With the support of our generous donors, the Bismarck Ramu Group (BRG) is happy to announce that we have successfully sent a team of West Sepik landowners to the harshly polluted Fly River. In doing so, the landowners were able to witness with their own eyes the destruction caused by the Ok Tedi mine tailings. What they observed energized them to continue their fight against the construction of the notorious Frieda mine which threatens the integrity of their own mighty Sepik River
The Ok Tedi Mine is an open pit gold and copper mine in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea and is considered by many to have caused one of the most catastrophic man-made environmental disasters in the world. Careless and cut-rate waste disposal has resulted in over 2 billion tons of cyanide laced toxic discharge flowing directly into the Ok Tedi River over the past three decades. Consequently, the pollution has fed into the Fly River, the largest river in all of Papua New Guinea, devastating over 1000 kilometers of previously pristine and virgin jungle. Not only has the environmental impact been immense, but the mine has destroyed the homes and lives of thousands of villagers downstream.
After a long two days of travel, the Sepiks were first brought to the village of Nigerum along the highway towards where the Ok Tedi River dumps into the Fly. What they found shocked them. The communities cannot use the river for drinking, fishing, or washing because of the heavy sedimentation buildup. Instead they must travel kilometers inland to find clean food and water. As a result, many of the people are malnourished and sick, unable to effectively feed their families or even themselves. “These people are clearly hungry but have nothing to eat,” one of the Sepiks noted.
The Sepiks proceeded down the Fly River to Karengo. As their boat slowly moved with the current, the water was described as milky and cloudy. Along the way, they witnessed 5-6 kilometers of dead jungle with no signs of life. When they met with the Karengo villagers, it was explained to them that due to the heavy sedimentation buildup, the water level rises quickly during heavy rains, in turn waterlogging the surrounding rainforest with the river’s toxins. Because of this, the villagers have lost their gardens and sources of timber for shelter, as well as their staple food, sago. One of the Sepiks remarked, “You can feel the environment; it feels like death.” These communities, like the Sepiks, are not driven by money in the economic sense that westerners are familiar with, but instead, they derive their wealth from the richness of their land. However, because of large scale development these people have lost everything.
Officials claimed that development of the Ok Tedi mine was supposed to bring jobs and welfare to the indigenous people. However, as the Sepiks saw for themselves, these benefits failed to trickle down to the more rural communities. As the pollution began to decimate their precious resources, native peoples began to migrate to more urban settings. Doctors and teachers left, deserting their clinics and schools. Stripped of their food, water, health, and education, those that remained have been slowly relocating to Kiunga to, ironically, find work with the mine that has so shattered their lives. In fact, many of the villages the Sepiks stumbled upon along the desolate Fly were found to be abandoned.
This widespread environmental and social destruction opened the eyes of the Sepik landowners as they face a similar threat to their own waters. Officials at the proposed Frieda gold mine in West Sepik are preparing to start development on the mighty Sepik River as soon as possible. Reportedly, the mine will be three times the size of the Ok Tedi with a potential to do much more harm as the Sepik river is significantly smaller than the Fly. Emotional, angry, and upset with what they observed, the Sepik landowners left the Western Province with a strengthened commitment to stop the construction of Frieda mine. As they themselves derive their livelihood from the river, they will do whatever it takes to prevent their precious land from becoming uninhabitable.
The Sepik landowners have been swift in preparing a strategy. Within 2 days of returning to Wewak, they will present to the 6 district members of parliament on what they saw. If this plan of action fails, they will continue with protesting the provincial government and spreading awareness throughout the region, mobilizing rural communities to join the fight. Despite great odds, the Sepiks are hopeful for the future of their river, reporting confidence in the resources they have to work with.
Want to help support the Sepiks in protecting the sanctity of their river? Donate to BRG’s "Land is Life" Project now!