THE FRIEDA-RIVER COPPER GOLD PROJECT, PAPUA NEW GUINEA
By Claire Burgess & Liz Downes | Image: Men traveling down the Sepik River, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea. Source: Project Sepik
As a part of a mega energy-infrastructure project, a large-scale open pit copper mine has been proposed by Pan Aust, a Chinese owned company listed in Australia, on a culturally and ecologically significant river region in Sepik in Papua New Guinea. Like the Amazon, it weaves down from the mountains, rich cloud forests, and through tropical rainforests and mangroves. The longest river in Papua New Guinea, it stretches for 1,126 kilometres. With 430,000 people depending on the river’s water systems and surrounding forests for livelihoods, cultural and spiritual practices, the potential implications of the mega project are devastating. Diverse habitats in the basin are also significant, with important waterbird and crocodile populations supported by the wetlands and 1,500 associated lakes.
Local communities have been actively campaigning against the mine due to the irreparable damage that the Sepik communities and environment would suffer. The mega project, spanning 16,000 hectares, has raised significant concerns about the implications on human rights and ecosystems – thus the Save the Sepik campaign was born. In partnership with Project Sepik, AidWatch and Jubilee Australia, campaigners are calling for the Papua New Guinea’s Conservation and Environment and Protection Authority (CEPA) to reject the Frieda River mine, and for the PNG government to list the Sepik River region as World Heritage, where the river is currently registered on the tentative list.
The Project Sepik campaign and the Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR) produced expert submissions to the PNG governments CEPA in response to the mining companies Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The report found that the EIS was deficient as it lacked critical details about the implications of poor capacity to store waste in a tailings dam, consequences of a dam break and little consideration of resettlement for displaced villages. For example, up to 30 villages could be affected by a dam break, posing significant risk to life.
The company has been aggressively pursuing social licence in the area holding sessions in nearly 140 villages. Local opposition groups maintain that the company has failed to respect the United Nations principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). In May 2020, 28 haus tambarans – “spirit houses” – representing 78,000 people along Papua New Guinea’s remote Sepik river – announced the ‘Supreme Sukundimi Declaration’ as a warning to relevant government bodies and corporations that ‘the River is the life of the Sepik and it must be protected at all costs’.
A collective response from 10 United Nations Special Rapporteurs who delivered written letters of concerns regarding ‘potential and actual threats to life, health, bodily integrity, water and food’ to stakeholder governments of Papua New Guinea, Australia, China, Canada and the developers of the gold, copper and silver mine.