In November 2008 MiningWatch Canada’s Catherine Coumans had the opportunity to meet with partners at Barrick Gold’s Porgera Mine in the Papua New Guinea Highlands (Enga Province). Our partners are the grassroots human rights group called Akali Tange Association (ATA) and the Porgera Landowners Association (PLA). These two organizations created a joint organization called Porgera Alliance this year.
The Porgera mine is a source of serious environmental impacts as waste rock and tailings from the mine flow freely into the environment contaminating an 800 kilometre-long river system that flows from the PNG highlands to the Gulf of Papua. The Porgera mine is also associated with human rights abuses alleged to be perpetrated by the mine’s security forces against civilian men and women in the mine lease area (see our web site for details).
Additionally, the mine and its massive waste flows have contaminated fresh water in the mine lease area and its surroundings, occupied land that had been used for housing and subsistence agriculture, and made other areas geotechnically unstable, creating untenable living conditions for landowners living immediately around the edges of the mine and around its waste streams. Through their Landowners’ Association, these mining-affected landowners, some 12,000 in total, have been asking to be relocated (Porgera Landowners Association letter dated November 10, 2008). A further serious human health concern is the fact that an increasing number of community members now rely for their livelihood on small scale mining directly in the waste flows from the mine. As they use mercury to extract gold from the waste, men, women, and children are directly exposed to mercury in both its liquid and vaporized forms.
Just days before arriving at the mine site, the mine had been shut down as a result of a protest by local landowners from the community of Yarik. Yarik lies within the special mine lease area. It is situated on an “island” formed by massive waste rock dumps that flow on either side of a stretch of land inhabited by a number of landowner communities. A large tunnel pumping a steady stream of waste out of the underground workings of the mine exits into the community of Yarik through the Yunarilama portal. This portal is just metres from the community’s elementary school (see photo). In early November, villagers staged a protest at the Yunarilama portal by burning tires. According to reports, the smoke from the tires entered the tunnel and the underground mine forcing a closure. In a letter addressed to “The Human Rights President” the landowners of Yarik list a long list of impacts they are experiencing from the Porgera mine and note: “Due to these issues we made the call to the company to relocate the affected land owners but the company was silent and said (...) it was not its obligation to relocate the SMP (sic)[special mine lease] land owners” (letter from two special mine lease area residents, Nov. 11, 2008).
In addition to meeting with our partners, Catherine also met with local health officials, the mine management, men and women from the community who had had negative encounters with the mine’s security forces, members of the Porgera Youth Association, local law enforcement, and staff from the government’s Mineral Resources Authority.