Cleaning Up Ok Tedi: Settlement Favors Yonggom PeopleSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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This article is a follow-up to "Acting Globally:Eco- politics in Papua New Guinea," which appeared in Volume 3, Number 3 (Spring/Summer, 1996).
"Clean up Ok Tedi BHP. It's not O.K." The yellow and black bumper stickers are plastered on buildings and cars throughout the Fly River port town of Kiunga in Papua New Guinea.
The stickers show local support for the hard-fought campaign against Broken Hill Proprietary Company, Ltd. (BHP), owner and operator of the Ok Tedi copper and gold mine in the Star Mountains north of Kiunga. Each day, the mine releases 80,000 tons of tailings directly into the Ok Tedi River, a tributary of the Fly.
The heart of the struggle against BHP, Australia's largest corporation, was a billion-dollar lawsuit filed two years ago in the Victorian Supreme court in Melbourne, where BHP is incorporated.
An historic settlement
On June 12, 1996, BHP and leaders of a group of 30,000 indigenous plaintiffs from the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers reached an out-of-court settlement.
The key component of that agreement is a binding commitment that BHP and their subsidiary Ok Tedi Mining Ltd. construct appropriate tailings containment facilities, expected to cost approximately 350 million dollars. This will be the first time that any mine in Papua New Guinea will not release tailings directly into the river and sea. The island is home to a number of the world's largest copper and gold mines.
The impact of the mine has been catastrophic along the 100 kilometer Ok Tedi. Mine tailings have robbed the river of life. After heavy rainfall, the tailings are swept into the surrounding rain forest, swamps and creeks, and have left behind 30 square kilometers of dead forest. Thick gray sludge from the mine is visible throughout the Fly River system, although its effects downriver are not as severe.
The settlement followed extensive media criticism of BHP, chided as the "Big Australian Bully" for its role in helping the Papua New Guinean government draft legislation that criminalized participation in the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs Rex Dagi and Alex Maun, both from indigenous Yonggom villages along the Ok Tedi River, traveled to the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, the United States and the United Kingdom to protest the mine's impact and to meet with international conservation organizations. Dagi and Maun succeeded in convincing German and American partners in the Ok Tedi Mine to divest their shares in the company. Earlier this year, Maun's visit to Canada's Northwest Territories jeopardized a BHP bid for the concession to a large diamond mine. Activists and lawyers had also challenged the constitutionality of the law designed to intimidate potential plaintiffs.
The combination of legal action and public opposition proved effective. With the challenge pending in the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court, BHP agreed to settle the suit. It took a global alliance of indigenous leaders, environmental activists, lawyers, and anthropologists to force BHP to consent to clean up the Ok Tedi River.
The settlement does not establish a clear precedent regarding so-called "alien-tort" claims in which corporations are held accountable at home for their operations overseas. Still, several similar cases have been filed in U.S. courts, including a suit against Freeport- McMoRan, which operates the world's largest copper and gold mine in Irian Jaya, Indonesia. The suit cites Freeport- McMoRan for both its harsh environmental impact and its collusion with Indonesia's brutal military forces.
The Ok Tedi settlement package established a 90 million dollar trust fund for the people of the Fly River and another 35 million dollars for the communities in the most heavily impacted area of the lower Ok Tedi River. The benefits from a ten percent equity share in the mines will also be given to the province in which the mine operates. The provisions of the accord are backed by a powerful sanction — BHP has agreed that any disputes arising during the course of its implementation will be heard by the courts in Melbourne, rather than in Papua New Guinea.
The lead plaintiffs, their lawyers, and I were warmly welcomed as we traveled through the villages along the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers explaining the terms of the settlement. People felt that their stubborn resolve had paid off and were relieved that the settlement had been achieved without violence. They applauded plans to stop the release of tailings into their river and the promise of fair compensation for their losses.
Despite the settlement, the Ok Tedi will never be the same. Women in Dome village talked to me about how their lives have changed. Andok Yang explained that "First, the fish disappeared, then all the animals that lived along the river banks. We don't know where they are living now — they have all gone away."
Yang is worried about the community's future. "It will be good to receive the compensation payments," she says, "but their distribution may create conflict in the village." She hopes that her grandchildren will be able to adapt to the "modern world," because many of their traditional ways are dying out. "I am an old woman," she told me, "and I don't have the strength to garden or make sago any more, so I want them to distribute the money quickly, so that I can taste some sugar before I die."
Before the mine's construction, the land along the Ok Tedi was so fertile that one woman called the river enna, or "mother." "Life was easy then," she told me. "There was more than enough food in the gardens and an abundance of wild game, but now it is all gone — the land has completely changed." Nonetheless, she wants her children to stay in the village, because it is their home. One woman, Aromgot Debeyok, remembers when her late husband Nandun went to work for the mining company during the construction phase of the mine. When Nandun came back from the mountains, he told them that the Ok Tedi would change in the future. "All the water would dry up, the fish would die, and the riverbed would look like a road." Aromgot recalls that initially she did not understand what he was saying, although later when the trees began to die and river filled with sand, she knew the story her husband told her was true.
When I first began research in Dome ten years ago, local histories were mapped onto the landscape, with places metonymically representing important experiences in a person's life. Today, however, when walking through the rain forest with a friend, it is difficult to locate the places we once shared a meal or went swimming, because where towering trees once stood, there are only gray, ghostly tree trunks, and the creeks have all been buried by tall sand banks. Memories once anchored by the landscape have lost their mooring.
Now, when the people in the village talk about how the mine has changed their lives, they often present their stories in chronological form. Some of these chronologies were whispered furtively — the date the first missionaries arrived, the year that production began at the mine and all the fish died, or the year the trees began to die — much like magic spells were once told to me in confidence.
This shift from space to time in how experience is represented is one of the conceptual consequences of the massive environmental degradation wrought by the mine. It implies a fundamental shift in how the Yonggom view their relationship with the natural world. Once human memories and nature overlapped in their shared use of the landscape. With references to the past now commonly organized by abstract chronologies, Yonggom experience is increasingly detached from the natural world. This separation of time from space puts new emphasis on ontological differences between people and nature.
Much has changed for the Yonggom. They hope that the benefits provided by the settlement will ease them into what they call "modern life." Nonetheless, as I was told by Kewo, a former policeman who retired to the village after 27 years of government service, only to find that his land had been destroyed in the interim, the Yonggom will never lose their feelings of remorse for the damage to their environment.
Stuart Kirsch is assistant research scientist in Anthropology and fellow in Urgent Anthropology of the Royal Anthropological Institute. His current research is supported in part by the University's Institute for Research on Women and Gender.