PETER S KINJAP
PORT MORESBY - One of the world’s largest underdeveloped copper and gold deposits on the Frieda River, a tributary of the Sepik, is opposed by local indigenous landowners and all right-thinking Papua New Guineans.
The Frieda River deposit is thought to contain 13 million tonnes of copper and 20 million ounces of gold and tens of thousands of people fear the likelihood of serious river system contamination and the threat to the ecosystem that supports them.
A spokesman for environment group Project Sepik, Emmanuel Peni, said there was widespread opposition to the mine’s development plan.
“From Iniok village, which is where the barges and ships stop at the Frieda River, right down to the mouth of the Sepik, people are against the mine,” Peni said.
“They are concerned about possible contamination of the river system and the destruction of the environment along the Frieda and the Sepik River system.”
The East Sepik Provincial government and the national government had not yet responded to the concerns and grievances that have been raised.
Land in the Papua New Guinea context means the natural environment including land, rivers and seas.
In Madang Province, the landowners of Basamuk, Begesin, Ramu and Kurumbukari villages are affected by the Ramu nickel mine in various ways. The Chinese state-owned mine has been polluting the beautiful coastal seas and people have been denied their food gardens and fishing waters.
In a recent documentary, ‘Uprooted’, the people clearly showed their pain about the river system contamination and the environmental destruction. They are fearful of losing their land to large scale development.
The deep sea tailings placement (DSTP) method of mine waste management and disposal which the Ramu mine proposed and was approved by the PNG government is causing a lot of environmental destruction and river contamination.
“I belong to the government and the government belongs to me,” Martin Dampat, a Mindere landowner, said in the documentary. “How can it abandon me? It must do all that it can to ensure that I am able to feed myself.
“It has the ability to do so. But, if it chooses not to, then I know the government has no concern for me. We have reached our limits. We have done all we can. They’ve rejected everything we’ve said.
“We feel we can’t do anything anymore. Some have given up trying,” he said.
“There is a great heaviness in all our hearts. I don’t think anyone can remove it from within us. We will go. But our grandchildren bear hardships even greater that what we’re experiencing.”
Another disgruntled landowner, John Oma from Ganglau Landowner Company, said: “They don’t have the land to grow their food. They won’t have an ocean to catch their fish.
“Where will they eat from? Nowhere. Great hardship awaits them. We won’ be able to avoid the troubles that will come. It’s the same sea. Life will be difficult for them too.”
And Sama Mellombo from the Pommern Land Group in Ramu said, “It’s a fearful feeling when you think about the health effects on people and the inhabitants of the seas. If we take action now to tell China to find an alternative method, I think that’s the right approach. Find an alternative method instead of dumping waste into the sea. We live by the sea.”
Former Madang governor, Sir Arnold Amet, said: “The government has endorsed the actual deep sea tailings deposit and an environmental plan. I think it is our assurance that the laying down of the pipe will not affect the lives of our people.
“And the whole project has been signed and sealed by the national government and relevant agencies.”
A confused landowner from Ramu said: “We hear that the minister has come. We hear that the member has come. We hear that the mine boss has come. But we’re confused. For the people here in Mindere and Ganglau, we feel like we’re about to die because we don’t have a Father. Our Father – the government - isn’t here.”
Bong Dampat, a mother and a Mindere villager, said: “We fear for our children’s future. It’s going to be a long time. When waste dumped here, unborn children could be affected. The government and the company must pay attention. They cannot ignore us. What kind of a future will our children have? They have to pay attention.
“When a mining development contract allowed the Chinese to own and operate the mine, there was no concept of safety or environmental standards. It was a cowboy operation. You did whatever you wanted and it didn’t matter if you were injured. It seems they came with a set of rules that didn’t comply with the rules of our country.”
“This is not a fight against development. No. That isn’t why we’re campaigning,” said Ramu landowner Michael Kasuk.
“We are fighting to protect and save our environment, our forests, our land, our river systems and our seas because our existence is connected to the land, forests, river systems and the sea,” Mr Kasuk said.
Peter S Kinjap is a freelance journalist, email firstname.lastname@example.org