NEW DELHI - Few people outside Papua New Guinea know about Porgera.
Those who do know about it know that it is one of the centres of international gold mining, with a major company with an innocuous name – Porgera Joint Venture– sucking out the enormous deposits of gold from its mountainous landscape.
The Porgera mine is one of the world’s top 10 producers of gold, which makes it remarkably rich – although the people who live near the mine have not shared in the spoils. The proven gold reserves of the Porgera mine are worth more than US$10 billion at today’s gold prices.
This is only one of PNG’s mines. There are hundreds more that run from one end of the country to another. The population of PNG is only eight million, which – given such wealth – would suggest that its people lived enriched lives. But this is not the case.
Behind the name Porgera Joint Venture sits the Canadian mining company Barrick Gold and the Chinese mining company Zijin Mining. Both are making enormous profits from this mine – and others.
Barrick Gold, as a new briefing by the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, ‘Ten Canadian Mining Companies: Financial Details and Violations’, shows, is worth billions of dollars and has mining operations across the world.
It has been the primary owner of the mine from 2006 to 2015. Zijin Mining is one of China’s largest gold producers, which has gradually left Chinese shores to enter joint partnerships abroad.
Last November, lawyers on behalf of the Justice Foundation for Porgera (landowners of the Special Mining Lease Area) filed a suit worth $13 billion against the PNG government.
The contracts signed between Barrick Gold and the government prevent any third party from suing the company for anything (this is called a “privity of contract” in legal terms), so the Justice Foundation for Porgera could not directly sue the company.
This is why the lawyers – based in Australia – have filed their claim in accord with the rules of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law.
It has taken the lawyers and the plaintiffs seven years to prepare this important suit. It has brought some attention to the situation in Papua New Guinea.
The main human-rights group in Porgera, the Akali Tange Association, is not part of this lawsuit. The ATA is pushing Barrick Gold to establish a grievance mechanism that responds to the claims of the people.
The locals have complained about a range of human-rights violations since 1989, just as the mine was being prepared to start production, but no one listened. In 2004, the ATA – newly formed – focused some attention on the mine and got various international groups to pay attention to the alleged violations of their land and their bodies.
In 2005, the ATA released its first major report, ‘The Shooting Fields of Porgera Joint Venture’. It documented the killing of 14 people as well as torture and arbitrary arrests of people by the Porgera Joint Venture security guards. At that time, the mine was owned by the Canadian company Placer Dome.
The report caught the attention of Mining Watch Canada, a group formed in 1999 to monitor the activities of Canadian mining companies around the world. Placer Dome did not deny the shootings. But little came of the outcry, largely because Placer Dome sold the mine to Barrick Gold the next year.
Barrick, one of Canada’s largest mining companies, did not provide respite to the population. Conversations with the activists of the ATA and the voluminous files that they have archived show that the violence and the impoverishment continued.
Shootings at miners and at activists started almost as soon as Barrick took over. The PNG government conducted an investigation in 2006, in which it heard from witnesses, but no report was issued.
McDiyan Robert Yapari, one of the leaders of the ATA, worked for a janitorial company that had a contract with the Porgera gold mine. He became active in the ATA after his brother, Jerry Yapari, was allegedly murdered by the mine’s guards, who threw rocks on him and crushed him to death.
Jerry’s death a decade ago was “terrible,” McDiyan tells me. It inspires his work now to fight for justice in Porgera.
The ATA, McDiyan says, currently has a total of 940 human-rights allegations against the company. These have been filed with the company’s own grievance mechanism. These allegations run from extrajudicial killings to gang rapes to chemical poisoning. Their calls, McDiyan says, “have fallen on deaf ears.”
“We have tried to reach for assistance to air our grievances for everyone to know what a Canadian mining company – the Barrick Gold Corporation – does to the indigenous communities here in Porgera,” McDiyan tells me.
After ‘The Shooting Fields of Porgera Joint Venture’, the ATA produced two more reports: ‘Porgera Gross Human Rights Violations’ (2017) and ‘Cost of Gold’ (2018). Reading these texts is painful.
The first text provided the basis for the US-based non-governmental organisation BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) to develop its own report, ‘In Search of Justice’. The Akali Tange Association is working closely with BSR to push Barrick to accept its 10 – very basic – recommendations.
Barrick responded with a media brush-off typical of multinationals, and it canceled a November 2018 meeting with the ATA. McDiyan says that Barrick has made no effort to dialogue with the ATA.
‘Cost of Gold’, carries the correspondence between ATA and various government authorities. It is a one-sided correspondence. The ATA writes into the void, asking for help but not getting much in the way of serious consideration.
The descriptions of the violence are vivid and sincere. Women write of rape as an object to destroy their society, to humiliate the women and create social discord inside families. Routine violence is the order of things, they say.
On 25 March 2017, security guards linked to the mine and the police allegedly burned down 150 homes near the mine, attacked the community and raped at least eight women.
McDiyan reported on this case of forced eviction. He was arrested under the cybercrimes law of Papua New Guinea and detained for more than 30 hours. After his release, McDiyan – with community support – fought his case and prevailed. It is one of the few victories in Porgera.
The fight for compensation is an old one. The people – through the ATA’s recommendations – seek compensation not merely to heal their wounds but as a mechanism to assert their dignity. They have taken the toll of the mines and produced powerful demands, which press for a different kind of mining operation.
They want to be taken seriously, to make sure that the miners and their families become partners in the production of the gold. They want to enforce environmental rules to prevent the dumping of harsh chemicals into the rivers.
They want a hospital in the area to be tasked with dealing with mercury poisoning and the broad impact of the toxic soil produced by the mining techniques of Barrick Gold.
Their demands are clear and reasonable. Neither Barrick/Zijin nor the government of PNG has taken them seriously.
On 12 May, next Sunday, the Special Mining Lease for the Porgera mine will need to be renewed. Both the lawyers who filed the arbitration case against the government and the ATA, which pursues the reform of the grievance mechanism, are aware of this deadline.
No one believes that the PNG government is going to drop Barrick. That is unlikely. In a position paper from last month, the ATA suggests that Barrick is “ignorant and negligent.”
That may be so, but it is also very rich. And its removal of gold has left the Porgerans very poor, and very angry.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has written more than 20 books and writes regularly for Frontline, The Hindu, Newsclick, AlterNet and BirGün