Interview: Cressida Kuala, Founder and CEO—Porgera Red Wara (River) Women's Association Incorporated (PRWWA INC), Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.
Cressida Kuala is a human rights activist from Porgera, Papua New Guinea—a remote community dominated by gold mining operations. Canadian mining giant, Barrick, and Chinese miner, Zijin Group, are majority joint owners of the mine which has a chequered human rights record in the region. Barrick employs a significant private security force, which has been implicated in a variety of human rights abuses, from beatings and gang rapes to killings, over the course of the three decades since mining operations commenced in 1990. A frontline human rights activist, originally from Porgera herself, Cressida has been instrumental in efforts to raise awareness about the abuses being perpetrated at Porgera and to educate Porgera locals about their rights—efforts for which she has paid a high personal cost in drawing to herself the same abuses she has sought to challenge in the community.
BHRRC: What is your name and the name of your organisation?
My name is Cressida Kuala, and I am the founder and CEO of the Porgera Red Wara Women's Association.
BHRRC: What is your role as a Business & Human Rights defender working to protect the human rights of women and girls in Porgera, Papua New Guinea?
I established the Porgera Red Wara Women’s Association in 2014/15 to amplify the voices of indigenous women who have been displaced by the Porgera mine, and who have experienced rape and gang rape at the hands of employees of the mine.
BHRRC: What are the human rights issues you are dealing with as a Business & Human Rights defender in connection with mining at Porgera and the legacy of sexual violence committed against women and girls by security forces at the mine?
Women and young girls have been getting attacked and raped around the Porgera mine for the last 30 years. Many people around the mine have also been killed by the security forces. I am from Porgera, and I know they have a long history of this. I have seen it happening since I was a child. It has accumulated and it is very traumatising; the victims carry a very heavy stigma. In 2006 there was a killing at the Porgera mine, and the victim’s family contacted Canada Mining Watch to investigate, who brought in Amnesty International and Earth Rights International. Our government works hand in glove with the company, so they were left out of it.
I was surprised to find that the government didn’t take any part. The government should have brought in an ombudsman, but they didn’t have any, so I started to speak up. At around the same time, I was working at the mine laboratory, creating solutions to analyse gold and other minerals in the lab. Then I started looking at the tailings that were passing through my area, the chemicals that were being let out onto my family’s land and felt that it was a great impact that affected the land and the lives of my people. My daddy is a social scientist; he graduated from the Papua New Guinea University of Technology. He talks about the impact of the mine, and I started to realise it was true when I was working with the company.
I started to question my superiors during meetings, to understand if there was any plan to control damage to the surrounding environment from waste. They started to build a waste plant to recycle it without saying anything. I realised that there was something going on, as they have never treated those chemicals after 30 years of mining; they gave never thought about controlling their waste. I grew up in Porgera; I’m a displaced landowner. There are two types of landowners in Porgera: SML and LMP—Special Mining Lease and Leased for Mining Purposes. LMP is where they dump their waste materials; I come from that area, where there is massive destruction of the environment and people’s livelihoods. They have ignored local landowners for a long time.
I had been asking questions, so they knew people were looking at it. Then in March 2012, after the waste plant had been built to treat the chemicals that were being let out, I was raped by two mine employees coming back from work at the mine bus stop. I felt that that was something connected to the questions I was asking about the environmental degradation being caused by the mine—it was retribution.
BHRRC: What is the background to the rapes? Who committed them and how are they connected to the mine?
Before the mine came, we had land and were able to farm to make our life. We lived a very peaceful life. We minded our own business. We were connected to our land and had food to survive. Life had been going on in this way for centuries; it was a totally different life. But when the mining began, everything changed. We lost our land to the mining, so we don’t have land to farm. The mining then damaged the land. Women were badly affected because we depend on growing food in the garden to provide food in the house. We play an important role in society so that the man and children, all of us, can survive. We depend on each other. But then we were exposed to the world of money, where money was the most important thing.
Without land to farm people go out onto the tailings looking for precious mineral gold, because gold is the only survival means left, the only way at the end of the day to provide food for the family. We don’t fear anybody, we just go down. The unauthorised entries onto the mine site became annoying for the company, and the security forces they employed shot and killed people. Some were left paralysed for life. There were shootouts in public and people were hit by stray bullets. There are a lot of stories after three decades of mining, but no one has ever known how to report the gross violations of human rights, or who to report them to.
The local authorities, the police and army personnel, consistently target and harass the people around the mine; when they catch men on the road, they force them to do unspeakable things to each other. After social media came online, they record them and put them online. The rapes, gang rapes and killings were continuous, but no one has ever spoken about it. The rapes of the indigenous women and young girls create terror in the community, to try to stop people from speaking out and defending their rights. They undermine the social fabric of the community itself and its capacity to resist. The company and the security forces hate and fear us, and they use violence to try to intimidate us into submission and silence.
BHRRC: Can you tell us about the company's legal settlement process?
In 2010, the company established a grievance office; that is, within the company premises and under their control. When I tried to talk to this office, they told me it was only concerned with company affairs, and not with people from outside—the indigenous people. I couldn’t really understand what they told me. If they are complying to the UN Guiding Principles, then their process for resolving grievances should have been independent and accessible to people from the community. When I was trying to talk to them and create a remedy mechanism, they closed all the doors; as a former employee, they even cut off funding for my children’s education.
At the end of 2012, I saw that the company had created a reconciliation plan; it wasn’t a real remedy plan for victims of rape and sexual assault though. They were just trying to keep them quiet. 130 women and young girls from around Porgera came together to seek justice. They had been sexually assaulted by security agents employed by Barrick; some had been pack raped. Barrick engaged a consulting firm and lawyers who initiated a mediation process and interviewed the women and young girls about their experiences; they entered the process in good faith, believing the mediators were working independently when they were actually paid by the company. The lawyers working for Barrick advised the group to take a 5000-dollar payout after signing a legal waiver not to sue the company. With their limited education and lack of resources, the group did not feel that they could not take such a giant company to court; it takes a long time and they could die waiting. Feeling small and powerless, they signed the legal waiver without understanding it, and took the money offered.
11 women out of the group of 130 didn’t want to sign the waiver and went to take their matter to the court in Toronto. On the way, the company asked to meet with them in Port Moresby. They told them they were going to pay them 50,000—ten times what they had offered to the other group—and again asked them to sign a legal waiver. The company also offered the rape victims OHS and small business training; although this was limited to only one or two weeks. I was a translator at these training sessions. After observing them I had more questions. I began to think I should have gone through the official system, so I began reading reports on business and human rights. When I started trying to create an effective remedy mechanism for the women and young girls who were sexually assaulted, I was again raped twice in 2018 and 2019 by agents of the mine as retribution again for my work in this area.
BHRRC: How are you approaching these issues and those involved, what are your strategies – what has worked well?
In 2012 I got in contact with a legal network organised through Columbia and Harvard Universities, who helped me to develop a remedy programme. I have also been working with Amnesty International and an umbrella association of local groups. I lead the creation of a 20-year bottom-up plan from the grassroots, with the help of this umbrella association, for an awareness campaign on how to report their experiences; anyone involved in any kind of accident or who was attacked would have a systemised avenue to go through to complain. The plan is all about creating good governance and helping the people to realise their rights in the society, and how to speak up for their rights and to make right the wrongs. When I was preparing this work, I was lured by a female colleague into a situation where I was raped again.
While I have focused on the human rights abuses committed against women and young girls around Porgera mine, I have also combined it with concerns about environmental degradation; I saw the two issues were interrelated. They all come from the same world where money is more important than people; they are all part of the same problem.
I was sponsored by Canada Mining Watch to go to Toronto in April 2018; we joined in with Protest Barrick and protested against them on the streets. I gave testimony at that time about chemical dumping in Porgera, including one incident in July 2018 where chemicals burned about 63 people at the dumpsite - men and women and children. They are looking into ways to provide international support and legal remedy for the 119 women and young girls who had been raped by mine employees, and ways to get rid of the legal waivers the company uses to avoid having to take responsibility for the crimes committed around Porgera.
I have done a lot of speaking internationally. I was invited to go to the UN international conference on business and human rights; we have written a submission to the business and human rights working group in New York, ‘Voice of Porgera Woman in Mining Today.’ I was a panellist at a two-week UN training programme for indigenous people’s human rights at Geneva where I spoke about the impact of mining in Porgera, and my own experiences and work. They understood where I was coming from, how hard it was to get help for women and young girls in an area like Porgera which is so remote. They supported me in getting exposure in the news media to name and shame Barrick.
Barrick are very ignorant about the issues we are dealing with, though they know we are working at the international frontier to expose what has happened around the mine. I took an employee from the mine at Porgera with me to Geneva; I emailed Barrick and said, if you will not meet with me, I need to take one of your employees with me so that someone from the company knows something about business and human rights.’ She learned a lot of things, and when she came back to the mine site, she shared what she had learned. If they want to close the door and don’t want to listen to what I have to say, they can listen to their own employees.
After twenty years of working at the grassroots and trying to raise awareness of the human rights abuses at Porgera mine, and with global exposure that those efforts have created, things have started to improve. Surprisingly, recently—just this year—Barrick asked me to come and run a workshop with the company employees. The company is showing interest in making an effort around business and human rights finally and it’s good, I think.
‘People who sympathise with the sufferings and struggles of people in Porgera need to speak up and use their voices so that powerful people all around the world take action and force companies like Barrick to respect human rights. Nothing will stop us from speaking up about what is taking place in Porgera, because it is coming from our hearts.’
BHRRC: What challenges have you faced in your work, how are you seeking to overcome them?
After my own experiences I started working on a bottom-up plan; there wasn’t any kind of dialogue system for the government, the company and the people to talk about the impact of mining on Porgera, and how it affected their lives in the communities. The government was too corrupt to be of any use. Since there weren’t any dialogue systems, I started to strategise on that, to try to create an avenue for people to come and tell their stories. I went out to the campsites and started interviewing women and young girls, and men as well and boys. I talked to them; they were my relatives, most of them.
Collecting interviews was a very traumatising experience; I was going through nightmares listening to how the people I talked to had been physically assaulted. It was very difficult. I’m in Port Moresby now but I still can’t get rid of the bad dreams. Just imagine 3,848 stories from individuals over 5 years—women losing their husbands who were shot by the police, children who were raped, young girls. One girl is paralysed, and she cannot walk. She has been rejected by her own mother, and her father is struggling to take care of her. The father is not educated, he is not employed. The problems are very disturbing.
I have to be careful here that my work is not compromised by the company and the government. I’m trying to keep a distance from them so that the problems I and others in the area experience can’t be managed and controlled by those who want to silence us. I need my voice.
BHRRC: What needs to happen, in your opinion, for the human rights issues that you are working on in Porgera to be successfully resolved by Barrick Gold and Zijin Mining?
I’m only a semi-educated person but, in my travels, I have been learning about business and human rights, and it is clear to me we need to create a business and human rights mechanism to provide remedy to the human rights abuses in Papua New Guinea.
We need a strong ombudsman in Canada to investigate human rights abuses perpetrated overseas - an ombudsman with a sharp stick.
BHRRC: What positive goals are you trying to achieve now?
At the moment I am trying to talk to the Canadian government, the Australian government and the Papua New Guinea government to create legislation to remedy human rights abuses in places like Porgera. It’s the Canadian government and the Australian government who create access for the companies to come through and extract minerals from Papua New Guinea. They have to be very strict in allowing companies to come to our territories to mine.
I am trying to build a network with international partners and local representatives like me, and lawyers, to get together to try to reach out to people in remote areas like Porgera, to try to help them to understand their rights based on UN guiding principles and sustainable development goals. We need to build international awareness, based on understanding of complex ideas, in the simplest possible way, at the local level, which can then filter upwards through the regional and national levels, so that people who are most affected by human rights violations like those at Porgera can speak for themselves in terms broadly applicable at the international level.
To make this happen we need effective communication. In Porgera, for example, people don’t understand the common language that is spoken throughout Papua New Guinea, so we have to get people that speak the local language, so that people can understand their rights. Then we have to create an effective local communication tree, so that if a violation happens it can be recorded and reported quickly.
BHRRC: What can be done by those reading this interview; is there any way in which the international community can help?
People who sympathise with the sufferings and struggles of people in Porgera need to speak up and use their voices so that powerful people all around the world take notice, and then take action to force companies like Barrick to respect human rights. They need to name and shame Barrick so that we here in Porgera no longer have to fear what we witness going on around us all the time.
Nothing will stop us from speaking up about what is taking place in Porgera because it is coming from our hearts and it is true.
BHRRC: What are your key messages for readers concerned about the human rights abuses at Porgera?
My key message is that we have to get rid of the legal waiver that was put on the 119 women from Porgera. That is one of the big problem that is putting a big burden on my shoulders as a human rights defender and an environmental rights defender. I was detained, physically assaulted and raped for speaking up about that legal waiver. Those in power need to take responsibility for what has been taking place in Porgera over the last three decades and for what continues.