Canadian gold mining company Placer Dome, recently acquired by Barrick Gold, has confirmed reports coming out of the remote Papua New Guinea highlands that security guards at its Porgera gold mine have been shooting at, and killing, villagers. Placer Dome is owns a 75% interest in, and operates, the Porgera mine. Placer has admitted to eight deaths at the hands of its security forces, seven of them since 2000, but local villagers put the numbers at well over 20 dead.
MiningWatch Canada has long been aware of ongoing conflict at and around the mine, however reports of intensifying violence started to reach us in the summer of 2005. Placer’s Porgera mine has always been highly controversial. Mine waste disposal at the mine is primarily through direct dumping into a major 800 kilometre-long river system that ends in the Gulf of Papua. This so-called “riverine” disposal method is well-known to create massive and irreversible damage to entire river systems and their associated habitats. Other mining companies such as BHP-Billiton have acknowledged this fact and agreed not to use rivers for waste disposal in the future. While Placer has repeatedly been asked by shareholders to stop the dumping, and asked by Ethical Funds to agree never to use this technology again, Placer has made no concessions. Villagers living downstream from the mine, who suffer the consequences of Placer’s waste, frequently express their frustration by cutting down the electrical poles that supply energy to the mine and the nearby villages.
In 2000, when MiningWatch Canada’s Catherine Coumans visited Porgera, she was shocked by the sight of whole families standing in the waste stream from the mine. The adults were busy “panning” the mine tailings for remnants of gold while the children played in the cement-like material. Placer officials explained that this was a hazardous activity as the villagers would later use mercury to extract the gold from the waste, and be exposed to highly toxic mercury fumes. But given the uncontained flow of the waste, Placer officials argued there was little they could do to stop the deadly practice.
In 2000, Catherine was also told that nearby villagers frequently wandered into and through the mine site and that some even removed chunks or gold bearing rock from the mine’s dump trucks. There was no evidence of any kind of barrier between the mine site and the surrounding villages. It is these “trespassers” that Placer now admits its security forces have been shooting at and killing. MiningWatch’s local partners have issued a report in which they claim that at least 22 people have been killed, over 100 wounded and thousands arbitrarily detained. The most recent reports from an investigative journalist, as yet unconfirmed, tell a harrowing tale of widespread rape by security forces, cultural extinction of the Ipili people and forced relocation of villagers to make way for mine expansion.