The plan for the largest mine in Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) history carries a risk of catastrophic loss of life and environmental destruction, and “appears to disregard the human rights of those affected,” UN officials have said.
In an extraordinary intervention, 10 UN special rapporteurs have written with “serious concerns” to the governments of Papua New Guinea, Australia, China and Canada, as well as the Chinese state-owned developers of the gold, copper and silver mine proposed for the remote Frieda River in the country’s north.
In July, the UN’s special rapporteur on toxic wastes, Baskut Tuncak — who has since retired from that role — and nine other senior UN officials jointly signed a letter to “express our serious concern regarding the potential and actual threats to life, health, bodily integrity, water [and] food.”
The letter urged governments and the company, PanAust, to respond to key questions, including an alleged “lack of information for free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous people” to the mine proceeding.
The mine, if approved and built, would be the largest in PNG’s history, and one of the largest in the world, covering 16,000 hectares.
To be built on the Frieda River, a tributary to the Sepik River in the north of New Guinea, it is forecast to yield US$1.5 billion in gold, silver and copper per year for more than 30 years.
PanAust, an 80 percent shareholder in the project, is a miner registered in Australia, but ultimately owned by the Chinese government, part of the state-owned Guangdong Rising Assets Management.
“The project and its implementation so far appears to disregard the human rights of those affected,” the UN rapporteurs said.
There is particular concern that a proposed dam to store up to 1,500 tonnes of the mine’s tailings could break, destroying villages downriver.
“We remain concerned that critical information about the tailings dam, including the dam break analysis, has been made neither publicly available, nor available to affected community members and human rights defenders who requested it,” Tuncak wrote.
“The proposed location is a seismically active area,” he added. “The risk of major earthquake causing damage to the dam will persist for millions of years.”
The Frieda River mine project is in its final stage of approval. The environmental impact study submitted by PanAust is under review by the PNG Conservation Environment and Protection Authority, which is to decide on the mine’s future.
Many of those who live along the Sepik River are firmly opposed to the mine.
In June, chiefs from 28 haus tambarans — “spirit houses” — representing 78,000 people living along the Sepik, formally declared that they wanted the mine halted.
“I grew up with the river, drank it, ate fish and sago from it and it’s brought me to where I am now,” university student Vernon Gawi said. “I am worried about my future generations, and if the mine were to go ahead, what will they have left?”
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