MAC: Mines and Communities

A deadly clash of cultures

Published by MAC on 2006-06-04

A deadly clash of cultures

by Kelly Patterson, The Ottawa Citizen

4th June 2006

The Ipili tribe vaulted out of the Stone Age in a generation, propelled partly by a Canadian mining company that gave them health care, housing, roads and more in return for the gold on their land. But 17 years after the deal was made, the open-pit mine has become a battleground as clashes between security forces and small-scale miners have left at least 8 dead and hundreds injured.

A sprawling Canadian mine in Papua New Guinea has become a war zone, with hundreds of villagers facing off against more than 450 security guards and police in a bloody battle over the gold that lies on the slopes of the Porgera Valley.

Security forces have killed 14 people and injured hundreds of others over the past 10 years, according to a group that says it represents about 5,700 people in the area.

The Akali Tange Association, or ATA, accuses the mine's Canadian owners, Placer Dome Niugini, of turning a blind eye to alleged abuses by police and guards.

Placer Dome was granted a licence "to dig for gold and not ... the licence to shoot to kill," says ATA.

The association is demanding more than $370 million in compensation from the mine, and another $5.5 million from the national government of Papua New Guinea, which lies northeast of Australia, for failing to protect its citizens.

Placer Dome Niugini, which became a subsidiary of Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp. in January, vehemently denies any allegations of abuse.

It says security forces are being besieged by villagers who attack them with rocks, machetes and clubs when caught illegally digging for gold on the mine site.

Placer Dome has confirmed that police and company guards have killed trespassers, although it puts the number at eight, not 14. In each case, the company says, security forces fired in self-defence.

Both sides agree hundreds have been wounded in confrontations -- sometimes 40 to 50 a day -- that pit the Canadian mine that has paid to use the site against small-scale miners who see the land as their birthright.

Meanwhile, some families are living near the edge of the open pit, their homes shaking from the daily blasting, according to ATA.

At least 16 people have died in landslides, rock falls and other accidents on the site, most of which is not fenced off.

How did a Canadian company wind up at the centre of this apocalyptic setting?

The answer is partly a clash of civilizations, as Porgera's indigenous people confront the heavy industry of the 21st century.

Propelled largely by Placer Dome, the Ipili tribe has shot from the Stone Age to the space age in one generation, with stunning results for some: Tribesmen who in their youth wore grass aprons and sported fantastical wigs studded with bird-of-paradise feathers now have health care and modern homes.

But others are reeling from the impact of a cash-for-land deal that has turned their traditions upside-down and their ancestral home into an industrial moonscape patrolled by guards and police, including one of Papua's notorious "mobile units," renowned for savage human-rights abuses.

The Porgera mine is a textbook case of what can go wrong when large-scale mining confronts indigenous peoples, ignoring the impact of its projects and resorting to goon squads when people rebel, says Catherine Coumans of the Ottawa-based advocacy group MiningWatch Canada.

"This is not happening in a vacuum. ... This sort of conflict is arising in mines all over the world."

But Placer says that, if anything, its mine has set an example for others: Its security guards observe rigorous human-rights standards, it says, adding that the mine has always bent over backwards to foster good relations and address cultural differences.

In fact, if any such project could succeed, it should have been this one: Savvy negotiators, the Porgeran natives were only too willing to "trade their mountain for development," as they themselves put it, when the project was first proposed, says U.S. anthropologist Alex Golub, who has studied the impact of the mine.

Little did they know that that mountain would soon turn into a battlefield.

Mythology meets industry:

A deal is struck

When the first white men -- fittingly enough, gold prospectors -- toiled up the soaring slopes of the Porgera Valley 70 years ago, they encountered the Ipili, who had lived near Mount Waruwari since time immemorial.

They were not a people to be trifled with: One shocked colonial official described the Ipili arriving at his door with the body of a headless woman, her body speared on a spit, Mr. Golub reported in a history of the mine.

The Ipili believed the 9,200-foot Mount Waruwari was inhabited by a serpent-spirit, Kupiane, who provided for them in exchange for the sacrifice of pigs and other valuables. After gold was discovered in 1938, they concluded Kupiane had shed its skin as a way to provide for his people.

Despite the extreme isolation of the Papuan highlands, the Ipili were an outgoing and enterprising people, and welcomed the few straggling prospectors who made it to Porgera before the Second World War. When the prospectors returned in the 1950s and '60s, a thriving cottage industry quickly took hold, with Ipili panning for gold on their own claims or giving colonial landowners a cut of their modest takings.

By the 1980s, some 75 per cent of the male population was involved in small-scale gold mining, says Jerry Jacka, an anthropologist at North Carolina State University who has studied the impact of the mine. The Ipili tribe now had the beginnings of a cash economy.

But they were far from renouncing their traditions: Indeed, they simply incorporated mining into their mythology, embracing an apocalyptic cult according to which all the Ipili would be showered with riches and ascend to heaven once white men had taken the last of Kupiane's gold.

"Now the white man has come and we have plenty of pigs and pearl shells and we will soon go to heaven," one tribesman told a missionary visiting the area in 1973.

In 1988, the Canadian mining giant Placer Dome Inc. came forward with an ambitious scheme to open a large-scale, state-of-the-art gold mine. Company officials sat down at the table with representatives of the 2,000-odd Ipili who lived on what was to become the mine site.

While they were still strongly traditional, the Ipili were also a "trendy and cosmopolitan" people with widespread trading networks, explains Mr. Golub. They felt left behind by the progress they knew was going on elsewhere, he says. "They desperately, desperately wanted this mine."

And they were "breathtaking" negotiators, as one Placer Dome official remarked at the time.

Mr. Golub once put it this way: "They told Placer: 'We want a high school, we want a hospital, we want long-term economic development, we want a road, we want an airstrip, and we want a town to be built. If you agree to this, you will have your mine. If you open a mine without our permission, we will kill you.' "

They got what they wanted, striking a final deal in 1989 -- the first time landowners were included in such talks, which until then had involved only the national government and mining firms.

More than 15 years later, the company has virtually transformed the once-primitive Porgera Valley, providing electricity and clean water to many communities, and contributing more than $18 million to projects such as hospitals and government buildings. It has spent more than $13 million on a vital highway through the highlands, more than $30 million on projects in the province, and paid more than $380 million in taxes and royalties to the impoverished national government.

Those officially recognized as landowners on the site have done especially well, receiving more than $8 million in compensation last year alone. They also enjoy a share of the royalties, equity in the mine and an education trust fund; hundreds now work for the mine, which hires area residents where possible.

"It was the most generous package in the history of the country. In many ways they were the most successful indigenous people in the world at that time," says Mr. Golub, who teaches at the University of Hawaii.

And yet, as the shots ring out across the mine site at night, critics say the deal has failed spectacularly to bridge the cultural abyss between the Ipili and the mine -- an abyss as wide as Porgera's 800-metre-wide open pit.

Land use. Compensation. Even the term Ipili: It turns out the company and the Ipili tribesmen have radically different ideas of what these terms mean.

The mine grows, migrants move in

The Ipili may have agreed to let the mine operate on their mountain -- but Mr. Jacka says many had no intention of giving up scavenging for gold, as they have done for more than 70 years and view as an Ipili tradition and, indeed, part of their cosmology.

"They believe that the gold is from an ancestral spirit that for millennia they were giving gifts of pork to," says Mr. Jacka. "From the people's perspective, they're taking the gold that was theirs anyway."

"People said, 'You're mining here, but this is our land. We take a few rocks here or there, it shouldn't matter to you,' " recalls Catherine Coumans, an anthropologist who visited Porgera in 2000 as research co-ordinator for MiningWatch.

Others, bitter at the damage they say the mine has done to the landscape and their way of life, feel the mine owes them.

"Most people believe there is a justification for seeking ... gold at the mine dumps and in and around the pit," says Ethan Kissak of the Akali Tange Association.

That bitterness stems partly from the hair-raising conditions in which many of the people on the mine site now live.

Like most Melanesian tribes, the Ipili were reluctant to leave their ancestral territory when the company proposed the mine. So Placer agreed to let them stay on the land it had leased, offering to build the mine around them.

That decision set the scene for today's clashes: Seventeen years later, at least 10,000 people live in the heart of the massive open-pit mine site, according to Mr. Golub. (The mine puts that figure at less than 8,700).

At first, the Ipili were enthusiastic about the scheme, under which families deemed too close to mining operations would be relocated to new, modern homes on the mine site; landowners could also choose a home in a city or equity in a special trust fund. When the first wave of relocations began in 1990, it was one of the biggest in mining history, according to Mr. Golub.

But after 1994, the mine began advancing rapidly toward some of the settlements. Placer had exhausted its richest deposits, Mr. Golub explains, so it focused on culling the traces of gold scattered thinly through the rock -- a process that means digging a massive open pit, crushing heaps of rock and spraying them with cyanide to leach out the gold.

By 2000, Placer was digging up 220,000 tons of rock a day, heaping much of it into a stockpile of unprocessed ore or into dumps of waste rock, with the help of more than 770 dump trucks, he says (the average today is about 100,000 tons a day, Placer says). "At its birth the mine was never projected to be this large," Mr. Golub says, attributing the new tack partly to the discovery of new, low-grade ore bodies.

Now the mine operates on a scale the Ipili could never have imagined when they struck their deal 17 years ago, he says.

"Even the white employees of the mine couldn't believe it when they saw it."

Placer says it did not deceive the Ipili, arguing that "no mine plan is ever static," adding that the government, in consultation with the Ipili, approved the changes.

At the same time as the mine was growing, the villages were expanding rapidly, as a gold rush sparked by the mine drew thousands of migrants into the area.

Now some homes lie within a five-minute walk of the mine's teetering waste-rock dumps. ATA photographs seem to show the pit yawning just behind the backyards of some homes, and waste-rock dumps looming ominously beyond other houses -- all of which lie in an earthquake zone that receives more than three metres of rain a year, making flash floods and landslides commonplace.

ATA blames the encroaching mine for the deaths of 21 people in floods, landslides and other accidents, and says conditions in the villages are intolerable: "It is certainly a violation of human rights for villages to calmly live under noises of heavy machinery, blasts, air pollutants ... and be exposed to environmental contaminants with absolutely no option of avoiding them," ATA says.

Placer calls the photos misleading, and denies the villages are too close to the action, arguing that "there are no (permanent) homes within 250 metres of an operational mining area."

It says it treats all toxic byproducts used in its operation, such as cyanide, to ensure none is released. Floods and landslides are common natural hazards in the highlands, it points out; it has recorded only 16 deaths on the site from accidents, attributing all to natural hazards or illegal mining.

Critics say the mine's proximity to some settlements is especially dangerous because most of the sprawling mine is not fenced off: Even children can wander from their homes into active mining areas in a matter of minutes, they say.

Placer says it fences what it can, but the rugged terrain of the Papuan highlands makes it impossible to enclose all areas; one source compared the task to "trying to fence off the Grand Canyon." The 2,300-hectare mine is more than four times the size of Ottawa's Experimental Farm.

While some dump sites lie on relatively flat ground, their size is changing too rapidly to be fenced; vandalism and looting of fence parts are also a problem, Placer says. The firm routinely runs public-education campaigns about the dangers of straying onto the site, and has posted signs around active mining areas.

But Ms. Coumans says that's no excuse for exposing people to danger. "Yes, it's challenging to mine in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. It's challenging to build an airstrip on a slope, but they did it, didn't they?

"It's a little sad when a global mining company says they can't put up a fence."

What is compensation -- and who gets it?

Since the mine began, Placer has moved almost 1,000 households away from active mining areas, at a cost of $36.5 million. It says it spends "a significant amount" every year on relocations, moving households before they are affected, and acting in consultation with the landowners and government officials.

But the mine is willing to relocate only people deemed to have official title to the land, and whose primary residence would be affected by mining operations.

It doesn't want to offer compensation and relocation to the thousands of migrants who arrived after it opened the mine: Of the 10,000 people on the site today, roughly 40 per cent are outsiders, attracted by the gold rush as well as amenities the company provides that are not easily available elsewhere, such as electricity, clean water and schooling, Placer says.

But many Ipili insist these migrants are full-fledged clan members too.

Under the Ipili's deeply entrenched kinship rules, relatively remote relations and even non-relatives can belong to a clan, and claim land rights, as long as they join a community and contribute to it by farming, hunting or joining them in battle, explains Jerry Jacka. And individuals can belong to several different clans at once.

"People were always trying to get others to live among them because there's strength in numbers and there was constant tribal fighting." When Placer proposed the mine, the province was called in to help identify those who held official title to the land. "The state froze things in place, and decided just seven clans would get the benefits," says Mr. Jacka.

Mr. Golub calls this a "corporate 'clan' model" that doesn't necessarily capture the way the Ipili kinship rules work. In his doctoral thesis, he estimated there were 7,000 Ipili in total, but noted that such head counts are murky, given the Ipili's fluid clan rules.

In fact, he says, the term Ipili itself didn't arise until Europeans arrived and arbitrarily labelled the people they'd found in one area, not realizing that their intricate and far-flung kinship lines bound them to other people who lived kilometres away and might even speak a different language.

"The mine is stuck: They need to draw lines between who will and will not receive benefits, and the Ipili system doesn't have clear lines," says Mr. Golub.

It's all the more confounding for the mine, he adds, since the Ipili themselves helped devise the government's definition of landowner during negotiations. "Over time, however, the implications of Ipili kinship resulted in new situations."

Now the mining area villages are teeming with disgruntled migrants who feel entitled to the mine's benefits but are shut out of the compensation loop; in January, six people were killed in street battles between rival clans over compensation.

Placer blames most of the violence at the mine site on these "opportunists who travelled to the area to engage in illegal mining," saying the official landowners want the gold-scavenging to stop.

But Glenn Banks, an Australia-based human geographer who has studied the Ipili for decades, notes that, through the Ipili network, "all the people who have moved in have some sort of connection or permission" from an official landowner.

Mr. Golub says gold-rush desperadoes have turned the once sleepy villages into a version of the Wild West: "It's just like California in the 1800s."

"Ethnic conflicts, prostitution, drunkardness, gambling ... have become a way of life," ATA says, adding that "the company ... as well as the national and provincial governments are to blame for overlooking or not initially considering that such problems would erupt."

Ms. Coumans agrees Placer should have been prepared for an influx of migrants: "This is a well-known problem in mines around the world.

"Mines draw in people from all around; any major mining company should have anticipated this."

Barrick spokesman Vince Borg agrees migration is a problem, but says it's simplistic to expect a mining firm, now matter how well-intentioned, to counteract the "desperate conditions" that drive people in developing countries to flock to mine sites in the first place.

'They believe that the gold is from an ancestral spirit ... >From the people's perspective, they're taking the gold that was theirs anyway'

Porgera has become a powderkeg, partly because the mine has turned the Ipili tribe into "a society of haves and have-nots" where only some enjoy the princely monetary benefits of the mine, Mr. Jacka says.

These are not subtle differences: When the mine's first wave of payouts began in the 1990s, it was not unusual to see landowners -- once subsistence farmers -- toiling up the slopes to their homes with boxes stuffed with cash, Mr. Golub writes in his history of the mine. Some swanned about in the five-star hotels in nearby Australia, or swilled gin in the parlours of the Papuan capital, Port Moresby.

Meanwhile, the people who lived downstream from the mine, but were outside the site, lost everything as mine waste smothered the gold beds on which their gold-panning depended. Placer says it has fully compensated them.

And thousands more in the area are still barely scraping together enough food to put on the table. Today there are "massive inequalities within the population at Porgera, inequalities that have increased spectacularly compared to the pre-mine situation," writes Glenn Banks.

Mr. Banks attributes this problem to the sudden infusion of thousands of dollars into a society where cash was a relatively new concept. Pre-cash societies had "a range of mechanisms for spreading the objects of customary trade and exchange (pigs, pearls, shells, etc.) but it cannot be expected that these same mechanisms will provide a basis for the equitable distribution of millions of (dollars) in cash."

To make matters worse, even some of the official landowners, who reap the royalties and other benefits of the mine, are feeling mutinous, Mr. Jacka says.

Canadian negotiators failed to understand the Ipili concept of compensation, which traditionally served as a way of redistributing wealth -- and creating a lasting bond that must constantly be renewed, he says.

If you kill someone in a neighbouring clan, you must give pigs to the man's brothers, parents, sisters and other close kin. Ten years later, his cousin shows up, demanding compensation: Under Ipili tradition, you owe him a pig too.

"The idea that compensation is a one-off affair for the Ipili completely misses the point of what compensation is about in Ipili society," Mr. Jacka says.

Mr. Golub puts it bluntly: "It's my sense that no amount of money would be enough for the Ipili. I think they would be happy if they were all millionaires living in enormous mansions in Sydney. And even then they would realize there was something out there they could still get a hold of."

But they also have other reasons for wanting further compensation, he adds: "They signed up for (the mine) but they didn't realize what was going to happen in terms of the pollution and the social change ... They're stuck with a lot of problems."

Mr. Banks notes that the landowners "have all suffered loss of land, and massive dislocations in their lives."

The loss of land is particularly troubling, he writes: With the expansion of the mine and the influx of migrants, arable land for the small garden plots on which thousands depend for their food is shrinking rapidly.

With hunger looming, more and more people have been pouring onto the site to scavenge for gold in recent years. At one point, hundreds of people were "invading" the open pit every week, scaling its crumbling walls even as blasting was sending rocks flying through the air. Mine records show a peak of 2,000 trespassers in one week in 2005, although the number has declined to about 200-300 a week this year.

It's an incredibly dangerous business. Mr. Golub describes the gut-churning scenes that can arise at the waste rock sites as whole families turn out to troll for gold: He has seen "young children standing directly underneath enormous dump trucks as they dump 200 tons of waste rock. The fierce competition for choice rocks leads to the children crowding under the trucks.

"Equally people venturing onto the open (pit) might get blown up during blasting."

With its fencing options limited, the mine relies on a human fence -- a small army of almost 400 security guards, aided by local police. In January, the national government dispatched a 50-man federal SWAT team or "mobile unit," to keep the peace.

Allegations of violence and vigorous denials

And so the stage was set for the tragedy that is Porgera: On the one side, hundreds of people who feel they have every right to scavenge for gold on Mount Waruwari, based on kinship ties, their bond to the land, their gold-panning past or tribal compensation customs.

On the other side, a 21st-century Canadian mine, standing staunchly by its land-for-money deal, buttressed by three security forces.

The fallout is ghastly: Hundreds of villagers have been injured, and at least eight shot to death. One guard was convicted of murder in a 2002 shooting; that case is under appeal. Police are investigating another fatal shooting in March 2005.

As for the mine staff, no guards have been killed, but hundreds have been wounded, many seriously, including one man who wound up critically injured after a machete was buried in his head.

ATA denies most trespassers are violent, arguing most are simply using traditional paths to get from village to village.

It also says many of the "illegal miners" are simply scavenging waste rock: Three of the eight fatal shootings Placer has acknowledged have taken place in waste dumps. "How can an international company justify killing people in a waste dump site?" ATA asks.

Placer says it needs to keep people out of the dumps for their own safety "because of the obvious risks ... from heavy machinery (and) rock movement."

As for the guard who was convicted of murder, Placer points out he was acquitted of a charge of killing a second man in the same incident because the court found he had acted in self-defence.

But ATA claims police and security guards -- referred to by the company as its "Asset Protection Department" -- have been shooting to kill as part of a campaign of terror to frighten trespassers off.

That's "simply not true," Placer says.

Papua's office of the Attorney General and the National Security Advisory Committee sent fact-finding missions to the site last year, and concluded illegal miners were causing "an unacceptable level of criminal activity," and that the firm's methods of dealing with it were appropriate.

Any confrontations, especially those involving injury, are reported to local police and the Ministry of Mining, and are also probed by the mine, the company stressed.

Ms. Coumans says the company is shirking its responsibilities by simply handing over matters to the police or government in the weak state of Papua New Guinea.

"There is absolutely no excuse to be running a mine where the security guards are in the habit of killing people. ... and it is a habit. This has been going on for years."

"The mine has a responsibility to evaluate the circumstances -- over and above what is accepted by local authorities."

The government promised to strike a committee to look into the issue of violence at the mine last spring; a year later, no action has been taken, ATA says.

As for the Papuan police, Zama Coursen-Neff, a senior researcher at the New-York-based Human Rights Watch, many are themselves human-rights abusers.

"There's near-impunity for police who beat people up, kill them, torture them, gang-rape women even in the police stations," says Mr. Coursen-Neff, who wrote a report on police abuse of children last year.

In 2005, the U.S. State Department noted serious problems such as "arbitrary or unlawful killings" and "beatings and other abuses by police, including of children."

And in 2004, the Papuan Ministry of Internal Security issued a report that found "widespread police corruption and abuses."

The federal mobile units -- such as the one recently assigned to Porgera -- are especially notorious, Mr. Jacka says. In the early 1990s, the federal squads conducted a reign of terror in Porgera, looting and beating locals, and torching homes in a series of rampages, including one in which hundreds of homes were razed, Mr. Jacka says.

Although some of these incidents were unrelated to mining conflicts, Mr. Jacka says the units were widely viewed as Placer's goon squads at the time: In 1992, he says, one regional official complained that their "respect for local governments and police authorities in the province is next to nothing ... Is (the mine) their overall boss in this province?"

However, there is no evidence the squads took their orders from the company, then or now, Mr. Jacka adds.

Placer says it insisted on human-rights training by UN officials for the mobile unit recently assigned to Porgera, and says clashes with trespassers have dropped dramatically since it arrived. It also insisted that the unit's operations be supervised by an independent third party.

As for concerns about local police, the company says "there is simply no indication" people are being abused, pointing out that those who don't trust the police can pursue other avenues for complaints, such as Papua's national ombudsman or local church groups, none of which have reported any problems.

The mine's guards are trained to observe the U.S.-U.K. Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, an international code that sets safeguards for the use of security staff, including the screening of personnel and rules for investigating claims of abuse. Only senior officers are allowed to carry guns -- about 10 out of 100 in any given shift, Placer says.

Placer Dome Inc., which held a 75-per-cent stake in the mine, was absorbed by Barrick Gold Corp. in January.

Barrick representative Mr. Borg says the company -- now the world's largest gold miner -- is in the process of reviewing its worldwide operations. While the company investigated Placer's operations to the best of its ability before the buyout, in-depth information was not available as Placer resisted the takeover, Mr. Borg says.

'You are rubbish people, but you will become rich'

There's no question that for some of the Ipili, the Canadian mine that came knocking in 1988 has brought fabulous wealth, and the kind of lifestyle they could scarcely imagine when they were grubbing for gold in return for a few pearl shells in the 1950s.

But at the same time, their ancestral home has been turned into a war zone, their villages into seething slums and much of their landscape into an industrial wasteland.

Is Placer Dome to blame?

The company says most of the traditional landowners support the mine, and that it has consulted intensively with local leaders every step of the way.

Mr. Golub agrees the mine has tried to avoid conflict "by being 120-per-cent better than everybody else." But in the end, the mine and Ipili culture evolved in unexpected ways, bringing tragedy as well as triumph, he says.

Ms. Coumans says Placer should have anticipated the cultural fallout from its mine. "When you go into an area that is so remote and expect people to understand what they're getting into, the more fool you. It's not like you've made a dea l in downtown Manhatten."

She adds that such cultural clashes will become more common as the race for precious metals such as gold - now worth almost $700 an ounce - drives miners into more and more remote areas. In such regions, "cultural differences are a given. But they may never be an excuse for violent...behaviour on the part of security forces."

Whichever light you see it in, one thing is clear: For better or for worse, the Ipili prophets of the 1940s were right when they predicted gold mining would bring the end of the world as they knew it. The words of the visionary Kipu, cited in Mr. Golub's history, ring eerily true: "You are all rubbish people, but you will become rich," he told his fellow tribesmen, saying a magic fruit was buried in the mountain nearby.

Kipu's son later explained, "He was right - that thing was gold, gold can do that. It covers up the earth like water, and poeple go around slitting each other's throats over its sweetness."

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