PORT MORESBY - Members of Parliament are paid K12,000 a fortnight but a great many Papua New Guineans are searching for ways to earn K300 – the approximate minimum wage - in an economy where very few paying jobs are available.
Most people scratch out a living as subsistence farmers, which doesn’t offer compensation anywhere near the minimum wage.
With a far-too-high unemployment rate of 70%, Papua New Guineans are desperate for opportunities.
Alluvial mining is one such opportunity and currently between 40,000 and 80,000 Papua New Guineans put in long hours under the tropical sun sloshing gravel around in gold pans to put bread on the table.
Some may get two grams a day, some five, some more. It can be good money at the current rate of K70–80 a gram. Even two grams harvested in a day will generate a good income.
The price of gold is currently around $1,300/oz and by 2020 some forecasters are saying it could reach $2000/oz, which – if it gets there - will yield K160–180 per gram for a self-employed gold panner.
The Mining Act of 1992 opened the door wide for Papua New Guineans in this industry, allowing locals to engage in panning for gold without a license or permit. All that’s required is a gold pan and a gallon or two of perspiration.
The number of PNG alluvial miners has exploded. It’s become something of a problem with school students skipping classes to help out dad and mom in the streams.
School officials in Bouganville complain that enrollment figures have dropped significantly because of children assisting their parents in a modern-day gold rush.
In the Bulolo district of Morobe Province, thousands of alluvial miners are using mercury to isolate the gold.
The PNG government needs to get on top of this because mercury is a very toxic substance. Far too many alluvial miners use their bare hands to handle it, unaware that mercury can lead to damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs - even death.
The PNG government needs to ban the sale and usage of mercury, and the sooner the better.
The Mineral Resource Authority has been conducting workshops to inform alluvial miners about methods of effective gold panning as well as the dangers of mercury use. These workshops have been well-received.
All that said, the Autonomous Bougainville government and the PNG government need to think creatively on how to strengthen alluvial mining in PNG. The K400 million from washing gold is nothing to sneeze at.
Among the nations of the world, PNG’s economy ranks around 140 in GDP. However, among gold producers, PNG is number 13. Gold provides a sizeable chunk of PNG’s government revenue.
Alluvial mining could be a key factor for sustainable development. Panning is much easier on the environment than large-scale open pit mining.
Guangdong and PanAust are planning to develop a huge copper and gold mine on the Frieda River. For 40 years the Frieda mine has changed hands from one gold exploration company to another, with no one willing to take the financial risk and do the hard work of constructing the mine. It’s likely to happen again in the next two to three years.
The two companies are reportedly planning to build a huge facility to contain the tailings. It’s exactly what’s needed given the amount of rain that falls in the area.
Meanwhile, under the shadow of the Hunstein mountains in the Frieda area, many locals in villages such as Okisai and Blackwater and Hotmin continue to pan for gold.
In 2014 then Mining Minister Byron Chan stated that alluvial mining would double in the five years leading up to 2019. He was probably right.
As he said, “The alluvial resource is extensive, under-explored and nation-wide.”
It’s a wide-open door!