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Byron Shire
October 4, 2022

Good news for the Sepik people

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The Sepik River people. Photo supplied

In August 2018, myself, my partner and 15 other people were welcomed into the village of Korogu in the East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). We were invited primarily to help the people of the 1,100 kilometre long Sepik River to raise international awareness about the threat to their future from a proposed Chinese-owned gold and copper mine, the largest project of its kind in the world. The proposed Frieda mine, as it is known, with its huge tailings dam, would be built on the Frieda River at the headwaters of the Sepik River.

On our return to Mullumbimby, along with others, we presented a successful awareness-raising event Tales of the Sepik River.

Ok Tedi and dieback area at Bige. Photo https://rettet-die-elbe.de/oktedi/environ2.htm

One of the worst environmental disasters

There are parallels in PNG to this proposed mine. The Ok Tedi gold and copper mine on the Fly River, located in the Western Province, became an ecological disaster when the tailings dam of a mine under construction by BHP collapsed owing to earthquake activity. It was described in a UN report as one of the worst environmental disasters caused by humans, a consequence of the discharge of about two billion tons of untreated mining waste into the Ok Tedi River from the Ok Tedi Mine. Dr Gavin Mudd, a lecturer in Environmental Engineering at Monash University and chair of the mining watchdog, the Minerals Policy Institute said the damage done by the Ok Tedi during the BHP era is one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of mining.

Australian mining stakeholder

The people of the Sepik fear, with good reason, that a similar fate awaits them and the Sepik River if the Frieda mine, also in an earthquake-prone area, goes ahead. They also fear that other factors, such as the effects of the climate crises on an already extremely high rainfall area, have not been taken into account.  

Brisbane-based PanAust, an Australian mining company, is a major stakeholder in the Frieda mine, owned by a Chinese consortium called Guandong Rising Assets Management, which is ultimately owned by the Chinese Government.

The really good news for the people of the Sepik is that international awareness reached new heights by the announcement of the  Australian OECD National Contact Point (ANCP) acknowledgement of the complaint from Jubilee Australia and the Save the Sepik Project. The ANCP is a department within the Australian National Treasury. ANCP has now stated that it recognises the human rights and environmental issues of the Frieda dam proposal raised by the people of the Sepik.

In June 2020 after village-to-village community led consultation, chiefs from 28 Haus Tambarous or ‘Spirit Houses’, representing 78,000 people living along the Sepik, formally declared they wanted the mine halted.

This socially inclusive approach (shades of the Bentley campaign) has demonstrated that this potentially catastrophic PanAust/Chinese Government venture does not have a social licence to inflict this mine upon the river and its people.

A month earlier in May 2020 a team of UN Special Rapporteurs stated: ‘The plan for the largest mine in Papua New Guinea’s history carries a risk of catastrophic loss of life and environmental destruction and appears to disregard the human rights of those affected’.

They then wrote letters to organisations and governments including those of China, PNG, Australia, and Canada, and to Frieda River Limited to raise their concerns about the proposed Frieda River mine and the risk of failure of its proposed tailings dam.

Living with nature on the Sepik River. Photo supplied

Risk to Sepik people

The UN Special Rapporteurs said, ‘We express concern that this project threatens the cultural rights of the Sepik Peoples including their rights to develop their spiritual and cultural beliefs which are dependant on a healthy environment.’

‘We note that given the nature of this project, it could undermine the rights of Sepik children to life, health, and culture, and a healthy environment including unborn generations.

‘This fear is compounded by the fact that human rights defenders, who try to protect the rights of indigenous communities, face serious risk to their own life as a result.’

The Sepik River is considered by Sepik People as sacred to all life. They have now made their voice heard within the Australian Treasury. It remains for ANCP, an ethical arm of Treasury, to fulfil its charter and respond to the complaints made against the building of the Frieda mine.

The guidelines ANCP operates under call for ‘Responsible business conduct covering all areas of business responsibility including disclosure, human rights, employment and industrial relations, environment, anti-corruption, competition and taxation.’ 

That the campaign to Save the Sepik has reached the upper levels of the Australian government demonstrates that when indigenous people are given a voice, those who put narrow and often greedy interests over and above their future existence can be called to account. 

This is also an opportunity for the Albanese government to recognise the threat to the ecologically sustainable life of the Sepik People by a Chinese-backed Pacific Island extractive industry, and to throw their support behind the indigenous people of PNG. 

For those of you who would like further information, and to support the voice of the Sepik People, you can contact Jubilee Australia and/or Save the Sepik at: ww.jubileeaustralia.org  or www.savethesepik.org. 

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