Canadian Firm Admits to Killings at PNG Gold Mine

by IPS News Service

The giant Canadian mining company, Placer Dome, has acknowledged that eight people have been killed since 1996 by its own security forces and police at the giant Porgera gold mine in the mountains of Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Seven of the eight killings occurred since February 2000 and external affairs manager for Placer Dome, Patrick Bindon, told IPS in e-mail interviews from Port Moresby that they were all in self-defence against armed villagers.

However, PNG police have filed murder charges against a security officer employee of the Porgera Joint Venture (PJV), the 75 percent owned subsidiary of Placer Dome, over a February 2002 incident in which two people were killed. While one of the charges has been dismissed, the other is currently before the courts.

Despite increasing controversy amongst the local community over the killings, in mid-October, PJV initiated legal action against the PNG Department of Mining, demanding that police take action against what the company calls ‘’illegal’’ miners.

As a result of subsequent discussions, a squad of 50 members of the PNG Mobile Police is to be sent to Porgera to prevent small-scale miners from entering the company’s mining lease area.

Zama Coursen-Neff, a senior researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, who has investigated allegations of human rights abuses by PNG police, fears that the use of the police could exacerbate the conflict rather than resolve it. ‘’In survey results, people said they felt more scared of the mobile police squads than of the ordinary criminals,’’ she said.

‘’The mobile police squads,’’ she told IPS, ‘’include some of the worst human rights abusers in PNG.’’

Nor does Coursen-Neff take much comfort from the statement in Placer Dome’s October quarterly report to the Vancouver stock exchange that ‘’any police activities will be conducted in accordance with agreed human rights standards and under the observation of an independent third party.’’

‘’There is certainly no reason for thinking that there would be a dramatic change in (police) behaviour when they were providing security at the mine,’’ she said.

The continued operation of the mine is crucial for Placer Dome. In 2004, the Porgera mine contributed 307 million US dollars of the company’s 1.8 billion dollar revenue.

Over the last year, the PJV has struggled to prevent hundreds of people from scavenging gold-bearing rock from the open mine pit. While some are local landowners, many have been attracted to the Porgera Valley from poorer surrounding regions.

In an April 2005 presentation to its joint venture partner, the South Africa-based DRD Gold, PJV management stated that the number of people entering the lease area had dropped drastically. The joint venture sought to reassure DRD that this ‘’reflects increased security manpower and reduced dumping to waste and stockpiles,’’ the slides stated.

However, the number of people recorded as entering the mine pit itself jumped from less that a hundred per week in December 2004 to over 400 in April this year.

While PJV expressed optimism in July that that it had strategies in place ‘’to limit these events’’, by October management’s mood was glum. ‘’The mine has implemented a number of measures aimed at reducing the level of incursions with limited success,’’ it reported.

Nor do the problems appear to have impressed DRD Gold, which announced in mid-November that it has agreed, subject to shareholder approval, to sell its 20 percent stake in the project to the Sydney-based Emperor Mines.

The controversy over the deaths at the mine first surfaced in mid-March 2005 when the chairman of the Porgera Landowners’ Association, Mark Ekapa, wrote to Prime Minister Michael Somare urging a commission of inquiry into what he claimed were the deaths of approximately 20 people at the mine. After landowners’ concerns were raised by the member of parliament for Wabag, Sam Abal, the PJV publicly backed an inquiry.

However, Somare announced that he intended to establish a committee, which would include PJV itself, to look at both the security problems at the mine and the deaths. Months later, the committee has still not been formed.

In September, another landowner group, Akali Tange Association, claimed that 22 people had been killed, over 100 injured and ‘’more than 2000 arbitrarily detained.’’ It is seeking 340 million dollars in compensation from the joint venture.

Stanley Kaka, a former president of Porgera Workers Union and who is now involved with the association, told IPS that the company and government ‘’are playing at the delay game that is why we are really upset.’’

While Bindon acknowledges PJV security forces and police have been responsible for some deaths, he attributed others to small scale miners falling down steep mining pit walls or being hit by rockfalls and landslides.

Coursen-Neff backs calls by local landowner groups for an investigation into the deaths. ‘’Certainly companies and individuals should expect law and order but that doesn’t justify summary executions by the police or gross human rights violations,’’ he said.

‘’If police and security forces are shooting people there has to be a credible investigation and, where officers are found to have used excessive force, they have to be held accountable through internal disciplinary procedures and in a court of law,’’ Coursen-Neff added.

Aside from seeking court orders to compel PNG police to send in a squad, PJV is pinning its faith in the construction of an additional 10 km section of high-security fence around the key areas on the mining lease.

Adding to the controversy over the mine is the ongoing programme requiring the relocation of hundreds of families away from the mining area. ‘’This is causing a lot of tension,’’ said a respected local person speaking on condition of anonymity.