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Mining Capitalism The Relationship between Corporations and Their Critics

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Chapter 1

Colliding Ecologies

The Ok Tedi copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea has discharged more than two billion metric tons of tailings, overburden, and waste rock into the Fly River system since the mid-1980s, polluting the river corridor from the mine to the sea, a distance of one thousand kilometers (Tingay 2007, 5). Nearly two thousand square kilometers of rain forest and savannah along the river have been affected by flooding and die-back (OTML 2005, 4). The pollution is eventually expected to transform the entire floodplain, approximately 3,800 square kilometers, an area larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island (Tingay 2007, 12). Until recently, the Fly River system was the site of one of the largest extant rain forests in the world and valued for its high biodiversity (Swartzendruber 1993). The project has already caused acid mine drainage at several locations, which has the potential to render large areas inhospitable to organic life for centuries.

Large-scale resource extraction projects like the Ok Tedi mine are usually dominated by distant capital and primarily responsive to international markets. Economies of scale often dictate the enormous size of hard rock mines, especially when located in remote and rugged terrain. Mining is an intensive process that focuses on a single type of resource, which it eventually exhausts. Without adequate protection, the environmental impact from these mines may extend over great distances. Yet pressure from international markets discourages mining companies from making sufficient investments in environmental controls. The absence of binding international standards for handling tailings and other mine wastes leads mining companies to pursue a "race to the bottom" for environmental standards. Mining companies lack incentive to voluntarily raise these standards, given that only those producers with the lowest costs remain profitable during economic downturns.

The environmental impacts of large-scale resource extraction projects may also pose a threat to the continued viability of indigenous subsistence practices, a dynamic I refer to as "colliding ecologies." When competing systems for exploiting natural resources interact, one system may limit the viability of the others. The environmental impact of the Ok Tedi mine has had significant consequences for the forty-five thousand people living downstream whose livelihoods depend on access to natural resources. Until relatively recently, the diets of the peoples living in the region were entirely dependent on local subsistence production. They were also extensive, making use of a broad array of resources, combining horticulture with hunting, fishing, and the gathering of a broad array of forest products. In the cloud forests of the Star Mountains, where the Ok Tedi mine is located, taro is the staple food of the Min (Barth 1983; Crook 2007; Hyndman 1994). In the lowland rain forests of the North Fly, the Yonggom and their neighbors harvest sago from the Metroxylon palm and cultivate bananas (Depew 1987; Kirsch 2006; Welsch 1994). In the savannah and lagoons of the Middle Fly, the Boazi and their neighbors rely on sago, hunting, and fishing for the bulk of their diet (Busse 1991). In the rain forest and mangroves of the South Fly, the Kiwai and their neighbors depend on sago and fish (Lawrence 1991; Ohtsuka 1983), whereas yams are the staple crop of the people living in the dry interior (Ayres 1983). These practices are compatible with a variety of other economic activities, including smallholder rubber plantations, commercial fishing, and the cultivation of cash crops. However, pollution from the Ok Tedi mine has transformed the downstream environment in ways that compromise both subsistence production and other economic opportunities.

The harsh treatment of land and other resources set aside for production is commonplace for the residents of industrialized countries, but the new landscape downstream from the Ok Tedi mine is alien to the people living there. Rivers that once ran green and clear have been transformed into muddy torrents the color of coffee with milk. Three decades of mining have transformed the verdant landscape along the river corridor into a moonscape of gray tailings. The hornbills, cockatoos, egrets, kingfishers, and birds of paradise that used to live along the river and in the forest are gone. Fish populations have been drastically reduced in number and biodiversity. Sago stands along the river and in nearby creeks have long since been choked by mud. The pollution of the river, the death of the forest along the river corridor, and the disappearance of the animals that used to live in the forest have given rise to widespread concerns about environmental collapse. The destruction of the landscape has also evoked profound expressions of sorrow and loss from the people living along the river.

The concept of colliding ecologies suggests an alternative way of conceptualizing what economists call the "resource curse," the recognition that developing countries dependent on mining and other forms of natural resource extraction possess slower growth rates than their peers (Auty 1993; Sachs and Warner 1995; Ross 1999). The resource curse not only causes macroeconomic problems at the level of the state, but it also creates microeconomic problems for the peoples most directly affected by mining. Even though new mining projects are routinely promoted on the grounds that they will raise local standards of living, in practice, the people living in the catchment areas of these projects end up bearing a disproportionate share of their costs-in the form of environmental impacts. Instead of benefiting economically from mining, many of these communities are impoverished by pollution, an example of "accumulation by dispossession" (Harvey 2003).

I begin this chapter by examining the history of the Ok Tedi mine and the reasons why its impacts have vastly exceeded the project's original environmental impact assessment. Next, I compare the macro- and microeconomic consequences of the resource curse. I focus on the consequences of the Ok Tedi mine's environmental impact for the Yonggom people, with whom I have carried out ethnographic research since 1986, including their perceptions of these changes. Finally, I show how these events have analogues elsewhere in the region by briefly describing several other prominent mining conflicts in Melanesia. In addition to using this exercise for its comparative value, I explain how these conflicts are interrelated.

This chapter also seeks to place the Ok Tedi mine in its proper historical context as one of the first conflicts between mining companies and communities to gain international prominence. As I argue more fully in succeeding chapters, the Ok Tedi case not only contributed to the internationalization of debate about the mining industry, but it also led to significant changes in the industry's practices, triggered a series of lawsuits against transnational mining companies, alerted multilateral banks and other international financial institutions to the problems caused by their funding of the Ok Tedi mine and other mining projects, and led to new roles for indigenous peoples and NGOs in relation to mining conflicts around the world.

Prelude to Disaster

Ok Tedi was the first mining project approved by the postcolonial government of Papua New Guinea, which acquired its independence from Australia in 1975. The flagship development project of the colonial era was the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville, which, during its operation, provided more than 16 percent of the postcolonial state's revenues (Griffin 1990, 70). After independence, Papua New Guinea continued the colonial policy of pursuing economic development through large-scale resource extraction projects (Filer and Macintyre 2006).

Kennecott exploration geologists discovered the ore body at Mt. Fubilan in 1968, nearly a century after the Australian engineer Lawrence Hargrave found copper and gold while panning in the lower Ok Tedi River in 1876 (Goode 1977, 176). Negotiations between the state of Papua New Guinea and Kennecott failed, however, in 1975, and several years later, in 1980, the Australian mining company Broken Hill Proprietary Ltd. (BHP) took the lead in establishing a consortium of investors to develop the project. The Australian government was eager to see the project move forward as a means of reducing its financial obligations toward its former territory and offered BHP tax credits for exploration and other financial support for developing the mine (Pintz 1984, 56). This was the first major international venture for BHP, which had previously concentrated on domestic investments. Its participation in the Ok Tedi mine coincided with the rapid internationalization of the company, which culminated in its 2001 merger with the Anglo-Dutch mining company Billiton PLC. BHP Billiton currently operates in twenty-five countries around the world and describes itself as the "world's largest diversified resources company," producing aluminum, bauxite, coal, copper, diamonds, iron ore, lead, manganese, nickel, petroleum, silver, steel, uranium, and zinc (BHP Billiton 2006).

The Ok Tedi mine is located in the Star Mountains, eighteen kilometers from the border with the militarized Indonesian territory of West Papua. In 1982, when construction began, this was one of the least accessible areas of Papua New Guinea. At the start of mining, Mt. Fubilan stood 2,094 meters high (Pintz 1984, 13), but the elevation of the mining pit will drop below sea level during the final phase of the project, which is expected to last from 2015 to 2025. The terrain is composed of rugged limestone karst. With annual rainfall in excess of ten meters, this is one of the wettest areas in the world, which proved to be a critical factor in the erosion of waste rock and overburden into the river system. The ore body is located near the headwaters of the Ok Tedi River, which runs south for about 190 kilometers to D'Albertis Junction, where it joins the Fly River, forming the largest wetland system in the country. The volume of water transported through the Fly River system per square mile of catchment area exceeds even that of the Amazon River (Townsend and Townsend 1996, 1). The river system once supported the most diverse assemblage of freshwater fish in the Australasian region, with 115 species, including seventeen endemic species (Storey et al. 2009, 428). In contrast, the Sepik River in northern Papua New Guinea, the river closest in size to the Fly, has a relatively low overall fish density, with a total of fifty-seven freshwater species (Hettler and Lehmann 1995, 15). The bird life along the Fly River was equally diverse, including tens of thousands of migratory birds that travel north from Australia during the continental dry season.

The distinguishing feature of the ore body at Mt. Fubilan was a substantial gold cap, which was expected to pay for the bulk of the project's construction costs (Jackson 1993, 168).From May 1984 until 1988, the gold cap was mined and processed, which involved the use of sodium cyanide to separate the gold from the other metals and rock; gold bars were produced at the site and flown directly out of the country. In late 1988 the mine moved to full production in the second phase of development, producing copper concentrate, which is piped 160 kilometers to the river port of Kiunga on the Fly River, where it is loaded onto ships and transported to overseas smelters in China, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. During this phase of production, gold and silver are not separated from the copper concentrate, and consequently, cyanide is no longer used at the mine.

There was always a question whether the second phase of the mine would be economically viable, although the state made its contract with the mining company contingent on the continuation of the project after the gold cap was exhausted. Over the history of the mine, BHP threatened to walk away from the project several times, exercising its political leverage over the state, which had become economically dependent on the taxes and other economic benefits provided by the mine. Papua New Guinea also had a strong interest in demonstrating to the international community that it was a desirable location for investment capital. BHP finally left the project in 2001, because the Ok Tedi mine's ongoing environmental impacts posed significant economic liabilities and reputational costs. However, at the insistence of the state, the Ok Tedi mine continues to operate, though without its international partners. Due to higher metal prices in the last decade, the most recent phase of the project has been by far its most profitable, with earnings of more than five billion dollars, a dramatic turnaround for a mine that performed so poorly during its early years of operation that BHP's original investment in the project had to be written off (Jackson 1993, 50).

Although BHP was the managing partner of the Ok Tedi mine, it initially controlled only 30 percent of the project. German interests accounted for another 20 percent of the operation. This followed the decision by the German metals industry during the 1970s to secure access to raw materials through investment in foreign mining projects, which was supported by government financing and tax incentives (IWT 1994, Mining, 60). Metallgesellschaft, the largest minerals and natural resources company in Germany, which also has substantial international interests, acquired 7.5 percent of the project. Degussa, a large precious metals and chemical company, owned another 7.5 percent of the mine, giving the company access to copper for its refinery on the Elbe River, which was operated by its subsidiary Norddeutsche Affinerie, as well as a market for the industrial chemicals it produced, including hydrogen peroxide and sodium cyanide. The German export credit agency DEG, which ordinarily provides loans to development projects, controlled another 5 percent of the project (IWT 1994, Mining, 60). Amoco (originally Standard Oil Company of Indiana) was the final international investor, acquiring 30 percent of the project. The head of Amoco's minerals subsidiary had previous experience at the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville and was instrumental in Amoco's decision to invest in the Ok Tedi mine (Pintz 1984, 59).

The Papua New Guinea state also assumed ownership of a 20 percent stake in the project. This decision was influenced by ideas about economic dependency that were prominent during the 1970s, most notably the argument that the wealthier core states of the global economy perpetuated their economic advantage by extracting raw materials from poorer and less-developed states in the periphery (Thompson and MacWilliam 1992, 170). By acquiring an ownership stake in the Ok Tedi mine, Papua New Guinea hoped to reverse this trend by reaping a greater share of the financial benefits from its natural resources (Zorn 1977). However, policy makers did not give adequate consideration to the contradictions engendered by this decision, notably that the state would have to negotiate a fundamental conflict of interest as both a shareholder and the regulator of the Ok Tedi mine. In particular, the scale of the new mining project in relation to the small size of the country's formal economic sector created a new form of dependency for Papua New Guinea on the Ok Tedi mine. Throughout the history of the project, the state has consistently made regulatory decisions that sought to minimize its expenditures and maximize its economic returns as both a shareholder in the mine and tax collector. Most of these decisions were made at the expense of people living downstream from the Ok Tedi mine.

Financing for the $1.4 billion project was supported by a number of multilateral investment authorities and state export credit agencies, the purpose of which is to promote economic activity. The Australian government backed the mine with the largest export credit ever provided by its Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (Pintz 1984, 139). The Multilateral Investment Guarantee Authority (MIGA) of the World Bank provided guarantees that ensured lower interest rates on loans from New York-based Citicorp Bank. The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) provided political risk insurance against the threat of nationalization (Pintz 1984, 140). The European Investment Bank and several export credit agencies in Europe also provided financial support given the German investments in the project (Pintz 1984, 140-41). In the early 1980s, these institutions lacked policies addressing the environmental impacts of the projects they funded or their consequences for indigenous rights, although this began to change in the late 1980s and 1990s as a result of lobbying and other pressure from the NGO community (Goodland 2000). Accordingly, the credit agencies and banks that financed the Ok Tedi mine lacked the legal standing or political capacity to intervene in decisions made by the mining company. Despite the large commitment of public resources to the project, civil society had little influence over the policies of Ok Tedi Mining Ltd. (OTML), even after the environmental problems caused by the mine had become pronounced and troubling.

At its independence from Australia in 1975, the legal system of Papua New Guinea was still in the process of being drafted. Consequently, the Ok Tedi project is governed under a separate act of Parliament, the Mining (Ok Tedi Agreement) Act of 1976. Despite having one of the first constitutions in the world to make reference to environmental sustainability, the bill that enforced this provision of the constitution was not passed until 1979. This means that the Ok Tedi mine is exempt from the Environmental Planning Act. The original Mining Act has been modified nine times in separate agreements, each of which required parliamentary approval. The Ok Tedi mine is governed by these agreements, which have been influenced by the political concerns and often pressing economic needs of the state, rather than being regulated by the same laws as the rest of the industry. Although the transfer of responsibility for monitoring the Ok Tedi mine by the Department of Minerals and Energy, which is also charged with increasing state revenue from this sector, to the Department of Environment and Conservation in 1993 was intended to reduce the inherent conflict of interest, all of the major decisions about the mine continue to be made by the PNG Parliament, which must contend with competing priorities. In addition to repeated threats by the mining company to pull up stakes and abandon the project and the state's conflict of interest as both regulator and shareholder, these shortcomings in the governance of the project might be seen as a critical third strike in terms of undercutting the ability and motivation of the state to limit the mine's environmental impact.

The question of waste disposal from the Ok Tedi mine has dominated discussion and critique of the project. Hard rock mines produce several different waste products. Tailings, or fines, are the finely ground materials, often sand-like in consistency, that remain after the valuable metals have been extracted from the ore body. Overburden refers to rock and earth moved to gain access to the ore body. Waste rock refers to materials that have been excavated but do not contain enough metal to be processed economically. The cut-off for processing, or head grade, is determined by a combination of technical capacity, production costs, and market prices for metals, and can change over the life of a mining project. Historically, this figure has decreased as metals have become more valuable and new technologies have been developed to extract particles that, in the case of gold, may be so small as to be invisible to the naked eye. For the Ok Tedi mine, the tailings consist of a fine slurry of ground rock containing varying amounts of heavy metals, including cadmium, copper, lead, and zinc, as well as small quantities of organic flotation chemicals (IWT 1994). The waste rock and overburden from the Ok Tedi mine consists of soft material that breaks down easily, with a copper content of 0.2 percent or less and significant quantities of other heavy metals (IWT 1994). More than one billion metric tons of waste rock and overburden have eroded into the river over the life of the mine (Tingay 2007, 5). Another 750 million metric tons of finely ground tailings have been discharged into the river system during this time.

The initial proposal for the Ok Tedi mine included the construction of a dam in the mountains that was intended to prevent the tailings from entering the river system. But historically high gold prices encouraged the mining company to accelerate construction of the mine. Excavation for the foundation of the Ok Ma tailings dam, which was already several months behind schedule, commenced before the geological assessment of the site was complete (Townsend 1988, 113). On January 7, 1984, there was a landslide at the excavation site that destroyed the footings for the dam and prevented further construction (Townsend 1988, 114). Even though three independent reports suggested alternative sites for a tailings dam (Townsend and Townsend 2004, 13), the mining company immediately petitioned the state to begin production without a tailings dam. Anxious not to delay or jeopardize this important economic project, several weeks later the Papua New Guinea government approved an interim tailings scheme that permitted the mining company to discharge tailings directly into the Ok Tedi River. Under the terms of the Sixth Supplemental Agreement, which went into effect in 1986, OTML agreed to investigate alternative plans for tailings containment and report back to the state in late 1989. The Sixth Supplemental Agreement also made an important change to the earlier agreements, redefining the river system affected by the mine as the "Fly River below the confluence of the Ok Tedi and Fly River down to and including the delta of the Fly River" (Papua New Guinea 1986), treating the Ok Tedi River as a de facto sacrifice zone (Kirsch 1989b, 58).

The predictions of the environmental impact assessment conducted for the project (Maunsell and Partners 1982), which was based on the assumption that the mining company would build a tailings dam in the mountains, were quickly rendered obsolete. Given that only a marginal amount of the tailings produced by the mine was originally expected to enter the river system, the primary impacts from the mine were anticipated to come from eroding waste rock. This was supposed to increase the volume of sediment in the river only slightly, and it was claimed that the changes would not be noticeable below Ningerum, seventy kilometers downstream from the mine. The environmental impact assessment also predicted negligible impacts in the lower Ok Tedi River and none at all for the Fly River (Maunsell and Partners 1982). Consequently, the "effects of suspended sediment loads (turbidity) on the Ok Tedi-Fly River system were never investigated" (Pintz 1984, 106). Given that there were only a handful of settlements along the upper Ok Tedi River, the report predicted that the project would have very limited social impacts on the communities downstream from the mine (Maunsell and Partners 1982; see Jackson, Emerson, and Welsch 1980).

Another key assumption made by the original environmental impact study was that the maximum rate of production at the Ok Tedi mine would be forty-five thousand metric tons per day (Pintz 1984, 73). However, the collapse of copper prices during the economic depression of the mid-1980s led the mine to increase production to eighty thousand metric tons per day in order to remain economically competitive. Significant changes in the management of waste rock and overburden were also made after production began, as more of the waste rock than originally anticipated had to be moved to the southern dump, where it quickly eroded into the river system (Pintz 1984). Due to heavy rainfall in the mountains, erosion from the so-called stable northern dump has also been much greater than predicted.

From a mine with an environmental impact assessment predicated on the construction of a tailings dam and strong controls over the volume of waste rock entering the river system, the Ok Tedi mine morphed into a project in which thirty million metric tons of tailings and forty million metric tons of overburden and waste rock enter the river system annually, causing massive environmental degradation downstream. These impacts have also been exacerbated by the longevity of the project, which was originally expected to last for fifteen years (Pintz 1984, 35). The mine remains operational in 2013, more than twenty-five years after production began, and a proposed underground extension would keep the mine working until 2025, albeit at significantly lower rates of production. The combination of discharging tailings directly into the river, accelerated erosion of waste rock into the river system, the doubling of production levels, and nearly tripling the original life of the mine have dramatically increased the impact of the project on the environment.

During the first year of gold production, there were two significant cyanide spills. On June 14, 1984, a barge transporting chemicals to the mine overturned in the Fly River delta during a storm, losing 2,800 sixty-liter drums of cyanide and several stainless-steel containers of hydrogen peroxide. Only 117 of the cyanide drums had been recovered when the search was called off. A second cyanide spill occurred at the mine on June 19, 1984, when a "by-pass valve opened for two hours and 12 minutes . . . releasing 1000 cubic meters of highly concentrated cyanide waste into the Ok Tedi River" (Hyndman 1994, 94). The people living in Dome village, about one hundred kilometers downstream from the mine, recall collecting and eating the dead fish, turtles, and crocodiles that floated to the surface of the Ok Tedi River the next day.

Ok Tedi Mining Ltd. was required to report to the national government on its new plans for tailings disposal by late 1989. Earlier that year, however, the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville had been attacked and forced to close by landowners who objected to its environmental impacts and the size of the national government's share of the mine's profits. Given the Panguna mine's contribution to Papua New Guinea's GDP, its closure dramatically increased the state's economic dependence on the Ok Tedi mine.

Although the possibility of constructing a tailings dam at the Ok Tedi mine was still being discussed as a viable option as of May 1989, in October of that year BHP reported to the Papua New Guinea government that a tailings dam was no longer economically feasible (Filer 1997b, 60). BHP threatened to close the mine if it was forced to build a tailings dam, leaving the state between a rock and a hard place. In December 1989, the state granted approval to Ok Tedi Mining Ltd. to continue discharging tailings into Fly River system, a decision described as "one of the most fateful and dangerous ever made in the history of mining in the Pacific region" (Moody 1992, 147). The failure to build a tailings dam was especially ironic for the Yonggom people, from whose language the Ok Tedi mine derives its name. Ok Tedi, or Ok Deri, as it is usually pronounced, is not only the name for the river along which many of the Yonggom villages in Papua New Guinea are located but also refers to fishing dams or weirs. The Yonggom use rocks, sticks, and mud to block off a section of the river, then they bail out the water behind the structure to collect the fish and prawns left stranded in shallow pools. In other words, the downfall of the Ok Tedi mine was caused by the failure of the company to build an ok tedi, a dam.

In lieu of its obligation to construct a tailings dam, OTML proposed to limit the level of suspended particulate matter in the river system. The Acceptable Particulate Level (APL) was established in the Seventh Supplemental Agreement between OTML and the state (PNG 1986). The APL was set at approximately ten times the background level of sediment in the Fly River prior to the mine, which was aimed at preventing "unacceptable environmental damage" to the river (IWT 1994, Mining 70). But the APL was based on an arbitrary threshold established with reference to the ability of the mining company to comply. It was widely criticized for not being based on scientific evidence (IWT 1994, 7) and for "being set so as to avoid economic costs to OTML, rather than protect the environment" (Rosenbaum and Krockenberger 1993, 14; see also Mowbry 1995, 4). Allowing a mining company to set its own pollution levels is an example of allowing the proverbial fox to guard the henhouse, as well as a staple of neoliberal economic policy that promotes the transfer of governmental powers of regulation to the private sector. The Acceptable Particulate Level became effective on April 1, 1990.

These fateful decisions-from beginning production without tailings containment to permitting the mine to continue discharging high volumes of tailings and mine waste-eventually resulted in widespread environmental degradation downstream from the Ok Tedi mine. Such slow-motion disasters are more difficult for us to perceive than catastrophes caused by earthquakes, hurricanes, or tsunamis. Sudden events also form the template for industrial disaster in the public imagination: the explosion that released a cloud of poisonous gas in Bhopal, the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, or the Exxon Valdez shipwreck that spilled eleven million gallons of crude oil in Alaska. It requires a different sense of time to adequately perceive the impact of slow-motion disasters as they are happening (B. Adam 1998). Thomas Beamish (2002) writes about the "silent spill" in Guadalupe, California, which leaked more oil than the Exxon Valdez accident over a period of thirty-eight years before the problem was finally addressed. The threat of global climate change also fits into this category, complicating the formulation of a robust response by the international community. The slow-motion environmental disaster along the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers was conveniently ignored by the mining company and the Papua New Guinea government even though the problems were readily perceived by the people living downstream from the mine, who are not only keen observers of the natural world but dependent on its integrity for their day-to-day subsistence and cultural survival.

This is not to say that there were no early warnings. After the original requirement to construct a tailings dam was suspended, an American engineer employed by the government of Papua New Guinea criticized the decision in a paper entitled "Giving Away the River" published by the U.N. Environment Programme (Townsend 1988). The same year, an anthropologist who contributed to the original environmental impact study referred to the project in the Ecologist as New Guinea's "disaster mine" (Hyndman 1988). The following year, I wrote an op-ed for the Times of Papua New Guinea that compared the Ok Tedi River to a sewer (Kirsch 1989a), and I subsequently published an extended review of the problems in a local journal (Kirsch 1989b). Four years later, the Australian Conservation Foundation described the Ok Tedi River as "almost biologically dead" (Rosenbaum and Krockenberger 1993, 9). Despite these efforts to draw attention to the pollution from the Ok Tedi mine, the mining company continued to turn a blind eye to the consequences of its operation. It also turned a deaf ear to the rising litany of complaints and demands from the people living along the river system, as I discuss in the next chapter. With the support of the Papua New Guinea government, the lack of any real political threat from the downstream communities, and the absence of engagement by either domestic or international NGOs during the 1980s, BHP and OTML concluded that they could safely ignore the problems caused by the mine. They continued to externalize the costs of production at the Ok Tedi mine onto the environment and the communities downstream rather than investing in infrastructure to reduce or eliminate riverine tailings disposal.

The Local Resource Curse

The inability of the state to control or benefit from mining is generally referred to as the "resource curse," which is usually defined as a macroeconomic problem in which investment in extractive industry inhibits other forms of economic development, which results in the country as a whole remaining poor rather than benefitting from the sale of its resources (Auty 1993; Sachs and Warner 1995; Ross 1999; Sawyer and Gomez 2012). One of the problems is that investment in extractive industry contributes relatively little in the way of multiplier effects to other sectors of the economy or the diversified growth stimulated by other types of investment, such as the development of industry (Ross 1999). The promise of lucrative returns from resource rents can impede rational planning and result in the neglect of economic sectors that yield lower revenues but create more jobs, such as agriculture (Ross 1999). Richard Jackson argues that the state's dependence on resource extraction fosters the belief among Papua New Guineans that earning money does not require hard work, which he compared to popular pyramid schemes known as moni ren, or "money rain." (Post-Courier 2002). Jackson, a geographer and long-term consultant for Ok Tedi Mining Ltd., also attributes the lack of progress in other sectors of the economy, including commercial agriculture, to the state's reliance on revenue from the mining industry.

The contemporary mining industry is capital intensive, and its reliance on technology means that there are relatively few employment opportunities for workers from rural areas who lack the necessary technical skills. Higher wages in the extractive sector of the economy makes other forms of labor-at lower wages-less attractive to potential workers, and it may even produce negative incentives for participation in subsistence production, which becomes viewed as hard work in return for comparatively low returns.Mining projects also increase awareness of the opportunities and freedoms associated with modernity, even though access to its promises remain limited (Ross 1999; Ferguson 1999). Because of the reliance on a predominantly male workforce, mining communities are often plagued by drinking, gambling, and prostitution, which lead to increased exposure to sexually transmitted disease.

Dependence on resource rents from mining projects may also encourage other forms of rent-seeking behavior, including extortion and violence (Ross 1999). In Papua New Guinea, this takes the form of exaggerated compensation claims regarding use or damage to land and resources (Toft 1997). Criticism of unrealistic compensation claims has been exploited by the mining industry to discredit landowner concerns about pollution. They argue that landowners affected by mining exaggerate their concerns about the environment to maximize the resource rents paid by mining companies. This perspective was reflected in a joke told to the participants at a 1995 conference on investment in the Papua New Guinea minerals and petroleum industries: If Jesus were living in Papua New Guinea today, the story went, and Judas were to betray him for thirty pieces of silver, it would be nearly impossible to find a landowner who would blame him for taking the money. The crowd roared with laughter, embracing the stereotype of the greedy and immoral landowner. Legitimate concerns about the environmental impact of the Ok Tedi mine were easily assimilated into established narratives about compensation claims, impeding recognition of the problems downstream.

The resource curse is also associated with undesirable trends in governance. In the parlance of the mining industry, large-scale projects like the Ok Tedi mine are known as "elephants." Because it is host to a number of large mines, miners refer to Papua New Guinea as "elephant country." The majority of government revenue comes from the mining and petroleum sector, because most of the country's population resides in rural areas and practices subsistence agriculture, paying little or no taxes. Consequently, the state can be described as riding on the backs of the elephants, on which it depends to run the country (Kirsch 1996). The interests and appetites of the elephants may be placed ahead of the needs of citizens, who only contribute a small share of the country's budget. The state is also more inclined to use force when rural populations threaten to block the elephants from their feeding troughs by interfering with mining.

The role of transnational mining companies in Papua New Guinea over the last three decades might be compared to a herd of rampaging elephants undeterred by the efforts of the state to bring them under control. But because the state is also a shareholder in these mines, its interests are more aligned with the herd of elephants than the people trampled underfoot. However, in describing the limited capacity of the Papua New Guinean state to manage its affairs, Colin Filer (1997c, 118) suggests that "we should perhaps be less inclined to represent the multinational companies as unscrupulous and dirty beasts, and think of them instead as tame elephants performing in a circus without a ringmaster."

The limited presence of the state in the rural areas in which many of these mines operate has turned these projects into new sites of governmentality that bring mining companies into closer contact with the surrounding communities (see Sawyer 2004). Many of the companies in this position assume some of the responsibilities of the state by providing support for local business development and health care. This occurs even though most people working in the mining industry see themselves as being in the business of digging holes and extracting metal, and believe that they have neither the responsibility nor the capacity to carry out these other missions. Such new forms of governmentality can engender resistance, in which mining companies are held accountable for the shortcomings of the state (Welker 2009). The failure of both the state and the mining company to meet local expectations for development can also fuel separatist ambitions, as occurred in the civil war sparked by conflict over the Panguna mine in Bougainville.

There is growing recognition of the problems associated with mining across Papua New Guinea. In an editorial titled "Mining Gains Pose Woes," the Post-Courier (2007) suggests that pollution from the mining industry could leave Papua New Guinea with a population of "environmental refugees." The editorial asks, "What will be the environmental cost and the cost of social-economic security for future generations" of the country's dependence on mining revenues? It concludes that "reliance on mining revenue has no exit strategy" when the other sectors of the economy continue to be neglected, an example of what Jose Carlos Orihuela and Rosemary Thorp (2012, 31) refer to as a "self-reproducing dependency." The editorial demands a populist response to the dilemma, arguing that the "policy implications of risking human survival on the increased acceleration of the exploitation of the natural environment is far too important to be left to politicians" (Post-Courier 2007).

In addition to the familiar macroeconomic problems of the resource curse (Ross 1999), mining is also responsible for a range of microeconomic problems. A more complete reckoning of the social and environmental costs of mining projects might shift their value from the positive to the negative side of the ledger, especially when accounting for the cost of replacing the resources and amenities that have been lost or damaged. A river in rural Papua New Guinea may have no market value, but the cost of providing drinking water or replacing the fish in the diet of forty thousand people would be astronomical. Mining is also responsible for other losses, for which monetary compensation is woefully inadequate. The resource curse is not only a macroeconomic problem at the level of the state; what I call the "microeconomics of the resource curse" is also a serious concern for the communities most directly affected by mining.

Yonggom Responses to Environmental Impacts

From 1987 to 1989, I conducted ethnographic research among the Yonggom people living on the lower Ok Tedi River. The area is covered in lowland rain forest crosscut by narrow, swampy valleys. Their staple food is the starchy flour extracted from the sago palm (Metroxylon sagu). They cultivate more than a dozen varieties of bananas and plantains in their swidden gardens along with smaller quantities of pitpit (bush asparagus), yams, and a small number of recently introduced crops, including pumpkin and cassava. They set traps in the forest and hunt cassowary, wild pig, marsupials, reptiles, and other animals with bow and arrows or shotguns, when ammunition is available. They harvest seasonal fruits and nuts from the forest, including breadfruit, lowland pandanus, and okari nuts. Until recently, they caught fish and prawns in local rivers and streams using spears, traps, nets, and hook and line. Since the 1970s, villagers have earned cash by tapping rubber trees in smallholder plots, and they sometimes sell forest and garden produce in urban markets. Other villagers have relocated to urban areas for work in local businesses and stores, the public sector, or the mining company. Circular migration between rural villages and towns is nearly universal, although most adults express a preference for living on their own land in the forest, to which they have strong historical and emotional ties.

In the early years of the project, the mining company and the state offered a steady stream of assurances about the limited impact of the project on the environment (see fig. 4). The communities lacked access to independent information about the pollution from the mine. They knew very little about the consequences of open pit mining elsewhere in the region or the world. In the early 1980s, one of the councilors from Dome village visited the mine site in the mountains. On his return, he warned people about what was about to happen, as his widow, Andok Yang, recounted:

Nandun told us that the Ok Tedi River would change in the future:

All the water would dry up and the fish would die and the trees would die

and the river would look like a highway. . . .

At first we didn't know what he was talking about,

but when the sand banks came up and the trees started dying,

I knew the story he told me had become true. . . .

[After the cyanide spill at the mine], the water was very dirty.

There were . . . frogs, turtles, fish, and crocodiles, all dead.

We saw all of these things.

After flooding, the river left behind this mud.

The gardens along the river were buried.

All of the small creeks became swamps.

All the sago palms began to die.

Andok Yang, pers. comm. 1996

Although the Yonggom and their neighbors initially welcomed the mine and the opportunities for development it portended, they quickly became troubled by its impact on the environment and their subsistence practices. I described these problems in the op-ed I wrote for the Times of Papua New Guinea in June 1989, shortly after completing my dissertation research.

One hears little of the river whose name was borrowed when the giant Ok Tedi Mining Ltd. was formed. But the Ok Tedi River has played an important role in the development of the mine, for it has been the company's dumping grounds since production began. Not only has the Ok Tedi River been devastated by the mine, but the landowners and people living along the river, the Yonggom and Awin, have never been compensated for the damage to their environment.

The sediment released into the Ok Tedi River has turned it into a sewer that runs for 200 kilometers. The water is supersaturated with tailings. Pyrite glitters in the sun on top of once-white sand banks where turtles previously came to lay their eggs. Many of these sand banks are blocked off from the river by ten- and twenty-meter-long stretches of knee-deep mud. After a heavy rain in the mountains, the Ok Tedi River overflows its banks, depositing tailings along the river flood plain.

Instead of depositing sediment along the fertile river floodplains, where crops could be grown almost continually, tailings from the mine prevent the Yonggom from planting gardens along the river at all. New gardens must be made every few years in the rain forest.

When there are heavy rains in the mountains, water from the Ok Tedi River backs up into the small creeks and streams, depositing tailings into the sago stands that provide the Yonggom with their staple food.

Other riverine life, including fish and prawns, are also impacted by the tailings, affecting local diets. The birds that depend on the fish, including egrets, kingfishers, and Brahminy kites, have left the river corridor for better hunting grounds. The entire watershed has been devastated by pollution from the mine.

The changes to the river have many practical consequences for the Yonggom and Awin living in the dozen villages along the Ok Tedi River, who can no longer drink the river water or wash clothes or swim in the river. The high volume of tailings in the river and the formation of sand banks in navigation channels have also made traveling the Ok Tedi River by motor canoe-their only means of transporting produce to local markets, rubber to buyers in Kiunga, and food and medicine back to the villages-difficult and dangerous.

The mining company and the state treat the Ok Tedi River like a sacrifice zone. However, no effort has been made to compensate the Yonggom and Awin people who live along the river and are affected by pollution from the mine.

Without construction of the delayed tailings dam in the mountains, the damage to the Ok Tedi River could be replicated further downstream. What is at stake is nothing less than the future of the entire Fly River and possibly parts of the Papuan Gulf and the Torres Straits as well. (Kirsch 1989a, 3; text abridged and edited)

The problems along the Ok Tedi River were exacerbated by the presence of four thousand political refugees from the militarized territory of West Papua living in camps along the river and below the junction of the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers. They were part of a larger exodus of ten thousand people who crossed the border into Papua New Guinea in 1984 in response to a crackdown on separatist activities by the Indonesian military and as part of an effort by the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Movement) to attract international attention to their campaign for political independence (Kirsch 1989, 2006; May 1986). Given that the refugees outnumber the population of the nearby villages, their presence has greatly increased the competition for resources. Even in the case of several border camps that were abandoned after a few years of occupancy, the impact of the refugees was felt for more than a decade, given the large clearings in the forest the refugees had made for their gardens. As I noted in my op-ed, "traditional subsistence practices . . . are only suitable in areas with low population densities, and already scarce resources have become even harder to obtain" (Kirsch 1989a, 3). Pollution from the mine and competition for resources from the refugees resulted in a "destructive synergy" that crippled local food production (Kirsch 1995, 88). A former policeman who retired to one of the villages on the Ok Tedi River complained that the Yonggom had been "punished twice" (Kirsch 2006, 175).

When I returned to Papua New Guinea in 1992 to carry out a study of the social impacts of the Ok Tedi mine on the communities living beside the lower Ok Tedi River, the environmental problems had intensified.

Tailings from the mine have been deposited onto forest and garden land, into adjacent wetland areas, and upstream into the numerous creeks and streams that flow into the Ok Tedi River. These mine wastes have had adverse impact wherever they have been deposited, killing plants and trees and disrupting local ecosystems. The damage extends for forty kilometers along the river, with areas of dead trees that have spread two or three kilometers from the main channel. There has been little forest regrowth to date and large areas are almost completely devoid of life. This land was particularly valuable to villagers, because it is located within easy walking distance or canoe travel, and because it offered resources not readily available in the rain forest interior. The villagers living in the lower Ok Tedi area are in a state of despair, and despite the mining company's provision of some new facilities and minor benefits, feel frustrated and ignored in their efforts to obtain proper restitution. (Kirsch 1995, 50; abridged and edited)

After meeting with the people in Dome village, where I had lived for two years, I wrote:

The villagers are very upset about the mine's impact on their environment. They told me that the trees are dying, the riverbanks are eroding, and the currents in the Ok Tedi are rough when the water levels are high. The grey, sediment-laden water is causing rashes and sores. People say that some sago palms do not produce starch, only a watery substance. The small creeks are blocked off at their entrance by tailings from the Ok Tedi River, and both gardens and tree cover have been lost where the tailings are deposited. The people complain that sweet potatoes and taro grown in gardens near the river do not soften when cooked, but stay hard. They say that when banana stalks are covered by floodwaters from the Ok Tedi, their fruits open up and spoil.

Now that they have to make gardens inland, they complain of a food shortage, and they pointedly asked me who would feed them, because they do not believe they can make ends meet from ordinary subsistence practices. In part because of the refugees, there is little game in the forest to the west of the village. There are few fish remaining in the creeks and streams. These fish are small and people refuse to eat them because they do not taste good; they are described as having "no fat" and "no blood." (Kirsch 1995, 58; abridged and edited)

I also noted that

the people in Dome village are vocal about their anger towards the mine because of the impact it has had on their environment. The tenor of village life has completely changed. The river beside which the village was built is of no use to them. Instead of obtaining fresh drinking water from the creeks, they line up to collect water from a tank installed by the mining company. Instead of bathing in the river, they wait for the company to build showers. Instead of catching fish and prawns in the river, they use compensation payments from the mine to buy canned fish. Instead of looking out onto a lush tropical landscape, they see a dirty river surrounded by leafless trees.

The people in Dome village also question whether the chemicals used to extract the copper and gold at the mine remain toxic after being released into the river. Not surprisingly, they feel that OTML should find another means of tailings disposal and stop discharging mine wastes into the Ok Tedi River. (Kirsch 1995, 53-54; abridged and edited)

The Yonggom described the impact of the mine on the river and their forests using the Yonggom adverb moraron, which means "spoiled," "rotten," or "corroded," such as food that has gone bad or wood that has decayed. They referred to the pollution in the river using the Hiri Motu word muramura, which refers to medicine or chemicals but can also mean "poison," a common euphemism for "sorcery" in Papua New Guinea. However, they had difficulty understanding how the pollution was affecting the environment and whether it spread through the creeks and streams, came up through the ground, or fell to the earth in the rain. Their inability to assess the risks posed by pollution from the mine was vividly expressed in a letter that the people from Kungim asked me to deliver to the Ok Tedi mine in 1992.

All of these things show evidence of the mine's impact: our garden crops, dogs, pigs, fish, and even people becoming ill. Coconut trees have died. People are suffering from sores. Even our staple food, sago, is affected. The rain makes us sick. The air we breathe leaves us short of breath. And the sun now burns our skin.

In the past, everything was fine. We never experienced problems like these before. But in the ten years that OTML has been in operation, all of these changes and more have taken place. Other plants in our gardens have been affected as well. We are concerned about these changes, and it seems reasonable to assume that they are signs of the impact of the Ok Tedi mine. (Letter from Kungim, dated August 11, 1992; grammar and spelling modified)

Much of what they previously took for granted about the natural environment no longer appears true. Their concerns about environmental collapse, which might be compared to the biological concept of trophic cascade, are closely related to the challenges associated with assessing the risks posed by pollution from the mine (see Beck 1992). Is it any wonder that they have come to regard the rain, the air, and the sun with suspicion?

The anger that the Yonggom feel toward the mining company, which they view as a kind of corporate person, is reflected in their view that it behaves like a sorcerer. They complained that the mining company was inamen ipban, or "lacking common sense," which suggests the failure to behave in a socially responsible manner. They told me that the mining company would bear responsibility (yi dabap kandanip, literally, "they will take the weight") for the problems they were experiencing as a result of its environmental impact. They also said that they now "live in fear" (une doberime) of pollution from the mine. All of these expressions are associated with sorcery, which is said to be practiced by persons who refuse to assume responsibility for their actions. "Live in fear" is what people say after there has been a death attributed to sorcery. I was also told about a number of accidents and injuries for which the responsibility would previously have been attributed sorcery, but were now blamed on the mining company, including an injury to a man's finger caused by catfish in the river, a leg broken by a tree falling on a man who was mired in knee-deep mine tailings, a drowning after a canoe overturned in the Ok Tedi River, and a death in the forest after a man had to travel a long distance from home to obtain food for his family (Kirsch 2006, 121-26).

The transformation of local landscapes has had other consequences as well. Whereas memories of past events were often associated with the places where they occurred, the destruction of local landscapes now poses a challenge to the remembrance of things past. Familiar locations like a mother's garden or the breadfruit tree where someone shot a flying fox may no longer exist. These memories have lost their moorings; pollution has erased all traces of the past. The impact of the mine not only threatens past ties between people and place but also the way that places metonymically represent personal biography and lineage identity.

These losses are accompanied by feelings of sorrow and loss, which the Yonggom call mimyop. One woman expressed her concerns about the transformation of local landscapes in the stylized form of a lament, the speech genre associated with bereavement.

Before the river was not like this;

it makes me feel like crying.

These days, this place is ruined,

so I feel like crying.

Where I used to make gardens,

the mud banks have built up.

Where I used to catch prawns and fish,

there is an empty pool. . . .

So I feel like crying.

Before it wasn't like this.

We had no difficulty finding garden food and wild game.

We had everything we needed.

Now we are suffering and I wonder why.

Duri Kemyat, pers. comm. 1996

Pollution from the mine has also disrupted relationships between the Yonggom and the animals with which they previously shared the landscape. The Yonggom obtain important information about both social and natural events through these interactions. They are adept at identifying many bird species by their calls, which reveal the time of day and the seasons and demarcate sacred from profane time. Some birds are said to speak in the Yonggom language. Birds can also appear in dreams that provide insight into the future, as omens portending misfortune or signaling opportunities. The Yonggom communicate with these animals through magic spells that compel them to do their bidding. However, with the disappearance of the birds and other wildlife from the Ok Tedi River and the surrounding forests, these interactions are no longer possible, and the dialogue the Yonggom once had with these animals has all but ceased.

Yonggom rituals and myths contain multiple references to birds, fish, and other animals. Yet without being exposed to these animals in their natural habitat, their myths run the risk of degenerating to the level of amusing folk tales, known as stori tasol in Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin. Similarly, their rituals may lose the capacity to convey insights into the human condition or resolve the dilemmas people face. Some people have already begun to see their rituals as something that tricks people instead of enlightening them. Even though their hunting and fishing magic may still be employed away from the areas polluted by the mine, its local failure foreshadows a time in which their magic will no longer be seen as efficacious or meaningful.

These changes contribute to their profound sense of loss. They are compounded by a major shift in relationships with the environment, such that people can no longer rely on subsistence activities for their survival. People are more likely to bring home food from a trade store than parade game from the forest through the village. Their largest source of monetary income is the compensation payments they receive from the mine. Instead of living off the land, they have become dependent on these payments for survival. Not only has mining destroyed the commons, but it has also made formerly sustainable communities dependent on resource rents. Unlike ordinary resource rents, they do not receive these payments in return for the consumption of their resources by other parties, but rather for the destruction of the productive capacity of their land as the indirect consequence of activities carried out elsewhere. Local landscapes are no longer a site of productivity, but scenes of loss. They no longer provide people with security but confront them with new, indecipherable risks.

Undermining the Future

The impact of the Ok Tedi mine on the environment has steadily increased as the tailings discharged by the mine make their way through the river system. In 1994, when the first lawsuit was filed against the mining company, the damage covered an area of several hundred square kilometers. In 2002, 1,300 square kilometers along the river was either dead or under stress, an area larger than New York City (Higgins 2002, 2). By June 2004, the area affected by forest dieback was 1,554 square kilometers (OTML 2005).

Local species composition is not expected to return to pre-mine conditions; rather, savanna grassland will replace much of the lowland rain forest along the river corridor (Chapman et al. 2000, 17). An independent assessment of the environmental impact of the mine conducted in 2007 predicts dramatic changes to the Middle Fly by 2050, with inundation of the floodplain for 60 to 70 percent of the year (Tingay 2007, 12). During years with higher rainfall, up to 90 percent of the floodplain will be under water-a total area of 3,800 square kilometers (12).

Water pollution has also had a severe impact on fish populations. Surveys of the fish throughout the river system indicate that "there has been a marked reduction in the diversity and biomass of fishes in most reaches downstream of the Ok Tedi mine" (Storey et al. 2009, 456). Local reductions in species diversity range from 87 percent in the Ok Tedi River to 79 percent in the Middle Fly (437). The figures for biomass have also declined precipitously, up to 96 percent reduction in the Ok Tedi River and as much as 75 percent in the Middle Fly (450).

There are serious questions about toxicity from heavy metals at both the bottom and the top of the food chain, ranging from impacts on algae to fruit bats and marsupials (Parametrix and URS Greiner Woodward Clyde 1999, 9). While the potential health risks from exposure to heavy metals for the human populations are expected to be minor (Parametrix and URS Greiner Woodward Clyde 1999, 13), reports produced by OTML consultants recommend that these populations should be monitored for their exposure to cadmium and lead, both highly toxic substances (Chapman et al. 2000, 14).

There are also ongoing problems with acid mine drainage, which is caused by the exposure of sulfide minerals to oxygen. The oxidation of sulfides produces sulfuric acid, which can dissolve heavy metals from waste rock, making them bioavailable. Acid mine drainage has already been occurring on the levees on both sides of the Fly River and on islands in several locations, where tailings deposits are exposed to oxygen when water levels in the river are low. There is also acid mine drainage in the storage area for dredged tailings in the lower Ok Tedi River (Tingay 2007, 21-22). Due to higher levels of pyrites that contain sulfides in the remaining ore body, in 2010 the mining company built a pipeline to transport the pyritic fraction of the tailings to a lowland storage facility on the lower Ok Tedi River, where the acid-generating material is covered with sand to prevent oxidation. Nonetheless, the occurrence of acid mine drainage at multiple locations pose a significant threat to the future of organic life in the river system (Tingay 2007, 27).

Mining Melanesia

The Pacific Ring of Fire, which refers to volcanic activity, runs through the islands of Melanesia, resulting in significant levels of mineralization. This is particularly evident in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and West Papua, which are host some of the world's largest copper and gold mines. The first major gold rush in Papua New Guinea began in 1921 near the contemporary town of Wau in Morobe Province. Other gold deposits were discovered in the highlands before World War II by some of the first Australians to make contact with the people living there (Connolly and Anderson 1988). There is also extensive nickel mining in New Caledonia and a new nickel and cobalt mine in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea.

In the following section of this chapter, I provide thumbnail sketches of five mining conflicts in the region to which I will make reference throughout the book: at the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea; at Freeport-McMoRan's copper and gold mine in the Indonesian territory of West Papua; at the Porgera gold mine in the highlands of Papua New Guinea; at the Lihir gold mine in Papua New Guinea; and at the Gold Ridge mine in the Solomon Islands.


The Panguna copper mine in Bougainville was established by the Australian colonial administration and operated by Conzinc Riotinto (later Rio Tinto) of Australia during the 1970s and 1980s. It eventually became the largest open-pit copper mine outside of Chile. Tailings from the mine were discharged directly into the Jaba River, which travels eleven kilometers to the sea. The tailings plume from the mine extended several kilometers from the coast.

The mining project met with resistance from the outset, which was later exacerbated by both increasing environmental impacts and dissatisfaction with their share of the revenue generated by the mine. In a 1988 letter signed by Francis Ona, a former military officer who led the landowner rebellion that closed the mine in 1989, the Panguna Landowners Association asked the national government to commission an independent investigation of the environmental impacts of the mine. This document bears remarkable resemblance to the letter from Kungim village to the Ok Tedi mine cited above. It refers to soil that may have been poisoned by toxic chemicals, diseases plaguing their plant crops, shortened life spans of other garden plants, an unknown pollutant affecting cocoa harvests, introduced plant species colonizing the area, unregulated harvest of trees for timber, deforestation near the mine facilities, decline in the number of game animals, landslides, chemicals in the river system, large numbers of people suffering from illness, air pollution, and the unexplained disappearance of flying foxes from the island (Applied Geology Associates 1989, appendix 6).

The members of the landowners association agreed to abide by the findings of the inquiry but were infuriated when the preliminary results of the investigation conducted by Applied Geology Associated were made public in 1989. At a meeting held to discuss the report, representatives of the investigating team stated that

although mining operations had resulted in extensive damage to the physical environment, they had found no significantly high levels of chemical pollution. They described as unlikely the opinion held by many Bougainvilleans that BCL [Bougainville Copper Ltd.] was responsible for the decrease in wildlife and the decline in soil fertility (except of course in the pit and waste-dump areas), or for certain illnesses then prevalent in the lease-area villages. (Oliver 1991, 208)

The findings of the study differed substantially from what landowners believed to be true based on their own experience (Connell 1991, 71). Calling the findings a "whitewash," Francis Ona stormed out of the meeting (71). John Connell concludes that the incident may have been the "catalyst for the transition to violence and the eventual closing of the mine." (72).

The rebellion against the mine, which began in 1988 and resulted in a decade of violent civil war with thousands of casualties, was unexpected, but not without warning. Relationships between Bougainvilleans and the state were complicated by powerful resentment that so much of the profits from the mine went initially to the colonial administration of the territory and later to the independent state, which fueled separatist sentiments. The resulting conflict, including the use of Australian helicopter gunships by the Papua New Guinean defense forces against their fellow citizens, may have been the inspiration for James Cameron's famous film Avatar, about a native uprising against an interplanetary mining company.

In 2000, lawyers representing ten thousand plaintiffs from Bougainville filed suit against Rio Tinto in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, charging the mining company with environmental destruction and complicity in human rights abuses and genocide perpetrated by the Papua New Guinea defense forces during the rebellion. One of the lawyers working on the case for Hagens Berman in Seattle, Washington, was Nick Styant-Browne, who previously represented the plaintiffs in the case against Ok Tedi Mining Ltd. and BHP in Australia. The case against Rio Tinto involved the controversial application of the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act of 1780, which was originally intended to hold pirates on the high seas accountable for their actions, against transnational corporations. However, the case was dismissed in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court restricted the applicability of the alien tort statute.

The landowner rebellion at Bougainville had a significant impact on decisions made by the PNG state about the Ok Tedi mine. The state's need for additional revenue after the closure of the Panguna mine gave OTML important leverage when seeking permission from the state to continue discharging tailings into the river system. The landowners downstream from the Ok Tedi mine also pointed to the human costs of the Bougainville civil war as one of their reasons for taking BHP to court instead of closing the Ok Tedi mine by force.

After a decade of conflict in Bougainville, a peace process brokered by New Zealand led to a series of votes on political autonomy (Regan 2010). In seeking to enhance their economic independence, political leaders in Bougainville are, ironically, debating whether to reopen the Panguna mine, which contains reserves of 3.5 million metric tons of copper and 12.7 million ounces of gold, although the proposal has many critics. Even more controversially, Rio Tinto is seen to be the leading candidate to restart the mine, which would require an investment of several billion dollars.


Located approximately five hundred kilometers west of the Ok Tedi mine in the highlands of the militarized Indonesian territory of West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya), Freeport-McMoRan's Grasberg mine is one of the largest copper and gold mines in the world.

It may also be the world's largest polluter by volume, discharging up to 240,000 metric tons of tailings per day into the Ajkwa River, approximately three times the volume of the tailings from the Ok Tedi mine. In response to political pressure from the Ok Tedi court case and a concurrent Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) investigation of the mine, the mining company began building a series of levees along the river in 1995, which were intended to contain the tailings within an area of 230 square kilometers (Leith 2003, 168). Due to its lack of expenditure on environmental controls, the mine is one of the world's lowest-cost copper producers.

In 1995, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) cancelled Freeport's political risk insurance, the first time that support for a project was terminated for environmental reasons (Bryce 1995b). The decision was taken after the International Rivers Network set up a meeting between OPIC officials and several Indonesian activists (Emel 2002, 835). One of the officials responsible for the decision later told me that frustration with his inability to address the environmental problems caused by the Ok Tedi mine, which had previously received OPIC support, strengthened his resolve to proactively address pollution from the Freeport mine. After intensive lobbying by Henry Kissinger and others, Freeport's insurance policy was reinstated, although Freeport voluntarily cancelled its policy with OPIC in April 1996 (Fox 1997, 267).

On April 29, 1996, a $6 billion class-action lawsuit was filed against Freeport-McMoRan in the U.S. District Court in New Orleans, where the company was then based. This was the first application of the alien tort statute against a transnational mining company, setting a precedent that was repeated four years later in the suit against Rio Tinto in the Bougainville case. Amungme leader Tom Beanal alleged that the operation of the mine resulted in "the violation of human rights, environmental destruction, and cultural genocide" (Leith 2003, 112). Another Amungme plaintiff, Mama Josefa, alleged that she was beaten and held prisoner in an abandoned Freeport shipping container filled with human waste. The case was dismissed after a year of hearings, however, when the Court ruled that Beanal and his lawyers failed to provide sufficient evidence to support their allegations (Duval 1997).

Critical new information became available several years later. Transnational corporations like Freeport-McMoRan face increased scrutiny from NGOs that focus on corporate accountability and transparency, including Amnesty International and Global Witness, and the international campaign "Publish What You Pay" (Global Witness 2005). In response to the Enron accounting scandal in the United States, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 established new reporting requirements for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that compelled Freeport-McMoRan, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, to reveal the details of its financial relationship with the Indonesian military. In August 2004, Freeport acknowledged that the company paid the Indonesian military more than $11.4 million during the previous two years for security at the mine (Bryce 2003). Critics of the mine have long argued that these transactions effectively subsidize the Indonesian military's violent repression of West Papuan political aspirations, suppressing opposition to the mine (Leith 2003, 232). Documentation of these payments may well be the smoking gun missing from the earlier claims filed against the mining company in the U.S. District Court in Louisiana.


The Porgera Joint Venture is a large gold mine located in Enga Province, Papua New Guinea, approximately three hundred kilometers east of the Ok Tedi mine. The project was operated by Placer Dome until the company was taken over by Barrick Gold, now the world's largest gold producer, in 2006. The landowners living closest to the Porgera mine are known for their aggressive negotiation tactics, although "the precedents [for compensation] established at Porgera have not been universally adopted by other resource operators" (Banks 1998, 61).

Located at the headwaters of the Strickland River, the Porgera mine uses riverine tailings disposal like the Ok Tedi mine (Biersack 2006; Coumans 2011). The Strickland is a tributary of the Fly River, which transports tailings from both mines below Everill Junction. The commingling of tailings from the two mines affords both mining companies with protection from claims about pollution downstream from the junction. Neither mining company monitors the deposition of tailings in the South Fly or the river delta, despite two decades of evidence and testimony about the resulting problems.

The population living in the vicinity of the Porgera mine more than doubled during the first ten years of operation (Filer 1999a, 5). More than four thousand people were relocated for the expansion of the mine in 1995 (Filer 1999a, 5), and the accompanying use of force resulted in allegations of human rights violations (Amnesty International 2010). Accusations of sexual assault and rape by the mine's security forces have also been documented (Human Rights Watch 2010). Many of the anthropologists and other social scientists working near the Porgera mine have been employed as consultants for the mining company (Filer 1999a; Coumans 2011), although several of them have been prevented from publishing their findings by the threat of legal action.


The Lihir mine is located in northeastern Papua New Guinea. Its large gold reserves are located inside of an extinct volcanic crater that is still geothermally active. The project was operated by Rio Tinto until 1996 and is now run by Newcrest Mining Ltd. of Australia.

The mine uses submarine tailings disposal, in which mine wastes are discharged directly into the ocean. Because of the steep drop-off and thermal cline off the coast of Lihir, the mining company asserts that the tailings will remain on the ocean floor where they are deposited rather than mix with the surrounding water. Submarine tailings disposal is prohibited in the United States, which led the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation to turn down the project's request for support (Moody 2005, 202-3), although it later received backing from the Australian Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC) despite the threat to marine life.

The Lihir Landowners Association is noted for its tough bargaining over compensation, establishing the "benchmark within Papua New Guinea for such arrangements" (Banks 1998, 62). One of the mechanisms for communication between Lihirians and the mining company is the local practice of gorgor, the Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin name for the ginger plant used to demarcate taboo zones (e.g., gardens, an unoccupied house, one's hunting grounds) into which other people are forbidden to trespass. Tying gorgor onto the gates of the Lihir mine stops production, for its employees not only understand but also obey its message. By respecting this signal, the mine also legitimizes the meta-message, that the operation of the mine is contingent on the continued good will of the surrounding community (Kirsch 2001b, 156).

A common feature of the conflicts at Lihir, Porgera, and Bougainville is that they are focused on the people living adjacent to the mine. For Lihir, this is because the mine discharges tailings directly into the ocean and therefore does not have the kind of impacts on the landscape as the Ok Tedi mine. In the case of Porgera, the peoples living downstream along the Strickland are few in number and politically impotent, and the mixing of pollution from the two mines provides ample political cover in the South Fly. The mine in Bougainville occupies a central location on the island (Filer 1990, 77). In both Porgera and Bougainville, the much larger landowner and settler groups are the primary antagonists in the conflict. This is very different from the situation at the Ok Tedi mine, where the conflict is focused on the people living downstream.

Gold Ridge

The Gold Ridge mine is a small gold mine located in the mountains above Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. It operated under Ross Mining from 1998 to 2000, when it was forced to close because of civil unrest on Guadalcanal (D. Evans 2010). In 1999, the mining company denied responsibility for a large fish kill in the Tinahula River, although a cyanide spill was thought to be the probable cause. A lawsuit regarding pollution from the mine failed to make headway in the challenging judicial environment of Solomon Islands (see D. Evans 2010, 129), despite the efforts of Slater &amp Gordon, which previously acted for the plaintiffs in the Ok Tedi case. The project reopened under Allied Mining in 2010.


Although there are strong similarities across these projects, there are also significant differences in terms of the responses of the affected communities to mining, the involvement of NGOs and lawyers, and the degree to which the cases have attracted international attention. Like the Ok Tedi mine, all five of these projects have had significant environmental impacts, although they have also been associated with other problems. At Bougainville, the mine discharged tailings into the Jaba River, which resulted in a tailings plume that still extends several kilometers into the ocean. Pollution from the mine was one of the triggers for the rebellion, although many scholars emphasize disputes between Bougainvilleans and the state over the distribution of economic benefits (Filer 1990). The conflict at Bougainville was also exacerbated by separatist politics and conflict with highlanders who came to work at the mine. In the Freeport case, concern about environmental impacts, the failure to equitably distribute the benefits from the project, and separatist politics compounded by the violence of the Indonesian military have all contributed to the conflict. Like the Ok Tedi case, the conflicts at both Bougainville and Freeport have ended up in foreign courts. Concerns about the environment at Lihir have received less attention than negotiations over benefits, although submarine tailings disposal remains controversial. Even though the size of the Gold Ridge mine in the Solomon Islands pales in comparison to the other projects discussed here, the mine was responsible for a series of environmental problems that also yielded a contentious court case.

The problems associated with the resource curse are evident in all of these projects: coercive states that are intolerant of criticism or dissent, especially in their relationships to extractive industry; the failure to stimulate broader economic growth; conflict over the unbalanced distribution of economic benefits and negative environmental impacts; and state dependency on revenue from resource extraction. The problem of colliding ecologies, in which large-scale mining is incompatible with subsistence production and other economic pursuits, is evident in the Ok Tedi, Freeport, and Bougainville cases, although these problems have not received much attention in Lihir and the Solomon Islands. These comparisons suggest that mining conflicts possess a family resemblance to one another, rather than simply sharing a single cause. Differences between states, environmental regimes and the degree of impact, local communities, the participation of NGOs and other actors, and the historical interactions between these conflicts combine in unique ways. Although I have limited my comparisons in this chapter to mining in Melanesia, similar dynamics are evident in mining conflicts elsewhere in the world, as I argue throughout this book.


What caused the environmental disaster downstream from the Ok Tedi mine? It might be argued it was the consequence of a perfect storm of events that no one could have foreseen, suggesting the need for caution about overgeneralizing from the Ok Tedi example. But in fact, there was an abundance of warnings from a variety of perspectives (Hyndman 1988; Kirsch 1989; Townsend 1988), all of which were ignored or rebuffed. There is also clear evidence that the mining company anticipated the increase in negative impacts-at least for the Ok Tedi River-in the changes made to the Sixth Supplemental Agreement, which treated the river as a sacrifice zone. Finally, both the mining company and the state dismissed the observations of the people living downstream about the slow-motion environmental crisis. Yonggom claims about environmental change were seen as exaggerated when they had difficulty distinguishing between pollution from the mine and environmental problems associated with higher population densities after the influx of refugees. Objections framed in the idiom of sorcery proved difficult to translate (Kirsch 1997). It was easy for the mining industry to discredit their compensation claims and even to laugh about them.

But the events leading to the environmental disaster downstream from the Ok Ted mine were more than just a series of coincidences that culminated in tragedy; they were also the direct consequence of corporate strategy. Permission to discharge tailings into the river system resulted in a slippery slope leading from a temporary reprieve from constructing a tailings dam to a perpetual license to pollute. Despite the steady stream of warnings and expressions of concern, the mining company steadfastly refused to acknowledge the severity of the threat to the river system. The mining company failed to see the downstream communities as a political threat, even after the Bougainville civil war demonstrated that local communities retain veto power over resource extraction projects, albeit at a terrible cost. The state's ideological commitment to dependency theory led to its conflict of interest as both the regulator and a shareholder in the mine. These problems were later exacerbated when the state adopted policies that allowed mining companies to both set environmental standards and monitor their own compliance, decreasing the value of both processes. These decisions were compounded by the legal status of the project as exempt from the environmental act and the constitutional requirement of sustainability. The state's initial resolve to require tailings containment from the Ok Tedi mine was weakened by economic pressure after the closure of the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville, making the state vulnerable to BHP's threat to walk away from the project at a time when the economic needs of the country were greatest. The devastation of the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers was not an accident; it was the outcome of strategic decisions made by the mining company that took advantage of a weak state that was economically dependent on the mining industry.

Comparison to the other mining conflicts in Melanesia suggests that Ok Tedi is not an exceptional case, even though its environmental impacts have exceeded most of the other examples. Conflicts over mining in Melanesia reveal the larger macroeconomic impacts of the resource curse on the state in terms of its recurring dependency on extractive industry and the failure to develop economic alternatives. They also illustrate the problems of colliding ecologies for communities directly impacted by mining, which can be understood as a manifestation of the microeconomics of the resource curse. For the Yonggom, this meant not only their inability to rely on subsistence production but also that much of what they previously took for granted about the environment was no longer true. It disrupted their relationships to place, including individual memories and social history. It affected their interactions with the other beings with which they once shared the landscape, diminishing the significance of their rituals and myths. The consequences of colliding ecologies transcend the economic, raising existential questions about cultural survival along the Ok Tedi River.

Initially, there was very little the community downstream from the Ok Tedi mine could do to challenge the mine and the state. They lacked political power and their traditional political institutions did not rise above the level of local kinship groups (Kirsch 1989b). But as I describe in the next chapter, the problems caused by the mine led to the emergence of a committed group of political activists, who were eventually able to exert a surprising degree of pressure on the mining company and the state. NGO support allowed them to internationalize their campaign, bringing unwanted attention to BHP everywhere it operated. They were able to draw on the discourses of environmentalism and indigeneity to enroll allies and mobilize support, although these discourses also rendered them vulnerable to criticism. But it was not until they turned to the Australian courts in 1996 that the Yonggom and their neighbors were able to fully challenge BHP, as I describe in chapter 3. Their actions also played a major role in transforming the relationship between the mining industry and its critics, the focus of this book.