Tag Archives: Papua New Guinea

Bougainville voted yes to becoming the world’s newest nation. Now begins the gold rush

PHOTO: The people of Bougainville voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. (ABC)

Natalie Whiting | ABC News | December 14 2019

A ceremony to announce the results of Bougainville’s historic referendum opened with a chorus of the Bougainville anthem. When the overwhelming result for independence was handed down, people spontaneously started singing it again.

It was a clear sign of the separate identity that Bougainvilleans have long maintained. The thumping result for splitting from PNG was an even clearer sign.

But the path to potential nationhood remains complex and far from guaranteed, despite the mandate from an almost 98 per cent vote of support offers.

The end of the referendum not only starts another political process, but it will also turn eyes back to a massive open-cut mine that has been sitting, waiting in the mountains since the 1980s.

PHOTO: The Panguna mine hasn’t produced a pound of metal in 30 years.

As Bougainville looks for a way forward politically, it also needs to look at economic options.

That’s something Papua New Guinea is keen for it to focus on as it grapples with how to respond to the vote.

PNG is known as the land of a thousand tribes and many in the Government are worried about keeping the rest of the country united if Bougainville leaves.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape has offered economic control but stopped well short of committing to independence for Bougainville.

Economically, the most obvious income stream for the resource-rich area is mining, but that would involve revisiting the issues that started the bloody conflict in the region.

Landowners at the site of the Panguna gold and copper mine, where the violence first broke out, say they are ready to see it reopen in the wake of the referendum.

Up to 20,000 people died in the secessionist conflict that followed, before the peace agreement which guaranteed the vote brought it to an end.

PHOTO: A small settlement has been built at the bottom of the Panguna mine. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

Several companies are already circling, keen to make a move now that the vote is over.

Whether they have the capital and the ability to reopen it peacefully remains to be seen.

PNG Prime Minister offers Bougainville economic control

PHOTO: PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape was welcomed at the airport with a guard of honour from police and a traditional sing sing group. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

As the referendum ballots were being counted in Bougainville’s capital Buka, speculation about the movements of Mr Marape were swirling.

Initial indications that Mr Marape would be coming to Buka for the announcement were replaced by rumours of him instead going to Panguna in the days after the result.

In the end his visit was moved to the town of Arawa, near the mine. But Panguna and building Bougainville’s economy featured throughout his speech.

Thousands of people gathered in the middle of town to hear him speak. The people even wanted to carry him to the stage on a specially built chair, an offer he graciously refused.

PHOTO: Thousands turned out to hear Mr Marape speak in Arawa during his first visit after the referendum. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

Mr Marape has been seen as being more supportive of the referendum than previous leaders, but PNG has nevertheless made no secret of the fact it wants Bougainville to remain a part of the country.

The independence vote is non-binding, and amid the celebrations of the result, PNG has been quick to remind people that years of discussions between the two parties will follow and a negotiated outcome will then be presented to PNG’s parliament.

In the lead-up to the referendum, Mr Marape had been discussing a “third option” beyond independence and greater autonomy which the people were asked to choose between — what he called “economic independence”.

His speech was in a similar vein, focussing on economic development and self-determination, but avoiding mention of independence.

He presented a cheque worth 50 million kina ($21 million), promised another 100 million kina ($42 million) next year and control over income generated in Bougainville, including tax powers.

“The only thing I will ask you, is that I will look after the border and both of our flags must fly until we reach the conclusion of this process,” he told the crowd.

Certainly, Bougainville is currently in no position to support itself and the call to focus on building the economy is warranted. But Mr Marape wouldn’t be drawn on whether he could envisage independence for Bougainville.

“That’s something for the future. I can’t pre-empt the outcome of the consultations that will take place,” he told the ABC.

PHOTO: Bougainville President John Momis heads to the polls on referendum day. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

After such a comprehensive vote, there may be little appetite in Bougainville to accept something less than full independence.

But for the moment his speech was well received by the crowd, and Bougainville’s President is confident of productive discussions going forward.

The greatest expectation from Bougainvilleans after the referendum is for change — people want improved services and infrastructure. Both governments will need to make that a priority and it will require funding.

Landowners split over who should reopen mine

PHOTO: The disused mine has divided locals, some of whom have blocked access to the site over the years. (ABC News: Eric Tlozek)

In the base of the massive open pit of the Panguna gold and copper mine, a small settlement has been built and people work digging up gold that remains buried there.

It’s thought there is still $84 billion worth of copper and gold in the site, but re-establishing operations would likely take a decade and billions of dollars.

Keeping the mine closed has been seen as part of maintaining peace ahead of the referendum.

PHOTO: People dig for gold at the base of the Panguna gold and copper mine. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

The local landowners now largely want to see it open, however, a split is already forming over which company should be brought in.

The most prominent landowner group is backing Australian company RTG, but there is another group of landowners who want to see the original company, Bougainville Copper Limited, brought back. The Bougainville Government has supported a third company, Caballus, which is also Australian.

That, combined with the ongoing political discussions, could create an uncertain investment landscape.

Mr Marape has said the PNG Government’s 39 per cent stake in Bougainville Copper Limited will be given to Bougainville, but he urged people to look at other industries as well, like agriculture.

It’s not just Panguna that has been attracting attention — landowners say they’ve received visits from other companies, some from Australia and some from China, interested in looking at other greenfield sites in the region.

Australia could face difficult diplomatic waters

The current geopolitical climate in the pacific — where China and the west are seen to be in a battle for influence — has thrown another filter on the vote.

Much has been made of possible offers from China to help Bougainville develop if it is a fledgling country.

However, Bougainville President John Momis has said there have been no offers from the Chinese Government and it was unclear if money being offered by companies, including some said to be interested in Panguna, would actually materialise.

PHOTO: The Panguna gold and copper mine sparked a war that killed 20,000 people. (Reuters: Trevor Hammond)

He said: “These are complex issues, which we’re not going to deal with right away.”

The geopolitical and diplomatic complexities of either a new nation in the region, or of a disagreement between PNG and Bougainville during the upcoming negotiations, is undeniable.

Nowhere will that be felt more keenly than in Australia, which is a key financial and development supporter of both.

Already a key former combatant from the crisis is calling for the international community to “ask PNG to accept the reality and let Bougainville go”.

PNG’s Bougainville Affairs Minister Sir Puka Temu has urged the international community “not to interfere in the consultation phase”.

“What we want is to achieve an outcome like what we did 18 years ago, that is a joint creation — the Bougainville Peace Agreement was a joint creation,” he said.

In a statement, Australia’s Foreign Minister has passed on congratulations for the vote and says Australia “looks forward to continued productive engagement” between the two governments.

PHOTO: Flags were proudly flown around the region when the people of Bougainville overwhelmingly voted yes to independence. (Reuters: Melvin Levongo)

But as the cobalt blue of Bougainville’s flags flickers from buildings and cars across the region in the wake of the vote, credit must be given to both it and PNG for almost 20 years of peace and an incredibly well-run referendum.

Hopefully, the next phase will be as successful.

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Bougainville’s Faustian Bargain

Over 2,000 residents, including chiefs, elders, and politicians attended the historic ceasefire signing ceremony on the island of Bougainville, April 30, 1998. Credit: AP Photo/Australian Defence PR

An ongoing independence referendum does not address the key question at the root of the conflict: the future of the Panguna mine.

Paul R. Williams* and Carly Fabian* | The Diplomat | November 27, 2019

On the small island of Bougainville, a region of Papua New Guinea, voters are currently taking part in a long-awaited referendum on independence that started this Saturday. Twenty years after the end of the deadly Bougainville conflict, this referendum gives voters the chance to decide between substantial political autonomy or complete independence. While the voting period lasts until December 7, early estimates predict that Bougainvilleans will vote overwhelmingly for independence.  

The peace agreement that ended the conflict in 2001 has so far allowed the region to take incremental steps toward enhanced self-government while maintaining a delicate peace. Whether this peace process will result in a durable peace depends entirely on the outcome of the referendum, the final and most important step of the process.

The structure of the referendum, however, renders it an imperfect and perhaps even fatally flawed vehicle for resolving the conflict. Notably, the referendum is not binding on Papua New Guinea, meaning that the outcome will depend on whether Papua New Guinea accepts the outcome of the referendum, or whether it imposes conditions on Bougainville’s independence. Most importantly, the referendum does not address the key question at the root of the conflict: the future of the open-pit Panguna mine on the island.

The Bougainville conflict centered around the Panguna mine, a large-scale copper and gold mine that was built in 1972 amid significant local opposition. During its operation, the mine was responsible for over 40 percent of Papua New Guinea’s national export revenue. The mine dramatically reshaped local society as the mining company clear-cut forests, forcibly relocated villages, and introduced thousands of higher-paid foreign workers to operate the mine. The millions of tons of pollution created by the mine’s operations also quickly contaminated the surrounding bodies of water and agricultural lands.  Collectively, these changes presented what the indigenous Bougainville people viewed as an existential threat to their way of life.

In 1989, Bougainvilleans forcibly shut down the mine. This provoked a harsh armed response from Papua New Guinea.  In response, the rebels declared independence from Papua New Guinea.  Over the next decade, the two sides fought over the future of the mine and, by extension, Bougainville’s political, environmental, and economic independence.  The conflict, marked by atrocities, forced relocation, and a debilitating blockade by Papua New Guinea, resulted in 20,000 deaths, 10 percent of Bougainville’s population, as well as the displacement over another 30 percent of the population.

Somewhat surprisingly, the comprehensive and detailed peace agreement that ended the conflict did not address the future of the mine – the primary conflict driver.  The agreement instead focused on increased self-government and a path to potential independence. This framing has so far allowed Bougainville and Papua New Guinea to maintain a delicate peace as the Bougainville government assumed greater governing responsibility yet kept the mine closed.

At the same time, this framework also presented Papua New Guinea with an opportunity to separate the promise of political independence from Bougainville’s broader goal of protecting the environment and its indigenous way of life. With growing external pressure to reopen the mine, these issues have increasingly been framed as mutually exclusive options that Bougainville must inevitably choose between.

Since the creation of the Autonomous Bougainville Government in 2005, Papua New Guinea and other external funders have provided the Bougainville government with the majority of its funding.  Bougainvilleans have so far envisioned a future economy centered on sustainable agriculture and fishing industries.  It will take significant time, patience, and investment, however, for these industries to produce revenue that could replace the external aid Bougainville currently receives.

To prepare for independence, Papua New Guinea has pressured the Bougainville government to instead achieve fiscal self-reliance by reopening the Panguna mine.  A number of mining companies have expressed an interest in contracting and operating a reopened mine.  Notably, both the government of Papua New Guinea and the government of Bougainville each hold a substantial (36.4 percent) ownership interest in the mine, which was transferred to them in 2016 by the mine’s previous majority shareholder Rio Tinto.

The environmental scars from the mine continue to haunt the island. Cleaning up the pollution that remains would potentially cost billions of dollars, a price far out of reach of Bougainville’s current economy. After the transfer of shares, Rio Tinto rejected responsibility for the mine’s environmental damage.  Today, some parties argue that reopening the mine with greater environmental protections is the only feasible option for generating sufficient revenue to remediate the prior environmental damage.

Strong public resistance in Bougainville has so far kept attempts to reopen the mine at bay.  With the arrival of the referendum date, however, the forces coalescing around the reopening of the mine have redoubled their efforts to overcome this public resistance.  Amid this pressure, rather than resolving the conflict, the referendum’s narrow focus on political independence may instead reignite it.

If voters choose independence, Papua New Guinea may present Bougainville with a Faustian bargain: in exchange for independence, Bougainville will first have to achieve fiscal self-reliance by reopening the mine. If that happens, Bougainvilleans will have to choose between abandoning the promise of political independence, which has underpinned the last two decades of peace, and reopening the Panguna mine, which drove a decade conflict.

Dr. Paul R. Williams is the Founder of the Public International Law & Policy Group, and the Rebecca I. Grazier Professor of Law and International Relations at American University.

Carly Fabian is a Research Fellow on Justice, Peace, and Security at the Public International Law & Policy Group.

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PNG’s Ok Tedi mine disaster money locked in new legal fight

Alex Maun, a landowner who sued BHP in the 1990s, in the dying forest near the Ok Tedi River. CREDIT: ALEX DE LA RUE

Nick Toscano | Sydney Morning Herald | November 3, 2019

A fresh legal dispute has erupted over control of a fund set up to benefit the tens of thousands of villagers affected by mining giant BHP’s environmental disaster at the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea more than 20 years ago.

The Ok Tedi mine – which BHP co-owned with the PNG government until selling its stake in 2002 – discharged tens of millions of tonnes of mine waste into the local river system during the 1980s and 1990s, contaminating fish and trees and devastating the area’s economy.

A special trust account was created by the mine owners in the late 1990s to accumulate dividends from the Ok Tedi copper and gold mine’s ongoing profits to compensate the 30,000 landowners of the worst-affected communities living downstream of the mine.

Estimated to contain 250 million kina ($106 million), the Western Province People’s Dividend Trust Fund had been managed by PNG government officials until September last year when the Ok Tedi and Fly River Development Foundation, a regional representative group, raised allegations the funds were being “misapplied … causing a diminishment” and won a legal bid to become its trustees.

The newly-formed foundation headed by local leaders claiming to represent 30,000 residents of the villages most immediately impacted by the Ok Tedi mine disaster obtained National Court orders to replace the government as trustees.

But control of the trust is again under a cloud with the PNG government, represented by prominent Australian law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth, last month obtaining further court orders blocking the ANZ Bank from dispensing the funds.

The Ok Tedi and Fly River Development Foundation has applied to have the injunction set aside, alleging an abuse of process, including claims the PNG government is a vexatious litigant and that Corrs Chambers Westgarth had failed to obtain the necessary certification with PNG’s Investment Promotion Authority to be practising in PNG. The case will be heard in the country’s National Court in December.

A spokesman for Corrs Chambers Westgarth said the firm was “not in a position to comment” as the matter was before the court.

An ANZ spokesman said it would be inappropriate to comment as the matter was before the courts in Papua New Guinea.

BHP, Australia’s biggest mining company, completed its withdrawal from the Ok Tedi mine in 2002, transferring its 52 per cent equity stake to a development fund designed to operate for the benefit of PNG residents, known as the PNG Sustainable Development Program Limited. The fund was to use dividend payments from BHP’s transferred shareholding in Ok Tedi to finance long-term sustainable development projects in PNG, particularly the western province.

The miner also reached an out-of-court settlement with 30,000 landowners represented by Slater & Gordon in a landmark lawsuit in Victoria’s Supreme Court in 1996, which included $110 million in compensation for the affected villagers.

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Fisheries Authority Says Madang Seas Still ‘Unsafe’

Melisha Yafoi | Post Courier | October 25, 2019

Sea water and marine products in Madang Province are still not safe for public use and consumption, says the National Fisheries Authority (NFA).

NFA, in a statement yesterday, refuted claims by the management of multi-million kina Ramu Nickle [sic] project, now temporarily closed, that the sea waters and fish in the province were not contaminated.

The Ramu Nickel Mine management on Wednesday announced that several statutory bodies responsible for fisheries and environment in the country had cleared that sea waters, including the marine environment in Madang Province and the Basamuk areas of Rai Coast district were safe with no evidence of toxic elements found after the slurry spill on August 24.

The company also claimed that the clearance came after a meeting held by the Madang provincial government at which officials from the provincial fisheries authority confirmed that the sea waters and fish are safe due to no trace of any toxicity. The company further said the report was confirmed by Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA) and the Minister for Environment and Conservation, Geoffery Kama.

All these claims were, however, refuted by NFA managing director John Kasu who slammed that as misleading and inaccurate.

Mr Kasu said NFA is aware of the slurry spill and is conducting an independent analysis following which a report would be made to the Minister for Fisheries and Marine Resources to make public.

“Such statements are misleading and undermine the analysis National Fisheries Authority is currently undertaking,” he said.

“Any official statement with regard to the analysis undertaken by NFA will come from my office or from the Office of the Minister for Fisheries and Marine Resources.”

He said the analysis on the samples taken from the affected area was still incomplete and, therefore, it was premature to make any conclusive statement at this stage. Prime Minister James Marape has supported the closure of the mine to allow for a review into its operations and prevent more mishaps or accidents.

“The fact that a spill occurred indicates default in the mine operation and infrastructure and no matter how small, the cost to life or environment, my government expects highest degree of safety in any mine and resource extraction,” Mr Marape said.

“We are asking for the operator to an earliest meeting and to allow a quick assessment to their operational and infrastructural security so that no incident of any sort happens like this one into the future.”

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Expert says lab results from PNG Ramu nickel spill ‘alarming’: report

Melanie Burton | Reuters | October 11, 2019

An expert in chemical contamination has called test results from the Ramu nickel spill into Papua New Guinea’s Basamuk Bay in August “alarming,” according to a local media report on Thursday.

A spill at Metallurgical Corp of China (MCC)’s nickel processing plant located in Madang, on the country’s northeastern coast, caused the surrounding ocean to turn red and left a muddy residue on the rocky shoreline, according to locals and photographs of the incident at the time.

The spill occurred as a result of an operational and administrative failure, a government official said at the time. MCC now faces compensation claims and calls from the local governor to close the plant.

Environmental remediation expert Alex Mojon took samples from the bay in September, according to a news report from Papua New Guinea’ EMTV Online.

Mojon has previously worked for Swiss oil remediation company Man Oil Group AG as its chief scientist, according to his LinkedIn profile.

“I have to tell you that it’s alarming … there is evidence that Ramu Nico is not managing their waste and that is a fact. I have obtained the results from the laboratory from Germany … I am shocked,” Mojon told local media, according to EMTV Online.

All of the 28 samples tested were found to have toxic levels of heavy metals contamination, the EMTV report said, citing Mojon.

Mojon did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.

A spokesman for Ramu Nickel did not have an immediate comment while a call to MCC went unanswered. But an executive in August said that company management was “extremely concerned” about the incident and that it would address compensation once its investigation was complete.

An investigation by the country’s Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA) is due to be made available in the next week, according to media reports.

In a televised press conference on TVWAN news, Mojon said that some of the spillage had not dispersed and that local residents had complained of smoke from the plant that irritated their skin and eyes.

“We welcome a copy of the report produced by Alex Mojon to be presented officially to CEPA, MRA and other interested organizations before we could make any comments,” said Jerry Garry of Papua New Guinea’s Mineral Resources Authority told Reuters.

“We cannot fully appreciate and comment on his report until a copy and presentation is made to CEPA,” Garry said.

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Expert Says Basamuk Spill ‘A Catastrophe’

Elias Nanau | Post Courier | October 10, 2019

An expert engaged by the Madang Provincial Government to investigate possible environmental and health issues associated with the operation of the Ramu Nickel Mine says it’s a “catastrophe.”

Dr Alex Mojon who has done environment impact and assessment studies in Africa, Europe, Asia including China for over 30 years was with Madang Governor Peter Yama yesterday when he made the statement.

A report is expected to be published in less than a week, with two investigations already being carried out by Dr. Mojon collaborating with other scientists. One was carried out before the slurry spill occurred and another recently after the spill of an estimated 200,000 cubic metres of waste turning the sea red.

Mr Yama said his government decided to engage what he described as “impartial experts” because he alleged that the office of the Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA) has been compromised and the veracity of their report has to be tested.

“The company has a strong influence on the report,” he said.

Mr Yama was irate and stressed that fishery lives were being affected as far as the borders of Morobe and the Karkar, Long and Bagabag islands northwest of Basamuk.

“One or two people have died,” he said, despite assertions to the contrary by a local health worker in the area and supported by the miner MCC.

“One of my ward councilors of Astrolabe Bay is at the intensive care unit.”

He said he became ill after eating contaminated fish,” Yama said.

Dr Mojen believes evidence strongly point at contamination being the cause of a number of medical conditions.

This included deformity in babies born around the vicinity, saying his investigations focused on the Kurumbukari mine and tracked the pipeline to Basamuk Deep Sea Tailing Disposal set up less than 500 meters from the sea, he interviewed villagers and flew to areas as far as Karkar.

“I was shocked,” he said. “We found it to be a catastrophe. There is evidence that Ramu Nickel Mine is not managing waste well.”

According to him, the samples were tested at a laboratory in Munich, Italy.

An irate Mr Yama said yesterday he would protest by not attending Parliament sessions and he will demand Prime Minister James Marape to intervene.

“We can’t gamble with the lives of the people,” he said firmly.

He said based on financial reports, the Mine has made K27 billion since its operations and the Madang Provincial Government received only K5 million.

Mr Yama said the Kurumbukari mine is on tax holiday.

According to Mr Yama, Lomai and Attorney has been engaged to act swiftly based on additional credible evidence before it to file a lawsuit on environmental issues and an Australian QC is likely to be involved.

Mr Yama’ stance yesterday was; “We will go for the closure of the mine.”

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Chinese owned Ramu Nickel mine threatens legal action against Madang Provincial Govt

Anisah Issimel | NBC News | 2 October 2019

The Ramu Nickel Mine in Madang has threatened it will not hesitate to institute legal proceedings against the Madang Provincial Administration should the company suffer damages to its establishments and/ or employees, following reports of sightings of dead fish in the seas of Raikos, Madang, Sumkar and Bogia districts in the past weeks.

Community Affairs Manager for the company, Albert Tobe, expressed this yesterday in a meeting between the Madang Provincial Administration, the company, plus other government agencies, business houses and concerned residents of Madang Town as well as the local Bel people.

Mr Tobe said there are too many false reports and stories being circulated both in the mainstream media as well as the social media of fish dying as a result of the recent slurry overflow at Basamuk.

He said these stories have created fear amongst the people and they have stopped going out to sea to fish, as well as sell fish at the markets.

Such reports, he pointed out; have also led to the temporary ban on the selling and consumption of fish in the province, which was imposed last Friday by the Madang Provincial Administration.

Mr Tobe said some of the stories have also instigated anger amongst the general public that they could take out their frustrations on the company.

He said that should any such thing happen, the Madang Provincial Administration will be held liable.

Mr Tobe, meanwhile, also assured the general public in Madang that the Deep Sea Tailing Placement system, that Ramu Nickel Company uses to dump its wastes into the ocean off Basamuk is safe.

He told the meeting yesterday that the DSTP facility is monitored 24/ 7 by the company’s employees, and is not in any way a threat to the marine environment in the area.

Mr Tobe said the DSTP is not responsible for the dead fish that local people claimed they have been discovering in different locations.

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