2020 has been a tough year with the COVID-19 pandemic further highlighting the inequalities and injustices in our world. However, with it comes opportunities and new possibilities.

With movements like The Black Lives Matters and the intersecting issues of racial, economic, social, gender, environmental and climate justice, AID/WATCH’s work has moved beyond the ‘aid lens’.

This has also highlighted the unfinished business of decolonisation. Our work, now and into the future, demands decoloniality in our approach, processes and everyday social relations. 

For this reason, AID/WATCH continues to collaborate with movements and frontline communities in mutual solidarity for equality, liberation and global justice, to lay the foundations for a radically different and better future for all.

DEVELOPMENT JUSTICE

Save the Sepik River and its People
Photo of three Indigenous men in their traditional canoe travelling down the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea
Image: Men travelling on the Sepik River. Source: Project Sepik

Save the Sepik: “The River is not ours, it is for the future”

For the past two years AID/WATCH has been collaborating with Papua New Guinea partner, Project Sepik, and other partners, to call for a ban on the proposed Frieda River Mine on the mighty Sepik River. In March 2020 the SAVE THE SEPIK campaign was formed

The Sepik River in the East Sepik region of Papua New Guinea runs at 1126 km in length and covers an area of 7.7 million hectares. As one of the world’s greatest river systems, Sepik River is the largest unpolluted freshwater system in Papua New Guinea and among the largest and most intact freshwater basins in the Asia Pacific – it is often referred to as the Amazon of the region.

It is now under threat by a large-scale extractive mining project, the Frieda River mine, It is run by Frieda River Ltd, a subsidiary of PanAust a Chinese-owned, Australian registered and incorporated company.

The project is described as one of the largest known undeveloped copper and gold deposits in the world. In terms of tonnes of ore and waste rock produced, the mine would be the size of the rest of the entire PNG mining industry combined. 

WHY SAVE THE SEPIK RIVER?

The Sepik River is one of the least developed areas in Papua New Guinea and home to approximately 430,000 people who depend almost entirely on the river’s water systems and the forests for their cultural and spiritual practices, and their lives and livelihoods. The Upper Sepik River Basin is one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse areas on the planet with over 300 languages in an area the size of France. The diverse habitats of the basin are globally significant for biodiversity with important waterbird and crocodile populations that are supported by the 1,500 lakes and other wetlands associated with the basin. It was placed on the ‘Tentative List’ for nominations for World Heritage Status by Papua New Guinea’s Department of Environment and Conservation in 2006.

THE FRIEDA RIVER MINE PROJECT

The proposed Frieda River copper and gold mining project would be like nothing PNG has seen before – it would be the size of all of PNG’s mining industry combined, and one of the largest mines in the world – operating as a large scale open pit mine, 16,000 hectares in size it has been proposed to run for 33 years and possibly extended to last longer than 45 years.

The mine would be located in the headwaters of the Frieda River, a tributary of the mighty Sepik River where the terrain is rugged with an extremely high annual rainfall of 8 metres per year. The project would be ‘one of the most isolated and remotely located mines in the region’, and ‘one of the most technically challenging mine sites in the world’.

The construction phase of the mine would involve the discharge of toxic material into the Frieda River. There would be a pipeline, spoil dumps and incinerators all carrying, storing or burning toxic waste materials.

The Project would include one of the largest dams in the world which would be required to safely store toxic tailings forever in a seismically active area. If the dam collapsed it would be catastrophic, killing thousands of villagers and destroying the Sepik River. Due to increased opposition, PanAust has recently begun discussions of an alternative plan for the mine waste to be piped across West Sepik dumped in the deep-sea trench between Aitape and Vanimo.

Should the company decide to move to an alternative tailings management plan, it is our understanding that CEPA would not be able to approve the project without the development and submission of a new Environment Impact Statement (EIS).

The associated mine infrastructure of the project would span across both East and West Sepik provinces and includes the Sepik infrastructure project, the Sepik power grid project, and the Frieda River hydroelectric project.

The hydroelectric project would be located approximately 16km downstream of the mine, on the Frieda River purportedly generating hydroelectric power for the mine. An integrated storage facility (ISF) formed by the Frieda River Hydroelectric Project reservoir will be required to permanently contain underwater tailings and waste rock from the mine.

NO SOCIAL LICENCE

There is no evidence of Free, Prior and Informed Consent of all impacted Customary Landowners including communities on the mine site and along the Frieda and Sepik Rivers. This evidence is essential for the Project to proceed.

In 2019, a report investigating the project’s environmental and social impacts and the views of local communities included findings from an October 2018 awareness tour that all 23 villages visited were opposed to the Frieda River mine going ahead.

In May 2020, a total ban on the mine was unanimously proclaimed by the Traditional Clan Leaders of 28 Haus Tambarans along more than 1,000 kilometres of the Sepik River – from Swagap in Upper Sepik near the Frieda River to Kopar at the mouth of the Sepik River.

The Haus Tambarans issued the Supreme Sukundimi Declaration representing approximately 78,000 people across 25 villages, a powerful document that is a first-ever in PNG, which would be admissible in a court of law.

THE IMPACTS

PanAust provided an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to the Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA) that lacked crucial details including critical reports and information that would normally be necessary for any comprehensive assessment. Reports relating to the tailings dam and seismic activity have not been provided. The EIS is also missing basic information about the operation and closure of the mine, an assessment of the proposed airport, a resettlement plan for the four villages requiring relocation, and a cost-benefit analysis.

In March 2020, PNG’s Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR) and Project Sepik provided ten expert reports to CEPA on the Sepik Development Infrastructure Project, which includes the Frieda River Mine.

The expert reports found that:

  • Up to 30 villages would be affected by a catastrophic event resulting in the dam breaking, with substantial loss of life expected;
  • Predictions about contamination of groundwater, surface waters such as lakes and rivers, and the surrounding environment were underestimated; and
  • There is no secure way of storing the massive amount of mine waste (tailings) safely without damaging the river.

SITE OF WORLD HERITAGE SIGNIFICANCE

The Upper Sepik River basin has been Tentatively Listed for World Heritage Status by the Government of Papua New Guinea to protect the Sepik River for future generations.

The Upper Sepik is the heart of one of the least modified landscapes in the Asia Pacific. A major river runs free without dams, weirs or industrial developments. A band of unbroken rainforest extends for hundreds of kilometres. There are few places left on earth in this condition… There are few places in Melanesia where cultural heritage is as diverse, dramatically displayed or proudly protected.

– Government of Papua New Guinea submission to UNESCO, tentatively listing the Upper Sepik River Basin for World Heritage Status in 2006.

HOW CAN YOU SUPPORT THE SAVE THE SEPIK CAMPAIGN?

PREVENTING TOXIC LEGACIES

Stop Lynas Campaign
Photo of three Indigenous men in their traditional canoe travelling down the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea
Image: Community from Malaysia outside the Lynas AGM held in Sydney in 2015

Australian exporting a toxic legacy to Malaysia

Since 2014, AID/WATCH has supported the Australian-Malaysian Stop Lynas campaign. The campaign has been opposed to Australian rare earth corporation, Lynas Corporation, for imposing the world’s largest rare earth refinery on Malaysians with no social licence to operate.

Lynas Corporation is listed with the Sydney Stock Exchange. It owns the Mt Weld rare earth (RE) mine together with its concentration plant near Laverton in Western Australia (WA), and fully owns Lynas Malaysia. Lynas Malaysia owns and operates the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP), a secondary rare earth processing plant occupying 100 hectares of an area cleared from a predominantly low-lying flood-prone peatland near Kuantan Port, fishing villages and within the metropolitan of the coastal city of Kuantan.

RE processing produces massive amounts of toxic wastes that are contaminated with long-live radionuclides of thorium and uranium, heavy metals and chemicals. Currently, Lynas’ wastes have been piled up in shallow dams at the plant. They are exposed to weather and overflow into the surrounding environment in times of heavy tropical rainstorm and the annual monsoon period. Since clearing of the peatland for the LAMP, the area has been subject to peat fires in dry periods.

Lynas could have processed the RE minerals in WA and complied with more stringent Australian regulations and subject to stricter law enforcement. The WA Government has given conditional approval for a RE secondary processing plant for the industrial estate in Kwinana. Yet, it has conveniently chosen Malaysia to take advantage of its lax environmental governance and limited technical capabilities in Malaysia on radiation safety and hazards control. 

Lynas has been promoting itself as a socially and environmentally responsible company, despite nearly a decade of public protest against its below standard waste and pollution handling, among other problems including threats of SLAPP suits against its critics.

With more than one million metric tonnes of toxic and radioactive waste piled up at the refinery, AID/WATCH has collaborated with Friends of the Earth Australia, Stop Lynas Campaign, and Malaysian partners, Save Malaysia Stop Lynas, Himpunan Hijau and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM)-Friends of the Earth Malaysia in calling on Lynas to clean up its toxic radioactive mess

AID/WATCH will continue to support our Malaysian partners and colleagues in their struggle for environmental justice over the corporate impunity of Australian-owned Lynas Corporation.

BEYOND MINING

Protecting Land, Water & Life
Photo of three Indigenous men in their traditional canoe travelling down the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea
Image: Lake Cowal cold mine in central-western NSW. Image: Nat Lowrey

The case for building a world Beyond Mining

AID/WATCH has joined a growing international movement calling for a transformative climate justice transition.

Australia and other rich countries continue to exploit and get access to a greater share of the world’s finite resources through the global mineral supply chain. We are now seeing mining giants and dirty energy companies waving the flag of climate emergency to justify the same deathly business model of extractivism for a so-called ‘green’ transition.

AID/WATCH is calling for a transformative transition away from poverty and climate harms and towards social, economic, political and cultural liberation for all.

Our work includes:

YES TO LIFE NO TO MINING

Yes to Life No to Mining (YLNM) is a global network. Aid/Watch coordinator, Natalie Lowrey has been a national contact point for YLNM since 2016.

BLOCKADE IMARC
MINING & COVID
MINING & ENERGY TRANSITION
ASIA PACIFIC GATHERING ON HUMAN RIGHTS & EXTRACTIVISM

LAND GRABBING

Justice for Paga Hill
Photo of three Indigenous men in their traditional canoe travelling down the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea
Image: Joe Moses and other leaders from the Paga Hill community who are calling for justice, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Source: still from The Opposition film

Calling out land grabbing, standing with Human Rights Defenders

Since 2017, AID/WATCH in collaboration with the Paga Hill community, Jubilee Australia, Human Rights Law Centre and The Opposition film, has campaigned to seek justice for the Paga Hill community through research, advocacy, lobbying, and media.

With living conditions and evictions of informal settlements becoming one of the most pervasive violations of human rights globally, AID/WATCH has continued to challenge the illegal evictions of the Paga Hill community including investigating the forced evictions and where the community is now through a participatory social mapping research project, of which a full report will be released in June 2021.

LAND & HOUSING JUSTICE
AUSTRALIAN PUBLIC MONEY & CORPORATE IMPUNITY
HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS
COMMUNITY RESISTANCE
ADVOCACY

TIME TO DECOLONISE

Decolonising Aid, Trade & Development

“For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.”

― Franz Fanon The Wretched of the Earth

 

Colonialism and racism are embedded in structures and power dynamics – the aid and development sectors are no exception. The current global pandemic has further exposed systemic injustice and racism imposed on communities around the world. 

“Colonisation” in aid, trade and development refer to Western governments, institutions, organisations, researchers and practitioners imposing their ideas on countries in the Global South without involving people them and continuing to control key resources such as money.

We need a radical rethinking to decolonise the aid system, shift the balance of power, and support communities on the frontlines of confronting injustice. In 2021 AID/WATCH will be asking the following questions in the context of our ongoing research, campaigns and advocacy work:

  • What are the current power dynamics and imbalances that exist?
  • How does structural racism show up in the culture of international aid and development?
  • How can we decolonise partnerships, funding structures and decision-making processes?  
  • What is AID/WATCH’s role as an organisation? And what internal and external work do we need to do?
  • What will it take to decolonise aid and development? 
  • What would decolonised aid and development look like? How do we achieve it? 

“Aid Talks” is a webinar series discussing the most pressing issues on aid and development cooperation today and the critical issues surrounding it. Co-hosted by Aid/Watch Australia and the Reality of Aid – Asia Pacific (RoA-AP), “Aid Talks” aims to inform the public on how the Official Development Assistance (ODA), commonly known as aid provided by donor countries to developing nations and fragile states, is being utilized as ‘aid investment’ redirected to support private sector players and narrow security priorities over reducing inequality and poverty.

Despite the assertion of CSOs that ODA should enhance the quality of life of developing nations and fragile states, narratives from communities say otherwise. For example, ODA is leveraged for International Finance Institutions (IFIs) such as the US-led International Monetary Fund-World Bank Group (IMF-WB), Japan-led Asian Development Bank (ADB), and China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). These IFIs collaborate with the private sector (usually multi or transnational corporations) to implement development projects.

Instead of paving the way for genuine, sustainable development, the corporate capture of development has only resulted in displacement, food insecurity, militarization, and worse, human rights violations in marginalized, vulnerable communities. All development actors involved in such injustice need to be accountable for their actions. Free, prior and informed consent and/or proper consultations are not always granted to communities whilst national governments side with corporations. Such developments are not guided by the needs of communities, allowing people to determine their own development pathways and priorities.

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