JO CHANDLER | The Global Mail
She endures my few questions, but plainly Kebei just wants to lie back down by the embers of her fire, even though all those around her are sweltering in the steamy build-up to the wet season.
She is in pain and I, ashamed, retreat. She will never know that she’s been cast as a bit player in the latest chapter of an epic narrative of power, politics, money, hope, expectation and exploitation — miscast, as it turns out.
And yet hers is likely the truest tale to be found on this murky stretch of Papua New Guinea’s fabled Fly River.
I’ve been led to Kebei by a posse of her neighbours, villagers living on the palm-fringed bank of the Fly delta. They identify the mother of eight as a possible casualty of a strange new plague rumoured to be striking their remote communities; one said to cause women to bleed, sores to weep and strange lumps to grow.
They suspect it may have been brewed in the brown water of their infamously despoiled river, the gutter for 30 years of operations of the Ok Tedi copper and gold mine, 1,000 kilometres upstream.
Each year the mine — the mother lode for the PNG economy, accounting for 16 per cent of gross domestic product in 2011 — dumps 40 to 50 million tonnes of waste rock and tailings in the Ok Tedi tributary which flows into the Fly River (down from a peak of 90 million in 2002). Porgera gold mine also sends much of its waste down this waterway.
The story of a mysterious disease outbreak in the remote South Fly, where many communities can only be reached by boat or air, has been making headlines in the PNG press.
It has also prompted questions in the Parliament — including calls from three Fly River MPs to close the mine on health and environmental grounds — and is now creeping into the international media.
The issue follows a leaked, six-month-old internal report by Ok Tedi’s development arm, scoping out concerns raised by women community leaders. The company referred the report — which urged immediate dispatch of an expert health team to investigate further — to its health agency, but no other action was taken.
The leaked report surfaces at the same time as Ok Tedi Mining Limited (OTML) is negotiating compensation deals with 100,000 Fly River people living downstream of its operations.
The company has plans to wring another decade of life from its mine, which had been due to close in 2014. At a recent mining conference in Sydney, OTML announced the deal was all but sealed, with most communities already signed – the community of the Manawete region, which I visit, is one of two holding back.
Meanwhile, upstream in the political headwaters, there’s a mighty struggle for control of the $1.4 billion fund Ok Tedi spawned for the PNG nation, the Sustainable Development Program (PNGSDP).
In a unique arrangement, a battered BHP divested its 52 per cent stake in the mine to the people of PNG via the Singapore-registered SDP in 2002. This came after BHP conceded the mine’s environmental fallout was much worse than it had anticipated, costing it dearly in reputation and out-of-court settlements to afflicted Fly communities.
With the government of PNG deciding to keep the mine running, the deal indemnified BHP against future legal liabilities. Two-thirds of SDP’s money is locked away for long-term development after the mine closes.
Today the fund’s value has exploded beyond all expectations, courtesy of the resources boom. If the Ok Tedi mine — as of last year wholly owned by the people of PNG — continues to operate until 2022 as now planned, the value of the program’s long-term projects will swell to $3.7 billion, according to a recent independent report on SDP.
In the meantime, SDP rolls out an ambitious development program worth more than $100 million in 2011, making it a heavyweight aid agency equivalent to some of the nation’s biggest external donors.
In a landscape of desperate need, cashed-up SDP is a potent resource, and some of PNG’s political big men are increasingly resentful of external influence over the fund, particularly BHP’s lingering veto over the shape of the board.
These tensions spilled into a pronouncement by PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill last month that prominent Australian economist and longtime PNG mining player Professor Ross Garnaut — chairman of Ok Tedi Mining, and until recently also chair of SDP — was no longer welcome in PNG.
Garnaut had reportedly said, on the subject of the stockpiling wealth, that it was “tempting for political figures to think of better ways of using it right now, rather than putting it into long-term development”. O’Neill blasted this as a slur on his nation’s reputation.
Acutely aware that the vortex of politics and money swirling around Ok Tedi is as treacherous and turbid as the notorious Fly tides, I nevertheless take a plane from Port Moresby and then — at the invitation of the Ok Tedi Mine Impacted Area Association, a community group which has been agitating on health concerns — a fast dinghy from Daru, and wade in to see something of the realities of life in the South Fly.
This is the opening section of a beautifully written feature article on the problems besetting Papua New Guinea’s most impoverished province. You can read Jo Chandler’s complete story here