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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Battle For the Sepik River

Air Date: Week of

A family travel home by boat from fishing at the Lower Sepik River in Angoram District, Papua New Guinea. (Photo: Courtesy of Troy Mabos, Project Sepik)

The Sepik River in Papua New Guinea is interwoven with the physical and spiritual lives of indigenous forest communities. But a plan to build a copper and gold mine along a tributary threatens the river and the 400,000 people living along it. Emmanuel “Manu” Peni, the coordinator of Project Sepik, tells Host Bobby Bascomb about his community’s fight against the mining plan and efforts to keep Papua New Guinea’s longest river clean.


BASCOMB: The island of Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. It’s home to blue-eyed cockatoos, tree kangaroos, and hundreds of other species found nowhere else on earth. The island is also the home to hundreds of indigenous forest communities; many of whom live along the Sepik River, the longest river in New Guinea. These communities rely on the river for their very sustenance but a proposed copper and gold mine has people of the region concerned for their own lives and the health of their environment. So, they’ve formed Project Sepik, an environmental group fighting to stop the mine before it gets started. For more I’m joined now by Manu Peni, the coordinator of Project Sepik. Welcome to Living on Earth, Manu.

PENI: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be with your team.

BASCOMB: Now, the Sepik River is the longest river in Papua New Guinea. How important is it for the indigenous communities that live along that river?

PENI: The Sepik River is the longest river and it's one of the most intact and freshwater ecosystem in the South Pacific region. So we would like to also see that as an iconic river of the South Pacific or Asia Pacific. It's really important for us right now. It sustains our livelihood, it's our life is so different from the lives in New York, in Australia, in Paris, or in Amsterdam. We basically live off the river and our identity, our cultural totems, marks and our cultural activities, even at the spiritual level to are all intertwined with this river.

BASCOMB: Now there is a mine planned for the area, a copper and gold mine run by a company named Panaust, that's a Chinese company based in Australia. What concerns you most about that proposed mine?

PENI: Our concerns, the people's concern, that history in Papua New Guinea in mining and logging has shown that communities do not benefit at all. It's usually the environment gets destroyed, people get exploited, the companies just leave. For example, the Ok Tedi, which was mined by BHP, an Australian-based company, this river is now dead. The government has made a law, two thirds of the parliament voted that the people after 30-40 years when they start experiencing, you know, health issues, because of the heavy metals, they cannot take the company or the government to court. So that's how exploitative and destructive experiences of the mine is. The mine still works today in Ok Tedi and they just openly dump everything into the river, so the river is dead. For the Sepik River, it's more concerning because the planned mine site, it sits on the rim of fire, meaning it's one of the most seismically active places in the world. In fact, we experienced an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale not too far from the mine. So every day, there is seismic activity. Also the soil morphology of that area, it's got very high rainfall. It's not a place, according to several scientists, that a mine should be built.

An egret photographed in a lake at Korogu Village, located near the Sepik River, in Papua New Guinea. (Photo: Courtesy of Shayenne Waide, Project Sepik)

BASCOMB: Yeah, well, it's easy to see how a mine situated in a seismically-active area prone to earthquakes is potentially dangerous. What are some of the potential consequences do you think for wildlife and the water supply and, you know, the people that make their living from an intact environment there?

PENI: The 400,000 people that live along the river or that's connected to the river, their life depends entirely on the safety of that ecosystem right out to the, to the delta. So these are our concern. Today, when you go it looks like chocolate, the water is, you know, it's got silts, but people just drink from it. If that was to go, then the people will have no other water source. Because, I mean, if they step away from the river, they go into the lakes and the swamp marshes. So where will they go to get water? And where will they build their house? And where will they collect food or materials to build a house. That's the only source of life for them. It's their livelihood.

BASCOMB: And generally, when companies are looking to go into a place like this and mine or extract any kind of resources, they're required to get a free prior informed consent, meaning the people that live there have to know what's happening and say, "Yes, this is okay for us." What happened with your community when it comes to that free prior informed consent?

Young men dress in traditional costume before performing Val’ra Sum dance, or a dance to celebrate canoe, during the 2022 N’gusunga Celebration in Korogu Village, Papua New Guinea. (Photo: Courtesy of Troy Mabos, Project Sepik)

PENI: The mining community comes with soldiers, with policemen with automatic rifles stand there. And they only talk about what the mine will give to the community, will give them electricity, will give them roads, schools and hospitals. And this was the same conversation, the same kind of communication that communities across Papua New Guinea have heard from logging and mining companies. And so they say that they don't even say that it's sitting on a seismically-active place in the world. They don't say that "We will build a dam and change your life because the water will sort of stop flowing." They don't say that the chances of the dam breaking. And that's also something that they didn't include in the EIS, the environmental impact statement, when they submitted to the government for the permit, the environmental permit. They excluded the dam break analysis and we've been asking for it as an organization. So it's the way in which they go in to do free prior and informed consent. So recently, we made a complaint to the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, about standards and regulations set by OECD that the mining company wasn't following, especially on FPIC. And so I think as a reaction, they, they came back to the villages. And this was what they were saying: "Please say yes to the mine, but no to the dam." I mean, it's just, and we understand where they're going because they're trying to build deep sea tailings placement. It's river-end tailings, meaning they dump all the waste under the ocean floor. And that particular technique or way of disposal of the waste, is actually banned in Canada, banned in New Zealand and banned in Australia. So a question is, how is it that the same science, the science that justifies everything, says it's okay to build this thing in Papua New Guinea, but it's not okay to build it in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere? The contradictions are so loud and so visible. And yeah, we could hear it from afar.

BASCOMB: Yeah, I mean, turning up to a community with soldiers and guns, saying "This is good for you, sign here," doesn't sound too free. And I understand that you've organized a fight this mine. What does that look like? How are you going about pushing back against the proposed project there?

PENI: So in 2016, we started this work. And it broke my heart because I went to the village and heard that people were just like, "We can't do anything. There's nothing we can do. It's the government and they've got this and they've got that and we can't fight against the government." So in 2017, funded from Norway, Rainforest Network, they asked me, "Are you going to stop the mine?" And I said, "No, I can't stop the mine. I'm fighting against Australia. I'm fighting against my own government, Papua New Guinea. I'm fighting against the Chinese Communist Party. And I'm fighting against the mine. But I can promise you, I can delay them." And while we delay them, we look at other tactics in terms of ensuring that they follow rules and regulations and standards. So as a collaborative team in our campaign called Save the Sepik, we've been able to delay the government to give the environmental permit to the company after it submitted their environmental impact statement. This was done in 2018. And we're still waiting for the results from the government. So we were able to do that. But the new government formed last August and already noises about starting the mining and handling the environmental permit. So our work gets even more important. The communities from the headwaters on the Frieda River, the way the mine will be based and is one of the major tributary to the Sepik River, all the communities from the all the way down to the delta are overwhelmingly supporting us. Every one of them has signed numerous documents, declarations and petitions and numerous protests they've signed and have also been able to threaten the government from going on to their land. We know what you're going to say already.

Emmanuel “Manu” Peni, coordinator of Project Sepik, a non-profit organization that advocates the interest of indigenous communities along Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. (Photo: Courtesy of Troy Mabos, Project Sepik)

BASCOMB: And I understand that you've actually had threats against your life as a result of your activism. Can you tell us about that, please?

PENI: In 2018, I went for a visit just along the river, just so that I reconnect to my people and connections so that we can start the campaign. I got carjacked. And I thought it was just a random thing. And then second time within, within the space of a couple of days, my mother who was about 80 years old, and my son was seven years old, were in the car when we got there. We're going to carjack and then we, I drove off and they shot at us with guns.

BASCOMB: Why do you keep at this work? I mean, what keeps you motivated and working on this despite the threats to your life and threats to your family and you know, the uphill battle of fighting a multinational company and your own government?

PENI: Ever since I left university in New Zealand and went back home, I've always been part of social and justice movements in my country, because I can see injustice at all levels of society. I don't just see, I feel it too. I feel it because that's my home I grew up in. I know I can feel when people are hungry, I can feel when people are hurt. Because I came from a single parent. My mother looked, I'm on my, I am my mother's child. And I grew up in a squatter settlement. I know what it's like to be poor. I know what it's like to face injustice of different sorts. And that's why I couldn't just, and with my knowledge, experience and skills, I couldn't just stand there and watch while outsiders come in and take control of my government, pay off officials, pay off policemen to go down and exploit my people and destroy our river and our source of life, our source of identity and our heritage. I couldn't do it. I'd rather be killed doing this then go elsewhere and live in Australia or New Zealand, sip of wine and hear stories from home. I just couldn't do it. And I think it's me living a meaningful life in this life in this present journey on Earth.

BASCOMB: Manu Peni is coordinator of Project Sepik in Papua New Guinea. Manu, thank you so much for taking the time with me today and for all of your hard work there.

PENI: Thank you for having me on on your podcast and thank you to your team.



Click here to visit the website of Save the Sepik, the collaboration campaign to protect the Sepik River from the planned Frieda River Mine

Mongabay | “Proposed Copper and Gold Mine Threatens the World’s ‘Second Amazon’ in PNG”

Read the excerpt of Peni’s TED talk here

The Guardian | “Mining in the Pacific: A Blessing and A Curse”


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