In the remote rain forests of Papua New Guinea, a drama of global proportions is unfolding. In the island's central mountain range, the giant Ok Tedi Mine unearths vast quantities of copper and gold. Released from its environmental responsibilities by a national government hungry for capital, the mine dumps 80,000 tons of untreated waste material into the river system each day.

    Downstream from the mine, the Ok Tedi River now runs brown and cloudy, the color of coffee with milk. Trees which once lined the banks of the river with their dense, green foliage now stand barren and lifeless. No birds fly overhead. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation, the seventy kilometer corridor of the Ok Tedi River is "biologically dead." For the Yonggom people who live in the villages along the Ok Tedi River, the impact of the mine is devastating.

    The Yonggom people's engagement with the world economic system is by no means novel. Early in the century the region was an important hub in the global trade in bird of paradise feathers, prized as decorations for women's hats in Europe and the Americas. But the conditions which the Yonggom face today are much more serious, challenging their very cultural and physical survival.

    In order to protect their remaining land and resources, the Yonggom and their neighbors have become political activists. They have begun to confront the mine in ways which would not have been feasible, let alone thinkable, until quite recently.

    If the capital and economic forces which control projects like the Ok Tedi Mine are global in scope, then the alliances which resist them must also be global. To fight the mine, the people living along the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers now find allies from around the world in their pursuit of environmental justice.

    A four billion dollar lawsuit filed on behalf of 30,000 indigenous landowners seeking damages and stricter environmental controls at the mine reflects one such alliance. The suit was filed in 1994 by the Australian law firm of Slater & Gordon against Broken Hill Propriety Company, Ltd. (BHP), the majority shareholder and managing partner of the Ok Tedi Mine. The case now sits before the Victorian Supreme Court in Melbourne, where BHP is incorporated. The most prominent plaintiffs in the case are Rex Dagi and Alex Maun, two Yonggom men who grew up in villages along the lower Ok Tedi River, and have become internationally recognized environmental activists.

    Indigenous Politics and the World System

    The Yonggom case is part of a growing trend. One of the defining features of late capitalism is the completion of a process began centuries ago: the extension of the global economic system into the unexploited regions of the Earth. In the world's remaining equatorial rain forests, indigenous communities often come into conflict with the states and transnational corporations which seek to exploit their natural resources. These conflicts may have tragic consequences when states fail to protect people from the degradation caused by logging, mining and petroleum projects.

    As a result of the struggles of indigenous peoples to defend their land and resources, the very category of the "indigenous" is increasingly acquiring a global character. Many of us are familiar with the Kayapó people of the Amazon, whose frequent appearances in the media, including photo opportunities with Sting and other rock stars, have helped pressure the Brazilian government to declare their land a protected reserve. (However, a government decree earlier this year may reverse this protected status and open indigenous reserves to outside land claims.) Several anthropologists travel with and translate for the Kayapó when they testify at international forums. But the most powerful dimension of the Kayapó story is how rapidly it has become commonplace: indigenous peoples are becoming global activists in order to survive.

    The lawsuit filed against the Ok Tedi Mine on behalf of the Yonggom and their neighbors is not unique. Parallel, but independent court proceedings have been initiated against Texaco in the New York State District Court, attempting to force the oil company to clean up pollution from two decades of petroleum production in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and to compensate the indigenous inhabitants of the region for the contamination of their environment and the resulting health problems.

    In addition to legal action, political pressure is also being used to influence corporate policies overseas. For example, the Grasburg copper and gold mine in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, the western half of the island of New Guinea, releases 100,000 tons of untreated waste material into the local rivers every day. No legal action has been taken directly against the owners of the mine, the American firm Freeport McMoRan, because environmental activists fear that indigenous people living in the vicinity of the mine would suffer the wrath of Indonesia's military government as a result. In October, however, the United States Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a government agency which provides political risk insurance to U.S. businesses overseas, canceled their $100 million policy for Freeport McMoRan. The New York Times reported that this was the first time that OPIC has canceled a policy for environmental reasons - Freeport-McMoRan is currently suing OPIC to reverse the decision. In March, riots involving several thousand people caused the mine to temporarily halt operations.

    Conflicts between indigenous groups and resource developers are not always peacefully resolved. What may be the worst-case scenario, took place in 1988, on the island of Bougainville, in the North Solomons Province of Papua New Guinea. The people of Bouganville have opposed the massive Panguna copper mine since construction began twenty-five years ago under the aegis of the Australian colonial administration. The main pit of the mine is more than a kilometer in diameter, and its excavation has left the Jaba River biologically dead. The impact of the mine on the local environment has greatly curtailed subsistence production, leaving local communities almost entirely dependent upon the mine. In 1989, after several decades of unsuccessful political resistance, a group of local landowners took up arms and the mine to close by dynamiting power pylons and shooting several mine workers. Violent confrontations between local militants and the Papua New Guinea defense forces resulted in many deaths and injuries, eventually leading the government to impose a military blockade around the island. Seven years have passed since the violence began, but the conflict between the state and the people of Bougainville remains unresolved.

    Although the events at Bougainville illustrate the physical power of local communities to close down development projects by force, they also reveal the terrible cost of exercising that option. Still, Bougainville has forever changed the playing field for social movements in the Pacific, as developers must now acknowledge that indigenous communities retain veto power over their projects, regardless of promises made by the state.


    The Yonggom and the Ok Tedi Mine

    Since 1986, I have worked with the Yonggom people living in the interior lowland rain forests of Papua New Guinea. They combine subsistence strategies of slash and burn horticulture, sago extraction, pig husbandry, and hunting and gathering in their extensive rain forest holdings with participation in the regional cash economy. Villagers earn money by tapping rubber trees and by selling garden and forest products in town. In urban areas, Yonggom work in local businesses and construction projects, in the public sector, and for the mine. Most Yonggom prefer life in the village, where they have strong emotional ties to land, kin and community, and where until recently they had greater control over subsistence resources.

    When I first visited the area ten years ago, the Ok Tedi River and the trees that lined its banks were populated by numerous animals, especially birds, including tiny jewel-like kingfishers perched at the forest edge, snowy egrets and brahminy kites feeding from the river, sulphur-crested cockatoos ready to startle the unwary with their raucous cry, and the occasional solitary bird of paradise, its plumes alight with color. The river itself was home to a great variety of fish: on kirup, the catfish with razor sharp whiskers, on awat, the eel, on demet, on biwin, on arok, and many others.

    Since the mine began production, the finely ground material that it releases into the river regularly washes over the river banks into the surrounding low-lying rain forest, killing trees as far as two kilometers away from the river. While fish, prawns and turtles once provided important protein in Yonggom diets, today they are rarely caught. The Yonggom complain that the few remaining fish in the local rivers have "no fat," "no blood" and "smell bad," making the Yonggom afraid to eat them. Villagers said that the sago palms growing along the river and the other affected waterways fail to produce the usual starch-bearing pith that is the mainstay of their diets. By 1992, I heard complaints about food shortages, hunger, increased illness and malnutrition. In order to improve their compromised food supply, they have begun to plant a new kind of garden, using introduced root crops and borrowed cultivation techniques.

    The Yonggom compare the mine and its negative impact on their environment to acts of sorcery. They claim that the government and the mine are inamen ipban, "lacking sense," an expression which they also apply to sorcerers. Since production began at the mine, the people along the river say they must "live in fear" due to the hazardous chemicals which the mine releases into the river. "Live in Fear!" is what the Yonggom used to shout to their neighbors after a sorcery killing.

    The Yonggom told me that they could easily see with their own eyes that the river has "gone bad," and used the adjective moraron, which means spoiled, rotten or corroded, to describe the mine's impact on their surroundings. Some villagers expressed concern that the mine has even affected the wind, the rain and the air.

    Americans may be inured to landscapes scarred and transformed by industrial production, but for indigenous communities like the Yonggom, such environmental destruction is cataclysmic. For subsistence societies, the consequences of pollution are magnified because of their complete dependence on their land. Their experience of loss is unrelenting, for they lack alternative landscapes to contemplate through television, film or travel.

    In these communities, social identity is often tied to particular places through myth. Given that a person's life history is physically inscribed into the landscape through the course of his or her activities, land may acquire the social force of memory. Thus environmental degradation caused by development projects poses a tangible threat to local identities and histories.


    Yonggom Resistance

    Yonggom resistance to the mine has taken many forms, including demands for compensation levied directly against the mine and political efforts to compel the government to enforce existing environmental laws. Rumors circulate about an underground political movement, but to date the indigenous peoples of the region have avoided the kind of explosive violence that turned the island of Bougainville into a war zone. However, as levels of frustration regarding environmental damage continue to rise, there is no guarantee that protests against the mine will remain peaceful.

    Yonggom activists Rex Dagi and Alex Maun have successfully orchestrated a campaign to bring international pressure to bear on the Ok Tedi Mine. They testified in the Hague at the International Water Tribunal in a case against the mine. In Bonn, they urged German shareholders in the mine to press for reform. Dagi was also a delegate to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where he participated in a press conference aboard the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior II.

    A number of international conservation organizations are watching the outcome of the Ok Tedi case, which has been described as the next great environmental showdown in the Pacific, rivaling French nuclear weapons testing at Mururoa atoll in Tahiti. The stakes involved in the case are enormous: not only is this the largest lawsuit ever filed in Australia, against one of Australia's largest corporations, but the polluted Ok Tedi flows into the Fly River, one of the world's major river systems. The entire reagion, noted for its great biodiversity, is threatened as a result. But most importantly, the lives of at least thirty thousand people hang in the balance.

    Given the power of legal precedent, a favorable judgement might influence the outcome of comparable cases elsewhere in the world, including the suit against Texaco's operations in the Amazon. Both cases seek to hold transnational corporations responsible for their environmental impact according to the laws of the countries in which they are incorporated in addition to the laws where they operate. These cases may also contribute towards the establishment of a legal principle of environmental justice as a fundamental human right.


    The Dilemmas of Resistance

    The conflict in Bougainville demonstrates that indigenous people have the power to stop development projects with force, but not without the risk of provoking a violent response. It is imperative that alternative means of protest be found. Yonggom leader Rex Dagi told me that he wants to solve these problems in court, rather than with violence. As he puts it, the Yonggom do not want another Bougainville at Ok Tedi.

    The international activism of indigenous peoples suggests that scholars should also adopt a more global approach when analyzing environmental problems. How does the globalization of markets, labor, capital and commodities affect local ecosystems? And what happens to local views of nature as indigenous communities are increasingly encompassed by the world system? Answering these questions requires taking a closer look at the powerful institutions— including states and their legal systems, transnational corporations, the media and international conservation organizations—which mediate the impact of global forces on local communities.

    Drawing international attention to environmental issues may put indigenous peoples at risk if governments regard their participation in new global alliances as a threat to national sovereignty. Political backlash has become a problem in Papua New Guinea. Recent legislation would make it illegal for Papua New Guineans to bypass the national judicial system by bringing suit against transnational corporations in foreign courts. If the bill becomes law, the litigants in the lawsuit against the Ok Tedi Mine may face criminal charges, though activists have pledged not to abandon their position. In February, Yonggom leader Alex has told the press: "We have not murdered anybody. We are only fighting to protect our traditional land." [1]

    A broader question concerns indigenous people and competition between different discourses about nature and the environment. Scholars are beginning to consider how global political movements like feminism and environmentalism, which are based on assumptions of universality, are translated into local terms. In the Ok Tedi case, the more pressing concern is how the Yonggom are forced to translate their views into the discourse of global environmentalism so that they may effectively argue their case in the global context.

    In a conference held to debate environmental policy in Port Moresby in 1993, a Papua New Guinean executive of the Ok Tedi Mine argued that pollution along the river was an acceptable "trade-off" if citizens of the country wished to achieve their goal of wearing shirts and neckties and working in offices like Australians. The audience interrupted his speech with catcalls, one man shouting back that a true Papua New Guinean would need a tie only to hang himself.

    In another context, an expatriate employee of the Ok Tedi Mine responded to the concern that the Yonggom could no longer catch and eat fish from the river by suggesting: "Let them eat canned fish!" Not surprisingly, the Yonggom reject the notion that replacing natural resources with their manufactured equivalent constitutes development or progress, pointing out that it leaves them no better off than before, only more dependent.

    Despite their ability to criticize the policies of the Ok Tedi Mine, the Yonggom do not directly challenge the model for development within which the mine and the country operate. At the same conference in Port Moresby, no one objected when development was defined as bringing progress to an area in which local inhabitants previously had no skills or knowledge. Relying on narrow definitions of economic utility determined by external market forces, Yonggom participants at the conference accepted the devaluation of traditional ecological knowledge and skills that this perspective implies.

    Thus, participation in the global discourse of environmentalism constitutes something of a double-edged sword: while it allows the Yonggom to translate their ideas into an idiom that is readily accessible to a wide audience, it may limit their ability to conceptualize alternatives to the status quo. Will the Yonggom be able to develop their own critique of capitalism and the way in which it privileges economic growth over environmental protection? Or will their activism, by virtue of their participation in these debates, ultimately facilitate their incorporation into the world system?

    The category of the "indigenous" itself has become a political designation, largely because indigenous peoples have been forced to become players on the global political scene. In contrast to the popular environmental slogan, "Think globally, act locally," the Yonggom have been compelled to respond directly to the global causes of environmental degradation. This poses yet another double-bind for the Yonggom and other indigenous peoples: their autonomy, which depends upon the ability to control their own environment and resources, now depends on their effectiveness as global political activists.

    A final, optimistic postscript: in December, the Victorian Supreme Court ruled favorably on the question of jurisdiction in the case against BHP and the Ok Tedi Mine, and the case may come to trial by the end of this year. The outcome of the process remains to be seen, but I hope that one day Rex Dagi, Alex Maun and other Yonggom leaders will be renowned as globe-trotting culture heroes who successfully brought ecological reason to the Ok Tedi River.


    Stuart Kirsch is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Anthropology and a Fellow in Urgent Anthropology of the Royal Anthropological Institute and the University of London.

      1. Eric Kone, 'Ok Tedi landowners vow to push BHP suit' The National (PNG), February 6, 1996. Available e-mail (February 10 1996): Ecological Enterprises, Grbarry@students.wisc.edu. return to text