, VICE News interviewed the men who alleged nine guards carrying assault rifles arrested them on the Porgera mine property and forced them to perform sex acts on each other. One of the men told the officers he had HIV, “but they insisted and forced [him] to have sex with the two of us,” one of the complainants said.
Sinclair, who visited the mine along with other Barrick officials in June, said the local mine office investigated the claim but found no evidence that its security forces were involved. Police were the appropriate authorities to investigate, he said.
According to Knuckey, the human rights lawyer who visited the mine in January, in Papua New Guinea it’s “very, very difficult” to access justice for rape complaints through the court system. That’s why people turn to the company’s remedy mechanism when they experience violence connected with the mine.
In a Skype interview with VICE News last week, a woman living near the mine alleged mine security shot her in the stomach with a rubber bullet in December 2015.
She was at home at the time, when a man she believed to be an illegal miner ran into her house. Locals often trespass at the mine site to illegally pan for gold, prompting security to crack down. Two security guards chased after the man and shot a rubber bullet into the house, which hit her, the woman said through a translator.
“They shot two times. One caught the house on fire, the other one shot me in my stomach.” She said they also fired a teargas canister into her house, which burned the house down.
She showed photos of her heavily bruised stomach after the incident.
The woman, who did not want to be named, went to the mine’s medical centre, and then took her complaint to the company’s grievance office, where they gave her a number. They told her to follow up, which she says she has done about 20 times since the incident, but her complaints “fall on deaf ears.”
Sinclair declined to comment on her case, saying it was his understanding that the company’s local office is still investigating.
In another case, also in December 2015, two women were allegedly sexually assaulted by members of the government police force after they accepted a ride home from them. The allegations were documented in January by Knuckey’s team of lawyers. They sent a letter outlining this claim and the other two claims to Sinclair and three other Barrick managers on April 21, and shared the letter with VICE News.
Sinclair said he was unaware of the story of the two women.
While police forces are normally government-funded, Barrick has agreed to provide support to the police, including food, accommodations and transport, so the police forces will secure the mine area.
Sinclair said it was “quite common” for mining companies to reach a deal with government forces to secure volatile mine sites like the one in Porgera.
“This was something that was an absolute requirement of the community and for the protection of the health and safety of the community and the employees of the mine,” he said, adding that the company trained the police forces.
He said the agreement was outlined in an MOU between the company, which makes Barrick’s support of the government forces contingent on continued upholding of human rights. VICE News asked to see the MOU but the company declined to make it public