The refinery is set to produce huge quantities of nickel and cobalt, and generate jobs. But CHRISTIANE OELRICH writes that the villagers of Mindere want to shut it down for fear of devastating environmental damage caused by the toxic slurry the miners leave behind
THE RAMU NICKEL REFINERY near Madang aims to produce 32,000 tons of nickel and 3,300 tons of cobalt a year. Extraction of those minerals, vital for a modern economy, leaves behind waste containing traces of metallic elements and the solvents used to extract them.
Neville, Bustin, Joe, Mina, Awan (the names have been changed) live within sight of the refinery operated by China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC).
“Australians, Americans, Europeans were all welcome, but the Chinese are unscrupulous,” one of them says.
Sea disposal of tailings is hazardous, as studies have shown, but other methods are more expensive. “They are coming here with their 1960s technology. They are raping our country. The government profits, but we're left with nothing,” Bustin says.
The men are holding a village meeting under a large mango tree. “Our stream has gone since the people up there built a hostel and allowed their effluent to flow into it,” Mina says. “They promised us electricity, and what did we get? A miserable little solar panel,” adds Joe.
“The main drinking water source is on the site of the refinery,” one says. “They installed a pipe for us, but it soon broke. And then they said it was our problem. Now we have to walk 4 kilometres to fetch water.”
MCC declined to respond to written questions.
The villagers are angry for several reasons: fear of environmental harm, worries about whether the village will survive, frustration with their own government and mistrust of the Chinese, who show little desire to integrate.
They accuse politicians of selling out the country by issuing mining licences and lining their pockets. “Development has both good and bad sides to it, but we see only the bad side,” Neville says.
Six years ago there was optimism, with locals hoping for jobs and income, but the Chinese preferred to fly in their own workers - who now number 2,000 - leaving only a few menial jobs for the locals.
That policy has divided Mindere's community of 700, where some families live on the income of a member who works for MCC, while others are trying to stop the project.
Tempers are near the breaking point in Madang, with a population of around 35,000, where the Chinese have taken over most small businesses.
“Apart from one shop and a fuel station, everything here belongs to the Chinese,” says a young environmental activist who declines to be named. “They live over their shops and scarcely dare to go out, because everyone is against them.”
Daniel Wong, a Lutheran priest of Chinese origin sent to mediate, says Chinese businessmen see the environmental arguments as a Western conspiracy aimed at keeping China down.
According to Wong, the MCC management says the government asked it to take over the operation, and Beijing did so partly for political reasons to increase its presence in the region. And they mistrust the motives of the protesters.
“It's not about the environment at all. If you give them money, they're happy,” is how many Chinese businessmen feel, according to Wong.
New York-based Human Rights Watch points to corruption as another serious problem. “Papua New Guinea's extractive resources have proved to be as much a curse as they have a blessing,” it says.
“Extractive projects and the economic resources they represent have fueled violent conflict, abuse, and environmental devastation in Papua New Guinea.
“Government revenues from extractive industries are often dissipated through official corruption and mismanagement, without having any positive impact on ordinary citizens' lives”
Source: Deutsche Presse Agentur