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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

New Guinea Mine Mess

Air Date: Week of March 10, 2000

Living On Earth’s Laura Knoy (kuh-NOY) speaks with anthropologist Stuart Kirsch about the controversial Ok Tedi (AWK TED-dy) copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea. Dr. Kirsch has worked with indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea since 1986. He says the mine has been a significant source of income -- and pollution -- for the country.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Earlier this year an accident at a gold mine in Romania released a flood of cyanide-laced water into the Danube, poisoning one of Europe's most important waterways. The incident was a high-profile example of what can happen when things go wrong at a big mine. Less in the news but no less important to residents in the region is the story of the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, north of Australia. Ok Tedi produces copper and gold, and is among the biggest sources of income in Papua New Guinea. But over more than 15 years it's also released poisonous heavy metals and other pollutants into nearby rivers and caused floods which have destroyed forests and farms. The mine's owner, an Australian company called Broken Hill Proprietary, has agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to help compensate for the damage, but has said it can't clean it up. Now the Papua New Guinea government is trying to decide whether to allow the mine to continue to operate. Recently, Living on Earth's Laura Knoy spoke about the mine with Stuart Kirsch, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Michigan who's worked in the area since 1986. Professor Kirsch described the impact of the mine on the local environment.

KIRSCH: I used to travel by canoe along the rivers, and you'd have a towering wall of green on either side of you as you traveled along the river. You'd see hornbills, flocks of hornbills. And you'd also see kingfishers along the river and herons and egrets. In the forest itself you could find lots of wild animals. And now if you walk along the Ok Tedi River, it's like a ghost forest. All you have are trees with no leaves on them. All the birds have gone away. There are no fish left in the rivers or the streams. It's like a winter landscape in the tropics. It's something that people can hardly imagine.

KNOY: How has the mine changed the lives of people in the region, then?

KIRSCH: It's very difficult for people to produce enough food to feed themselves. I have with me something that somebody said to me, a woman called Duri Kemyat. She said to me, "Before, the river was not like this. It makes me feel like crying. These days this place is ruined, so I feel like crying. Where I used to make gardens, the mud banks have built up. Where I used to catch prawns and fish there is an empty pool. Before, it wasn't like this. We had no difficulty finding garden food and wild game. Now we are suffering, and I wonder why."

KNOY: Besides the environmental impact, has the company tried to be a good corporate citizen, you know, supporting local health initiatives, or local schools.

KIRSCH: It has in fact provided a lot of benefits to the local communities. All over Papua New Guinea you find that life expectancy has increased over the last 20 years, as Western health care and medicine have been provided to local communities. There have been education initiatives throughout Papua New Guinea, and the mine has been very important in terms providing transportation infrastructure that allows people to get to hospitals, allows school teachers to get into remote villages. But there have also been dramatic tradeoffs. The mine provides, for example, water tanks to all the villages along the river. So whereas they used to get water from the river, now they can't because it's polluted. The company provides them water tanks. But in effect, it's a wash. It's no real development, because the mine has just provided a substitute for what they used to get from the environment themselves.

KNOY: The environmental damage was so bad that the locals sued and won a settlement in 1996. After that, why didn't BHP clean up its act?

KIRSCH: What BHP says is it's not practical. Basically BHP has concluded that it's not possible to fix the mine.

KNOY: What is the World Bank involvement?

KIRSCH: The World Bank was brought in by the prime minister of Papua New Guinea to provide a neutral, external point of view on the studies that BHP themselves had carried out. And there were two main questions that The World Bank was asked to consider. First of all, was the science that BHP did, was it accurate? Was it good science? And secondly, were the studies adequate to make a decision about the future of the mine? Right now the burning question is, should the mine be allowed to stay open for another 10 years? The concern of the Papua New Guinea government, the concern of the local communities as well, is that the mine provides a lot of export earnings: the taxes on wages, royalties paid to the national government, and also a sort of downstream effect of economic development. So people are concerned that if the mine packs up, they'll be left with people who were dependent on the cash economy, when the cash economy no longer exists in that region.

KNOY: What did The World Bank recommend?

KIRSCH: The results of that report have not been made public yet, although I understand that it's been given to the Papua New Guinea government.

KNOY: You mention the BHP report, BHP being the mining company. What did that report say?

KIRSCH: Their reports were pretty disastrous, in fact. They admitted for the first time the full extent of the problems. The primary conclusion was that even if the mine stops tomorrow, the impacts will continue for another 40 years.

KNOY: Professor Kirsch, what do you think the best resolution to this situation would be?

KIRSCH: There really is no easy outcome. I think one of the things that I've been calling for is an independent environmental audit. There were some limitations to The World Bank study. It relied entirely on data that BHP themselves produced. Also, commitments from the mine to rehabilitation: My view is, if the damage is going to continue for 40 years, BHP ought to be thinking about a 40-year relationship with the communities downstream from the mine.

KNOY: Do you think what happens with this mine will have repercussions for the international mining community?

KIRSCH: I think in terms of the international community, mining companies have traditionally not been subject to public scrutiny. You don't know whether the gold that you buy comes from Ok Tedi or from a South African mine. Whereas a petroleum company like Exxon sells directly to the consumers, and if they have an oil spill in Alaska, for example, we can hold them directly accountable for that. So I think Ok Tedi signals that the public community needs to pay more attention to what goes on in mines.

CURWOOD: Stuart Kirsch is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan. He spoke with Living on Earth's Laura Knoy.

 

 

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