The plan for the largest mine in Papua New Guinea’s history carries a risk of catastrophic loss of life and environmental destruction and “appears to disregard the human rights of those affected”, according to United Nations officials.
In an extraordinary intervention, 10 UN special rapporteurs have written with “serious concerns” to the governments of Papua New Guinea, Australia, China, and Canada, as well as the Chinese state-owned developers of the gold, copper and silver mine proposed for the remote Frieda river in the country’s north.
The UN’s special rapporteur on toxic wastes, Baskut Tuncak – who has since retired from that role – and nine other senior UN officials, jointly signed letters in July “to express our serious concern regarding the potential and actual threats to life, health, bodily integrity, water and food”. The UN rapporteurs argue the “the project and its implementation so far appears to disregard the human rights of those affected”.
Tuncak wrote, “The proposed location is a seismically active area. The risk of major earthquake causing damage to the dam will persist for millions of years. While termed by the proponents to be ‘very unlikely’, a failure of the tailings dam and the release of the toxic waste would be catastrophic resulting in loss of life and environmental destruction"
The mine, if approved and built, would be the largest in PNG’s history, and one of the largest in the world, covering 16,000 hectares. To be built on the Frieda river, a tributary to the Sepik in the north of New Guinea island, it is forecast to yield gold, silver and copper worth an estimated US$1.5bn a year for more than 30 years.
PanAust, 80% shareholder in the project, is an Australian-registered miner ultimately owned by the Chinese government, part of the state-owned Guangdong Rising Assets Management.
Tunak said he held concerns the project “threatens the cultural rights of the Sepik peoples … and could undermine the rights of Sepik children to life, health, culture and a healthy environment”.
Richard Pearshouse, head of crises and environment at Amnesty International, said the special rapporteurs’ intervention was “unprecedented” so early in a mine’s approval process.
“They’re obviously concerned because there are so many unanswered questions regarding what would be one of the largest mines in the world..."
On the other side of the world a new report has exposed the scale and impact of mining on indigenous reserves in Amazon countries as gold prices soared during the Covid-19 pandemic. More than 20% of indigenous lands are overlapped by mining concessions and illegal mining, it found, covering 450,000 sq km (174,000 sq miles) – and 31% of Amazon indigenous reserves are affected. The report, released on Wednesday by the World Resources Institute, said indigenous people should be given more legal rights to manage and use their lands, and called for better environmental safeguards.
In Brazil, invasions of indigenous lands by garimpeiros – as wildcat miners are called – have increased since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. Many voted for Bolsonaro after he promised to legalise their work. In 2019, deforestation caused by garimpeiros in the Amazon rose 23% on 2018 to a record 10,500 hectares (26,000 acres), O Globo newspaper reported in May.
The Munduruku Indigenous Reserve in the Brazilian Amazon state of Pará has been heavily affected. Garimpeiro investors have paid local indigenous people to help them enter the reserve and work within it, said Ademir Kaba Munduruku, a local leader. “This has been imitated by other Munduruku and become a big problem,” he said. “Alcoholism, prostitution, drugs, violence, division within the Munduruku people, contamination of river beds have all increased.”
Peter Veit, director of the WRI’s Land and Resource Rights Initiative explained, “Many companies don’t adhere to the law, the letter of the law, many don’t seem to adhere to their agreements with the government,”
Amazon indigenous peoples lose out when mining companies and illegal operations enter their land. “We are under siege from legal and illegal mining and our governments are doing little to enforce the rights that do exist,” Michael McGarrell, human rights coordinator for the Amazon indigenous organisation COICA, said