MAC: Mines and Communities

From Bougainville to Ok Tedi via Grasberg

Published by MAC on 2012-10-23
Source: Ramumine (2012-10-18)

London Calling on a sad and sordid journey

Talk about a "double whammy".

In fact, it might well be called a triple tragedy, when viewed from the perspectives of thousands of indigenous people.

Since BHP Billiton's Ok Tedi copper-gold mine came on-stream in 1984, it's been dumping millions of tonnes of tailings into Papua New Guinea's Fly River system, causing massive flooding and destruction of crops.

The Australian-UK company pulled out of the project in February 2002, having failed to find any economic alternative to perpetuating the environmental despoliation. Nor have its successors fared any better. See: Papua New Guinea politicians demand Ok Tedi mine close in 2013

BHP (as it then was) took over management of  Ok Tedi, nine years after the lease was relinquished by Kennecott Copper of the United States. See: Ok Tedi's final chapter

There's a distinct irony in this.

Had Kennecott clung-on in Papua New Guinea, the mine would have passed into the hands of Rio Tinto when the giant UK-Australian company acquired Kennecott Copper in 1989.

Would Rio Tinto have sold its stake in Ok Tedi, given the severe condemnation which the mine had attracted by then? It's not a purely academic question.

That very year, Rio Tinto withdrew from its own huge Panguna copper-gold venture on the Papua New Guinean island of Bougainville, following attacks  by the eponymous Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA).

Among  the key grievances prompting the uprising, was that Rio Tinto continued to pour toxic tailings into the island's Jaba River system. See: What has Bougainville to teach us?

(Indeed, as other mining projects in Papua New Guinea faced community opposition, "to bougainville" became a vade mecum for some indigenous protest groups).

Thanks to a peace process, initiated by the Norwegian government, Bougainville has enjoyed relative tranquility in recent years. However, resistance to Rio Tinto's prospective return to the island hasn't gone away. See: Bougainville Landowners irate over Rio Tinto's possible return

A Papuan hit

Yet a third regional copper-gold enterprise, in which Rio Tinto also has a crucial stake, has been at the centre of a war for independence, strikingly similar to that which drove the company out of Bougainville.

This is the Grasberg mine in Papua (Indonesian-controlled West Papua), operated by Freeport McMoran of the USA, with Rio Tinto as a 60/40 joint venture partner.

Since 1984, the Indonesian government has unleashed a series of organised assaults on  members of Papua's Free Papua movement (OPM).

The army and paramilitary forces have also killed, injured and allegedly tortured civilians,  using Freeport-Rio Tinto's facilities  for the purpose. For the latest on this, see: New Zealand public fund bids "Goodbye to Freeport"

Their egregious offensive has forced many Papuans to flee across the eastern border, some of whom have found  a harbour of sorts, downstream of the Ok Tedi mine.

But, as highlighted by a report from the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) (see below)  at least 1,500 of these refugees have been forced into nearby jungle.

The reason for this, says the UNHCR,  is that their settlements "have become severely affected by flooding associated with sediment build-up in the rivers due to the Ok Tedi mine".

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Back in the 1970s, US government officials advocated creation of "National Sacrifice Areas" which would prioritise mining and energy over agriculture, fishing and other riparian activities.

It's almost unthinkable for the United States administration - or any other - to dare using such words these days. (Even if they aptly typify current mountain-top removal of coal in Appalachia, or coal strip-mining of Arizona).

However, what better way to describe the destructive legacy of three of world's largest copper-gold extractive endeavours - two of which are operating to this day?

BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto vye with each to be regarded as global leaders in promoting corporate social responsibility.

Considering what they've been responsible for doing (and continue failing to do) in the southern Pacific, this is palpable nonsense.

To quote that supremely laconic American actor, Humphry Bogart, in the film classic "Casablanca", their protestations "don't amount to a hill of beans".

[London Calling is published by Nostromo Research. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessairly represent those of any other person or party. Reproduction is welcomed under a Creative Commons Licence, with acknowledgement of sources].

Ok Tedi mine: No relief for flood-affected refugees

Ramumine Wordpress site

18 October 2012

Environmental damage caused by copper mining in Papua New Guinea has affected thousands of refugees from the neighboring Indonesian province of West Papua who have not received any support from PNG or the mining company, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and NGOs.

"Some of the border settlements of West Papuan refugees have become severely affected by flooding associated with sediment build-up in the rivers due to the Ok Tedi mine," said Ben Farrell, a regional UNHCR spokesperson, referring to a mine that has operated in PNG's western provinces since 1984.

The western half of New Guinea Island, West Papua, is an Indonesian province where separatists have fought for independence for decades. The 1984 Indonesian government crackdown on the Free Papua Movement of West Papuan separatists led to thousands of West Papuans fleeing to neighbouring PNG.

At least 1,500 West Papuan refugees hosted by PNG along Fly river - the second longest river running through the half-island nation's western provinces - have been affected by ongoing mine-induced flood damage, according to Wren Chadwick, the former advocacy and information officer for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) based in the capital, Port Moresby.

Flooding has destroyed food gardens and sago palms, the traditional food staple, "forcing people into the jungle to wait out the floods so they can access food sources," said Chadwick.

In a 2009 JRS assessment, more than 3,200 refugees living along the river cited pollution from the mines as the main obstacle to growing food.

"Die-back" sludge

The Ok Tedi mine dumps roughly 90 million tons of waste into the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers annually, according to the company's environmental assessments. Mine sediment causes river beds to rise, forcing mine-contaminated water onto surrounding fields where it has killed up to 3,000sqkm of vegetation in a phenomenon known as "die-back".

"In PNG mines have polluted rivers, damaged agricultural land and displaced communities from their homes and farmland," said Chris Albin-Lackey, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher on extractive industries based in New York.

The Ok Tedi mine contributes to roughly 18 percent of the country's annual GDP, according to a 2012 World Bank report.

Compensation, but not for refugees

While Ok Tedi mine has paid out nearly US$980 million to affected communities, West Papuan refugees do not qualify because they are living outside the area designated for them under amendments made to the 1987 Migration Act which restricts them to East Awin camp, 6,000 hectares in the country's northeast.

Relocation plans are under way for local communities, but refugees living alongside those communities are not included, according to UNHCR.

"West Papuan refugees without Permissive Residence Permits and [other] non-Melanesian asylum seekers and refugees have no access to documentation or some basic rights such as access to the labour market," said Farrell.

Refugees continue to live along the rivers due to kinship ties, despite the lack of working papers in a place where even subsistence farming for survival requires documents.

As of 2010 there were some 9,700 West Papuan refugees in PNG, of whom nearly 2,300 were in the designated East Awin area, 5,000 in border areas and some 2,400 in cities.

The 1996 Limited Integration Policy for West Papuan refugees stipulated that only refugees who have lived in East Awin for at least six months can get Permissive Residency Permits, which entitle them to freedom of movement, the right to work, and access to health services and education.

Those who decline relocation to camps in East Awin bear the impact of flooding without assistance as well as "run-down shelters, lack of adequate water and sanitation facilities, and lack of security of land tenure and the threat of forced eviction," according to UNHCR's Farrell.

"The biggest issue is lack of a national refugee policy that realistically deals with refugees who refuse to move to East Awin," Chadwick said.

An official with the government-funded think-tank Consultative Implementation and Monitoring Council Secretariat, which has helped draft national refugee policy, said no refugees should be refused humanitarian assistance.

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