In Papua New Guinea: Barrick Gold vs Indigenous Peoples

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Violence is not new to the Porgera Valley in Papua New Guinea’s central highlands, but since the gold mine came it has changed. At the centre is the world’s biggest gold miner, Barrick Gold Corporation of Canada.

By Nick O’Malley
Sydney Morning Herald, June 10, 2009

The convoy of LandCruisers halted at the base of the hill overlooking the mine pit. Police tumbled out of the trucks and worked their way up the hill, burning every structure they found. Homes, shanties, pig sties and market gardens were torched.

Violence is not new to the Porgera Valley in Papua New Guinea’s central highlands, but since the gold mine came it has changed. Now, rather than ritualized tribal warfare, there are reports of shootings by police, mine security and bandits, of rapes and beatings, of drug running and a lethal black-market in mercury, which is used to leach gold from stolen ore. There is prostitution and bootlegging, and an increase in domestic violence and sexually transmitted disease.

At the centre of it all is the Porgera mine, one of the 10 richest in the world, owned by the world’s biggest gold miner, Barrick Gold Corporation of Canada. The mine lies at the top of Porgera Valley, home of the Ipili people, and its open pit – the hole that used to be Mount Wari Wari – can be seen from space.

Barrick and the mine’s former owner, Placer Dome, have been accused of human rights abuses by a string of organizations and was recently criticized by Amnesty International. It is being investigated by the Harvard Legal Clinic and has been reported to the United Nations. One group, Mining Watch Canada, has written to Australia’s Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, calling on him to pressure the PNG Government to stop the burnings.

The Herald has been furnished with a “death list” detailing 56 violent incidents, each recording the name, date and clan of an alleged victim. The most recent entry concerns the shooting of Gibson Umbi, 15, on July 22 last year, allegedly by mine guards armed with M16 assault rifles. The other entries concern incidents that took place before Barrick took over Placer Dome in 2006.

The neatly typed and formatted document has nine empty slots on its last page, anticipating a violent future.

Since 2003 gold supply in the mineral giants of Australia, Canada and South Africa has been declining and prices rising. The financial crisis forced prices higher still, and companies such as Barrick have become more reliant on gold supplies from less stable African and South American countries – and from Papua New Guinea.

Australia’s nearest neighbour is blessed and cursed with its mineral wealth. Rio Tinto’s copper mine in Bougainville sparked a secessionist uprising during the 1990s. By the end of it 20,000 lay dead and a military insurrection was barely averted.

There are fears the increasing violence in the Porgera valley could similarly similarly spiral out of control. PNG is Australia’s second greatest recipient of aid, which makes up about 20 per cent of its GDP. Dr Malcolm Cook of the Lowy institute says Australia’s responsibility for PNG as its former colonial power – and the memory of Japanese invasion during World War II – is written into our political DNA.

“A foreign policy nightmare would be PNG reaching some level of state failure,” says Cook, noting that despite its wealth in natural resources PNG is on track to achieve none of its development goals.

Speaking from the company’s Toronto head office, Barrick’s chief counsel and executive vice-president, Patrick Garver, is quick to detail the operation’s benefits to PNG. The mine accounts for 11 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product – crucial income since the death of the Bougainville mine. It provides 1500 jobs in a region with 80 per cent unemployment and has made some Ipili the envy of their poorer compatriots.

Barrick has built roads and schools in an area practically inaccessible to the nation’s capital just 20 years ago, and one that some of its oldest citizens remember as once unknown to the outside world. It has built health clinics, housing for police and provided power and water to nearby villages. All this has attracted 40,000 internal migrants to the valley where just 4500 lived when the first mine opened in 1989.

Garver does not deny that the Porgera valley has become a more violent place, just that the violence is not Barrick’s fault nor its responsibility, that police actions in the region are not under its control, and that guards on the mine site are authorized to use lethal force only to defend themselves rather than the rich ore they are hired to protect.

He says injuries and deaths in the valley fall into four categories.

“Within the local communities in that part of Papua New Guinea there is a long history of tribal violence, interclan rivalry, murder and retribution that is quite well documented.

“In addition there is a huge amount of newer criminal activity that has been exacerbated by the huge amount of in-migration that has occurred to the mine area.”

The illegal gold and mercury trade is another cause of violence, and finally there are the deaths associated with “mine invasions” by people breaking in to steal the ore, Garver says.

“They are armed intruders who literally race one another down near vertical walls of the mine to be the first to get to the blasted ore.

“They do it in the darkness of night. It’s quite amazing on one level to see people racing one another down the walls, scores of people, sometimes hundreds of people, many of them armed with machetes and increasingly with fire arms,” he says.

“If they are successful in their descent and they get to the ore, they then collect it and steal it. Sometimes they fall in the course of scaling the wall.”

Most of these people, Garver says, are not indigenous to the valley.

But Jethro Tulin, the head of a local activist group, the Atali Tange Association, says many have been forced to steal ore as the mine – and its mountains of tailings – expanded and overwhelmed local market gardens. Others conduct artisanal mining within the Barrick lease, as Ipili have since Westerners first showed an interest in the useless soft metal in the 1930s. Tulin is demanding that Barrick relocate and compensate thousands of people he claims have been hurt by the operation, either through violence, mine expansion or environmental degradation.

Garver says the Atali Tange Association is not the human rights organization it claims to be and that Tulin has a business interest in extracting the compensation for the group’s members, many of whom are “recent in-migrants”.

This dispute over who is local and who is not is crucial to understanding tension in the valley, which sits in a region where land tenure has been delicately carved out over thousands of years through the very tribal warfare that Garver says accounts for much of the violence.

Mark Ekepa, the president of the Porgera Landowners Association, which has withdrawn its support for the mine, is incensed when indigenous claims to the land are challenged by Garver.

“He is in Toronto, right? Why doesn’t he come here and tell me who has right to this land?”

The burning of the valley’s shanties began on April 27. A week earlier police had announced a six-week crackdown across the valley, codenamed Operation Ipili, after high-powered rifles had been found in the hands of gold traders.

About 200 police were moved into the valley from Port Moresby, supported by military intelligence and an air unit. When the operation began, half the valley’s residents had fled, reported the PNG newspaper The National.

“The ‘mekim save’ [show them] or ‘skulim ol’ [teach them] methods of policing of the past have no place in modern PNG,” wrote the paper in an editorial.

What happened next is in dispute. Witnesses told the Herald that 300 homes in the Ungmi, Yokolama and Kulapi villages – all within the so-called Special Mine Lease area – were burnt.

Barrick representatives and PNG police say up to 50 shanties belonging to in-migrants engaged in illegal mining were destroyed.

More homes were burnt across the valley in the following weeks, and police claim to have seized illegal weapons and have been enforcing a liquor ban.

Tulin says the first homes burnt were at the very edge of the pit and the action will allow for mine expansion.

MiningWatch Canada and the head of Australia’s Mineral Policy Institute, Charles Roche, say the police and PNG Government were acting in Barrick’s interests, which Garver vehemently denies. “It was a decision by the police, it was run by the police, it was for the police.” The operation was supported by many villagers, he says.

Garver says Barrick has been unfairly targeted by activists, and in particular by Mining Watch Canada’s Catherine Coumans, whom he says simply opposes mining. He says Tulin’s and Ekepa’s organizations are not broadly representative and have fed false information to Mining Watch, which has in turn been picked up by other international groups.

Coumans, who has a doctorate in cultural anthropology, says she has visited Porgera twice for research and has worked in mining communities in India, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and New Caledonia and advised the Canadian Government in a number of capacities.

It is easy to see how the distinction between the mine and the state has blurred in Porgera. Most of PNG has no permanent police presence, but Barrick employs an estimated 500 guards, many of whom are former soldiers and 50 of whom are trained reserve police officers.

The 200 police involved in Operation Ipili were bivouacked on the mine site. “Pursuant to a longstanding agreement,” Garver says, “we provided passively both food and lodging at the request of the PNG police.”

Tulin says that only in Porgera has tribal fighting, common across the highlands, prompted such a massive police crackdown.

One of the mine’s former Australian employees told the Herald that tribal warfare in the region has become far more lethal since the guns flowed in with the migrants. Such weapons were almost unknown in PNG before the war on Bougainville. “I used to drive to Mount Hagan [the only inland city] alone, you wouldn’t catch me doing that now. You’d get shot,” he says.

Of the incidents detailed on the “death list” compiled by the Atali Tange Association, only the shooting of the boy Gibson occurred since Barrick acquired the Porgera Mine’s former owner, Placer Dome.

A spokesman for Barrick in Australia denies Gibson was shot by Barrick guards. “To the best of our knowledge, the man in question was fatally shot by PNG police outside the mine fence during a policing operation to deal with a large group of armed illegal miners,” he says.

The rest of the allegations of assaults, rapes, shootings and deaths are harder to verify, though some are a matter of public record.

Placer Dome acknowledged its guards shot dead eight people during its decade of mine control, though local activists put the figure at 14.

In 2005 The National recorded the Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, as saying he would seek information about 29 killings. “We want to know why they are killing those people, and whether the law allows them to do that,” Sir Michael was quoted as saying.

“He said there appears to be foreign tactics, because 29 deaths was too many for one mine area,” The National reported.

Sir Michael’s office did not respond to a series of questions put by the Herald.

Whether or not Barrick is responsible for the increasing tension in Porgera, the violence is bringing unwanted attention upon the company as it seeks to expand to cash in on historically high gold prices.

Barrick has opened three new mines in the past three years.

On May 28 Tulin addressed the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. “In one generation the mine has brought militarization, corruption, and environmental devastation to a land that previously knew only subsistence farming and alluvial mining …” he told the forum.

“This is a textbook case of what can go wrong when large-scale mining confronts indigenous peoples, ignoring the impacts of its projects and resorting to goon squads when people rebel against it.”

The month before he made his second address to shareholders at Barrick’s annual general meeting in Toronto. He has been warmly received by some Canadian members of Parliament. There his lobbying – along with that of Mining Watch Canada – was crucial to the passing of a private members bill that will force Canadian companies to address complaints about their overseas practices in Canada. The bill is not yet law.

But, in essence, the bill highlights the growing dilemma faced by the Australian Government as host to a multinational mining giant whose actions may be circumventing the goals of its aid programs.

On May 29 Mining Watch wrote to the Australian Foreign Minister, Smith, saying:

“As the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Australia, a country with strong historical ties to Papua New Guinea, and as an elected official from the electoral division of Perth, where Barrick has its regional headquarters, we call on you to make a public statement calling on the Government of Papua New Guinea to: halt the house burnings and forced evictions in Porgera; immediately assure that the affected people are provided emergency relief; carry out a full and independent investigation of the forced evictions and bring those responsible to justice.”

The Swiss-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions has made similar demands of the PNG Government, Barrick Gold and the US ambassador to PNG.

Amnesty International in Britain and the US have issued statements calling on Barrick and the PNG Government to abide by international accords on human rights and security in the valley and demanding that 1000 people left homeless by the police action be rehoused.

Barrick’s Australian head of corporate relations says the company has responded to the Amnesty statement privately, and dismisses its claims.

Last year the Norwegian Government divested its $260 million pension fund investment in Barrick after commissioning a study that found the Porgera mine’s dumping of tailings into the river was causing permanent harm and was illegal everywhere but Indonesia and PNG.

A spokesman for Barrick said the company “respectfully disagrees” with Norway’s analysis.

Now Barrick, which boasts a string of awards for is social welfare programs, workplace safety and environmental practices, is facing protests around the world.

In early April activists from the group Protest Barrick and Cyanide Watch, along with Wiradjuri leaders, tried to halt operations at Barrick’s Lake Cowal Mine in central western NSW. Protest Barrick – the company’s very own dedicated activist group – is campaigning against the company’s operations in Tanzania, the US, Chile and Argentina.

Asked if Barrick bore any responsibility for violence in Porgera, even indirectly, Garver says at first that he does not understand the question.

Pushed on the issue he replies that the situation in valley is no better or worse than it would be if another “facility” existed in its place.

Coumans says the violence was predicted in studies that were commissioned by Placer Dome and to which Barrick has access.

“It is a common pattern in mines all over the world.”

(Thanks to Peter Boyle for drawing this article to our attention – C&C)