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TORONTO—Amnesty International (AI) recently made waves in human rights circles, publishing a new report focusing on Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold's role in violent forced evictions in the Porgera region of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
The publication marks AI’s first report detailing the human rights abuses occurring near a Canadian mine. Publishing such a report can be risky business; the threat of a lawsuit targeting individual journalists and publishers for reporting on the activities of extractive companies is not one that many NGOs can afford to face, and Barrick is known to take crippling legal action when challenged on its human rights record.
Although AI does not conclude that representatives of Barrick directly ordered the evictions, the international human rights organization does express its concern about the company's continued support for a police unit participating in illegal activities in the region.
The report, titled “Undermining Rights: Forced Evictions and Police Brutality around the Porgera Gold Mine, Papua New Guinea,” examines links between Barrick Gold and a special Mobile Squad of police officers which burned to the ground more than 130 homes in the Porgera region between April and July 2009. The report found Barrick Gold provided food, housing and fuel to the Mobile Squad during the period of the evictions, and continues to do so despite a PNG court ordering the retreat of the police.
The Porgera Joint Venture (PJV) gold mine is located in the Porgera region of Enga, a highland province of PNG. PJV has been in operation since 2006, and continues to be 95 per cent owned and operated by subsidiaries of Canada-based Barrick, the largest mining company in the world. The remaining five per cent is split between the Enga provincial government and select local landowners. Barrick had been exploring expansion of its mine site for two years, but ceased exploration one month before the evictions.
According to the AI report, in 2008 PJV produced 627,000 ounces of gold, worth approximately $US546 million.
Jefferey Simon, a resident and member of the Akali Tange Association—a human rights organization in the Porgera area that was formed in 2004 to document abuses at PJV—explained in an interview that there is a strong history of artisanal mining in the community, which has provided a source of income alongside subsistence agriculture.
When the government of PNG granted PJV exclusive exploitation rights to a large region known as the Special Mining Lease (SML) area, it effectively cut off the community's ability to support itself, according to Simon.
PNG's 1992 Mining Act states that "all land in the State is available...for exploration and mining and the grant of tenements over it." However, the country's constitution recognizes Customary Law, which dictates that all individuals—including unborn generations—have the right to use land and resources for livelihood and traditional activities. In 2000 the National Parliament enacted the Underlying Law Act, mandating the courts to pay greater attention to Customary Law when upholding the law of the country.
Under the pretext of addressing illegal mining activities and the general decline in law and order around PJV, a request was made by the Porgera District Law and Order Committee for a 30-member police unit to patrol the area. Instead, in April 2009, a 200-member elite Mobile Squad unit, typically sent to regions of high conflict and usually armed with assault rifles, arrived within SML, an area with some 10,000 Indigenous inhabitants.
According to AI's report, when police arrived in the area to begin Operation “Ipili,” PJV provided logistical support and conducted frequent briefings.
On April 27, 2009, police encircled houses in the community of Wuangima and proceeded to violently evict families from their homes and set fire to at least 130 houses.
According to the AI report, after refusing to leave his house, one man was locked inside while police set fire to his home. He escaped with the help of neighbours. One woman, while nursing her child, was struck on her shoulder by a police officer with the butt of his rifle.
Those who were away tending their gardens came home to find only the charred remains of their houses and their highly valuable livestock killed by police. Those who had been home met with violent confrontation: witnesses testify that police pointed their weapons at them, threatened and yelled at them to leave their houses. Others reported police officers shot at or near them.
At least three women independently testified to AI about being raped by police officers. AI is strongly pressing for further investigations into these reports.
In a meeting held December 3, 2009, between AI and Barrick Gold, the company insisted that PJV was only one of several parties that supported the April 2009 deployment of police to the area. Barrick denied having prior knowledge of police actions in Wuangima.
Barrick has publicly insisted that the buildings destroyed were nothing more than temporary shelters used by migrants to the area, and that they housed people participating in illegal mining activity.
However, AI's research provided significant evidence to the contrary. Taking lengthy testimonies of residents and religious leaders, examining photographs taken before and during the burnings, and relying on the physical evidence of the charred remains of the houses, AI concluded the buildings destroyed were solidly constructed with wooden frames and traditional woven bamboo walls.
The remains of established gardens and the existence of a church in Wuangima constructed in 2004 by residents provide further evidence that the community was not temporary. PJV surveyed the area in 2007 in the hopes of expanding the mine, and would have known the area was established with permanent homes.
According to the AI report, Barrick and PJV finally acknowledged in their meeting with AI that some of the houses in Wuangima were in fact occupied for quite some time. The company maintained, however, that it had not been in a position to authorize or dictate the activity of the Mobile Squad, and claimed it had no prior knowledge of the evictions.
Barrick Gold, like many other Canadian mining companies, claim they support strong human rights standards, and their operations fully support the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, a non-binding agreement signed by governments, companies, NGOs and observer organizations.
These principles dictate the company must document and report to the appropriate authorities cases where physical force is used by public security, as well as record and report any credible allegation of human rights abuses by public security. In addition, companies should urge an investigation and support action to prevent recurrence of such physical force.
Barrick maintains it did not know the intentions of police. However, according to the AI report, PJV had almost daily communications with police. PJV in fact participated in a police briefing meeting the morning of the evictions. Barrick told AI that PJV employees saw smoke only after the buildings were burning. Photos taken during the raid show PJV employees watching from the mine site.
According to the report, the General Manager of Corporate and Legal for PJV contacted the Commander of the Mobile Squad, but after his being told the evictions were legal there were no further investigations on the part of PJV or Barrick.
Corporate accountability is a large focus within Amnesty International Canada (AIC) for the next several years.
“One of the challenges of researching community concerns that relate to large corporations is the fear of a lawsuit or some form of legal action,” said Ian Heide, the coordinator for Business and Human Rights for AIC. “The complexity of the situation in terms of government responsibility versus corporation responsibility or obligation means that AI needs to be sure of our research before going public."
AI has good reason to be careful. Noir Canada—edited by Alain Denault and the Collectif Ressources d’Afrique and published in French out of Montreal—details the role of Canadian companies operating in Africa with the support of the Canadian government. In that particular case, lawyers for Barrick Gold claimed there were inaccuracies in the book’s detailing of Barrick’s role in the 1996 massacre in Bulyanhulu, Tanzania, where more than 50 small-scale miners were buried alive. Barrick Gold filed a SLAPP lawsuit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) against the writers, editors, translators and publishers of Noir Canada in order to block the translation of the book into English. Barrick Gold has also sued The Observer and The Guardian over articles they published about the Bulyanhulu massacre.
Simon explained the importance of the AI report. “Both the company and the state are bonded for development,” he said. “The only way to express ourselves is through media and connecting with international NGOs who can carry out adequate research and produce reliable reports.”
While acknowledging the quick response by AI—the report was researched and released within eight months of the evictions—Jethro Tulin, another resident of Porgera, thinks the report could have gone further. According to Tulin, there is no room for doubt that the company was responsible, but this was not made clear in the report. He maintains that even if AI did not have proof that Barrick was directly responsible for ordering the forced evictions, they could have recorded opinions of witnesses and made stronger recommendations to Barrick.
“AI has a reputation for being fair and impartial,” responded Heide, “so we only name governments and companies when we are certain that what we are saying is accurate and fair.”
Simon and Tulin agree with AI's report in its clear statement of the unanimous demand by people living near Barrick’s Porgera mine to be relocated to areas outside the SML.
AI has called on the Government of PNG to investigate the evictions and ensure that alternative accommodations and adequate compensation are provided for those who have been displaced.
Valerie Croft worked in Guatemala as an International Accompanier in 2008 and is active in issues relating to corporate accountability.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.