The people of the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea understand the threat to their lives and culture from the Chinese-owned copper and gold mine that is currently being proposed to be built on the Frieda River, a tributary of the headwaters of the Sepik River.
My partner Raine Sharpe, myself and Keith O’Neill have just returned from the remote Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. We were part of the Northern Rivers Folk Choir that responded to invitations from the people of The Sepik to live with them, share their culture and help alert the world to the threat to their lives from the copper and gold mine being proposed.
We were welcomed into their homes, their daily life and their rich and colourful culture. Sepik people are warm, generous, and intelligent with a great sense of humour. They are renowned for the quality of their artistic cultural expression and live an ecologically aware life described by PNG ABC journalist Sean Dorney as ‘affluent subsistence’.
The Sepik River is 1,200 kilometres long and is the largest uncontaminated freshwater system in the Asia Pacific region. Rising in the Central Highlands it winds its serpentine way through mountains, rainforest and wetlands to the ocean. People have lived on the Sepik for many thousands of years.
The second-largest river in PNG is the Fly River. In the 1970s Australian mining companies built Ok Tedi, a huge copper and gold mine on the river’s headwaters. This mine became the scene of what is now recognised as the biggest ecological disaster in the world.
Discharging 80 million tonnes of contaminated tailings and mining erosion into the river system each year has caused 1,300 square kilometres of the river to be irrevocably damaged. People of the Fly River now suffer serious health problems with their main sources of food and water subjected to heavy-metal poisoning.
No social licence
I’m drawing the comparison between these two magnificent river systems because the mine proposed by the Chinese-owned Australian mining company PanAust that is preparing to build a gold and copper mine on the Sepik river system is as big, if not bigger than, Ok Tedi mine.
The people of the Sepik fear for their future and their way of life. They know about the damage to the Fly River and its people and are deeply fearful that the Freida mine is another Ok Tedi in the making. So far there has been minimal community consultation and the Sepik people consider the mine does not have a social licence to go ahead.
We have a deep sense of shame that an Australian company recklessly inflicted damage on the Fly River and its people.
The Sepik River is the lifeblood of its people. The children of the village we stayed with are healthy and vibrant. Their delight and laughter melted our hearts.
Professor Tim Flannery says he cannot think of a worse place for a copper mine. Surely we cannot allow an ecological disaster to happen again.
To raise awareness and funds in support of the people of the Sepik we are holding an evening event Tales of the Sepik River in Mullumbimby on Saturday September 29 at 6.30pm.
If you want to know more about this event email [email protected].
If you want to know more about the people of the Sepik, and the Frieda mine, go to Save the Sepik River and its people on Facebook.