MAC/20: Mines and Communities

UN increasingly concerned about mining impacts since the pandemic

Published by MAC on 2020-09-29
Source: UN, Reuters, Regnskog

The UN is increasingly concerned about mining impacts since the pandemic: UN special rapporteurs and indigenous leaders join forces against proposed mine in pristine Papua New Guinean rainforest; UN rights expert urges Colombia to suspend some Cerrejon mine operations; and UN report highlights criminal control of gold mining areas of Venezuela.

Ten UN special rapporteurs and the chair of the UN’s working group on human rights and transnational corporations sent a joint letter to the governments of Papua New Guinea, China and Australia as well as to Frieda River Ltd., proponent of a mine that would cover 16,000 hectares of the area around the Frieda river, a tributary to the Sepik.

A Chinese state-owned company with strong ties to Australia is behind the proposal, under the name Frieda River Limited. Communities along the river oppose the project and in June this year 28 indigenous leaders, representing 7,800 people, issued a declaration under customary law, calling for a total ban of the Frieda river mine. It is unprecedented that this number of high profile UN experts voice their concerns so early on in a mine’s approval process.

“I call on Colombia to implement the directives of its own Constitutional Court and to do more to protect the very vulnerable Wayuu... against pollution from the huge El Cerrejon mine and from COVID-19,” UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, said in a statement. “At least during the pandemic, operations at the Tajo Patilla site... should be suspended until it can be shown to be safe.” Boyd called on Cerrejon to prevent further harm, adding people living with higher levels of air pollution face increased risk of death from COVID-19.

See also:

2021-03-22 PNG: Six reasons why Frieda River mine should not go ahead, report

2020-08-18 UN team calls for post-Covid-19 "revolution"

 
Plan for largest mine in Papua New Guinea history 'appears to disregard human rights', UN says

The Chinese-backed gold, silver and copper mine at Frieda river risks catastrophic environmental destruction, special rapporteurs argue.

Lyanne Togiba in Port Moresby and Ben Doherty Pacific Editor

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/08/plan-for-largest-mine-in-png-history-appears-to-disregard-human-rights-un-says

7 October 2020

The plan for the largest mine in Papua New Guinea’s history carries a risk of catastrophic loss of life and environmental destruction and “appears to disregard the human rights of those affected”, according to United Nations officials.

In an extraordinary intervention, 10 UN special rapporteurs have written with “serious concerns” to the governments of Papua New Guinea, Australia, China, and Canada, as well as the Chinese state-owned developers of the gold, copper and silver mine proposed for the remote Frieda river in the country’s north.

The UN’s special rapporteur on toxic wastes, Baskut Tuncak – who has since retired from that role – and nine other senior UN officials, jointly signed letters in July “to express our serious concern regarding the potential and actual threats to life, health, bodily integrity, water [and] food”.

The letters ask for governments and the company, PanAust, to respond to key questions including an alleged “lack of information for free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous people” to the mine proceeding.

The mine, if approved and built, would be the largest in PNG’s history, and one of the largest in the world, covering 16,000 hectares. To be built on the Frieda river, a tributary to the Sepik in the north of New Guinea island, it is forecast to yield gold, silver and copper worth an estimated US$1.5bn a year for more than 30 years.

The UN rapporteurs argue the “the project and its implementation so far appears to disregard the human rights of those affected”.

There is particular concern a proposed dam to store up to 1,500 Mt of the mine’s tailings could break, destroying villages downriver.

“We remain concerned that critical information about the tailings dam, including the dam break analysis have been made neither publicly available nor available to affected community members and human rights defenders who requested it,” Tuncak wrote.

“The proposed location is a seismically active area. The risk of major earthquake causing damage to the dam will persist for millions of years.

“While termed by the proponents to be ‘very unlikely’, a failure of the tailings dam and the release of the toxic waste would be catastrophic resulting in loss of life and environmental destruction, as occurred with Ok Tedi environmental disaster.”

Tunak said he held concerns the project “threatens the cultural rights of the Sepik peoples … [and] could undermine the rights of Sepik children to life, health, culture and a healthy environment”.

The letters state some human rights defenders in the region have received death threats and been shot at by “unidentified individuals”. There is no suggestion this allegation is connected to PanAust.

The Frieda river mine project is now in its final stage of approval. The environmental impact study (EIS) submitted by PanAust is now with the PNG government’s conservation environment and protection authority (CEPA), which will decide on the mine’s future.

But PNG’s environment and conservation minister, Wera Mori, told the Guardian:“We do not want to see the Sepik river getting polluted – so… we have to be satisfied that in whatever form or the other, the tailings dam will not negatively impact on the Sepik river and its people.”

The PNG government did not reply to the UN special rapporteurs’ letter within the 60-day response period given. But Mori said: “The government is aware of the opinion of international observers and is working to ensure a win-win situation for all stakeholders concerned.”

Richard Pearshouse, head of crises and environment at Amnesty International, said the special rapporteurs’ intervention was “unprecedented” so early in a mine’s approval process.

“They’re obviously concerned because there are so many unanswered questions regarding what would be one of the largest mines in the world with a massive tailings dam in a seismically active area.”

Many of those who live along the Sepik river are firmly opposed to the mine.

In June, chiefs from 28 haus tambarans – “spirit houses” – representing 78,000 people living along the Sepik, formally declared they wanted the mine halted.

University student, Vernon Gawi, said: “I grew up with the river, drank it, ate fish and sago from it and it’s brought me to where I am now. I am worried about my future generations, and if the mine were to go ahead, what will they have left?”

The Guardian put detailed questions about the UN special rapporteurs’ concerns to PanAust, but did not receive a response before publication.

In its environmental impact statement for the Frieda river mine, PanAust said the “nation-building project … presents broad commercial and socioeconomic development opportunities for Papua New Guinea”.

The mine plan also includes a hydroelectric plant, power grid, and road, airport and seaport upgrades.

PanAust said it had engaged in “extensive and ongoing engagement … over several decades” with those affected by the mine, running information sessions in nearly 140 villages, attended by more than 18,000 people.

“Local opinions and issues have been sought through engagement campaigns … formal and informal meetings with village leaders, and through socioeconomic surveys conducted in villages between 2010 and 2018.”


UN special rapporteurs and indigenous leaders join forces against  proposed mine in pristine Papua New Guinean rainforest

Kristin Rødland Buick

https://www.regnskog.no/en/news/giant-mineral-mine-proposed-in-pristine-papua-new-guinean-rainforest

28.09.2020

The forest and wetland area of Sepik is a part of the world’s third largest rainforest. Based in New Guinea, its pristine forest is home to about 430,000 people as well as a unique diversity of animals and plants. Winding through the forest for 1,125 kilometers, the ecologically and culturally significant Sepik river, is being considered for World Heritage status.

People and wildlife who depend on the Sepik are now threatened by the largest mine project in Papua New Guinean history, if plans go ahead. 

The mine would cover 16,000 hectares of the area around the Frieda river, a tributary to the Sepik. A Chinese state-owned company with strong ties to Australia is behind the proposal, under the name Frieda River Limited.

Mounting resistance 

Many communities along the river oppose the project and in June this year 28 indigenous leaders, representing 7,800 people, issued a declaration under customary law, calling for a total ban of the Frieda river mine.

This week, ten UN special rapporteurs and the chair of the UN’s working group on human rights and transnational corporations sent a joint letter to the governments of Papua New Guinea, China and Australia as well as to Frieda River Ltd. It is unprecedented that this number of high profile UN experts voice their concerns so early on in a mine’s approval process. 

The letter raised ‘serious concerns’ about the human rights impacts of the project, including the rights to life, health, bodily integrity, water and food, and the right to free, prior and informed consent. Concern was also expressed that the people of the Sepik ‘will be forced to bear the costs of the project in perpetuity.’ 

“Having eleven UN bodies support the criticism presented by our partner organisations in Papua New Guinea is invaluable. We hope this will make all governments and corporations involved follow their obligations under international law to ensure that environmental and human rights standards are met,” says Aina Grødahl, of Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN)

Destruction of nature and settlements

A giant mine requires giant infrastructure. A hydropower plant and power grids are planned as well as roads, an airport and an upgrade of the seaport. Both untouched nature and areas with settlements will be affected. Several villages are proposed to be relocated.

Frieda River Ltd offers the mine as a ‘nation building project’ for Papua New Guinea and writes in their Environmental Impact Statement that it presents socioeconomic opportunities. They claim to have had “extensive and ongoing engagement” with those affected by the proposed mine.

The campaign group Project Sepik is of a different opinion. They say communities down river, who would suffer the most in the event of a dam break, have not been sufficiently consulted. Sepik is a seismically active area, and there is a risk of earthquakes strong enough to damage the tailings dam. 

In March this year, Project Sepik submitted, together with RFN’s partner organisation Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR), several expert reports to the environmental protection authorities in Papua New Guinea.

The reports find that Frieda River Ltd’s impact statement lacks critical information about a tailings dam. While the statement says that a dam failure would lead to loss of life, it lacks analysis on the probability of a dam break, as well as settlement plans for displaced villages.

“If we have a major earthquake or the dam breaks for another reason, if will be a catastrophe. The river and our way of life will be destroyed forever,” Emmanuel Peni told Rainforest Foundation Norway. He is from Korogu village on the Sepik River and is the coordinator of Project Sepik.

Conflict and courage

Mining is neither new nor uncomplicated in Papua New Guinea, which was ranked by Transparency International in 2019 as one of the world’s most corrupt country. Mining here is often associated with environmental destruction and conflict.

"Permitting the mining project entails an excessive environmental and safety risk, and does not have the support of the local community. The authorities risk a new and destructive conflict over natural resources, if they approve the license. We hope they listen to their people, says Aina Grødahl of Rainforest Foundation Norway.

Disputes over profit and environmental damage in the Panguna mine led to a decade-long civil war in the island of Bougainville, 30 years ago, killing up to 20,000 people. Crime and violence still occur in connection to the extractive industries.

Protests are often met with threats. Emmanuel Peni has experienced violence and threats from proponents of the mining prospectors. However, it does not stop him from continuing the struggle to stop the mining consession:

"This is not only Papua New Guinea’s river and rainforests, but Papua New Guineans are custodians of something belonging to the world, to the future. We are only vessels of the Sepik spirit that dwells to celebrate and protect it. We will guard it with our life".

Facts

  • The 16,000 hectare mine would be the largest in Papua New Guinea. Its annual yield of gold, silver and copper is estimated to be worth 1.5 billion US dollars for a period of over 30 years.
  • The mine has been proposed by Frieda River Limited, a company wholly owned by PanAust, a Singaporean arm of Chinese state-owned Guangdong Rising Assets Management. Three of the company’s four directors are Australian and list their addresses as PanAust’s Australian headquarters in Brisbane.
  • Gold mining is an extractive industry with a high potential of downstream toxic waste if not properly managed. Mining just an ounce of gold from ore can result in 20 tons of solid waste and significant mercury and cyanide contamination.
  • Sepik is a part of the world’s third largest rainforest in the world and the last untouched wetland in Asia Oceania. It is one of the least developed areas in Papua New Guinea and is regarded as one of the world’s most linguistic and culturally diverse area, with over 300 different languages.
The UN Special Rapporteurs signatories to the letter include the:

    Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes
    Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises
    Special Rapporteur on the right to development
    Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, health and sustainable environment
    Special Rapporteur on the right to food
    Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression
    Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
    Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health
    Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders
    Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples
    Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.
 

UN rights expert urges Colombia to suspend some Cerrejon mine operations

Reuters https://lta.reuters.com/article/idUSKBN26J38P

28 Sep 2020

BOGOTA (Reuters) - A United Nations human rights expert said on Monday Colombia should suspend some of coal miner Cerrejon’s operations, citing health and environmental concerns.

The statement by David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, comes after a request by a British barrister alleging that mining has damaged the health of local Wayuu indigenous people.

Cerrejon, owned equally by BHP Group, Anglo American and Glencore, has rejected the allegations and said the Rapporteur’s comments were concerning.

The company and Wayuu communities have long-running disputes over water use and pollution, dust, noise and health issues in desert La Guajira province.

Wayuu people living on the Provincial reserve, near Cerrejon’s mine, said in June a resumption of Cerrejon’s operations during the pandemic had put their community at risk and could deplete water supplies.

The group is represented by London barrister Monica Feria-Tinta, who based the claim on a recent ruling from Colombia’s Constitutional Court ordering the company to prevent pollution and control emissions.

“I call on Colombia to implement the directives of its own Constitutional Court and to do more to protect the very vulnerable Wayuu...against pollution from the huge El Cerrejon mine and from COVID-19,” Boyd said in a statement. “At least during the pandemic, operations at the Tajo Patilla site... should be suspended until it can be shown to be safe.”

Boyd called on Cerrejon to prevent further harm, adding people living with higher levels of air pollution face increased risk of death from COVID-19.

Feria-Tinta welcomed the pronouncement in her own statement.

Cerrejon said it was moving forward with changes requested by the Constitutional Court, including dust emission reductions, despite coronavirus and an ongoing strike by its largest union.

“Cerrejon views with concern the statements of United Nations Special Rapporteurs,” the company said, adding it will provide Rapporteurs “additional facts for their consideration”.

The energy ministry said it had no immediate comment.
 

 
Venezuela: UN report highlights criminal control of gold mining area

The Human Rights Council on Wednesday heard reports of serious exploitation and abuse of children and indigenous communities in Venezuela, where mining for gold and other minerals is booming.

https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/07/1068391

15 July 2020

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said that Venezuelan authorities had failed to investigate crimes linked to the industry, in the region of Arco Minero del Orinoco, including extortion, amputation and miners being buried alive.

Criminal groups exercise control over a large number of mining operations there, where children as young as nine have been seen working, according to the report from Ms. Bachelet’s office, OHCHR.

This is despite the “considerable” presence of the Venezuelan military, whose commanders were allegedly paid off via a “system of corruption and bribery” – all made possible by exploiting unskilled and sometimes barefoot workers, forced to do 12-hour shifts, descending deep pits without any protection. 

According to a press release from OHCHR on the report, the miners "are required to pay about 10-20 percent of what they earn to the criminal groups who control the mines, and an additional 15-30 per cent to the owner of the mill where rocks are crushed to extract gold and other minerals”, the release states.

Criminal activity ‘must end’

“Authorities should take immediate steps to end labour and sexual exploitation, child labour and human trafficking, and should dismantle criminal groups controlling mining activities”, Ms. Bachelet said in a statement.

“They must also investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for human rights violations, abuses and crimes.”

Testimonies in the UN report – initially requested by the Geneva forum amid allegations of serious rights violations during anti-Government protests in the country beginning in 2014 - reported harsh punishments for miners not complying with the rules imposed by the criminal groups.

In addition to severe beatings, other sanctions have included being shot in the hands, as well as killings.

Pit burials

“Witness accounts describe how bodies of miners are often thrown into old mining pits”, the OHCHR report continued, noting that violence was also linked to disputes between criminal groups - or “sindicatos” - over control of the mines, which had likely left 149 people dead in 16 such episodes in the last four years.

“They determine who enters and leaves the area, impose rules, inflict harsh punishment on those who break them, and gain economic benefit from all activity within the mining area, including through extortion in exchange for protection”, the report states, also alleging the involvement of the security forces in some of these incidents.

Highlighting the economic crisis and lack of work in Venezuela which the oil-rich country attributes to sanctions, the OHCHR report noted how internal migration to the mining area has increased “dramatically” in recent years, with workers engaging in arduous and informal labour.

Prostitution and trafficking

Research and interviews by UN investigators also indicated that women are also performing both mining and other related jobs, with several accounts received highlighting  a sharp increase in prostitution since 2016, sexual exploitation and trafficking in mining areas, including of "adolescent girls".

Living conditions in mining areas are described as “appalling” in the press release from OHCHR, with no running water, electricity or sanitation.

“Pools of stagnant and polluted water resulting from mining, are breeding grounds for mosquitoes, leading to a rise of malaria cases in the region, affecting not only migrant workers but also indigenous communities.”

Both workers and native communities - whose territories and natural resources have been destroyed - have also been badly affected by mercury poisoning, women disproportionately, testimonies indicated.

The metal is used to separate gold from other minerals, says the news release, “and toxic fumes created during the process are breathed in by workers and people living in the area. It is also poured onto the ground and seeps into the rivers.”

Fragile judiciary

The report also provides an update on investigations into grave rights violations including extra-judicial killings and repression during protests against the Government of Nicolas Maduro since 2014, detailed in previous UN Human Rights Council-mandated investigations.

It notes the latest information from the country’s Attorney General indicating that from August 2017 to November 2019, probes were opened into 766 members of security forces, of whom 505 were charged, 390 detained and 127 convicted.

Of those convictions, 77 “pertained to violations of the right to life, 18 to torture and ill-treatment, six to violations of the right to integrity, three to violations of the right to liberty, six to sexual violence, and two to enforced disappearances.”

In the context of security operations, the OHCHR report explained how relatives had “regularly observed evidence of crime scenes having been manipulated” to suggest that the victim had confronted the security forces before being shot.

It also pointed to long delays in going to trial caused by the high turnover rate of prosecutors and judges, along with “political interference” in general.

“This situation has gravely affected the judiciary’s capacity to act independently to protect human rights and is contributing to impunity,” said OHCHR.

“Despite recent efforts made by the Office of the Attorney General to investigate human rights violations committed by security forces, the lack of accountability is especially significant in cases of killings in the context of protests and during security operations, as well as allegations of torture and ill-treatment and gender-based violence.”

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