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Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Barrick Gold refuses to relocate villagers who suffer murder, rape and house burning

| September 12, 2014
Barrick Gold refuses to relocate villagers who suffer murder, rape and house burning

This past July a young man was murdered deep in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea, and Canadians should care.


Why concern ourselves with this one act of violence in a far away corner of the Pacific, at a time when there is so much violence in the world?

After all, there is lots of killing closer to home that could concern us, starting with the Ukraine (quiet for the moment) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That latter group has even compelled U.S. President Obama to take serious military action, with Canada's Prime Minister Harper tagging along behind, calling out: "Me too! Me too!"

However, while Canada may not be as big a player in most of the world's hot spots as it sometimes likes to pretend, it is a huge player in the global mining industry. And few stars shine as brightly in the Canadian mining firmament as that of Canada's Barrick Gold.

On Wednesday of this past week, a representative of thousands of people who live in the highlands of Papua New Guinea together with Canadian supporters came to Parliament Hill to tell Canadians about the highlanders' troubled relationship with Barrick Gold.

At a news conference in the Charles Lynch room, in the Centre Block of Parliament, they shared the July 25, 2014 report of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary. That report states that the July murder victim, a Papua New Guinea highland villager in his 20s by the name of Wasato Kaipas, was killed on Barrick Gold's Porgera mining site.  

"The deceased was shot in the head," the Royal Constabulary report says, "While he tried to run away from inside the mine site, looking for gold as an illegal miner."

The report then names the only persons suspected of committing this crime: "mine security guards."

'Desperate attempt to earn a living'

At the Parliament Hill event on Wednesday, Mining Watch Canada's Catherine Coumans said that the Porgera mine site "has long been associated with extreme violence against local men and women by mine security and state police associated with the mine..."

Coumans then explained how a young villager such as Kaipas would find himself working, in the words of the local police, as "an illegal miner."

It is "a desperate attempt to earn a living," after Barrick despoiled the local environment with "massive uncontained waste flows," she said.

The waste flows include some traces of potentially valuable gold. Given that Barrick seems to consider those bits of gold to be trash, local people have taken to trying to earn money by scavenging for the precious metal in the sludge that pollutes their traditional lands. There is an active local market for this gold, which the huge multinational company is content to simply dump together with a stew of toxic pollutants

Some pay for this scavenging activity with their lives. Others pay a different price. Jethro Tulin of the Porgera Alliance, who came to Canada to meet with Canadian government officials in order to discuss his people's difficult relationship with the gold mining company, says that many women who engage in this marginal sort of mining suffer the "punishment" of brutal rape.

Tulin now argues that the only solution is to relocate the approximately 10,000 villagers in Porgera entirely outside the Barrick mine site. The Papua New Guinea government agrees with that proposal; but Barrick is resisting. The Canadian mining giant will only agree to help relocate those villages that are in the most dire environmental jeopardy, directly in the path of its mines and their effluent.

The people in the area form a coherent community of related clans, Tulin explains, and relocating some but not others will effectively destroy that community.

On the face of it, Barrick's resistance to the relocation plan does not make sense.

The company does not seem to be happy having villagers living in such close proximity to its mines. One gets the impression, in fact, that Barrick would like nothing more than to be entirely rid of the people it and its friends in the Papua New Guinea government describe as "illegal miners." Those "illegal miners" are also the traditional occupants of this part of the Papua New Guinea highlands.

Burning homes to get rid of villagers

Murder and rape are not the only tools used to discourage "illegal mining."

Barrick houses members of the Papua New Guinea national police's notorious "Mobile Unit" on its Porgera site. In June, without advanced warning or negotiation, "Mobile" officers moved on the village of Wingima and burned 200 houses to the ground.

That attack and the murder of Wasato Kaipas in July have heightened the Porgera peoples' sense of urgency. They hope to get some support from Canadian authorities. Jethro Tulin reports that his talks with Canadian federal officials at the civil service level  were constructive, but he has not had any contact with power-players at the political level in Canada.

As for Barrick, the fact that it has experienced billions of dollars in losses recently may have something to do with its reluctance to invest too generously in relocating the Porgera people.

In 2013, the company -- which is still the world's largest gold producer -- lost over $10 billion and it is continuing to show steep losses this year. It is now making vigorous efforts to prove to the capital markets that it remains a good investment.

Barrick's current motto is: "Disciplined, profitable production." In its official literature it goes to great pains to demonstrate to investors that its large total operating budget (of over $4 billion for 2013) and "disciplined capital allocation" (which has included major cost-reduction cutbacks) reflect the "significant underlying strength of the company's high-quality mining operations," notwithstanding the current "challenging gold price environment."

Barrick also makes a point of saying that it gives a high priority to "responsibility," even if that might not be high on the agenda of bottom-line focused investors. The company issues annual "responsibility" reports where it points to its investments in governance, environmental controls, workplace safety and community engagement.  

"We recognize that our ongoing success is tied to the success and stability of our host communities, and to our reputation as a responsible partner in resource development," says Kelvin Dushnisky, Barrick's Co-President. "In all locations, we work diligently to manage the impacts of our operations, provide a safe workplace for our employees, and ensure that communities and society derive long-term benefits from our mining activities."

Jamie Sokalsky, President and CEO, adds: "Even in these volatile market conditions, we will not cut costs that jeopardize our ability to operate in a socially and environmentally responsible manner."

The family of Wasato Kaipas and the people of Porgera in the Papua New Guinea highlands might be forgiven if they doubted the sincerity of those claims.



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