Sunday, June 9, 2024

PNG: Wealth for Foreign Exploiters – Sweet FA and Destruction for the People

Written by: J. Clarke on 9 Jue 2024


Above: Opposition to sea bed mining in PNG. Photo

While the eyes of the world are focussed on the devastating tragedy of the Enga Province landslide in Papua New Guinea (PNG), it is timely to reflect on the environmental and development issues that foreign investment has brought to the country.

PNG is a country abundantly rich in natural resources. The Indigenous people have utilised these resources for their essential needs sustainably since their arrival in ancient times (estimated to be some 50,000 years ago and agricultural practices commencing around 7000BC).

On the other hand, with the arrival of Europeans and the accompanying colonisation, the exploitation of resources for profit rather than needs intensified with little regard to sustainability. In modern times, exploitation has intensified even more dramatically, resulting in severe damage to the environment.

What caused the devastating Enga landslide in which so many lives were lost? There are multiple reasons. Firstly, PNG is located on an earthquake zone, which creates the conditions prerequisite for landslides. In a nutshell the ground is loosened and water penetrates, creating something akin to a massive sponge. A deluge of rain can make the “sponge” release its contents, with devastating consequences for those living nearby.

The other reasons are man-made. You guessed it! - Deforestation by foreign companies acting to extract as much timber as possible in the shortest time for maximal profits, with little or no subsequent remediation work. There is no substantial vegetation remaining to hold the soil in place, so when a landslide occurs, its damaging effects are amplified.

Add to this, the effects of climate change – more storms, more intense rainfall, therefore more frequent and severe landslides.

Not much can be done about the natural causes (earthquakes) however the last two causes are preventable if a sustainable approach is taken. This will never happen under capitalism, but the people of PNG are valiantly opposing the activities of the foreign plunderers.

The volume of logging has consistently exceeded the target limits. The government appears to be doing very little to curb this. The people, with the assistance of NGOs, are putting pressure on the government to act. In response, logging companies threaten activists with litigation. This is despite the activists exposing not only the over-logging, but money laundering practises by the industry as well1.

An appallingly unscrupulous practice used by foreign companies to obtain access to land for logging is to illegally con traditional holders of customary land into handing the land over to them. As a result, a significant percentage of customary land has become permanently inaccessible to the traditional landholders. This land-grabbing is facilitated by corrupt government officials and others in PNG for selfish gains. (Corruption is rife in PNG, and it is estimated that up to 50% of the government annual budget goes missing as a result. Consequently it is a walk in the park for foreign companies to get what they want.) Such lands are then rubber-stamped as “Special Agriculture and Business Leases” under the Land Act. The categorisation as “agriculture and business” is a con in itself. Essentially it means all out logging.

The government copped a lot of flak from traditional landholders about this illegal land-grabbing practice and in 2014 the government promised to return the lands stolen in this way to their original owners. However, there has been limited progress in this direction. Further, compensation to traditional landholders for being deprived of the use of their land and the destruction of forests on these lands is yet to be agreed to.

Here’s another example of ruthless business practices which are enabled by corrupt government officials. A Malaysian company (actually a logging company) applied to set up the “Wasu Cattle Farm Project” and got the nod. Local people report that they have not sighted any cattle but that there is an awful lot of logging going on!

It is not only the forests that are being intensely exploited by foreign companies. PNG is rich in mineral resources and oil and gas – both on land and sea.

A case in point is the proposed Frieda mine project for the extraction of gold and copper. If it goes ahead, it will be the largest mining project in the history of PNG. The project will operate along the mighty Sepik River. The river traverses some 1100km and is one of the few remaining untouched large rivers on the planet. It provides sustenance, both spiritual and material, to the tens of thousands of people who live in traditional communities along its length.

The mine threatens all this and the people know that it will end their traditional way of life. They have seen it in other communities in PNG. Promises of benefits are made (schools, hospitals etc) but they end up losing everything, including their independence, spiritual life, links to their ancestors and sense of belonging.

The people of the Sepik want to avoid another Bougainville, but the communities are not taking this lying down and are currently organising to oppose the mine. Death threats have been received but people have stated that this river is so important to them that they will die for it.

The foreign corporations are not limiting themselves to mining the land, but also have in mind to mine the sea bed for minerals such as gold, copper, nickel, cobalt and manganese. Sea bed mining has not taken place anywhere in the world yet, due to insufficient knowledge of the environmental, social and economic consequences and the lack of laws to govern its practice.

The PNG government has placed a moratorium on sea bed mining until 2029. However, coastal people living in the vicinity of the proposed sea bed mining area have grave concerns that the government will not live up to its promise. The PNG government has its own vested interests in the project proceeding. The people living here practice their traditional way of life and rely on the sea as their main food source. They are already organising against this project2.

The people of PNG face the same enemy as other Indigenous populations the world over, threatening their traditional existence and the destruction of the lands which they have nurtured over the eons.

Whether it is in PNG, West Papua, Palestine or the First Nations people of Australia there is common ground for the struggle against imperialism and colonialism.

Oppressed people of the world unite!

The CPA (ML) supports the struggle of the people of PNG for justice.
The CPA (ML) supports the struggle of the people of West Papua for independence.


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