Villagers file human rights complaint over plan for giant PNG goldmine


More than 2,000 people in 60 villages in Papua New Guinea’s north – where the country’s largest gold, copper and silver mine is slated to be built – have filed a human rights complaint with the Australian government against developer PanAust.

The landowners of the proposed Frieda River mine, on a tributary to the Sepik in the north of New Guinea island, allege that PanAust failed to obtain their consent.

The coordinator of Project Sepik, Emmanuel Peni, said: “The failure by PanAust and its subsidiary Frieda River Limited to obtain consent from the Sepik River communities violates their right as Indigenous peoples to give their free, prior and informed consent to developments that affect them.”

PanAust, 80 percent shareholder in the project, is an Australian-registered miner ultimately owned by the Chinese government and part of state-owned Guangdong Rising Assets Management.

The complaint also alleges that “the proposed mine poses a serious risk for communities living on the Sepik River”. It was filed – on behalf of the affected community members by local organisation Project Sepik Inc and the Australian NGO Jubilee Australia Research Centre – with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Australian National Contact Point.

While the complaint does not stop development, Jubilee Australia’s executive director, Dr Luke Fletcher, said he hoped the National Contact Point would assess the validity of the complaint, perhaps looking at PanAust’s environmental impact statement – which the complainants allege does not adequately assess the impact of the project on water catchments – and organising meetings for the company, the NGOs and the Australian and PNG governments to “find a negotiated settlement”.

Fletcher said: “Those communities have the right to have their voices heard and to decide what happens on their land. The Sepik River communities have clearly voiced their concerns about this mine, but so far, those concerns have fallen on deaf ears.

“PanAust and its subsidiaries must pause all further mine development as all affected communities do not currently consent to the mine.”

The proposed 16,000-hectaure mine would be built in one of the most seismically active regions in the world, with an accompanying dam to store 1,500 megatonnes of waste.

Government officials, environmental advocacy groups and villagers living along the river have warned that the proposed dam is a potential environmental disaster that could wipe out entire villages if there was a natural disaster.

Similar concerns have been raised by 10 UN special rapporteurs, who wrote to the governments of Papua New Guinea, Australia, China, and Canada, as well as the Chinese state-owned developers of the mine, warning that 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”.

PanAust says it has conducted “dam break analysis” which ensured “appropriate factors of safety have been incorporated into the design” of the dam.

“The probability of a failure is very unlikely,” said the company’s environmental impact statement. “However, the extreme consequences of complete failure leading to the uncontrolled release of large quantities of water and solids (from waste rock and tailings placement) would likely result in extreme downstream environmental and social impacts.”

The proposed mine is forecast to yield gold, silver and copper worth an estimated US$1.5bn a year for more than 30 years.

In response to detailed questions from the Guardian, a representative for PanAust said the company “politely declines the opportunity to provide comment”.

PanAust said in its environmental impact statement that the “nation-building project … presents broad commercial and socioeconomic development opportunities for Papua New Guinea”.

The mine plan also includes a hydroelectric plant, power grid, and road, airport and seaport upgrades.

PanAust said it had engaged in “extensive and ongoing engagement … over several decades” with those affected by the mine, running information sessions in nearly 140 villages attended by more than 18,000 people.

“Local opinions and issues have been sought through engagement campaigns … formal and informal meetings with village leaders, and through socioeconomic surveys conducted in villages between 2010 and 2018.”.