Category Archives: Environmental impact

The new battle for Bougainville’s Panguna mine

Rusting trucks at Panguna mine, Bougainville

Speculation about the future of the Panguna copper mine in Papua New Guinea’s autonomous region of Bougainville, which ignited a decade long civil war in the 1990s, peaked late last year when an application for exploration by former Rio Tinto subsidiary, Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), was put to a local vote.

Catherine Wilson | The Interpreter | 21 August 2018

The outcome revealed that the mine remains a contested site and that a new battle for its riches is deepening divisions among traditional landowning groups. Chris Baria, a Bougainville writer and commentator, who lived through what is known as the “Crisis”, explained the sentiment in a recent interview:

When those with mining interests meddle with Panguna, it makes people revisit the pain and suffering, and the horrors of war that the government wrought on its citizens for closing down a mine, which they felt had not compensated them enough for their loss.

The mine still stands in ruin. From the Morgan Junction checkpoint near the entrance, the drive is long and winding up into the white mist that often veils the peaks of the Crown Prince mountain range. In a valley at the top is the scene of a time warp: rusting mine machinery disintegrating into the all–consuming jungle, rows of silenced trucks and gutted housing blocks.

Locals amid the ruined mine buildings at Panguna (Photo: Catherine Wilson)

In 1989, the Nasioi on Bougainville were the world’s first indigenous people, angered by inequity and environmental damage, to shut down a multinational mining venture. But the feat came at a huge cost. The ensuing civil war, primarily between local rebel groups and the PNG Defence Force, decimated infrastructure and development and left 15,000–20,000 people dead, with many more suffering still from untreated trauma.

Yet debate about the mine’s possible revival has persisted for the last eight years. It’s the focus of the Bougainville autonomous government’s ambitions of fiscal self–reliance as an independence referendum approaches in June 2019; an enormous challenge for a region still occupied with post–conflict reconstruction and heavily dependent on aid. Last year, only 14% of the government’s expenditure, totalling K162 million ($67 million), was covered by internal revenues, while experts point out that an independent nation of Bougainville will need a budget two to three times greater.

This is a dilemma for many Panguna landowners. A few years ago, as I sat with villagers near the mine pit, no–one expressed a wish for mining to return to this beautiful valley. But views faltered among those committed to secession. Janet Colman from Guava Village said she did “not really” want the mine to reopen.

If I had a choice, but I don’t think I have a choice. If I am crying for independence; then I need the mine.

When BCL’s latest bid was defeated, Bougainville’s President John Momis announced an indefinite moratorium on exploration and mining in Panguna, highlighting his fears of potential conflict between landowner factions.

However, the link between mining and political aspirations continues to fuel the contest for Panguna’s wealth. Other foreign companies are jostling for position, such as Perth–based RTG Mining, which has forged an alliance with Philip Miriori, former combatant and now president of the Panguna–based Mekamui government, and chairman of the Special Mining Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association.

Three years ago, Bougainville passed new mining legislation vesting traditional landowners with ownership of minerals on their land and rights to participate in key development decisions. At the same time, power plays appear to be mounting between Panguna landowning clans and groups; those who previously, without rights, united against a common external foe. As Baria explains:

people who come from around the mine area are not homogenous, and deep divisions exist along family and clan lines going back to the time before the Crisis.

Mining companies now understand they will not be successful without landowner support. At least five ex–combatants and local leaders are known to be entertaining a range of corporate interests from Australia, Canada, China, Brazil and the US.

It is another hurdle for Momis and his government, who are working to rally a sense of political unity in a Melanesian society, where people still prioritize allegiance to their clan and customary land.

Panguna mine in operation, circa 1971 (Photo: Robert Owen Winkler/Wikimedia Commons)

Suspending developments in Panguna aligns with those landowners, such as Lynette Ona, Chairwoman of the Bougainville Indigenous Women’s Landowner Association, who believe the mine should stay closed until they can master their own destiny. Yet independence in itself won’t remove landowner rivalries or other risk factors Bougainville is currently challenged with, such as high youth unemployment, constrained institutional capacity to reach and govern rural areas and incomplete disarmament. Some armed groups, such as the Mekamui Defence Force, didn’t sign the peace agreement or surrender firearms.

Helen Hakena of the local Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency has expressed concern that “they [the Mekamui] get their strength from guns … there needs to be a priority set by the government in getting those arms out before the reopening of the Panguna mine”.

Bougainville is still working toward establishing the post–war unity, strong governance and state resources that are needed to manage the complex combination of post–conflict recovery, unaddressed mining grievances, and risks of resource–related corruption and land disputes. For mining, without peace, won’t contribute to Bougainville’s longing for successful self–government and equitable development.

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Filed under Environmental impact, Financial returns, Mine construction, Papua New Guinea

How Gold Mining Companies Stifle Opposition in Peru

Police line up during a massive protest against the extractive economic model in Lima, 2015 (Photo by Michael Wilson Becerril)

Multinational mining corporations in northern Peru have devised a number of strategies for suppressing environmental activism and protest, from strategic investment to media relations to outright intimidation and repression.

It is not hard to find examples of many of the same tactics being used in Papua New Guinea.

Michael Wilson Becerril | NACLA | August 7, 2018

The glitter of gold conceals ugly realities in Peru, one of the world’s largest gold producers. While the treasured commodity promises to bring jobs and economic development to extraction sites, its production involves exorbitant water consumption, leaves behind massive amounts of toxic waste, and has led to deadly social conflicts. Harassment and intimidation, propaganda, criminalization, and targeted assassinations of environmental activists characterize everyday life across the world’s mining regions.

Peru’s economy is heavily dependent on mineral extraction, which represents about two-thirds of its national export income. The world price of gold peaked at $1,800 an ounce in 2011 after a 12-year period of rapid growth—enticing the state and mining companies to increase investment and expand mining operations. As the mining business expanded, so did conflicts. Peru’s human rights commission recorded well over 200 active conflicts each year between 2008 and 2017—most of which were related to mining.

Beyond health and environmental risks, extractive projects are often also linked to corruption and underdevelopment. People around the mining sites I’ve studied contest the companies’ false promises, their deception, their arrogance, and the unequal distribution of the benefits and burdens of mining.

For these reasons and more, conflicts around mining often escalate into violence. However, most analyses of these situations tend to focus on explosive conflict eventsrather than what leads to them. Particularly, the tactics that transnational companies use to stoke the fires of these conflicts are often left out. Activists involved in these conflicts want others to understand how corporate representatives gain support and suppress dissent among communities near mining projects, including through corporate social responsibility programs, media partnerships, and repression.

Corporate Social (Ir)responsibility

Extractive industries in Peru have pacified the public and specific groups who oppose mining projects through the adoption and promotion of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which refers to the development of a philanthropic or charitable arm of a for-profit business. CSR is at once a public demand, a marketing strategy, and a byproduct of the diminished role of the state in the provision of public services.

CSR often takes the form of short-term philanthropy, such as handing out petty gifts to gain support for mining projects. CSR also appears as long-term investments in local development, for example through sponsoring scholarships or alternative industries like agriculture. Investment in development projects, like education, reforestation, and agricultural projects, is newer and less common than philanthropic gifts, but its results may be more enduring. The Johannesburg-based company Gold Fields, for example, has funded scholarships as well as dairy pasteurization training and infrastructure around its Cerro Corona mine in the Hualgayoc district of Cajamarca, Peru.

Like other corporate strategies, CSR has become more sophisticated over time. For example, around 2001, a Vancouver-based mining company, then called the Manhattan Minerals Corporation, offered kitchen and school supplies to crowds in downtown Tambogrande, according to local interviewees. More recently, the Toronto-based Barrick Gold set up a so-called “medical campaign” in towns around its Lagunas Norte mine, although one municipal official described this effort as nothing more than “a tent and two doctors pitched downtown for a week.” The U.S.-Peruvian joint venture La Zanja, owned by Newmont Mining, similarly sponsored an optometry campaign in 2011 and has offered basic medical services in nearby districts. Other companies have sponsored town fairs, given away free hot chocolate, and arranged other low-cost compensation activities. La Zanja has also sponsored local organizations, such as by providing t-shirts and hats, emblazoned with the company’s logo, to a local soccer club and an elders’ association.

Barrick Gold, the largest gold company in the world, is partly funding this hospital in Santiago de Chuco, La Libertad, the provincial capital nearest to its Lagunas Norte mine (Photo by Michael Wilson Becerril).

In some cases, companies fund local development projects under the banner of CSR, which may involve reaching agreements with individuals or groups, including people who are outspoken company opponents and present a risk to the company, due to their institutional authority, their organizing power, or both. In addition to financing their preferred candidates’ electoral campaigns, companies have offered cash handouts, construction equipment, contracts for basic services like food and sanitation, and employment—to mining supporters as well as to their opponents and their family members.

Such increasingly sophisticated strategies are on display in the case of the La Zanja mine. Tensions there escalated since the project proposal and construction stage, between 1998 to 2004, when locals burned down the company’s compound. La Zanja left the area and laid low for a few years, but they were not deterred. In 2007, the company returned with a new strategy, involving heavy CSR including hiring sociologists, contracting local opponents into seasonal work, and funding a development-oriented NGO.

These tactics help explain the opposition’s slow demobilization and the company’s successful installation into the community by 2008. In a province where over 60% of the population was classified as impoverished in 2007, the company presented powerful incentives. According to one interviewee who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, the opposition was essentially bribed into silence. Many in town blamed the movement leaders, accusing them of being merely self-interested or corrupt.

Critics of CSR broadly agree that the practice is a voluntary and insufficient substitute for strict regulations and adequate corporate practices, such as respecting public referenda on the projects, addressing their environmental risks, or truly redistributing the benefits of mining activities to locals. In some of its most common forms, CSR entails companies working with local authorities to fund public infrastructure en lieu of paying some corporate taxes. For example, companies fund the construction of electrical lines and roads—which mining companies need anyway—as well as water reservoirs and treatment facilities, stadiums, parks, and look-out points. Gold Fields, La Zanja, and Barrick tout their contributions to these kinds of construction and infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, residents and local government authorities in mining areas complain that these gifts attract positive attention to distract from corporate tax evasion and environmental degradation.

The Two Faces of Corporate Media Tactics

Gold mining companies collaborate extensively with local and national media to contain opposition to mining projects. Peru’s mining companies work with sophisticated, industry-specific public relations firms and advertising contractors to build strong online presences, open their own news outlets, and build personal relationships with journalists and news editors. These partnerships serve both to promote the firms’ brand and to discredit their opponents.

On the one hand, they curry positive public opinion, highlight their excellent rapport with local communities, and exploit photo opportunities. On the other hand, their publications and statements smear and delegitimize any opposition by portraying it as ignorant, backwards, corrupt, violent and even terroristic, and as an unrepresentativeradical fringe. In Peru, the use of criminalizing frames against “antiminers” and loose accusations of terrorism are particularly salient, given the country’s recent history of internal armed conflict. Words such as terrorism weigh heavily on those who survived the 20-year war, only partially resolved with a return to democracy in 2001.

These discourses have contributed to the pervasive perspective that mining represents an unquestionable path to development and widespread prosperity, that mining companies are socially responsible and environmentally sustainable, and that people who protest mining projects are either misinformed or purposely manipulating the public for self-gain. Such narratives are diffused through official rhetoric, established media, and even social media—for example, Facebook pages operated by mining companies, public relations firms, independent journalists, and other mining supporters—and they are latent in everyday conversations and public debates.

For example, in 2007, former Peruvian president Alan García published two essays that portrayed Indigenous populations—who were organizing a mass movement against extractive projects in their territories, at the time—as “prairie dogs” who were culturally backwards and opposed to “national” progress. In 2015, police detained and beat Antonio Coasaca Mamani, a farmer from Arequipa, for participating in a protest against the proposed Tía María copper mine, owned by the conglomerate Grupo México. During his capture at a protest, the Special Operations Division of the national police attempted to plant weapons on and incriminate Coasaca as a violent “antiminer,” and with the full complicity of the nationwide daily newspaper El Correo, as an investigation and videos of the event revealed. The state-sponsored attempt to frame Coasaca as violent, with the help of a national newspaper, is just one of countless examples of the state and mainstream media’s common practice of framing protest as illegitimate and dangerous.

Repression and Intimidation

The most coercive forms of quelling opposition to mining projects involve repressing and criminalizing opposition through state armed forces and the judicial system, and even intimidating them privately. Criminalizing dissent to protect extractive projects is well-documented in Latin America, where it is known to disproportionately harm womenIndigenous peoples, and Afro-descendent peoples. In each of the cases I studied, I heard countless stories of activists detained or otherwise processed through the court system, and about the distrust and trauma sowed by the armed forces, “always arriving to harm protesters and protect companies,” even during peaceful rallies, as a young activist in La Libertad told me. In Cajamarca alone—Peru’s top gold producing region alongside La Libertad—there were more than 300 protesters with open court cases as of mid-2016, according to Grufides, a regional human rights and environmental NGO.

Most companies often try to put down protests by working with the police, who they call for backup protection during demonstrations, assuming that the police will protect private property and restore order. Indeed, numerous companies have signed private protection contracts with the Peruvian National Police. On the other hand, a manager at the Cerro Corona mine claimed in our conversations that when his company called for police assistance, his supervisors instructed police chiefs to avoid using violence on peaceful protesters. Indeed, there has not been evidence of violence taking place at Cerro Corona. But this is not representative of the majority of cases. Mining companies are likely well aware of the widespread abuses committed by the state armed forces in the country. In assigning the work of quelling protest to the police, extractive companies are effectively transferring responsibility for any violent acts of repression that may occur.

Powerful and well-established mining corporations have ample influence over the state’s own actions, both through formal lobbying and in subtler ways. Yet companies tend to wash their hands from any responsibility when violence breaks out at mining-related protests with police presence.

Outside the realm of protests, dozens of activists I interviewed alleged that companies have also relied on private harassment and intimidation. Activists reported intimidation in the form of threatening phone calls, stalking, or surveillance by private security. Others spoke of physical damages to their homes or workplaces, or attacks on family members. A lawyer who leads the social movement against mining in La Libertad said he received threatening phone calls from a company manager, and claimed to local media that assailants showed up at his house and cut his sister’s face to intimidate him and dissuade his leadership. (He remains anonymous for safety precautions.)

An elected official I interviewed, who strongly opposes a large mining company in Cajamarca, said he could not even answer the phone anymore, given the frequency of the death threats he received, which he said have caused him psychological distress. Several mining company managers at one firm, who asked to remain anonymous, told me they had deeply infiltrated and “kept intelligence” about activist organizations. As one said to me, “In Tía María, protest leaders were recorded accepting bribes, then blackmailed and exposed by companies. The same thing happened here in town. We had to show their true face.” For most activists who reported these kinds of experiences, such tactics have strengthened their resolve to fight the companies. But others have seen the threats as a good reason to demobilize and keep quiet.

Activists have also blamed company actors of plotting the murders of environmental protesters in Piura and Cajamarca. Human rights activists claim that the frequent murder of environmental activists in Latin America cannot be considered coincidental or isolated. More than 270 people were killed in Peru’s social conflicts between 2006 and 2016, with about 70% of these conflicts related to extractive industries, according to the country’s human rights commission. However, in the majority of cases, deaths occurred at the hands of police and military forces, not private actors.

When I asked company representatives and police about assassinations of local leaders, many of them said execution orders are not corporate decisions, but that these actions are generally perpetrated by people with vested interests in silencing detractors. In some extreme cases, however, company managers and employees have directly armed their local supporters and their private security. For example, in the case of the Vale Do Rio Doce company’s Miski Mayo project in Cajamarca, the company formed and armed “defense groups.” The practice has also been documented in other parts of the Americas.

Channeling Conflict

These methods serve to suppress conflict, as opposed to resolving or transforming it. Moreover, even forms of community engagement strategies that purport some benefit, such as CSR investments, usually go hand-in-hand with cooptation, repression, and delegitimation strategies. While such strategies allow companies and the state to keep conflict at bay, they merely create a smokescreen of peace. Ultimately, they postpone and may exacerbate the tensions that underlie company-community relations. This often can lead to a boiling point, when affected peoples can resort to increased militancy. As such, eruptions of violent conflicts are merely symptomatic of underlying everyday tensions.

Though the majority of residents I talked to in mining districts said they were offended by the arrogance and impunity of mining operations in their towns, most claimed that they are not anti-mining or anti-development. Rather, they wanted results from the promise of development: they wanted companies to tighten their environmental standards, expand community participation, and invest more in sustainable economic activities like agriculture. Moreover, they demanded that companies stop cheating the population with inflated-valued buildings or free hot chocolate.

If they want to do more than create a façade of peace, companies must provide communities with meaningful consultation. They should be required to gain informed consent by a democratic majority, as verified by the state and independent monitors. They should promote participatory monitoring opportunities for the communities that accede to their projects. And finally, they should be ready to pay their hosts: for example, through paying higher taxes aimed at promoting local wellbeing, sustainable resource management, and alternative development.

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IS BOUGAINVILLE ON THE BRINK OF WAR?

MOST OF THE NEWS COMING OUT OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA TODAY IS ABOUT THE REFUGEE CRISIS ON MANUS ISLAND. BUT 1,000KM SOUTHEAST OF MANUS ON BOUGAINVILLE ISLAND, A LITTLE-KNOWN STORY ABOUT THE BLOOD-SOAKED 40-YEAR-LONG INDEPENDENCE STRUGGLE OF A QUARTER OF A MILLION PEOPLE IS APPROACHING AN ENDGAME.

Ian Lloyd Neubauer | Penthouse | 13 July 2018

Cut from the pages of a glossy travel brochure and just smaller than Hawaii’s Big Island, Bougainville is blessed with incredible natural resources: sugar-white beaches, fisheries, hyper-fertile soil and one of the largest untapped mineral deposits on the planet – copper, silver, gold and uranium estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

The largest known concentration of minerals lies in Panguna Mine, a vast hole in the ground in the Guava Mountains of central Bougainville. Between 1972 and 1989 it provided nearly half of PNG’s GDP and made billions in profit for its operator, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a former subsidiary of Rio Tinto.

But while less than one per cent of those profits were reinvested in Bougainville, hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings – the toxic by-product of industrial mining – were dumped straight into rivers, turning vast tracts of once-fertile farming and hunting grounds into barren, moonlike wastelands.

In the late 1970s, a landowner group led by Francis Ona presented BCL with a multi-billion dollar cleaning bill. BCL, however, claimed it was in compliance with the law while concurrently insisting it had not damaged the environment. It continued to dump tailings into the rivers like a careless tourist might drop a cigarette butt on the beach.

In 1988, push finally came to shove. Ona and his mob broke into BCL’s storerooms, stole a bunch of explosives and blew up Panguna’s power lines. The event marked the start of the longest conflict in the South Pacific since WWII and the world’s first successful eco-revolution – an episode of military history that has drawn parallels with the 2009 James Cameron film Avatar.

PNG sent in its army to crush the rebels, pitting Australian-supplied helicopter gunships and gunboats against a ragtag militia armed with slingshots and homemade rifles. When that failed, soldiers trained their sights on the general population, burning down villages, using rape as a weapon and executing alleged collaborators en masse. And when that failed PNG applied a cruel Australian-backed naval blockade, depriving the entire island of fuel, medicine and all contact with the outside world.

By the time a lasting peace agreement was signed in 2001, 15,000 to 20,000 Bougainvilleans – 10 per cent of the population – had been killed or succumbed to illnesses. For its woes, Bougainville was granted autonomy and tacit control of its fantastic mineral wealth, including the US$50 billion worth of copper and gold left at Panguna.

Now, a new-look independently listed BCL is plotting its return to Panguna, promising jobs and prosperity for all – despite not lifting a finger to clean the mess it left behind. Astonishingly, the Autonomous Government of Bougainville is courting the proposal because it desperately needs cash for an independence referendum scheduled for June 2019 and the prospect of running the world’s newest country the following year. But many Bougainvilleans hold serious grudges against BCL and warn if the company returns, war will follow.

HAPPY VALLEY

During the ’good times’ of the 1970s and 1980s, Arawa and its port Kieta, an hour’s drive from Panguna, was the second richest town in PNG. Hotels, restaurants and banks lined Happy Valley, Kieta’s dreamy beachfront strip, while cruise boats and sail craft crowded around the old yacht club.

All that remains of Kieta today are ruins overgrown with jungle and the wrecks of two small steamships at the end of a pier where Queen Elizabeth II and her royal entourage disembarked during a state visit in 1974. Arawa hasn’t fared much better; its wide boulevards lined with overgrown fields, stain-coloured apartment blocks and abandoned gas stations.

In Arawa I meet Philip Miriori, former private cabinet secretary of rebel leader Francis Ona, who died in 2005. Today Miriori is chairman of the Special Mine Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association (SMLOLA), a group of 2,000-odd landowners who under the new Bougainville Mining Act hold rights not only to the topsoil but also the minerals underground. That makes Miriori one of the most powerful men in Bougainville and his opinion of BCL a matter of concern.

“BCL does not have any compassionate feelings. I have seen what they are capable of,” he says. “One night during the war, the PNGDF (PNG Defence Force) woke up everyone in my village and made us stand in a line while they burnt all our houses. I hold BCL directly accountable for what happened that night because BCL provided the soldiers with funding, logistics and shelter. Not as long as I am alive will I ever accept BCL coming back.”

Allegations of BCL’s complicity in Bougainville’s war stem back decades and have been corroborated by the highest level of government. In 2011, SBS’s Dateline unearthed an affidavit signed by former PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare that reads: “Because of Rio Tinto’s financial influence in PNG, the company controlled the government.” In a separate affidavit, former PNGDF general Jerry Singirok said the army “functioned as the corporation’s personal security force and were ordered by BCL to take action to reopen the mine – by any means necessary”.

BCL refused to comment for this story. But in a shareholder update released in October, the company claims it “has always maintained positive relationships in Bougainville” and “continues to respectfully build relationships with a range of stakeholders, including project area landowners”.

Yet in the very same document, the company scolds Miriori for “attack[ing] BCL through the media by using the title of SMLOLA chairman to convey the misleading impression that there is a united view of opposition to BCL”.

The notice also refers to a SMLOLA leadership dispute between Miriori and his cousin Lawrence Daveona, whose relationship with BCL stems back decades. Daveona was once president of the Bougainville Development Corporation, a purported BCL development fund that was run like a Fortune 500 company with interests in engineering, logistics and even mining. He was also a former director and secretary of BCL’s Roads Mine Tailings Lease Trust Fund – a body set up to administer compensation payments to Panguna landowners.

Daveona refused comment, citing ongoing court proceedings with Miriori. But he pointed out Miriori has a corporate sponsor of his own: RTG Mining, a Perth-based consortium that operates seven mines in five countries and is challenging BCL’s bid to reboot Panguna.

Miriori acknowledges he’s on RTG’s payroll but says his support for the company is based the award-winning environmental and social policies it has demonstrated at Masbate, the largest operating gold mine in the Philippines. “RTG will work well with the community,” he opines, adding: “If this story doesn’t go well, you will not be welcome back in Bougainville.

LEGACY PIT

In BCL’s October shareholder notice the company claims it is “increasing its presence in central Bougainville through the engagement activities of our local team”. 

Yet BCL has no official presence in Arawa. And it’s hard to imagine how a car with BCL logos could get past Alex Dakamari, a crusty old rebel with hangdog features who controls Morgan’s Crossing Checkpoint – a roadblock set up by Ona in the early 1990s on the only carriageway leading up to the mine.

“BCL are wasting their time. If they come back, we will fight,” Dakamari scowls. “We don’t want the mine reopened – full stop! Otherwise, all our money will go to white people like in the past. We were the owners and they turned us into beggars. They can’t get away with it again!”

Before it closed, Panguna was the largest open-cut mine in the world – 2.5 kilometres wide and half a kilometre deep. On one side of this titanic-size eyesore, a wall of untreated tailings hundreds of metres high marches slowly down a ravine. Millions of litres of opal-blue water rush from pit water drains on either side of this wall, forming waterfalls of the damned that lay waste to all life in the valley far below.

Dapera is a village that once sat right on top of the mine. In the early 1970s, BCL moved Dapera’s residents to a squatter settlement built on a plateau of crushed rock not far from the ore-sorting plant. A desolate collection of hardscrabble shacks, Dapera II is now home to a few hundred impoverished landowner descendants like Jayden Frankie.

“You can see the destruction BCL did to this community,” he says. “Before my father had good land. This is not good land. We can’t grow crops and when heavy rain falls, rocks in the ground turn blue and green.”

His friend, Richard Onio, voices similar sentiments. To find good land for farming we have to walk up to those hills,” he says, pointing to a steep ridge. “But it’s dangerous in heavy rains because of landslides.”

What do they think about the idea of a BCL comeback?

“They would not be welcome,” says villager Freddy Bernora. “We would send them off. They stole billions of dollars from us and I do not see how this company has changed.”

Frankie says he wants RTG to reopen the mine:

“We have seen some pictures of how RTG works in the Philippines, how people there live side-by-side with mining. They showed us how they produce benefits for landowners. They seem to respect landowners.”

“For me,” says Onio, “I am with neither RTG or BCL. I am neutral. I want to see if they meet our terms and conditions. I am not convinced by either side yet.”

CAESAR’S PALACE

On another plateau above the pit lies a small city where BCL housed more than 2,000 employees during the ’good times’. Today, around 8,000 landowners and squatters reside in the concrete skeletons of residential towers Ona and his mob set fire to after BCL withdrew. Masked in heavy fog, carpeted in moss and spattered with graffiti, it has the look and feel of a set from the Planet of the Apes.

Philip Takaung, Ona’s 77-year-old half-brother and Miriori’s deputy, is Caesar of this post-apocalyptic world. With the frame of a silverback gorilla and a crushing handshake to match, he makes an intimidating presence when I find him congregated with family and friends on the top floor of the tallest tower.

“When BCL came here and started polluting our land, we didn’t know anything about minerals. We had no education so they took advantage of us,” he says. “When we asked them to clean up the rivers, they did a feasibility study and said there was nothing poisonous in the water. We said NO! Our crops, our rivers, everything is dead! But they ignored us. They ignored us for 10 years until we took action. I was on that team with Ona that blew up the power lines.”

Takaung shows me his weapon of choice during the conflict: a nine-foot-long pole with a Y-shaped head known as the ‘Rambo Stick’ – a slingshot so powerful it can puncture a hole in a car, or take off somebody’s head. “This weapon is very good because it makes very little noise,” he says. “When you fire it, the enemy has no idea where you are. Then you can fire again.

I ask Takaung how many soldiers he killed during the war. He looks at two small children in the room who are glued to his every word, decides against answering and continues with his sermon:

“BCL burnt our villages. They tortured our people. They cut off people’s hands and threw them from helicopters. They raped our women, the young children, the men and old ladies! They put the machete in between women’s legs! I saw it! They slaughtered people like they were animals!”

On the way back to Arawa I stop at Anewa Bay, home to Bougainville’s modern port facilities.. There I meet port worker Francis Baubake, a withered old man in his fifties with a wooden leg and a terrible story to tell.

“In 1996, the PNGDF got a new mortar bomb that was untested. So they tested it on my family, “ he says. “We were in church in a refugee camp in Buin in the south when it hit us. My daughters Brenda and Alvina, seven and 12, and my wife Sicilia were instantly killed. I lost my leg,” he says, tapping his wooden stump.

I ask Baubake who he holds accountable for his loss. He stares numbly into the middle distance and thinks for a while before mumbling: “The PNGDF. The PNGDF and BCL.”

But when I ask what might happen if BCL returns to Bougainville, he answers without pause. “War,” he says, grinding his teeth. “War.”

THE NO-MINING VOTE

On my fourth day in Bougainville, I am struck with malaria and spend the next 24 hours shivering in bed, my joints and lower back burning with pain. The fever dissipates the next day but the experience makes me ponder the fate of an estimated 5,000 Bougainvilleans who succumbed to malaria during the blockade of the 1990s, and the poor state of health of most islanders today. In a squatter settlement next to my guesthouse, I find a man in his twenties with a cancer the size of a football growing from his heel.

More than half of all adults here are obese, while alcoholism is endemic. 

The war took everything out of everybody here and the trauma has been passed onto this generation,” says Geoff McAndrews, a Californian who recently opened Bougainville’s first surf camp. “There are no jobs. The only thing they have for entertainment is volleyball and homebrew.”

Over the next few days, I learn a significant minority are pro-BCL. “If BCL comes back, they can fix the environmental issues because they know all about them,” says accountant Lindsay Kalio. “I don’t think any other company can do this as we have no relationship with them.

Yet more than half of all islanders I speak to oppose any kind of industrial mining.

Our previous experience with mining was pollution and violence so I don’t want mining to come back,” says Alex Takena, a fisherman in Kieta. “We should focus on sustainable industries like copra (coconut) and cocoa farming.”

Lawrence Robert, a carpenter in Arawa, agrees. “I don’t think Panguna should reopen because our island is tiny and if miners come back, they’ll tear it to pieces. We should have tourism instead to promote our culture and heritage.”

Adds John Boscoe, a subsistence farmer from Oemah village in the island’s south: “Mining did not benefit any of us in in the past but we all lost our homes. If it happens again, the Panguna landowners will drink milk and honey and we will get nothing.”

The SMLOLA discounts anti-mining sentiment. “These people have to look at the bigger picture,” Miriori says. “Mining is the right choice for Bougainville because we need the revenue if we want to become an independent nation and generate employment and security. Panguna will reopen, whether they like it or not.”

BETTER THE DEVIL YOU OWN

A week passes until I regain enough strength to make the bone-jarring four-hour drive from Arawa to the capital Buka, which is as fly-blown as a place can possibly be.

When I arrive the city has been under a total electricity blackout for close to a week for reasons no one can explain. When I visit Bougainville’s House of Representatives in the middle of the day to make an appointment with President John Monis, no one is there. Ditto at the Ministry for Mineral and Energy Resources and BCL’s little office.

Later in the day, news breaks that the SMLOLA leadership dispute has ended and Miriori has emerged victorious. It sees RTG’s share price soar 83 per cent in a single day and the inking of a “historic” deal between the consortium and the SMLOLA.

“The Chairman and Mr Daveona have also pledged support for RTG as the preferred development partner,” RTG says in a statement. “This is a historic and important step for the landowners, with RTG being the first mining company that has been endorsed by the SMLOLA in 30 years.”

But the victory is short-lived. Bougainville Minister for Minerals and Energy Raymond Masono accuses RTG of trying to sneak into Panguna through the back door. “The Autonomous Bougainville Government rejects companies that think they can bribe their way into people’s resources by giving certain individuals money to gain landowner consent,” he says.

RTG rigorously denies it has bribed landowners even though Miriori admitted to me that he is on their payroll. However BCL has been busy handing out money to landowners, too.

In March of last year, BCL distributed US$1.5 million in compensation to landowners at a public ceremony in Buka attended by Masono. “It is not the devil that we used to know, but it’s now the devil that we own,” Masono said at the ceremony, adding that it would be foolish go out looking for other developers.

Masono’s comment about “the devil that we own” refers to Rio Tinto’s June 2016 decision to finally call it quits on Bougainville – and its subsequent donation of its majority shareholdings in BCL to the governments of Bougainville and PNG.

RTG chairman Michael Carrick says the move was in part an attempt by Rio Tinto to stack the deck in BCL’s favour. But the cards had already been stacked in a very big way by the authors of the 2015 Bougainville Mining Act, who gave BCL the first right of refusal to redevelop Panguna.

RTG’s Carrick insists the Act no longer applies. “BCL ’claims’ it has first right to the exploration license under the mining act,” he says. “But our legal advice is that the renewal application for extension of the term of their licence is invalid because it was submitted out of time and was incomplete.”

For his part Masono remains nonplussed, insisting BCL is still in the box seat and RTG doesn’t even have a seat on the table. “Right now, the only legal applicant on the exploration tenement is BCL,” he says. “Until that process is completed, there are no other applicants or applications over the same tenement. That’s the position of the government.”

THE PRESIDENT SPEAKS

On my last day in Bougainville, I score an interview with President John Momis at Buka’s tin-pot airport. Right from the get-go he contradicts Masono’s position and corresponding claims by BCL that its proposal has the support of the Autonomous Government of Bougainville.

“Currently we do not have a preferred partner. We will ask people who are interested to submit their applications and we will scrutinise their applications quite stringently,” the President says. “We are open to discussions with BCL but there’s whole new dimension today. They need to win the support of landowners who own the resources.”

I ask him what he thinks about RTG’s competing bid to redevelop Panguna, and of rumours that China is eyeing the mine.

“We are not sure about RTG,” he says. “They have to convince us first. I don’t know if they are in a strong position. As for the Chinese, they are not in the picture right now. But we are open for business.” 

And so the race for Panguna’s riches continues with no clear frontrunner. But no matter which company wins, three things seem certain.

First, the bulk of Panguna’s riches will inevitably end up in the pockets of oligarchs, shareholders and hopelessly corrupt officials instead of a sovereign wealth fund where it belongs. This prediction is drawn from the ’resource curse’, which dictates countries with lots of minerals tend to have less economic growth and democracy than countries with fewer natural resources. Hundreds of studies have been undertaken to prove the theory, though one need look no further to Hela Province on PNG’s mainland to see it happening in real time. There, ExxonMobil’s A$24 billion Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project has failed to deliver any significant development outcomes for landowners. “In fact, it has, in important ways, made life worse for the majority of people living in the project area,” says Michael Main, an Australian National University doctoral student conducting fieldwork in the area.

Which leads to prediction number two: if Panguna reopens, there will be blood. According to the World Bank study ‘Natural Resources and Violent Conflict’, countries that export around five per cent of GDP have a six per cent risk of conflict. But when exports reach 25 per cent of GDP, the probability of conflict climbs to 33 per cent. If Panguna reopens, exports of minerals will account for close to 100 per cent of Bougainville’s GDP. That doesn’t bode well under the World Bank’s formula. And despite reassuring me the plans to reboot Panguna’s will definitely go ahead, a fortnight after I leave Bougainville he changes his mind, announcing an indefinite moratorium.

We will not allow this project once again to reignite the wounds of the Bougainville crisis and distract our focus for restoring peace and our preparation for our referendum in 2019,” he told New Zealand’s Asia Pacific Report.

The decision is a breath of fresh air and a rare example of a politician in PNG making an unpopular and unprofitable decision that is beyond a shadow of a doubt in the best interest of constituents.

My final prediction for Bougainville? That the people will overwhelmingly vote in favour of self-determination when they go to the polls in 2019. “We in Bougainville have a huge passionate ambition,” Monis told me before I left, mirroring the thoughts of every Bougainvillean I interviewed on the subject. “And that ambition is to liberate ourselves from all kinds of transgressors, evil and marginalisation so there will be unity to affect the kind of changes we need to truly become free.” 

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Another NZ seabed mining permit lapses

Another seabed mining permit lapses: industry future is in question

KASM | Scoop NZ | 1 August 2018

The news that seabed mining company Trans Tasman Resources Ltd (TTR) has let yet another New Zealand mining permit lapse was heralded today by Kiwis Against Seabed Mining.

On Thursday last week, the TTR prospecting permit for a 4435 square kilometre section of the seabed off the West Coast quietly lapsed, and is not being renewed. This is the second such permit the company has allowed to lapse in the last six months, the first being near Kawhia off the North Island’s West Coast just south of Raglan.

The company has confirmed that it has let the permit lapse as it waits for the result of a High Court appeal (heard in April) brought by KASM and a number of other interests against the EPA’s consent for mining a 66sqkm area of the South Taranaki Bight seabed. Whatever the outcome of the appeal, there will be a long process before it’s resolved, with the possibility of more court action, or another EPA hearing.

“This gives the Government an opportunity to re-think the logic of these seabed mining bids off our coastlines, not least because of the threat to endangered species like Māui and Hector’s dolphins, fisheries, seabirds and our surf breaks,” said KASM chairperson, Cindy Baxter.

“After years of effort, where are we? Two seabed mining applications have been refused, a third is under appeal, permits are dropping like flies, the companies are struggling financially, there are still huge concerns around the environmental impact, and opposition is growing stronger by the day. It’s time for the government to put a stop to this madness.” 

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The environmental costs of deep-sea mining

Unique deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems that harbour chemosynthetic life forms such as giant tubeworms. Active mining of vents would destroy these rare ecosystems (Image: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)

Countries must determine if mining the ocean can be done without harm to the environment

Matthew GianniDuncan Currie | china dialogue | 26 July 2018

There is growing interest in opening up the deep-sea to industrial mining for copper, nickel, cobalt, gold, rare earths and other metals. But at what cost?

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is meeting this week to discuss a strategic plan for the development and regulation of mining in the deep ocean beyond national waters.

The ISA was established in 1994 under the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is responsible for deciding whether, how and under what conditions, mining could be permitted in the international area of the seabed, an area equal to about a third of the earth’s surface.

The ISA has already issued 29 contracts to companies and state agencies from China, Korea, Japan, UK, Germany, Belgium, France, Russia, Brazil, India, Poland and a number of South Pacific countries to explore for metals in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Biodiversity at risk

But the deep-sea is increasingly recognised as one of the largest reservoirs of biodiversity on the planet and critical to supporting planetary ecological systems.

This first World Ocean Assessment report, published by the UN in 2016, also concluded that deep-sea ecosystems are already stressed by climate change, pollutants, and other human activities. Even plastics are making their way into the deep ocean. A recent study found plastics in the stomachs of fish in depths of 11,000 metres – the very deepest parts of the ocean.

Several scientific papers published in the past year have concluded that if deep-sea mining is allowed then biodiversity loss is inevitable. This is because many deep ocean species are long-lived, and ecosystems will struggle to recover, or may never recover, from mining impacts.

Other studies have pointed to the uniqueness of deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems that harbour chemosynthetic life forms such as giant tubeworms. These recent discoveries have vastly broadened our understanding of how life has evolved on our planet.

The vents also form mineral deposits known as polymetallic sulfides. The ISA has issued exploration licenses for these, but if active vents are mined then the life that thrives in these rare ecosystems will be destroyed.

Weighing the risks

Given the role of the deep-sea and the vulnerability of species and ecosystems to long-term and potentially irreversible damage, it is important that we first understand the risks before deciding whether, and under what conditions, deep-sea mining could be permitted to occur.

This is the essence of a resolution adopted by the European Parliament in January of this year, which called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until the risks are fully understood.

The Parliament also called for greater transparency by the ISA so that it ensures “effective protection” of the marine environment. This, after all, is its obligation under the Convention on the Law of the Sea. The ISA is also charged with acting for the “benefit of mankind as a whole” as the global steward of the international seabed, referred to in international law as the “common heritage of mankind”.

The UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, commit all countries to rethink their economies, their use of the earth’s natural resources, and the protection of our oceans and wider environments in the context of sustainable development.

SDG 14 commits all nations to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. We need to conserve the ocean and we need to be investing in reusable technologies, recycling, and better product design to ensure we make the best use of the resources we have.

SDG 14 also commits nations to protecting and restoring ocean ecosystems and enhancing their resilience to be able to better survive the harmful effects of climate change.

The Chinese government has repeatedly told the ISA that it needs to take time for careful consideration and scientific study, while other voices are clamouring for rapid action and adoption of regulations to allow deep-sea mining.

China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA) recently held a workshop in Qingdao to start development of a Regional Environmental Management Plan (REMP) for an area of the western Pacific where China, Russia, Japan and Korea have exploration claims for cobalt crust mining on seamounts. REMPs are essential environmental tools to assess the regional characteristics and environmental needs.

Countries must seriously weigh whether deep-sea mining is consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals and their obligations under international law. Is it worth the risk of significant biodiversity loss and the degradation of deep ocean ecosystems? This is a debate that should occur this week at the ISA and within the broader international community of nations as a whole. The future of our oceans is at stake.

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Indonesia government asked to recalculate Freeport mine damage

FILE PHOTO: Trucks operate in the open-pit mine of PT Freeport’s Grasberg copper and gold mine complex near Timika, in the eastern region of Papua, Indonesia on September 19, 2015 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. REUTERS/Muhammad Adimaja/Antara Foto/File Photo

Reuters | 26 July, 2018

Indonesia’s parliament has asked the government to recalculate damage to the environment from the giant Grasberg copper mine operated by the local unit of Freeport McMoRan Inc, the environment ministry said.

A 2017 report by Indonesia’s Supreme Audit Agency (BPK) calculated that Freeport’s decades-long operations at the mine in Indonesia’s remote easternmost province of Papua had caused environmental damage worth $13.25 billion.

That damage, it said, was largely a result of tailings from the mine that had extended beyond previously agreed limits and which had polluted coastal areas.

The audit also said Freeport Indonesia (PT FI) had missed royalty payments, cleared thousands of hectares of protected forest and began mining underground without environmental clearance.

The environmental issues have presented problems for Freeport and Indonesia, whose state-owned mining holding company, PT Inalum, hopes to finalize a $3.9 billion deal to acquire a majority stake in Grasberg this year.

In a meeting with Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya on Tuesday, parliament urged the minister to “ensure that PT FI fulfils governmental administrative penalties” in accordance with the law, the ministry said in a statement late on Tuesday.

“Commission VII asks the Environment Minister to calculate the value of environmental losses resulting from damage and pollution from PT FI operations, as per the findings of the BPK,” Commission VII chairman Gus Irawan Pasaribu said, according to the statement.

Jakarta-based spokesmen for PTFI and Inalum did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.

Freeport CEO Richard Adkerson said on a call with analysts on July 12 the company had been “working very closely” with the environment ministry and had “received assurance that we will find a resolution of the environmental issues that will be acceptable for all parties. So we’re very encouraged by that.”

Since then he said Freeport had “entered into very productive discussions with the ministry and are making progress with the ministry in addressing these issues and working toward a resolution that we do not expect and the ministry does not expect to adversely affect our operations.”

Parliament also urged the ministry to “conduct environmental risk analysis and environmental audits on a regular basis”, and plans to hold meetings with the ministries of mining and the environment on the matter.

A spokesman for the environment ministry declined to comment further on the parliament request or provide and estimate on how long this process could take.

Indonesia’s mining minister said earlier this month the environmental matters must be resolved before his office could issue a new mining permit for PT-FI up to 2031.

Inalum CEO Budi Gunadi Sadikin told parliament on Monday that “regarding the environment, we told Freeport ‘the past problems are your sins’. In future we will take responsibility together.”

Sadikin added the environmental damage from Grasberg was a shared responsibility as the government already held a 9.36 percent stake in the mine.

Sadikin said a forestry permit for the mine still needed to be issued, and “the 185 trillion rupiah ($12.80 billion) from tailings damage still needs to be cleared up” although he was confident that all the environmental problems could be resolved.

There are 13 of 48 sanctions related to the environmental audit that have not been met yet, according to the environment ministry.

In April, Freeport shares fell to a four-month low after the environment ministry announced tough new rules intended to comply with the BPK audit, just before the company announced its first quarter earnings.

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Oceans Face Ultimate Threat from Deep Sea Mining

New Website & Letter Signed By International Scientists & Organizations Urging for a Moratorium on Deep Sea Mining 

MiningWatch Canada | July 24 2018

Our international waters – known as the “common heritage of (human)kind” – are under a new, imminent, and most deadly threat from the deep sea mining industry. 

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN agency which has not received much public scrutiny until now, meets in Kingston, Jamaica this week to discuss how to open up the deep sea bed to mining. Scientists, academics, and non-governmental organizations unite in a joint letter to raise alarm over this ultimate threat to our oceans.

Nnimmo Bassey, Director, HOMEF foundation and Alternative Nobel Prize recipient stated:

“Oceans play a critical role in maintaining life on the planet. However, the ISA continues to ignore the profound lack of scientific understanding of the immediate and long-term ecological costs of digging up the sea floor. 

“It is evident that large private and state-owned conglomerates have succeeded in shifting the ISA’s regulatory discussions toward outcomes favourable to corporate-directed industrial development.”

“Our joint letter is a call from civil society globally to protect our common heritage.”

Renowned marine biologists, including Cindy Van Dover and colleagues, have recently pointed out that deep-sea mining would impact both the seabed and the water column, such that biodiversity loss would be both “unavoidable” and “likely to last forever on human timescales.”

“The world’s seas are already on the brink of catastrophe from overfishing, pollution, such as from plastics and chemicals, destruction of critical habitat such as mangroves and coral reefs, global warming and acidification” said Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada.

“The oceans cannot survive wide scale destruction of the sea bed by the same irresponsible industry that mines on land.” 

The signers of the joint letter noted:

“This is not the time to move forward with an extractive regime; there are far too many uncertainties. International leadership at the ISA is required to prevent recklessly proceeding with deep-sea mining.”

The ISA has already issued numerous exploration contracts in international waters to mining interests supported by member states of the ISA. As these exploration contracts come to an end, the ISA is considering implementing a regime to allow extraction.

Raj Patel, Activist, New York Times best-selling author and Research Professor, University of Texas claimed:

“When the Law of the Sea was written and the idea of ‘common inheritance’ first framed, I’m certain that corporations weren’t intended to inherit the seabed. There’s little evidence that corporate stewardship is compatible with the continued, sustained health of these under-studied ecosystems.”

“The seabed is everyone’s common inheritance, and we need broad, transnational and formal public consultation to learn and then decide how best to ensure its survival for those who will inherit it from us.”

Rather than permitting deep sea mining the ISA must declare a moratorium on deep sea mining before irreparable damage is done to the health of the world’s oceans.

View and sign Letter | Download Letter

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