Stories articles Indigenous Rights

View of a home on the sepik river

View of a home on the Sepik River. Courtesy of Project Sepik

March 4, 2024

Part I: The Sepik Peoples' years-long battle to halt mining along the Frieda River in Papua New Guinea

Nancy Kelsey

This article is the first in a two-part series about the years-long battle faced by the Sepik Peoples to halt the construction of a gold and copper mine on the Frieda River, an upper tributary of the Sepik River. Read the second article in this series.

The vast forests spanning the Sepik River basin in Papua New Guinea (PNG) are among the most biologically rich on Earth. Dozens of culturally diverse peoples live along the Sepik – one of the world's greatest, untrammeled river systems at more than 1,100 kilometers in length and covering an area of 7.7 million hectares.  

In late 2023, Sepik Peoples – whose ancestors have loved and protected the river for millennia – received important news about their years-long battle to halt the construction of a gold and copper mine on the Frieda River, an upper tributary of the Sepik River. Project Sepik, a community organization representing Indigenous Peoples along the Sepik River, and its partner Jubilee Australia Research Centre, filed a human rights complaint two years earlier with an independent Australian government body called The Australian National Contact Point for Responsible Business Conduct (AusNCP) challenging the creation of the Frieda River mine.

In October 2023, AusNCP issued two significant findings in its final report:

  1. It confirmed that the corporation seeking to build the mine — the Chinese-owned and Australia-based company PanAust – had not yet completed the process that ensures the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of those who live along and rely on the river. Project Sepik has long argued that the river communities should be eligible for this FPIC process, contrary to the company’s claims.
  2. AusNCP called on the company to publicly release the dam break analysis that PanAust commissioned and has hitherto refused to release so that organizations like Project Sepik and Jubilee Australia Research Centre can help inform communities of the risks of the project.

While the final decision to approve the mine ultimately lies with the PNG government, the AusNCP final statement is an important step in the fight to defend the health of a body of water that so many depend on and to which they also hold deep spiritual and cultural connections.

Although the AusNCP final statement did not find that the company had breached the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) human rights guidelines, leaders say they are pleased with the overall results.

“This finding is a big deal for us,” says Emmanuel “Manu” Peni, who is Sepik and the Founder and Program Coordinator at Project Sepik. “The process of doing this complaint has revealed what we already knew: that the Sepik River communities have not yet had the opportunity to say whether they consent to the Frieda mine. Our people deserve the right to FPIC. This statement is a first step to them getting it.”

Mary Boni, Project Sepik’s Executive Director, added, “This may be the only time on mainland PNG that we have seen an organization use a regional, rather than a global, mechanism to file a complaint and reach a final decision. It sets the benchmark not only for local but regional advocacy, as well signifying hope that we might be able to protect the river.”

The Sepik River: ‘Its Part of You’

There is much at stake for the peoples of the Sepik River if the Frieda River mine is approved. The Sepik and its tributaries are more than just a mere body of water to those who rely on it every day for nourishment, transport and their livelihoods, Manu notes. Like other Indigenous Peoples around the world, they regard its waters as life itself.

“Water is an essential part of everything on Earth. And there are several cultural, traditional stories of how the river is, and how it connects [us],” he says. “The water sleeps. It dreams. It imagines. And it takes care of everything. So, if you’re in the marshes or the swamps or tributaries, you’re still connected to the larger river. The river becomes something you wake up to and something you go to sleep with. It’s part of you. You drink from it. You wash in it. You swim in it. Your life revolves around it.”

Additionally, there are cultural and clan connections as well as Indigenous systems of exchange and economy that rely on the health of the Sepik River and its tributaries, like the Frieda River. The river also connects people from inland areas, from neighboring swamps and lakes who would also be affected by the construction of a mine and related dam.

“Some of the strongest allies and champions of the [Sepik] are from the savannah and grasslands,” Manu says. “It’s not just the people along the river.”

After-Long Opposition To Frieda River Mine, AusNCP Findings Offer Hope 

The independent body reviewing the complaint made by Project Sepik and Jubilee Australia, AusNCP, is tasked by the Australian government with reviewing complaints against multinational corporations operating in the country to ensure they adhere to responsible business practices, according to its website. Prior to submitting their complaint, the Project Sepik team undertook the enormous step of informing those along the river about the mining and dam plans. They also gathered signatures in opposition to the project.

“They got just over 2,500 signatories, which is a huge number of signatories when you think about that this is not the sort of thing that villagers living on the river would normally get involved in,” says Dr. Luke Fletcher, Executive Director of Jubilee Australia. “So, it was a testament to [Project Sepik’s] relationships along the river.”

Additionally, years before, clan leaders from areas along the river issued what is known as The Supreme Sukundimi Declaration and called for a total ban of the Frieda River mine.

“For many thousands of years, we have been part of this river system. The Sepik River has never abandoned us, nor did it hold back from us. We, the Supreme Sukundimi, will do everything under our rights as citizens of Papua New Guinea to protect the Sepik River,” the declaration reads. “We respect our Sepik River and call on our leaders to give it the same respect and uphold policies that protect it and promote our cultural heritage.”

After AusNCP accepts a complaint and its supporting documents, there is typically a process in which the company and complainant participate in a series of meetings. However, in this case, PanAust declined to participate and instead submitted written rebuttals.

“Skipping the negotiations part of the process led to an interminable process of submission and counter-submission where we needed to make responses to long documents, sometimes over 100 pages, many of which were reasserting their claims that were made in the environmental impact statement and that everything was above board, and everything was kosher,” Fletcher recalls. “And so that led to about six to nine months of back and forth of claim and counterclaim being done via submission.”

Since AusNCP issued its final statement with its two key findings – that the FPIC process with peoples along the Sepik did not occur and that PanAust should release its dam break analysis – Project Sepik and Jubilee Australia hope that the document will pressure the PNG government to deny permits allowing the project to move forward.

Sepik Peoples rowing on a boat along the Sepik River.

Sepik Peoples rowing on a boat along the Sepik River. Photo courtesy of Project Sepik.

Read the second article in this two-part series about the years-long battle faced by the Sepik Peoples to halt the construction of a gold and copper mine on the Frieda River, an upper tributary of the Sepik River.