• Indigenous peoples in Papua New Guinea

    Indigenous peoples in Papua New Guinea

    Papua New Guinea (PNG), formally the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, is a country in Oceania that encompasses the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and covers an area of 462,840 km2.1 The country’s name comes from “Papou” which, according to the naturalist Alfred Wallace, originates in the Malaysian puwah-puwah or papuwah meaning “frizzy”.2

The Indigenous World 2021: Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea (PNG), formally the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, is a country in Oceania that covers an area of 462,840 km2 and encompasses the eastern half of the island of New Guinea.[1] The country's name comes from "Papou" which, according to the naturalist  Alfred Wallace, originates in the Malaysian puwah-puwah or papuwah meaning "frizzy".[2] New Guinea was the name given to the area by a 16th-century Spanish explorer due to the assumed resemblance of its inhabitants to those of Equatorial Guinea in Africa. The country gained independence in 1975 and is now a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.[3]

Almost symbolically a federal structure, PNG comprises 20 administrative provinces: Bougainville, Central, Chimbu, Eastern Highlands, East New Britain, East Sepik, Enga, Gulf, Madang, Manus, Milne Bay, Morobe, National Capital, New Ireland, Northern, Sandaun, Southern Highlands, Western, Western Highlands and West New Britain.

The island of Bougainville, which geographically forms part of the Solomon Islands but politically and administratively falls under PNG, became a self-governing region in 2004. The inhabitants of PNG are known as Papua New Guineans or Papuans. It is the most multilingual country in the world, with 830 languages spoken among a population of 8.4 million, i.e., an average of 9,100 speakers per language.[4]

PNG was absent from the vote on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007.

The Situation in Bougainville

Paguna Mine – progress in the complaint against Rio Tinto

The Anglo-Australian giant Rio Tinto has long been accused of avoiding its responsibility to clean up toxic waste from the Panguna mine on the island of Bougainville, these complaints have now been formally filed on 22 September 2020 in Australia.[5] The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) in Melbourne filed the complaint on behalf of more than 150 Bougainville residents. The complaint adds to the pressure the mining group is under after it gained significant attention for destroying an ancient aboriginal site in May of 2020.[6]

The mine, which has a notorious history, was once the world's largest open-pit copper mine and accounted for up to 40% of Papua's exports. The mine and its unequal wealth distribution is recognised to have played a major part leading to Bougainville's bloody civil war in the 1980s and 90s. The mine’s legacy lives on as it continues to pollute nearby watercourses more than three decades after its closure. In operation from 1972 to 1989, it generated more than a billion metric tons of mining waste. Toxic waste continues to seep into the region’s water sources, contaminating drinking water supplies and causing disease and environmental destruction.[7]

"Our rivers are being poisoned with copper, our houses invaded by dust from the mounds of waste, and our children are falling sick from the pollution," denounced Theonila Roka Matbob, member of the local Parliament, in a press statement.[8]

The environmental damage caused by the mining activity and the lack of financial benefits have long been the cause of strong protests among the population.

The British-Australian mining company Rio Tinto divested from its majority stake in the local operating company in 2016 after being notified in 2014 of the government’s plans to clean up the site, in which Rio Tinto was meant to share responsibility. The company now holds that the governments of Bougainville and PNG, now the majority shareholders, are best placed to address the problems. Public protests have dogged the company since the 2016 decision, accusing the mining group of trying to avoid the costs of cleaning up the site.[9] Matbob said:

The Panguna mine devastated our communities physically and culturally and we are still living with the consequences. Our land is destroyed and our rivers are poisoned. Kids are drinking and bathing in the polluted water and getting sick. New areas of land are still being flooded with the waste from the mine. We urgently need Rio Tinto to come back and deal with these problems so our communities can find healing.[10]

The complaint accuses the mining group of having failed to manage the risks that are allegedly causing health problems for more than 12,000 people living downstream and of having been non-compliant with existing environmental regulations during its operation.

Keren Adams, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, stated:

Rio Tinto’s decision to cut and run from Panguna without addressing the massive problems created by the mine is an appalling breach of its responsibilities […] Rio Tinto holds itself up as a global corporate leader on human rights and the environment. Unless it faces up to its legacy at Panguna, however, and contributes to fixing up the massive problems it has created, the company will remain in serious violation of its human rights and environmental obligations.[11]

The complaint calls on the Australian government to press Rio Tinto to enter into negotiations with residents and, if those negotiations fail, to launch an investigation.[12]

Presidential elections

Bougainville's presidential elections took place from 12 August to 1 September 2020. Legislative elections were held simultaneously. Outgoing President John Momis was not eligible for re-election.[13]

Originally scheduled for June 2020, the elections were postponed several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The high number of candidates and the outgoing president's absence led to an election described as the most open the island has ever seen. The vote was also of great importance as the new president is expected to lead negotiations with the central government on the island's independence following the self-determination referendum held from 23 November to 7 December 2019. More than 98% of the population voted in favour of independence.

Ishmael Toroama, one of the former commanders of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, was declared the winner on 23 September, taking office two days later.[14]

The extractive industries and Papuan communities

PNG has a dual economy. Economic growth is driven primarily by the relatively prosperous enclaves of the mining sector, which have little financial impact on the rest of the country’s population. The extractive industries are modern, capital-intensive and largely foreign-owned. They export all their production and account for the bulk of private investment. They provide only a small proportion of employment, however, and coexist alongside a stagnant subsistence economy.[15]

Numerous conflicts have arisen and are ongoing both between the mine-impacted Papuan tribes and between the Papuan tribes and government or provincial officials in power who have been labelled by the Papuan tribes as neo-Guinean.

Major mining conflict continue in 2020

Ok Tedi Mine - North West Province - Copper - BHP Billiton

On 7 August 2020, the Ok Tedi mine ceased operating after the mining town recorded seven positive cases of COVID-19. The cases occurred despite Ok Tedi's halting of all charter flights to and from Tabubil on 28 July 2020 in order to protect employees from the escalation of positive cases in the capital city, Port Moresby. The company identified one individual who had travelled from Port Moresby to Kiunga on a commercial airline on 31 July as the source of the transmission.

Unfortunately, one of the positive cases in Tabubil town was an Ok Tedi employee who caught the virus after close contact with the traveller from Kiunga. The employee travelled to and from work by bus, leading Ok Tedi to believe that "more people were probably infected, creating an unacceptable risk of accelerated transmission within Ok Tedi's workforce."[16]

On 10 September 2020, despite COVID cases having been identified among the mine's employees and temporary suspension of its activities as a result, the President of Ok Tedi Ltd announced that the mine's exploitation rights were to be extended to 2029. This was also of concern as protests continue over the by-products from the mine, which are estimated to have caused harm, both environmental and social, to the approximately 50,000 people living in the 120 villages downstream of the mine.[17]

It is of note that the State of PNG owns 67% of the mine, with the remaining 33% in the hands of three landowning groups.

Porgera Mine - Enga Province - Gold and silver - Barrick Gold

At the end of April 2020, the PNG government made the surprising announcement that it would not be extending the operating lease of Porgera Mine, a gold mine that accounts for some 10% of the country's total exports. The decision not to renew the special mining lease was a shock, particularly for the mine's operator, Barrick Gold, and their joint venture partner, Zijin Mining.[18]

Porgera is one of the oldest gold mines in PNG, which has been in operation for 30 years in the highland province of Enga. It employs more than 5,000 people and the participation of 5% of landowners, together with provincial actions, has helped speed up service and education efforts in one of the most remote provinces in the country. Although a significant economic contributor, the mine has also generated significant controversy, including human rights concerns[19], environmental issues and compensation disputes.

While the government seemed within its rights not to renew the lease, the shock of the announcement led Barrick to lash out at the decision, claiming that it was "equivalent to nationalization without due process".[20]

So why did the government take this radical step?

Prime Minister Marape was sworn in in May 2019 and rapidly implemented a discourse of "taking back the PNG's interests", arguing that PNG was not receiving its fair share of the benefits of the formal economy and major natural resource projects. The current economic crisis in PNG has been well documented and is only expected to worsen with the fallout from COVID-19. As the world's 10th largest resource-dependent economy, it is not surprising that the natural resource sector has found itself in the government's sights. The government is in the process of negotiating several major natural resource agreements all of which have tremendous economic potential if negotiated properly.[21]

It can be understood that the Porgera decision is an attempt by the government to both reap more benefits from existing projects and send a signal to those projects still being negotiated. The approach is not without risks, while Marape had hoped that Barrick would keep the mine operating while negotiating its exit, the company issued a categorical rejection of this option and ordered the immediate closure of the mine. Further, Zijin Mining, Barrick's Chinese joint venture partner, mobilised its political pressure and noted international political ramifications, warning that the lease dispute could harm bilateral relations between PNG and China.[22]

What’s at stake?

PNG might be able to find another operator to take over the mine and re-open it but would likely find this awkward in the midst of high-stakes legal litigation. The immediate prospects are emerging as a lose-lose situation for both sides. PNG is taking control of the income from the mine at a time when it needs to stabilize its finances. However, any compromise to allow Barrick to continue operating would harm the strong local support that Marape has gained. Barrick on the other hand has the financial capital to weather the storm and is large enough to survive without Porgera's revenues. Nevertheless, the longer a legal dispute with the government continues, the more its claims to a social license to operate would be diminished.

Ramu Mine - Madang Province - Nickel - MCC (Metallurgical Corporation of China)

In February 2020, a coalition of more than 5,000 villagers plus a provincial government in Madang launched a lawsuit against Ramu NiCo, the world's most productive nickel battery plant, over dumping of millions of tons of mining waste into the ocean.[23]

In 2019, PNG’s environmental authority shut down the Ramu Mine and Nickel processing plant in August after a spill of what was first reported to be 80,000 litres but was then identified as 200,000 litres of toxic slurry which was released into the bay and surrounding ocean.[24] This release from a holding tank, before the tailings had been pumped out to sea, was the tipping point that spark the new complaint.

Ramu NiCo has been dumping waste into the ocean since 2012 and evidence of environmental and health impacts is mounting against them.[25] Previous lawsuits, including one filed in 2010 which ended up at the supreme court, have not prevented the company from practicing deep-sea tailings disposal, ruling at that time that there was no proof of environmental harm.

However, in the 2020 lawsuit, the complainants demanded that not only should its Chinese owners (MCC) pay a total of 18 billion kina ($5.2 billion USD) in restitution, but that it should also stop dumping mining waste into the ocean and clean up the allegedly contaminated waters, documenting and presenting evidence of environmental harms. Half a million people depend on local fisheries in the Coral Triangle biodiversity hotspot, and the complainants argue that their lives and food supplies are at stake.[26]

The lawsuit seeks the highest environmental damages in the country's history and is based on some of the most significant studies ever conducted on the dumping of mining waste into the ocean. This evidence will hopefully be sufficient to reverse the decision from the 2010 case.

"If it succeeds, it will be a landmark case, in particular because no one has ever claimed for environmental damages on such a large scale," said Ben Lomai, the lawyer representing the complainants in the case.


Patrick Kulesza, Executive President of GITPA, the Groupe International de travail pour les peuples autochtones - France (www.gitpa.org), conducted a fact-finding mission to Papua from November 2018 to June 2019. This mission resulted in the construction of a documentary website that can be found at: http://gitpa.org/Peuple%20GITPA%20500/GITPA%20500-9WEBDOCPAPOUSENTREE.htm

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here



Notes and references 

[1] The other half of the island, Western New Guinea, forms part of Indonesia

[2] “Papouasie- Nouvelle-Guinée.” 2021. Cefan.Ulaval.Ca. http://www.axl.cefan.ulaval.ca/pacifique/papoung.htm

[3] The Commonwealth.2021. "Papua New Guinea: History." https://thecommonwealth.org/our-member-countries/papua-new-guinea/history

[4] GITPA. “ Qui sont les Papous?” 2021. https://gitpa.org/Peuple%20GITPA%20500/GITPA%20500-9WEBDOCPAPOUSQUISONTILS.htm

[5] BBC News. "Rio Tinto: Mining Giant Accused Of Poisoning Rivers In Papua New Guinea." 29 September, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-54340227

[6] The blast destroyed Aboriginal Heritage sites at Juukan Gorge, including two rock shelters of great cultural, ethnographic and archaeological significance ; Southalan, John. "Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000 year-old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia: Submission 130 to Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia." Parliament of Australia, 1 October, 2020. https://research-repository.uwa.edu.au/en/publications/inquiry-into-the-destruction-of-46000-year-old-caves-at-the-juuka

[7] Cannon, John C. "Decades-Old Mine In Bougainville Exacts Devastating Human Toll: Report". Mongabay Environmental News, 17 April, 2020. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/04/decades-old-mine-in-bougainville-exacts-devastating-human-toll-report/

[8] AFP. "Pollution Of The Panguna Mine In Bougainville: Rio Tinto Targeted By A Complaint In Australia - France 24." Teller Report, 29 September, 2020. https://www.tellerreport.com/news/2020-09-29-pollution-of-the-panguna-mine-in-bougainville--rio-tinto-targeted-by-a-complaint-in-australia---france-24.rJxW8NYlUD.html

[9] Cannon, John C. "Decades-Old Mine In Bougainville Exacts Devastating Human Toll: Report". Mongabay Environmental News, 17 April, 2020. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/04/decades-old-mine-in-bougainville-exacts-devastating-human-toll-report/

[10] Bennett, Michelle. "Report Exposes The Deadly Human Cost Of Rio Tinto’s Abandoned Mine." Human Rights Law Centre, 1 April, 2020. https://www.hrlc.org.au/news/2020/3/30/report-exposes-the-deadly-human-cost-of-rio-tintos-abandoned-mine

[11] Idem.

[12]  AFP. "Pollution De La Mine De Panguna À Bougainville : Rio Tinto Visé Par Une Plainte En Australie." Sciences Et Avenir, 29 September, 2020. https://www.sciencesetavenir.fr/nature-environnement/mine-de-panguna-a-bougainville-rio-tinto-vise-par-une-plainte-en-australie_147765

[13] RNZ. "Bougainville allowing for three week election because of Covid-19." Radio New Zealand, 17 June, 2020. Accessed 12 August, 2020. https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/419215/bougainville-allowing-for-three-week-election-because-of-covid-19

[14] Jorari, Leanne, and Ben Doherty. "Bougainville Independence High On Agenda As Ishmael Toroama Elected President." The Guardian, 23 September, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/23/bougainville-independence-high-on-agenda-as-ishmael-toroama-elected-president

[15] B’Trade. "Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée : Le contexte économique." October, 2020. Accessed 24 February, 2021. https://www.btrade.ma/fr/observer-les-pays/papouasie-nouvelle-guinee/economie-3

[16] Haselgrove, Salomae. "Ok Tedi Suspends PNG Operations Due To COVID-19." Australian Mining, 7 August, 2020. https://www.australianmining.com.au/news/ok-tedi-suspends-png-operations-due-to-covid-19/

[17] Kulesza, Patrick. “Papua New Guinea.” in The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 617-622. IWGIA, 2020. http://iwgia.org/images/yearbook/2020/IWGIA_The_Indigenous_World_2020.pdf

[18] Pryke, Jonathan, and Shane McLeod. "Politics And Porgera: Why Papua New Guinea Cancelled The Lease On One Of Its Biggest Mines." The Guardian, 12 May, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/12/politics-and-porgera-why-papua-new-guinea-cancelled-the-lease-on-one-of-its-biggest-mines

[19] Op Cit. Kulesza, Patrick.

[20] Barrick. "Barrick Niugini Limited Challenges Non-Extension Of Special Mining Lease." 24 April, 2020.  https://www.barrick.com/English/news/news-details/2020/barrick-niugini-limited-challenges-non-extension-of-special-mining-lease/default.aspx

[21] Idem.

[22] Daly, Tom, and Tom Westbrook. "Zijin Warns Papua New Guinea Of China Anger Over End Of Gold Mine Lease." Reuters U.S., 29 April, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/barrick-gold-png-china-idUSL3N2CH18J

[23] Morse, Ian. "Locals Stage Latest Fight Against PNG Mine Dumping Waste Into Sea." Mongabay Environmental News, 22 May, 2020. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/05/locals-stage-latest-fight-against-png-mine-dumping-waste-into-sea/

[24] Op Cit. Kulesza, Patrick.

[25] Op Cit. Kulesza, Patrick.

[26] Idem.



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