According to the Asian Development Bank, the GDP of Papua New Guinea will expand by 15% in 2015. The prediction of the World Bank is sunnier, at 16%, while the International Monetary Fund has plumped for the still higher figure of 19.3%. In any case, the economy of this Australasian country is forecast to grow—indeed is currently growing—at a faster rate than any other in the world. And while it is true that the projections for 2015 represent something of an aberration, annual growth since 2008 has averaged a very healthy 7.3 per cent.
At least three questions arise from these facts. First, what is driving such consistently remarkable growth? Second, who are its principal beneficiaries? And finally, what are its social and ecological ramifications? The answers to all these questions are far from mysterious, although one cannot—for reasons which will become obvious—expect to see the many-headed corporate media clamouring to lay them out.
Papua New Guinea, with its stupendous mineral and other natural riches, is often described as a ‘mountain of gold floating on a sea of oil’. Australian colonialists, to whom the place was of great strategic importance, were the first to learn the full extent of their then-territory’s vast resource endowment. Following the Second World War—during which, of course, an entire campaign had been fought on the island of New Guinea—the desire of Australian elites to exploit the land properly took root. In the early 1960s, the efforts of the colonial administration to open up new markets for Australian capital led it to enlist the help of the World Bank, which produced a report on the economic potentialities of what is now Papua New Guinea. The report became a blueprint.
At about the same time, the local indigenes—an unsurpassably diverse bunch—had foisted upon them the bourgeois state apparatus that was necessary to facilitate and safeguard large-scale capitalist penetration of their homelands. All this was done under the guise of securing for them, the natives, ‘economic self-sufficiency’. And who were they to gainsay the benevolence of their overlords? After all, the very same elites were (and remain) responsible for immiserating aboriginal Australians, who continue to live and die as personae non gratae on their own ancestral soil.
At any rate, in 1964, Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia (CRA) discovered unusually widespread copper mineralisation on Bougainville, an outlying island culturally distinct from the mainland. Two years later, the legislative framework which governed mining in the territory was amended to give corporations greater scope for exploration and extraction. And then, in 1969, the Bougainville Copper Agreement was enacted. The consummation of this agreement came in the form of Panguna, a mine which sat atop one of the largest reserves of copper in the world. Operations at Panguna commenced in 1972 and from thereon in, resource extraction came to dominate even further the economy of Papua and New Guinea.
Copper was not, of course, the only valuable resource to be ripped wholesale from the land. Gold—yellow, glittering, precious gold—had long been known to exist in the New Guinean earth, but it was only in the early 1980s, after independence had been gained, that the metal became truly significant in economic terms. According to the Mineral Resources Authority (MRA) of Papua New Guinea, Panguna mine alone yielded nearly 10 million ounces of gold in its sixteen years in operation.
Although the MRA states on its website that the minerals sector is ‘by far the major contributor to GDP’, one wonders whether this will remain the case for very much longer. After all, the rich topography of Papua New Guinea—that ‘mountain of gold’ with its fast-receding ‘sea of oil’—rests upon a bedrock bursting with natural gas, trillions of cubic tons of it. And the gas industry is ascendant, supercharged by the newly acquired capacity for liquefied natural gas (LNG) production. It is this production which lies at the heart of all the staggering forecasts of economic growth for 2015. The rate of such growth is expected to drop off in 2016, but the wider point remains: here is a country whose immense and ever-growing wealth is derived in large measure from the extraction of metals, petroleum and gas.
The question of where exactly that wealth goes can be answered, partially at least, by considering the lot of the general population, which is overwhelmingly rural and made up largely of subsistence farmers. The United Nations Development Programme, in a recent press release, noted that 36 per cent of Papua New Guineans live on little more than a dollar a day, and that fully half of all children under five are malnourished. When African countries are excluded, life expectancy in Papua New Guinea—according to the World Health Organisation—is the second-lowest in the world. The Human Development Index, meanwhile, is the joint third-lowest outside Africa. Violent crime is said to be commonplace across the country, and so on and so forth. We can say with some authority, then, that the wealth generated by extracting and exporting mineral resources has not accrued to the population at large.
Instead, it is foreign corporations who own the mines, who control and have always controlled production, and who profit and have profited for decades from the fecundity of a land in which their presence has never been welcome.
The gold mine at Lihir is one of the largest of its kind in the world. It is currently owned by an Australian multinational, Newcrest Mining. For the first thirteen years of its existence, Lihir was supposedly unprofitable. Its previous owners, Lihir Gold (now a Newcrest subsidiary) and Rio Tinto (a descendant of CRA), never declared even a toea of profit. In failing to do so, they deprived the (no doubt complicit) government of tax credits that would ultimately have delivered vitally needed infrastructure for the people of New Ireland. Newcrest Mining also owns, as part of a joint venture, half of the Hidden Valley gold and silver mine, 200 miles north of the capital Port Moresby. The other half is owned in effect by Harmony Gold, a large South African company.
The Porgera gold mine is even larger than the one in Lihir, and rather more notorious. Scores of women have been raped at Porgera over the years by men belonging to the private security force of Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold mining company. Earlier this year, Barrick was forced to compensate its victims. It then sold a large chunk of its 95% stake in the mine to a Chinese company, the Zijin Mining Group. Another Chinese company, MCC Ramu NiCo, operates a nickel and cobalt mine in the northern Madang Province.
Among the smaller gold mines, Kainantu was sold by Barrick earlier this year to K92 Mining, whose parent company, Otterburn Resources, is also Canadian. Simberi, at the northernmost extremity of the country, is owned by St Barbara, an Australian company. Until it was abandoned in 2014, Sinivit was operated by a Canadian corporation, New Guinea Gold.
And the grip of foreign, and particularly western, corporations on the mineral wealth of Papua New Guinea does not look likely to loosen, even as those mines which are currently in operation begin to approach the ends of their lifetimes. For instance, Niuminco (Australia) holds exploration licences for sites at Bolobip and May River. It also enjoys a mining lease at Edie Creek, where both gold and silver are thought to be abundant. Marengo Mining (Canada) is developing a mine at Yandera which will produce both gold and copper, and another joint venture between Newcrest and Harmony is doing the very same at Wafi-Golpu. Meanwhile, as 40% of Papua New Guineans languish in poverty, Nautilus Minerals (Canada) is set to begin use of cutting-edge technology to extract gold and copper from hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Bismarck Sea.
Inevitably, neocolonialism in Papua New Guinea is not confined to the mines. ExxonMobil is the world’s fifth largest company. Its history is as black as the crudes which it recovers, and its trail of malfeasance extends across time, from the Gulf of Alaska to Capitol Hill, from Mayflower, Arkansas to deepest Iraq. As far as Papua New Guinea is concerned, Exxon superintends the LNG production which is currently propelling economic growth. And so we can say that the benefits flowing from such production—such ‘growth’—are flowing not to the millions of ordinary Papua New Guineans, but to unaccountable private institutions, and monolithic foreign ones at that.
In fact, of all the country’s major sources of wealth—past and present—only two are not currently owned or operated by such institutions. Once upon a time, Ok Tedi, a source of both copper and gold, was the largest mine in Papua New Guinea. In the early 1980s, the State had capitulated to pressure from Ok Tedi Mining (a subsidiary of BHP Billiton, now the world’s largest mining company) in allowing the mine to be constructed without a tailings dam. And so, in the words of the United Nations Environment Programme, Ok Tedi became the very ‘icon of irresponsible riverine disposal of tailings and waste rock from large-scale mining’, and a ‘central case study for the discussion of the environmental impact of industrial-scale mining’. BHP eventually acknowledged the magnitude of the ecological disaster—and public health crisis—for which it was responsible. The subsequent nationalisation of Ok Tedi was no consolation, however, for the communities which depend upon the river systems BHP so heavily polluted.
One other mine in Papua New Guinea was delivered from the stranglehold of corporate proprietorship, and years before Ok Tedi too. Panguna has been inoperative since 1989, when it was closed down following campaigns of civil disobedience and sabotage conducted by disaffected and justifiably indignant Bougainvilleans. The natives had for nearly two decades watched as Bougainville Copper (BCL) and mandarins in Port Moresby grew fat from the bounty that lay beneath land to which they, the state-corporate elites, had neither right nor connection.
Indeed, much of what had happened during the birth throes of Panguna set a revolting precedent for all the mines which followed it. The Bougainville Copper Agreement enabled the naked and violent confiscation of land on which the local indigenes had lived for millennia. Resistance to such confiscation was brutally crushed by policemen, those ever-faithful servants of capital. The fabric of community life was ripped apart to make way for a port and roads and a mining town, all of which were presumably paid for by loans—that is, public debt—gifted by international financial insitutions. And, having secured the deracination of so many Bougainvilleans, BCL nestled into a lengthy lease and three-year tax holiday. All start-up costs were recouped by the end of that holiday, and Panguna became the largest open-pit copper mine in the world. Naturally, the islanders’ demands for compensation were ignored.
More than a billion tonnes of poisonous tailings later, Bougainvillean efforts to end the neocolonial rapacity that had trodden them into the mud resulted in the closure of the mine. But it is not only the fact of that closure which differentiates Panguna from the country’s other mines. The Bougainville civil war, prosecuted with Australian help by the government of Papua New Guinea, saw many thousands of people killed over a period of several years. The ultimate cause of the bloodshed was local opposition to the resumption of operations at Panguna, and therefore to the continued corporate-imperial domination of society. It is clear to see that the conflict was nothing less than the logical consequence of such domination.
But, as hinted at above, economic exploitation and social ruin are not the only by-products of plunder in Papua New Guinea. The country is almost incomparably biodiverse, encompassing as it does a wide range of different ecoregions. The mountains which bisect New Guinea are overlaid with forest on pristine forest. Fertile swamplands are sustained by the great Fly and Sepik rivers which unfold their thunder either side of the highlands in the west. The ocean, meanwhile, is specked with atolls and volcanic islets, and the coasts are fringed with yet more coral reefs. Countless endemic species inhabit each of these environments, many of them still undiscovered. Conservationists everywhere affirm the matchless beauty and diversity of life in Papua New Guinea, and all recognise the urgent need to protect it. But such a need cannot effectively be realised for as long as giant corporations are engaged in the large-scale extraction of natural resources. (Commercial logging, hitherto ignored, must also be condemned.)
The litany of environmental disasters caused by the extractive industries includes but is by no means limited to those at Panguna and Ok Tedi, although the sheer severity of the latter catastrophe remains unsurpassed. Tailings and waste rock have been dumped into the river system near Porgera—at a rate of tens of thousands of tonnes per day—for nigh on a quarter of a century, first by Placer Dome (Canada) and then by Barrick. (Zijin, Barrick’s new partner at Porgera, has itself been responsible for at least one major toxic spill in southern China.) At Lihir, Newcrest pumps its tailings directly into the ocean, just as MCC does at Ramu and St Barbara at Simberi. Cyanide engulfs the aquatic life around the now-inoperative Sinivit mine, where a state of emergency was recently declared. Nautilus Minerals’ deep sea mining project is set to proceed despite grave concerns about the effects it will have on a delicate marine ecosystem.
Experience tells us that damage to the environment is simply a corollary of industrial-scale mining. Mountains become bald first, and then lifeless craters. Rivers turn to sludge. Animals—fish, crustaceans, birds—are poisoned in unimaginably large numbers. But these cumulative ecological disasters have a pronounced social dimension, especially in places like Papua New Guinea, where a poverty-stricken rural population relies on river systems for food and water. And that struggle for subsistence in turn has its origins in decades of state-corporate violence, in a suffocating matrix of appropriations and evictions, exploitation and virtual apartheid.
Thus we can say that the social, economic and environmental ravages of resource extraction are not just grave and unavoidable, but inextricably interconnected. The root cause—a global market economy which enjoins and is propelled by capital accumulation, or uncontrollable ‘growth’—is not difficult to divine, for the recent history of social and property relations in Papua New Guinea is not fundamentally unique.
Wherever it takes place—and especially in lands inhabited by black- and brown-skinned people—the inhuman process of production for private profit perforce reduces nature to a source of endless surplus. Labour is the cheap instrument with which such surplus is extracted, and everything else, to the capitalist, is mere gangue. Projections of growth therefore always ring hollow, but never more so than in the case of Papua New Guinea, the land of a thousand tongues.