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Dangerous Duty in Papua New Guinea

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Issue: 55 Section: Business Geography: East Asia Paupa New Guinea Topics: Mining

November 22, 2008

Dangerous Duty in Papua New Guinea

Community members get "the opposite of what was promised" from Barrick Gold

by Sakura Saunders

Barrick gold's Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea is surrounded by villages. Photo: Techa Beaumont

Native to the rocky highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG), Jethro Tulin is a popular organiser and founder of the Akali Tange Association (ATA), a human rights organization documenting abuses at the Porgera mine, owned by Toronto’s Barrick Gold.

I first met Jethro when we toured New York and Canada together with a crew of Indigenous representatives from four countries affected by Barrick’s operations. He arrived in New York excited by the possibilities that the trip presented, and with news of a historic alliance that had just been forged.

The news was that the both the chairman and secretary of the Porgera Landowners Association (PLOA), Mark Ekepa and Anga Atalu, had decided to accompany Jethro on his trip. According to Jethro, the PLOA – which owns 2.5 per cent of the Porgera mine – had historically distanced itself from the ATA.

“The company had them [the PLOA] in their pockets,” he explained.

This new public alliance, consolidated during the North American speaking tour, was a sign that conditions had worsened near the mine site to the point that even those benefiting from the mine were willing to speak out against it.

“I am here to tell you why we cannot be safe and healthy in our ancestral land anymore,” Ekepa told the room at a Canadian Parliamentary press conference, continuing his speech with stories of environmental devastation and human rights abuses at the hands of mine security.

In 1994, Barrick's Porgera mine more than doubled its processing capacity. Locals allege that this was done without the consent of the landowners.

Since then, the landowners have complained to the state and to the mine operators that the mine expansion is destroying arable lands, homes, transportation links and water sources.

The Porgera mine uses riverine tailings disposal, whereby mine waste is disposed of directly in rivers. This practice is banned in most countries in the world, including Canada and the US.

Besides the mine’s encroachment on the environment of the surrounding villages, Barrick’s private security force has also been accused of numerous human rights violations, including rape, murder, and the arbitrary detainment of local people.

It hasn’t always been like this in Porgera. When the mining company (then Placer Dome) first approached the community, the villagers were excited about the prospects of the mine. “They did not really understand the impacts, but they were excited that mine was granted license to dig for gold,” says Tulin.

“They were excited about the promises of good wages, most of them would be living in good houses, good cars, good communication and the roads would be paved and all of these kinds of promises were floating about," he continues. "That never came about...what we got out of them is the opposite of what was promised.”

Jethro has been organizing within and outside the mine since its inception. In 1989, he registered Porgera’s first mine workers union and became its first secretary. Years later, after spending time abroad and involved in other aspects of Papua New Guinea’s nascent union movement, Jethro returned to Porgera to find the situation with the mine and the surrounding villages had worsened dramatically.

In 2003, someone was shot crossing the waste dump at the Porgera mine, and there was acts of vandalism carried out against the company.

"Some of them [the vandals] were relatives – connected to my tribal networks – so I told them, ‘I think it is not good that you are getting the law into your own hands; the better way to do it is to get the information out and tell the company that what they are doing is not correct,'" explains Jethro.

“After that, I got them together, formed the association and formed the interim committee known as the Akali Tange, and we started documenting all of the human rights abuses in Porgera.”

Since that date, the ATA has operated in Porgera with an all-volunteer staff and material support from friends, victims’ relatives, and even local businessmen and officials. But not everyone is happy with the ATA.

“The mine said that I was pushing [the villagers] around after being in the union movement. So they were losing all of these opportunities and now we are getting people to conduct un-civic activities,” Jethro recalled.

“They were even going into my village at the time; they loaded up two truckloads of village elders, bringing the community down to the mine site, giving them food and all of this dried fish and money.”

Speaking abroad, dangers at home

Within a few months of returning home from this year’s tour of New York and Eastern Canada, Tulin and the ATA documented four killings. The latest victim was Gibsom Umbi--a 15-year-old boy--killed with an M-16 rifle shot to the head, allegedly fired by Barrick security.

Barrick has not yet publicly denied involvement in this killing, despite the fact that their employees were present at the autopsy, nor have they responded to multiple e-mail queries about Gibson’s death.

Around the same time, Tulin began receiving anonymous threats against his life. After a letter from mine manager Mark Fisher condemned Tulin by name, he was attacked by three men wielding machetes.

One of the assailants told Tulin during the attack that he would “never visit Canada again.” A week later he was flown to Australia to receive medical attention after the Paupa New Guinea hospitals were unable to reset his arm, which had been broken in four places during the attack.

Local mine management admits that "the law and order situation [in Porgera] has deteriorated considerably [since 2003] and, is currently, one of the biggest concerns of communities in the Porgera Valley."

Jethro’s attack seems to have only strengthened his resolve in continuing his work and after a month-long stay in Australia, Jethro plans on going back to Porgera. He is confident that his tribe will protect him.

“The pressure is on the company now,” he told me on the phone from Australia, determined to return and seek justice for his community.

Sakura Saunders is an editor for protestbarrick.net.

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Barrick Gold mine in Papua New Guinea

This year is the Christian communities' "World Day of Prayer with and for Papua New Guinea". In researching PNG I learned through "Google Alerts" coming into my e-mail everyday about the mine tailings in the rivers and bays and around coral reefs in PNG. I am totally stunned that a Canadian mine(I am Canadian) would do this to such a rich, beautiful country. And now I am hearing about the violence coming from the security team of this company. I have encouraged all the host churches in the city of Toronto to access Google Alerts on Papua New Guinea until the World Day of Prayer in March 2009 and have told them in a meeting this weekend about the behaviour of Barrick Gold. Certainly the 2000 communities across Canada and even the 170 countries in which World Day of Prayer takes place will soon know what is happening there. Chair of the day of preparation for WDP.

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