Stories articles Indigenous Rights

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.

March 4, 2024

Part II: The Fight for Free, Prior and Informed Consent for the Indigenous Peoples along the Sepik River

Nancy Kelsey

This article is the second 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 first article in this series here.

Free, Prior and Informed Consent is a right under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Article 19 of UNDRIP calls on “States to consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous Peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”

FPIC is essentially the right of self-determination for Indigenous Peoples to decide their own futures through a strong consultation process.

Pan Aust’s response to that finding was that they are currently engaging in FPIC, so they rejected the characterization that FPIC was not secured.

But for the Indigenous Peoples of the Sepik River and its tributaries, FPIC – if properly employed in good faith – would result in only one outcome: a total rejection of the Frieda River mine.

“The River is the life of the Sepik and, therefore, it must be protected at all costs. It is our innate role to guard the River from exploitation and destruction by outsiders,” the authors of The Supreme Sukundimi Declaration wrote. “Our future is in peril from this proposed mine and, therefore, we have gathered together as Guardians of the River to stand firm as one. We have the ultimate support from our ancestors who live with us in many forms. We have called on all spirits to dwell with us and take up arms to protect our Sepik Way of Life.”

The second finding, calling on PanAust to release its dam break analysis, is also a key win for Project Sepik and Jubilee Australia. Part of the Frieda River mine project would include a dam to contain the mine tailings or hazardous byproducts of mining operations. If the dam were to fail, it would be extremely perilous to the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on the river. PanAust’s refusal to release the dam analysis, created at its own behest, has caused many to fear the worst. Still, mostly, its contents remain a mystery.

According to one study, a total of 257 tailing dam failures have been recorded since 1915 with approximately 2,650 fatalities and 250 million m3 of contaminated residues released into the environment. And almost 50% of the released volumes occurred after the year 2000, with circa 640 fatalities.

“The communities deserve to know. They're the ones who are living along the river. They deserve to know what will happen if this tailings dam fails,” Fletcher says.

And given PNG’s dangerous history with such projects, along with other mining and dam disasters around the globe, their fears are warranted.

Other Dangerous Mining and Dam Failures

While all mines are damaging to the peoples and lands around them there are two recent major mining disasters in Papua New Guinea that illustrate the validity of the concerns along the Sepik River: the Panguna mine on the island of Bougainville and the Ok Tedi mine at the headwaters of the Fly River.

The Panguna Mine 
After more than 30 years, the environmental harms of the Panguna mine are still felt by the people who remain. According to Australia’s ABC News, a company called Rio Tinto owned the mine and abandoned it after an armed insurgency in 1989. Mounting tensions over the environmental destruction – with mine tailings polluting the drinking water of villages in the surrounding areas and wetlands and forests replaced by slurry mining tailings – and financial disparities erupted in a decade-long civil war that claimed as many as 15,000 lives.

Today, with the mine no longer in operation by Rio Tinto, some in the region still mine for gold and copper left behind. While the company has committed to an assessment, it has not yet committed to any sort of remediation of the environmental ruin that has ensued. A complaint to AusNCP was filed by the Australian Human Rights Law Centre about the mining disaster. It yielded a favorable outcome with both British-Australian-based Rio Tinto and the complainants engaged in a series of meetings, which PanAust had declined to participate in with Project Sepik. In 2020, both the company and the complainant agreed to begin an impact assessment process overseen by a committee of local and national PNG governments, the Human Rights Law Centre, others, and Rio Tinto – the latter of which would fund the process.

“The AusNCP commends the parties’ constructive engagement on the issues raised in the complaint. This engagement has led to significant progress,” AusNCP said in an update issued in 2023. “The issues about which they are engaging, including the ongoing impacts and responsibilities from mining several decades earlier, are exceedingly complex. The parties’ engagement has been robust, but courteous and constructive, and has involved other interests and actors where appropriate.”

Ok Tedi Mine 
The Ok Tedi mine along the Fly River in PNG experienced significant environmental ruin after the collapse of a dam holding mining tailings in 1984. In 2002, the company left the mine, though its destructive legacy continues to affect the people of the area and ownership has shifted to PNG.

Global Effects of Mining 
The harms of mining are felt by Indigenous Peoples and others all over the world. For example, BHP was also involved with Brazil-based Vale in the disastrous 2015 Mariana dam break in Brazil that stored mining waste and resulted in the deaths of 19 people and continues to affect millions more.

In 2019, also in Brazil, the Brumadinho iron mine’s dam failed resulting in hundreds of deaths and long-lasting environmental destruction.

A Path Forward

For now, the peoples of the Sepik River await the PNG government’s final decision, knowing it is feeling the pressure both from local groups like Project Sepik, who oppose this harmful project, as well as pressure to approve the mine from corporate interests seeking to monetize extraction of the area’s resources. Still, there is hope that the Peoples of the Sepik will be able to protect this precious natural resource for future generations just as their ancestors before them did.

“Our goal is to protect it. If we don’t, and the mine was to go ahead, I believe [our] cultural identity – everything that gives meaning to life, the spiritualism of life – will be eroded,” Manu says. “I cannot imagine it. I’m sad just talking about this loss.”

View of a home on the sepik river

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

Read the first 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.