Interview: Emmanuel Peni, Coordinator of Project Sepik, Papua New Guinea
Emmanuel Peni is the coordinator of Project Sepik (PS), the organisation of people fighting to stop the mining project called 'Frieda River Project' by the Australia-based and Chinese government owned company PanAust. The ‘Frieda River Project’ submitted an application for a mining license - the mine is planned to be developed in the Frieda river area. The mine's tailings will be dammed and dumped into the Sepik River.
BHRRC: What is your name and what is your role as a business and human rights activist working to protect human rights in Sepik River, Papua New Guinea?
My name is Emmanuel Peni; everyone calls me Manu. I provide support to local leaders along the Sepik River and in Wewak—the voices behind the campaign to stop the mining.
BHRRC: Could you explain what business and human rights issues you are working on in connection with the Frieda River Project?
The Sepik River copper and gold mine is a project of PanAust, a Chinese company registered in Australia. The main issue for us is that we are not informed; we’re denied the facts. We have difficulty understanding the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is a very technical document with significant implications for the human rights of people in the Sepik River area. How can they say we have an informed consent? They can't.
We just learned that the EIS doesn’t state that they were dumping arsenic into the river. With the new information, people are fearful. To put this in perspective, consider the case of the Chinese mining company, MSG, which mines nickel in Madang. 10 years ago, our communities along the river rose up and said no to the mine. The project went ahead anyway. This year there was a leakage in the deep sea bed waste disposal, and contaminants were discharged into the sea. In October, the provincial governor invited a Swiss company to come in and do independent testing; they said it's so polluted, people should not eat anything from the sea. One person has died already from eating polluted fish.
After this happened, the PNG Environmental Protection Agency came with their own scientists, did tests and claimed there was no contamination. It was apparent for us then that the central authority is compromised. Nobody is standing up for the people along the coastline in Papua New Guinea. The fact that we cannot trust our own government is making the people become very angry; they’re just about ready to take the law into their own hands.
BHRRC: Why are local communities concerned about mining happening along the Sepik River?
Number one, we've looked around at mining in Papua New Guinea and in the world. We have heard, seen and read enough to know that no mining is safe, period. This is even truer again given our location. The Sepik River mine is situated in Zone One and Zone Two of the Ring of Fire. It's a highly volatile zone. Every day there is movement in the Earth. You simply cannot safely build a mine on Zone One and Zone Two of the Ring of Fire.
Number two, there is land instability in the region, which is problematic. It will not hold a structure, but they're proposing to build a dam on it—and then within the Ring of Fire on top of that. The area has very high rainfall on top of that again. People are afraid that PanAust will build a very bad dam, it will break, and there will be a big flood. It’s our view that they have been cutting corners.
Many mining companies promise roads, schools, bridges and other infrastructure projects. In the past we didn't know much, so we said, ‘Yeah, that's great.’ Now communities are saying, wait a minute, that's not your responsibility. You need to pay tax to the government, and they will give us the schools and the roads and the hospitals. Promising these things is a kind of trickery, a kind of bribery. They know that people need those things and they play on those needs.
Another concern is the legacy of mining at Ok Tedi. BHP, the Australian company, really destroyed that area. We don't see Ok Tedi as just a Papua New Guinean mining disaster. It's one of the world's great mining disasters. The worst part is that, after 30 years, all the heavy metal has now moved from the lower end of the food chain, and now people are now presenting cases of heavy metal poisoning. If this is what the mining industry has done to us already, why would we let it happen again? We are not anti-development, but with this approach they are developing us into extinction.
BHRRC: Please tell us about the company’s public consultation process and any due diligence enquiries by the company that you, or communities, have been involved in.
Our main concerns revolve around consultations. The company talks down to us, like we don’t know anything. They pretend to listen to our concerns and our fears and then just tell us what they want to do. We feel that that kind of consultation they do is very tokenistic.
The preface to the EIS report for the mine is one example of why we have concerns. It says:
Any party reviewing this EIS report should perform its own risk assessment and should not rely on this EIS report’s identification or characterisation of risks… In some instances, Frieda River Limited has relied on data and other information and advice supplied by third party organisations… Except where specifically stated, no independent verification of those sources has been undertaken and where any opinion is expressed in this EIS report it is based on the assumptions and limitations mentioned herein and is an expression of present understanding and opinion only. No warranties or representations can be made as to the origin, validity, accuracy, completeness, currency or reliability of the information… Frieda River Limited does not have any obligation to advise any person if it becomes aware of any inaccuracy in, or omission from, any forecast or to update such forecast.
Why would they even bother releasing a report with a preface like that? It is a report, but it doesn't mean anything. They don't want to be legally challenged. A lot of people will not have legal minds. These things will just fly through and then when they come to court cases, this will become the basis for their legal challenge. That's scary.
There are so many things that are not right. When you put all of this together you can’t talk about informed consent. What’s worse is that when they’ve done this, PanAust claims they have consulted the community and therefore they have consent to mine. We've been reminding them that consultation is not consent completely—particularly given their lack of transparency.
BHRRC: What challenges have you faced in your work, how are you seeking to overcome them? What has worked well? What has hindered your ability to achieve your goals?
From 2016 until October 15 of this year, I had four death threats. In 2010, I had two gunshots fired at me in a public place, one hundred metres from a police station. I'm still sort of recovering. The threat of violence hangs over us constantly.
It's hard to find people that really care and want to do this passionately. You want to be there 24 hours a day, but people have to attend to their families, their communities, making money for their survival. Despite all of that, and on top of the continuing threats of violence, I've got really amazing volunteers with Project Sepik who are really present because the Sepik River means so much to them. Project Sepik is really fortunate to have these volunteers. They go out and do the work dealing at times with extreme obstacles—the threat of violence on them especially.
We have collected signatures from just the upper area of the Sepik River—more than 6000. This collective action gives us a voice. Before 2016, before our group had grown, there was no popular resistance to mining. We were not recorded in reports or research, so our needs and interests went unnoticed. What were our questions and concerns? Who knows? Our greatest frustration is with the company knowing that the people already say no. Why do they continue? What part of no means no to them?
You recently visited Australia to engage with the company. Tell us about this and what was achieved.
When I met with officers of PanAust I said, what part of no do you not understand? And I'm not just saying no, now here for me but when I say no, I represent everyone. I'm saying no today, just like people in the Sepik region have been saying no continuously. I asked the people at PanAust, where do you draw the line and say okay, the community response is definitely no? Nobody seemed to have any answer. I don't know how they could not see it as a human rights violation where we say no and they're still proceeding.
What positive goals are you trying to achieve in terms of mining operations along the Sepik River?
The volunteers with Project Sepik continue to build awareness and collect signatures for the petition. I think one of the best achievements of Project Sepik has been getting an audience amongst scientists, professionals and development specialists in Port Moresby—people in more of a position to influence attitudes and policy. They have a group and are drafting a position paper. Our position is that we will not participate in further consultations along the Sepik River unless the mining proposals change.
Our new task is to support the people to recover cultural traditions that can be empowering for local communities based on stated and unstated expectations, shared obligations and reciprocity where sharing of wealth, rather than private accumulation, was the emphasis. We'll be looking to use different cultural strategies to say no and to continue to protect our river.
What needs to happen in your opinion for the human rights and environmental issues that you are working on in the Sepik River to be successfully resolved by PanAust?
The people of Sepik River are not going to meet PanAust halfway. The people are not going to sit and listen quietly to PanAust, while the company tells them what PanAust plans to do. PanAust needs to listen to the people of the Sepik River. If they don’t, the mine will destroy the Sepik River, and it will destroy our lives along with it.
What can be done by those reading this interview; is there any way in which the international community can help?
Australians can put pressure on their government to ask why a government-sponsored company of China is registered in the ASX, why PanAust can operate from Australia to destroy the Sepik River. Operating out of Australia, PanAust will be seen as an Australian company. What does that do for Australia’s reputation? What happens to that 'Made in Australia' brand? The destruction of our rivers and our life—made in Australia?
What are your key messages for advocates working on business and human rights issues in the Pacific – what are the key opportunities for bringing about change?
The Pacific, our oceans, the ocean floors, leftover rainforests and fresh systems and ecosystems are one of the last places where the rest of the world is going to in the race for resources. My message to the people of the Pacific is that we should stand together to defend ourselves from this mad rush. We should exercise our voices and act in solidarity, as one, not just for what the problems we face mean to us in our locality, but also for what these problems mean to the Pacific as a whole—for our Pacific families and our Pacific home.