Barrick, PNG & Porgera: no good end in sight
Earlier this week they ran a story over on Mines and Communities that caught our eye. It claims that over in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Barrick Gold has been “refusing” to relocate villagers who suffer violence in response to 'illegal mining.’
An earlier article entitled PNG: Villagers' Houses Burnt Down Again Near Barrick Gold Mine offers some context and is available here. In addition, this one’s been stinking up the feeds for a while, and we wrote about it ourselves in June and again in July. The problem is a deep and complicated one touching on many of the more intractable problems in the industry, with the key spectre that of illegal or artisanal mining - not a new issue, nor one to which easy solutions are often found.
The next chapter in a depressing story comes from a Canadian perspective, and includes a number of statements from MineWatch Canada. As an example of how screwing up your community relations can hurt your relationships with all your constitutuents, this one’s developing into a bit of a case study.
The MiningWatch piece is worth a read in full, so here you go:
12 September 2014
This past July a young man was murdered deep in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea, and Canadians should care.
Why concern ourselves with this one act of violence in a far away corner of the Pacific, at a time when there is so much violence in the world?
After all, there is lots of other killing closer to home that could concern us, starting with the Ukraine (quiet for the moment) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That latter group has even compelled U.S. President Obama to take serious military action, with Canada's Prime Minister Harper tagging along behind, calling out: "Me too! Me too!"
However, while Canada may not be as big a player in most of the world's hot spots as it sometimes likes to pretend, it is a huge player in the global mining industry. And few stars shine as brightly in the Canadian mining firmament as that of Canada's Barrick Gold.
On Wednesday of this past week, a representative of some highland villagers in Papua New Guinea together with their Canadian supporters came to Parliament Hill to tell Canadians about the highlanders' troubled relationship with Barrick Gold.
At a news conference in the Charles Lynch room, in the Centre Block of Parliament, they shared the July 25, 2014 report of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary. That report states that the July murder victim, a Papua New Guinea highland villager in his 20s by the name of Wasato Kaipas, was killed on a Barrick Gold's Porgera mining site.
"The deceased was shot in the head," the Royal Constabulary report says, "While he tried to run away from inside the mine site, looking for gold as an illegal miner."
The report then names the only persons suspected of committing this crime: "mine security guards."
‘Desperate attempt to earn a living'
At the Parliament Hill event on Wednesday, Mining Watch Canada's Catherine Coumans said that this mine site in the Papua New Guinea highlands "has long been associated with extreme violence against local men and women by mine security and state police associated with the mine..."
Coumans then explained how a young villager such as Kaipas would find himself working, in the words of the local police, as "an illegal miner."
It is, she said, "a desperate attempt to earn a living," after Barrick despoiled the local environment with "massive uncontained waste flows."
Those waste flows include some traces of potentially valuable gold. Given that Barrick seems to consider those bits of gold to be trash, local people have taken to trying to earn money by scavenging for the precious metal in the sludge that pollutes their traditional lands. There is an active local market for this gold that the huge multinational company is content to simply dump, together with a stew of toxic pollutants.
Some pay for this scavenging activity with their lives. Others pay a different price. Jethro Tulin of the Porgera Alliance, who has come to Canada to meet with Canadian government officials in order to discuss his people's difficult relationship with the Canadian gold mining company, says that many women who engage in this marginal sort of mining suffer the "punishment" of brutal rape.
Tulin now argues that the only solution is to relocate the approximately 10,000 villagers in Porgera entirely outside the Barrick mine site. The Papua New Guinea government agrees with that proposal, but Barrick is resisting. The Canadian mining giant will only agree to help relocate those villages that are in the most dire environmental jeopardy, directly in the path of its mines and their effluent, as it were.
The people in the area form a coherent community of related clans, Tulin explains, and relocating some but not others will effectively destroy that community.
On the face of it, Barrick's resistance to the relocation plan does not make much sense.
The company does not seem to be happy having villagers living in such close proximity to its mines. One gets the impression, in fact, that Barrick would like nothing more than to be entirely rid of the people it and its friends in the Papua New Guinea government describe as "illegal miners." Those "illegal miners" are also the traditional occupants of this part of the Papua New Guinea highlands.
Burning homes to get rid of villagers
Murder and rape are not the only tools used to discourage "illegal mining."
Barrick houses members of the Papua New Guinea national police's notorious "Mobile Unit" on its Porgera site. In June, without advanced warning or negotiation, "Mobile" officers moved on the village of Wingima and burned 200 houses to the ground.
This attack and the murder of Wasato Kaipas in July have increased the people of Porgera's sense of urgency. They hope to get some support from Canadian authorities, and Jethro Tulin reports that his talks with Canadian federal officials at the civil service level have been constructive. On the other hand, he has not had any contact with folks at the political level in Canada.
As for Barrick, the fact that it has been experiencing billions of dollars in losses recently may have something to do with its reluctance to invest too generously in relocating the Porgera people.
In 2013 the company - which is still the world's largest gold producer - lost over $10 billion and it is continuing to show steep losses this year. It is now making vigorous efforts to prove to the capital markets that it remains a good investment.
Barrick's current motto is: "Disciplined, profitable production." In its official literature it goes to great pains to demonstrate to investors that its large total operating budget (of over $4 billion for 2013) and "disciplined capital allocation" (which has included major cost-reduction cutbacks) reflect the "significant underlying strength of the company's high-quality mining operations," notwithstanding the current "challenging gold price environment."
Barrick also makes a point of saying that it gives a high priority to "responsibility," even if that might not be high on the agenda of bottom-line focused investors. The company issues annual "responsibility" reports where it points to its investments in governance, environmental controls, workplace safety and community engagement.
"We recognize that our ongoing success is tied to the success and stability of our host communities, and to our reputation as a responsible partner in resource development," says Kelvin Dushnisky, Barrick's Co-President. "In all locations, we work diligently to manage the impacts of our operations, provide a safe workplace for our employees, and ensure that communities and society derive long-term benefits from our mining activities."
Jamie Sokalsky, President and CEO, adds: "Even in these volatile market conditions, we will not cut costs that jeopardize our ability to operate in a socially and environmentally responsible manner."
The family of Wasato Kaipas and the people of Porgera in the Papua New Guinea highlands might be forgiven if they doubted the sincerity of those claims.