Tag Archives: Environmental damage

Saving the Sepik from Frieda mine

Rosa Koian | PNG Attitude | 10 December 2019

A photo posted on Facebook showing dried freshwater fish at Wewak market has sparked a discussion on the future of the Sepik River.

In the river’s headwaters, the Frieda copper and gold mine is pushing ahead with its development plans.

The Sepik is 1,100km long and empties into the Bismarck Sea. The river system’s 430,000 people use the river for food, education, transport, health and culture.

What they want is a truly holistic economic approach to development.

They believe that development must add value, not subtract from the people’s lives. Their river must be protected at all costs.

There was a strong response on Facebook from people wanting to ban the mine, the main argument being that mining will take away the people’s livelihoods.

“Sepik has always been sustaining us,” said Brian Singut. While another comment from Howard Sindana said, “It is our food source and supermarket. Sepik just gives.”

The East and West Sepik provincial governments are preparing to launch their biggest copper and gold mine but the people’s concerns are yet to be heard.

The people have many reasons to save this river, one of the richest, largest and last remaining unspoiled rivers in the Pacific.

In the Sepik river system, humans and nature have happily co-existed to this day.

As one commentator said: “It is a rich cultural and ecological storehouse; rich in stories of how a myriad of species and beings can exist in the same space without competition and hurting each other.”

The art and stories from the Sepik are unique. At the centre of them are the pukpuk and the hausman, depicting so much of the region’s culture and history.

Its strength, its sources of knowledge and wisdom, the artistic expression of the human and spiritual worlds, and always the promise of sustenance long into the future.

Until the present day western influences have intruded but slowly but now fears of fast moving change are real.

In the Sepik wetlands, crocodile farmers have reported earnings of more than K300,000 to their families in 2018.

The Sepik River provides food, game, material for handicrafts – all securing income for these people who know what it is to live at ease with nature.

Environmental groups have documented various flora and fauna and say the Sepik River and its basin is the second richest biodiversity region in Papua New Guinea.

The Upper Sepik is currently on the list to be recognised as a world heritage site.

Other people are concerned about the environment impact statement for the Frieda project.

In this very long document, they say, there is no clear mention of the direct impacts of mining and the appropriate mitigation measures in place if something goes wrong.

And three other large projects have been lumped into the same environment impact statement. The document is currently being reviewed.

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Solomon Islands: Minister should meet directly with local communities over mining concerns

Amnesty International | 9 December 2019

The Solomon Islands Minister of the Environment should conduct face-to-face consultations with local communities on Wagina Island to hear their concerns before deciding the fate of a proposed open-cast bauxite mine there, Amnesty International said today.

The Minister is expected to decide soon whether to uphold a March 2019 Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC) decision that overturned the mining licence, after residents raised fears it could impact livelihoods on the island.

“The Solomon Islands government must ensure that all affected communities are genuinely and meaningfully consulted about this proposal,” said Richard Pearshouse, Head of Crisis and Environment at Amnesty International.

“The Minister should sit down with local communities on Wagina Island and hear their concerns.”

Wagina Island is a remote island of approximately 80 km2 in north-west Choiseul Province. Its residents are originally from Kiribati, having been relocated in the early 1960s by the British colonial administration. Estimated at around 2,000 people, they live by subsistence farming, fishing and seaweed farming.

In 2013, the Ministry of the Environment granted a Solomon Islands-registered company, Solomon Bauxite Limited (SBL), a permit to mine bauxite on Wagina Island. The following year, Wagina residents opposed the mine in the country’s High Court, which issued a stay of proceedings so that the case could be heard by the EAC.

In March 2019, the EAC overturned the Ministry of Environment’s consent for the mine. The EAC found that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed mine – which is required under national law – had insufficient information to assess the impacts of the proposed mine, and that the legislative procedures for public consultation and publication of the EIS were not followed.

SBL has appealed the EAC’s decision to the Minister of the Environment. In meetings and correspondence with Amnesty International, the company has stressed that it has always complied with the laws applicable to its operations and has acknowledged the importance of upholding human rights.

Amnesty International visited Wagina Island in July 2019 and interviewed a dozen islanders about their concerns, as well as 10 others familiar with the issue, including representatives of national and provincial governments, civil society organizations, journalists and lawyers. The organization also reviewed background documents, including meeting minutes and a copy of the 2012 EIS and its 2013 supplement.

“There is much apprehension about the potential environmental and social impacts of this mine and many community members told Amnesty International they did not feel sufficiently informed or consulted about it,” said Richard Pearshouse.

Some residents of Kukson and Nikamuroo villages and Benyamina islet told Amnesty International that they are concerned about the possible impacts from mining on fishing and sea-weed farming from mine run-off or disturbances to fresh groundwater discharges into the sea.

The EIS states that: “The [residents of Wagina] do not currently use either the mine or the processing facility sites for any productive purpose.” However, some residents told Amnesty International they use some of the land covered by the proposed mine for purposes including gardening and harvesting timber for housing.

“The government of the Solomon Islands needs to resolve the issues of land ownership and use on this part of Wagina. Taking away land that people occupy and use without following due legal process runs the risk of forced evictions,” said Richard Pearshouse.

According to the EIS, the development will include an open pit mine, a bulk carrier wharf and small boat wharf, airstrip, administration offices, a power station, fuel farm, and accommodation for about 150 employees (who with family members may reach 1,000 people). The proposed mining involves trucking approximately 150 truckloads of bauxite, each with a 35 to 50 tonne payload, for 16 hours each day. The proposed life of the mine is between 16 and 20 years.

A consultation meeting on the proposed mine was held in Kukson village in February 2013. Official government minutes from that meeting show only 23 villagers attended and that no-one attended from Nikamuroo (the village closest to the proposed mine). The EAC found deficiencies in the process of raising public awareness about this consultation meeting and the application for a licence.
Wagina residents told Amnesty International that four copies of the 2012 EIS were sent to the Island after the February 2013 consultation meeting. The 2012 EIS was supplemented by another EIS in June 2013, approximately four months after the meeting in Kukson. According to Amnesty International’s interviews with residents of Wagina, no consultation meetings took place to discuss this new information.

“The absence of full, accurate and timely information and the lack of any follow-up on questions raised by those who were able to attend the one consultation meeting, raises concerns about whether the engagement with affected communities can be considered genuine or meaningful,” said Richard Pearshouse.

The Minister’s review should include checking the date of any meetings with affected communities, where the meetings took place, whether all sections of the community – including women and those who cannot read – could participate effectively, what language meetings were held in, what advance notice and information was given, and what specific issues were discussed.

Governments have a duty to respect and protect human rights in the context of business activities. All companies have a responsibility to respect human rights throughout their operations, independently of a state’s own human rights obligations. To meet this responsibility, companies should have in place an ongoing and proactive human rights due diligence process to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their impacts on human rights. This may require going beyond the legal requirements in the country where they are operating.

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Shining a light on corporate human rights abuses in the Pacific

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s Amy Sinclair introduces a new portal that focuses attention on a resource-rich area remote from the rest of the world

Amy Sinclair | Ethical Corp | December 9, 2019

In recent months, damaging spills caused by foreign miners operating in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea have wreaked havoc with the safety and livelihoods of coastal communities.

At the same time, with the independence referendum under way in the Bougainville region of Papua New Guinea, mining companies are jostling for new licenses. This is in a region where tensions over the infamous Panguna mine sparked a bloody decade-long civil war in the 1990s. Memories fade fast, particularly when there are profits to be made.

The Pacific region is intensely resource-rich, but with great distances separating Pacific nations – not only from one another, but also from much of the rest of the world – human rights abuses by companies have too often occurred in the shadows.

Mining companies are seeking licences amid Bougainville’s referendum for independence. (Credit: Melvin Levongo/Reuters)

With inward-investment growing, Pacific communities face increasing challenges to fair and informed engagement and run the risk of exposure to higher levels of abuse and environmental harm by global companies. This is particularly true for those on the frontline of deforestation, irresponsible mining, fishing, tourism and seabed exploitation.

Local activists and communities fighting these abuses are hindered by being far away from foreign company headquarters located in Canada, Australia or China. Distances may be great, but Pacific voices deserve to be heard. With greater visibility on global platforms, communities and advocates can be supported in their efforts to achieve stable, sustainable growth that will protect future generations.

The need for this increased visibility is great. Business-related human rights harms in the Pacific are, increasingly, being documented. Yet severe human rights abuses, including forced labour, slavery, human trafficking and child labour, persist.

In June, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) published a report on modern slavery in the Pacific tuna sector, which provides almost 60% of the world’s tuna catch in a growing industry currently worth $22 billion. The report surveyed 35 canned tuna companies and supermarkets, representing 80 of the world’s largest retail canned tuna brands, and found that, outside a small cluster of leading companies, the sector is not translating human rights policies into practice. Without urgent and decisive action in the Pacific fishing sector, and by those sourcing from it, there is a danger that company policy will provide a fig-leaf for abuse, while slavery continues unabated.

Deep-dives such as this yield invaluable insights into sector-specific questions, but more is required. There is a pressing need to raise awareness of the human rights responsibilities of companies operating in all sectors in the Pacific, and to bring to light the true nature and scale of human rights abuses being committed across the region.

The Solomon Islands, and Fiji in particular, are experiencing high levels of mining activity, and there is a danger that the mistakes of the past – seen in Papua New Guinea with the abuses and environmental degradation at Panguna, Ok Tedi and Porgera – will be replicated there and beyond. Community consultation must form the cornerstone of human rights due diligence by companies seeking to invest in the region, and profits should be fairly shared.

The Pacific tuna sector provides almost 60% of the world’s tuna catch and is worth $22bn. (Credit: Erik de Castro/Reuters)

 Fortunately, a nascent business and human rights movement is emerging in the Pacific. The first-ever dedicated Pacific session, Advancing the Business and Human Rights Agenda in the Pacific, was held during the annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva last month, a testament to the progress that has been made in the region recently.

To support and chart the growth of this emerging movement, BHRRC has launched a new web portal dedicated to the region. The Pacific portal brings the broad range of local business and human rights issues into sharper focus and amplifies local and community voices.

It’s hoped the portal will be a crucial tool for human rights and environmental rights advocates, both in civil society and in businesses themselves, seeking to prevent abuse and improve company human rights practices in the region. It will do this by highlighting research on key issues, identifying allegations of business-related abuse and calling attention to emerging cases.

Stability in the Pacific region requires urgent action to ensure human rights are embedded in investments from inception. Without regard for international rules requiring respect for human rights in business, the sustainability of life in the Pacific for future generations is under threat.

Efforts like this web portal are needed to shine a light into the shadows and improve awareness of Pacific business and human rights issues on the global stage.

To visit BHRRC’s Pacific portal click here: Pacific Business & Human Rights

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Aust Contractor To Back Govt-Sanctioned Probe Into Ramu Mine Spill

Post Courier | December 9, 2019

A Government-sanctioned investigation into the Basamuk slurry spill incident in Madang will be undertaken as a highly integrated multi-disciplinary study approach.

Environment Conservation and Climate Change Minister Wera Mori said this before leaving PNG for the global climate change conference, the Conference of Parties (COP) 25 in Madrid, Spain yesterday.

He gave a briefing on the spill incident indicating government’s total and utmost commitment towards addressing the issue.

He said the study objective now is to obtain all necessary information and data for a well informed decision to be made regarding the spill based on conclusive scientific evidence as “science does not lie.”

Mori said an initial investigation done by the Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA) indicated no pollution, but because of the widespread outcry and a contradicting report by an investigation done by a Dr Alex Mojon engaged by the Madang provincial government, the national government has now taken a further step to address the issue.

He said Cabinet has already approved for a comprehensive investigation, and BMT Eastern Australia Pty Ltd has been contracted to support the investigation as it is a leading international multi-disciplinary engineering, science and technology consultancy firm offering a broad range of services in the environment, energy, shipping, ports and defense sectors.

“The Water and Environment Group of BMT is recognised as one of Australia’s premier environmental consultants and they operate across the five continents in over 30 countries.

“We are getting them on board so that there is credibility in the investigation that will be conducted.

“It will be extensive, and with support from our CEPA technical officers, they have already conducted the first phase which is the reconnaissance trip or sampling plan trip.

“The second trip is sampling plan implementation or sampling, and this will be done after the New Year where all parties will be involved including representatives from the Madang provincial government so that samplings are done accurately and cannot be compromised,” Mr Mori said.

He said all parties including independent investigators, experts and a team from the Madang provincial government will also be part of the sampling.

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Mining the Deep Sea: Stories for suckers, and corporate capture of the UN

Catherine Coumans | Arena Magazine | 30 October 2019

When I mention that the global mining industry is eyeing the deep seabed as the next frontier in mining I am commonly met with gasps of disbelief and dismay. That gut reaction is often followed up with sensible exclamations about the fact that the world’s oceans are already overstressed by contaminants from human activity, such as plastics, and by overfishing, and, from those in the know, by acidification. Unsurprisingly, these apprehensions do not factor into the rapacious ambitions of industry pitchers for deep-sea mining, nor do they—another gasp of dismay—appear to temper the outright enthusiasm for this new form of mining shown by some highly placed officials in relevant UN bodies.

To overcome the aversion of a public already overwrought by reports of species loss, whales on the brink of extinction and the various horsemen of the climate apocalypse—drought, fires, floods, heat, sea-level rise, food insecurity and forced migrations—deep-sea mining’s frontier investors are surpassing themselves in the propaganda department. The front runner in this regard is a private Canadian company out of Vancouver called DeepGreen Metals Inc.

One of DeepGreen’s early promotional videos, DeepGreen—Metals for our Future, drives home lofty public messages that need to be critically interrogated: deep-sea mining is less environmentally and socially destructive than terrestrial mining; it is necessary in order to save the planet from climate change; and deep-sea mining, and indeed DeepGreen itself, come highly recommended, as both are enthusiastically promoted by the secretary-general of the UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA). The private pitch of deep-sea-mining promoters is likely more focused on the bottom line: there is untapped wealth in them thar ocean depths for the savvy frontier investor ready to undertake an exciting new experimental mining adventure. DeepGreen’s CEO, Gerard Barron, concluded a sales pitch on the commercial and societal benefits of deep-sea mining in February 2019: ‘…whether you invest in a company like DeepGreen or not, everyone is a sucker for the story’.

DeepGreen’s focus is on polymetallic nodules found on the seabed in international waters of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) of the Pacific Ocean, an area covering some 4000 kilometres and roughly the size of the continental United States. These lumpy baseball-size nodes lie at depths of some 4000 to 6000 metres and contain primarily nickel, cobalt, copper, manganese and iron oxides. The two other targets for deep seabed mining are hydrothermal vents, typically found at depths of 1000 to 4000 metres, and cobalt-rich crusts, typically found on seamounts at depths of 800 to 2500 metres. Hydrothermal vents are believed to have hosted the earliest forms of life on earth and are famous for their abundant array of endemic species that feed on bacteria and other single-celled organisms that, remarkably, do not derive energy from photosynthesis but from the chemicals spewed out by the vents. The massive sulphide deposits built up around these vents contain copper, gold, silver, zinc and lead. Crusts that form on seamounts contain primarily cobalt and also manganese, iron, copper, nickel and platinum.

These geographic features of the deep sea are thrilling would-be miners, as the metals they contain are commonly more highly concentrated than on land, and advancing technology makes them potentially accessible for the first time. The feverish rush to lay claim to large swathes of the seafloor has all the hallmarks of the gold rush that once drew hordes of prospectors to the Wild West, including colourful claims of fabulous treasure lying ready for the reaping on the seafloor. Former UK prime minister David Cameron reportedly pledged to bring wealth from the seabed to the United Kingdom, claiming possible values of £40 billion over thirty years. Not to be outdone, The New Economy claimed that the industry ‘could be worth as much as $1trn to the US economy each year—the value of all the gold deposits alone on the seafloor is estimated to be around $150trn. It’s not hard to see why investors are getting excited’. Indeed, speculators are already making profits without a deep-sea spade in the ground.

To date, twenty-nine exploration licences have been granted in extraterritorial waters, called the Common Heritage of Mankind in UN speak. Granted by the ISA, which has jurisdiction over the seabed in this area, the licences cover some 1.5 million square kilometres in the southwestern Pacific alone (claims also exist in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans). The licences are held jointly by industrialised countries such as China, Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Russia, as well as small Pacific island countries such as Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga and the Cook Islands, and subsidiaries of corporations, such as Lockheed Martin (UK Seabed Resources), and Canada’s DeepGreen (Nauru Ocean Resources Inc.) and Nautilus Minerals Inc. (Tonga Offshore Mining Limited).

No exploitation, or mining, licence has yet been issued for any of these claims in extraterritorial waters: the ISA is still ironing out some details, such as novel governance regimes and brand-new environmental regulations. The first exploitation licence was issued for a project in territorial waters: the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) granted Nautilus a mining licence in January 2011, but the company’s Solwara 1 project has already tanked. Faced with concerted, vocal and growing community opposition, and apparently insufficient ‘suckers’ for the Nautilus story, the company is now facing bankruptcy. The state of PNG is on the hook for about US$125 million, which it borrowed after Nautilus used arbitration to force the state to live up to its commitment to assume and finance a 15-per-cent stake in the venture. However, some early investors in Nautilus, such as Barron, made a profit: Barron ‘turned a $226,000 investment into $31 million’ in six years before exiting in 2007. It was the founder of Nautilus, David Heydon, who created DeepGreen in 2011 and brought Barron into that company as CEO.

Perhaps if hydrothermal vents and deep-sea nodules could serve solely as inspiration for speculative investing, all would not be so dire. But investors are applying intense pressure on the ISA to finalise the deep-sea-mining regulations, not simply to create another major bump in their investments—which of course it will do—but to open the door to putting massive mining machines onto the seafloor. The ISA has proved to be an all-too-willing and shadowy agency, as pointed out by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, and Greenpeace:

The ISA has recently rejected the establishment of an environmental committee to better include environmental considerations in its functioning, and key environmental information is not public. Its Legal and Technical Commission meets mostly behind closed doors, and its composition is such that biological and ecological considerations are underrepresented.

So what is at stake? Each of the metal-rich geological features that are of interest to miners is slowly revealing itself to be an incredible ecosystem. In spite of existing at great depths, under immense pressure, in very cold water and in inky darkness, hydrothermal vents, polymetallic nodules and cobalt crusts host diverse, mostly undiscovered and scarcely studied creatures that have amazed the few humans who have seen them in their natural habitats. Hydrothermal vents and cobalt crusts host an abundance of organisms. Those on cobalt crusts have great diversity; many of these creatures are long lived but slow to reproduce and may exist only in certain areas. Those on hydrothermal vents are abundant, though thought to be less diverse, and are often unique to a particular vent. Polymetallic nodules host a wide variety of species, but they are spread more thinly; very few have been identified, but they are also thought to be long lived and slow growing. The habitats around hydrothermal vents are, according to deep-sea biologist Cindy Lee Van Dover, ‘relatively rare on the sea floor, and they’re different from one site to the next because the animals have adapted to the fluid chemistries’. The deep ocean expanses of polymetallic nodules are among the least-disturbed ecosystems on earth. Each of these geological phenomena of the deep sea have taken a very long time to form. Cobalt crusts grow at a rate of 1 to 6 millimetres per million years. Each polymetallic nodule, commonly between 5 and 10 centimetres in diameter, has grown by 2 or 3 centimetres every million years. Furthermore, as trillions of these baseball-size polymetallic nodules lie spread in a thin layer on the surface of abyssal plains, an extensive area would be disturbed if they were to be sucked up by the huge tread-wheel-driven machines envisioned for this task. While the chimney-like structures associated with hydrothermal vents can grow by 40 centimetres over five days, it is unknown whether vent species can recover once a vent chimney has been removed by mining.

While mining methods differ for each of these targeted geological features, deep-sea marine experts agree on the following points: crusts and nodules will take millions of years to reform; entire unusual species that we have never had a chance to study will be lost in the mining of all three types of ecosystem; and the dense sediment plumes that will be created as the seabed is disturbed and the pumping back down of process effluent will negatively impact and smother species over many more kilometres. Recent peer-reviewed papers by marine scientists have titles such as ‘Deep-Sea Mining With No Net Loss of Biodiversity—An Impossible Aim’ and conclusions such as ‘Seabed mining will cause irreparable damage to marine ecosystems’.

So, let us revisit the messages in DeepGreen’s Metals for our Future video. DeepGreen maintains that deep-sea mining is less environmentally and socially destructive than terrestrial mining. Nautilus tried the same spin, which the Deep Sea Mining Campaign adeptly refuted as Nautilus fought to counter vehement opposition to the Solwara 1 project by PNG coastal communities—these communities had already noticed a negative impact on their subsistence livelihoods and cultural practices related to marine species such as sharks as a result of Nautilus’ exploration activities offshore. While it is fascinating to see a new breed of would-be miners throw their terrestrial counterparts under the bus and expose the immense environmental and social harm done by mining on land, this is hardly an argument for opening up another entire ecosystem to exploitation by this rapacious industry, especially an ecosystem as immensely fragile and little understood as the deep sea. In fact, the comparison with terrestrial mining provides many arguments to show why deep-sea mining is a terrible idea, including, just as a start: it is much more challenging, technically and financially, to produce comprehensive baselines in the deep sea than it is on land; it is completely unclear how credible toxicity testing could be done in a deep-sea environment; independent scrutiny by communities, NGOs, independent scientists, media and so on would be much more limited; when things go wrong, such as spills, pipe breaks or unpredicted impacts, it would be much more difficult, nay impossible, to rehabilitate the unintentionally impacted area; modelling of the likely impact zones of toxic sediment plumes created by all forms of deep-sea mining is in its infancy; there is zero experience to draw on regarding impacts and mitigation at each step of the mining process; and the impacts of disturbances in the deep sea on critical food security, livelihood and commercial activity related to species such as tuna are not well understood.

DeepGreen maintains that mining the deep sea is necessary to avert the global climate crisis. Barron casts himself in the company’s video not as a mining CEO or a profit-seeking frontier investor but as a humanitarian eco-warrior, concluding, ‘it is a big responsibility on our shoulders’. The argument is simple: the green economy requires metals for such things as wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries for electric vehicles. While this is true, there is currently no global shortage of critical metals and minerals such as cobalt or lithium. Furthermore, technology is rapidly evolving to reduce or replace cobalt use, recycle lithium, develop urban mining of all kinds of waste products and even, according to experts, ‘biomining to extract rare earths from electronic wastes using microorganisms…use of sodium and magnesium in place of lithium, or alternative batteries based on graphene, hydrogen fuel cells, or even water and table salt. BNEF [Bloomberg New Energy Finance] has said new battery chemistries will probably shift to different source materials after 2030’. There are even reports of batteries using hemp rather than lithium-ion.

Finally, the DeepGreen video prominently features the secretary-general of the ISA, Michael Lodge. Lodge is on what appears to be a DeepGreen vessel, he wears a hard hat with the DeepGreen logo on it, and he both makes the case for deep-sea mining and discusses the ‘partnership’ DeepGreen has with the ISA. It is remarkable, and perhaps telling, that the head of this UN agency, which is tasked with environmental protection of the seabed in the Common Heritage of Mankind, and expects to soon become the regulator and issuer of mining licences for a whole new extractive industry, seems to be oblivious to the appearance of conflict of interest inherent in appearing in DeepGreen’s promotional video. Lodge has yet to respond to a recent report that raises concern about corporate capture of the ISA’s mining-code drafting processes.

It should be obvious that we cannot save the planet by continually expanding our exploitation of it and by trashing new, as yet unexploited ecosystems, such as those in the deep sea. It has taken time for communities and governments to become aware of the existential threat to our oceans, to global biodiversity and to life on earth posed by deep-sea mining. Within the last year the call for a ban or moratorium on the development of regulations by the ISA, and on the practice of deep-sea mining itself, has grown louder. The call is being made by NGOs and civil society organisations such as the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and Greenpeace, individuals such as Sir David Attenborough, and also by governments of Pacific island countries; even the European parliament has called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.

Critical to the effort to protect the deep sea from mining is the need to review the role of the ISA in governing both the protection of the deep seabed as our ‘common heritage’ and its exploitation by for-profit corporations. This agency and its secretary-general have proven themselves to be deeply conflicted and captured by the corporations they are meant to regulate. It is time for a global treaty that will protect the entire international deep seabed from industrial exploitation.

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Bougainville’s gold mine sparked a war that killed 20,000 – now it could be reopened

Panguna. Stefan Armbruster/SBS News

The people of Bougainville will vote in a referendum this weekend that will decide on its independence from Papua New Guinea. Here, SBS News visits the mine that ignited its decade-long civil war.

Stefan Armbruster | SBS | 23 November 2019

Almost 20 years ago a brutal civil conflict ended in Papua New Guinea in which one in ten people on Bougainville died – but the war set the island on the road to independence.

The conflict was sparked by an Australian-run gold and copper mine, then the world’s largest. It had promised much but delivered very little for the local people.

The Panguna mine’s profits funded Papua New Guinea’s independence from Australia in 1975 and made Australian company Rio Tinto rich, but the Bougainville landowners saw little of the wealth and their rivers and lands were devastated by mining waste.

“What upset the landowners was Panguna mine,” said Sam Kauona, who as a general was the commander of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, or BRA.

“Panguna mine was creating social disparities, environment problems, social issues and problems, unfair distribution of wealth by the company, that sparked off the sentiments, the desire for independence of Bougainville.”

Bougainville’s rivers and lands were devastated by mining waste. Stefan Armbruster/SBS News

The war started in 1989 when the impoverished people took up arms. The BRA was not highly thought of by outsiders but it shut down the mine and brought the local economy to its knees.

Over the next 10 years, during the ‘Bougainville crisis’, up to 20,000 people died either from fighting with the PNG defence force and its local collaborators or from disease and starvation.

Despite backing from the Australian government and Rio Tinto subsidiary Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), the PNG government was brought to the negotiating table by the BRA and a peace agreement was signed in 2001.

“When I look at that, it was BRA that won the war,” Mr Kauona said.

“The point of defeat was when the PNG army didn’t have any strength any more, when we went for negotiations we came out with a stronger position, not in a loser position where we’d have to negotiate terms below what we have now.”

Stefan Armbruster/SBS News

The mining legacy has scarred the landscape as much as it has the people of Bougainville in PNG.

At the mine site, Moses Pipiro lives amid the mining facility ruins with about 500 traditional landowners in what until recently was still considered a no-go zone.

“We feel proud, we are happy, and also we are united now, [a] unified position now,” he said.

“But the people, they still cry. We fought to preserve our land and our environment, [and] the PNG defence force, they kill many people here.”

Moses Pipiro lives amid the mining facility ruins. Stefan Armbruster/SBS News

About 200 of their weapons, a mix of homemade guns and captured defence force arms, are secured at the Panguna mine in preparation for the referendum.

“Okay these weapons are here, but the war is over, no more war in Bougainville, they are for monumentation but we have no money,” he said.

In the vast pit nearby, it is thought there is still $85 billion worth of copper and gold, enough to fund a fledgling independent state, but Panguna’s troubled past means the mine has an uncertain future.

The mine oozes blue polluted water and just downriver a devastated landscape unfolds where the tailings were pumped.

The mine oozing blue polluted water. Stefan Armbruster/SBS News

“It destroys everything, like fish, we used to catch fish here before,” said Barnabas Piruari, a downstream villager who blames his skin disease on the pollution.

Their livelihoods gone with the water and land spoilt, people scratch a living by panning for gold amid the mine waste and reopening the mine is not popular.

“Make some kind of different mining, not the one they’ve done before,” said Salithia Bitanuma, another downstream villager.

Villager Barnabas Piruari says the polluted water “destroy everything”. Stefan Armbruster/SBS News

On the other side of the Crown Prince mountain range that runs the length of the island, there is a fire burning in the heart of Bougainville, no longer to wage war but to exploit their abundant resources.

Former combatant Jose Nouibiri smelts gold, a booming business in the former BCL mining town of Arawa, once the island’s capital.

“We were the first ones to establish this business, now some companies start up here, business is very good now but we have competition but we make 200 grams or 300 grams a day,” he said after melting down a customer’s gold dust.

The lump of gold is the result of weeks of backbreaking work by the villager in the tailings waste of the Panguna mine.

“During the crisis I was one of the fighters and helped the BRA,” Mr Noubiri said proudly.

“After the crisis I left Bougainville [for Port Moresby] to go find a job to support family and children get an education.”

The Bougainville conflict was sparked by an Australian-run gold and copper mine. Stefan Armbruster/SBS News

Three decades ago Awara was a thriving town with a population of 12,000 people but was physically and economically destroyed after the world’s largest copper and gold mine was shut down.

A decade of civil war saw it burned to the ground and abandoned.

“That was here and also other parts of Arawa town, this was a battlefield,” said former mayor and peace broker Theresa Jaintong, reflecting on the war and running gun-battles on her street.

Twenty years of neglect under the 2001 peace agreement has left Arawa, like much of Bougainville, impoverished. There are few businesses and jobs, limited health and education services.

Ms Jaintong’s grandchildren are part of Arawa’s booming population and reopening the Panguna mine is seen by many as a controversial choice but a vital one for the economic future.

“They’re talking about the economic side of agriculture and fisheries but we cannot do it quickly because we have to turn it into cash, Panguna is readily available,” Ms Jaintong said.

Stefan Armbruster/SBS News

With Bougainville expected to vote for independence this weekend, there is a new generation of leaders emerging with hopes for a return to the good times in Arawa.

“My vision for Arawa is it’s going to be the capital of the new Bougainville,” Arawa deputy mayor Genevieve Korokoro said.

Tens of millions in Australian infrastructure aid has rebuilt roads, schools and hospitals in the past decade.

More changes are coming to the town where it is sometimes impossible to get better than dial-up speed internet, a digital future.

“Oh yes, there’s a fibre optic cable coming in from Huawei China,” deputy mayor Korokoro said with a smile.

It will still be a long way from the golden days in Arawa.

Awaiting another customer, Mr Noubiri has changed his mind since he fought to shut down the Panguna mine.

“When we are independent we don’t need money from the outside, we use alluvial mining and pay tax to the government and give money to develop education and health and everything,” he said.

“I support the opening of the Panguna mine because it’s going to generate revenue for our government to stand up and look after our people.”

Up at the Panguna mine, Moses Pipiro is taking a more cautious approach.

“After the referendum, we shall see, if we talk about opening the Panguna mine, we create division again, because now we are focused on the unity on Bougainville,” he said.

“If we try to talk about opening the mine, we create the other monster again”

Change may be coming to Bougainville but its future, like its past, will be determined by what’s in the ground.

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Will Bougainville Reopen the Panguna Mine?

Rebel guerillas above the Panguna copper and gold mine in Bougainville in 1994. CREDIT: BEN BOHANE

With an independence referendum on the horizon, reopening the Panguna mine offers both attractive opportunities and terrible consequences.

Joshua Mcdonald | The Diplomat | November 22, 2019

The Panguna mine on the Pacific island of Bougainville is one of the largest copper and gold deposits in the world. 

The mine was also at the center of a decade-long civil war fought between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the Papua New Guinea Defense Force in the 1990s. The conflict cost as many as 15,000 lives and displaced 40,000 of the island’s 200,000 inhabitants.

Before the war, the Panguna mine generated more than $1 billion in national tax revenue and accounted for about 45 percent of Papua New Guinea’s total exports, 17 percent of its internal revenue, and 12 percent of its gross domestic product. It essentially paved the way for the nation’s transition to independence from Australia. But Panguna landowners and local employees — angered by the environmental destruction from the operation, poor wages, and unfair distribution of revenue (less than 1 percent of profits were reinvested in Bougainville) — eventually took up arms. 

In 1988, landowners led by Francis Ona broke into storerooms at the mine, stole explosives, and blew up Panguna’s power lines. In response, Papua New Guinea (PNG) sent in the military. Soldiers burned down villages, executed collaborators, and raped with impunity. When that failed to crush the resistance, PNG, with the support of Australia, enforced a naval blockade cutting the island off from the rest of the world. 

When that, too, failed the government hired a U.K.-based private military company to carry out its operations in Bougainville. The Sandline affair, as it came to be known, was eventually leaked in the Australian media – first there was a public outrage, and then came the resignation of then-PNG Prime Minister Julius Chan.

Bougainville Copper Limited, (BCL) a subsidiary of the British-Australian resources giant Rio Tinto, owned the mine at the time of the conflict and despite extracting around 550,000 tonnes of copper concentrate and 450,000 ounces of gold in its final year of production was forced to close as it appeared the separatists were not going to back down. The conflict officially ended nine years later, but Rio Tinto never returned.

In 2001, after a peace agreement was reached that gave Bougainville autonomy within PNG and ensured that an independence referendum would be held by 2020, some of the islanders launched a class action lawsuit in the United States against Rio Tinto. 

Panguna landowners accused the company of genocide, citing the company’s support for the blockade of the island by PNG forces. The plaintiff’s lawyers claimed the mine’s manager in Bougainville at the time “encouraged the continuation of the blockade for the purposes of starving the bastards out.”

Former PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare provided the court with a sworn affidavit stating that it was Rio Tinto calling the shots during the war.

“Because of Rio Tinto’s financial influence in PNG, the company controlled the Government. The Government of PNG followed Rio Tinto’s instructions and carried out its’ requests,” he wrote.

“BCL was also directly involved in the military operations on Bougainville, and it played an active role. BCL supplied helicopters, which were used as gunships, the pilots, troop transportation, fuel and troop barracks.”

Due to the unrest in the area in the years that followed Rio Tinto’s withdrawal, no official investigation has been conducted on the impact the mining operation has had on the surrounding environment. It is known, however, that around 300,000 tonnes of ore and water were excavated every day in Panguna and that the mine tailings were discharged down the principal river system, the Kawerong-Jaba, which now flows blue because of toxic mixtures of heavy metals and other chemicals. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2002 that the mine was pumping 110 million cubic meters of waste, contaminated with cyanide and other chemicals, into the sea each year. 

For years, the Bougainville government has asked the company to make contributions to help with the clean up. It has also asked Australia, as the former colonial power responsible for authorizing the mine. Rio Tinto has refused. So, too, has the Australian government. 

Now, Australian Iron ore magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest as well as several other smaller mining companies have shown interest in resuming operations at the mine. 

Forrest has friends in high places. In September, along with several other high-profile Australian business chiefs, Forrest was invited to U.S. President Donald Trump’s state dinner hosting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. 

Forrest’s company, Fortescue Metals Group Ltd, is the fourth largest iron ore producer in the world. Its main areas of operation are in Western Australia, but in recent years the company has increased its efforts abroad, especially in South America, where it was granted 32 exploration licenses in Ecuador alone. Last week, it was confirmed that representatives from Forrest’s company had traveled to Bougainville in recent months to explore “potential opportunities.”

Also interested in Panguna is the Australia-based RTG Mining Group, which has the support of Philip Miriori, the chairman of the Panguna landowner association. Bougainville President Dr. John Momis, however, has accused RTG of attempting to bribe his government and of waging a subversive propaganda campaign. 

Another landowner group, the Panguna Development Company, supports the mine’s former operator, BCL, in its bid to return to Panguna — pitting the two groups against one another. 

They are, however, united in their opposition to Momis’ plan for Panguna, which would see the government and Australian mining company, Callabus, set up a new joint company that would be given a monopoly over the island’s mineral wealth. It is not clear how the government intends to proceed with this scheme since the legislation to enable it was blocked by the Bougainville legislature several months ago. 

Recently, the battle for Panguna entered new territory when rumors emerged of a Chinese delegation having offered $1 billion to fund the transition to Bougainville independence along with offers to invest in mining, tourism, and agriculture. An independent, resource-rich Bougainville would be a valuable ally to China as it seeks to have more influence in the South Pacific.

In a public presentation to ward councillors and MPs, filmed by a crew from 60 Minutes, Sam Kauona, a former Bougainville Revolutionary Army general, unfurled a large map of Bougainville with Chinese script highlighting proposed bridges, highways, ports, airports, and luxury hotels. 

“This is the first holistic offer, which has come from China,” he said. “Where is Australia and the U.S. and Japan? Earlier this year I met representatives from Fortescue mining, but I have been waiting 10 months for them to make a commitment.”

It’s estimated that Panguna mine still holds around $60 billion worth of copper, gold, and silver.

With the independence referendum beginning on Saturday, many local leaders admit that they would like to see the mine reopen as a way to boost revenue, yet distrust of giving a foreign mining company access again still looms large. No matter the results of the referendum, any company looking to make a buck is sure to find opposition in Panguna. This is, as long as past mistakes are not forgotten.

As Bougainville Revolutionary Army leader Francis Ona once said, “Land to us is our lifeline, and we cannot be separated from it.”

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