On Track to do it right

Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 05 Mar 2008

THE agreement between Australian and Papua New Guinean governments to protect the Kokoda Track from a mine is a relief to the Diggers and their families.  These men, who trekked along this trail for months on end, rightly want to preserve this symbol of Australian bravery and mateship. This is a great outcome, on the eve of Anzac Day, for those families and communities who hold the importance of the Kokoda Track dear.
Elsewhere in PNG, however, there are other families and communities who have not been so lucky and who are living with some of the negative realities of mining in the country.
Mining can bring great economic benefits to PNG, is a significant source of income for many countries and contributes to poverty alleviation when pursued in a manner that respects the rights of the communities it affects. If it is not done with those basic rights in mind – for example, the right to clean water and the right to food – then the health and living standards of local communities spiral downwards.
Australian mining companies are very active in PNG. Unfortunately, in some cases, this has been to the detriment of local communities. Of particular concern is the practice of dumping mine waste into the waterways that communities depend on for their livelihoods.
A prime example is the Ok Tedi mine. While no longer Australian-owned, this mine continues to dump 80 million tonnes of mine waste into local rivers each year. Families that have lived off this river for generations can no longer fish from it, wash in it or drink it. Similarly, the Tolukuma gold mine, which up until recently was also Australian-owned, dumps 230,000 tonnes of mine waste into the Angabanga River each year. And 3.5 million tonnes of mine tailings are dumped into the sea annually at the Australian-listed Lihir Gold Mine.
Imagine the reaction in Melbourne if mine waste was dumped directly into our dams, contaminating our water supply.
While it is rightly illegal here, some Australian companies have done and continue to do just that to our PNG neighbours. Oxfam Australia’s Mining Ombudsman has documented the devastating impact of the Tolukuma mine on downstream communities. Community members attribute illnesses and deaths to drinking and washing in the polluted river. They report that fish have died and that food gardens have been destroyed, posing a threat to the community’s food supply.
Without access to clean water it will be impossible to raise health and living standards.
The relationship we have with our nearest neighbour was forged during World War II when Australian Diggers fought alongside and were greatly assisted by our Papua New Guinean friends. It is a strong relationship, built on adversity and trust.
With a fresh perspective, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson can play a leading role in ensuring that this trust is not abused. The first step is to begin dialogue on ways to improve the performance of Australian mining companies in PNG.
Australia spent $355 million in the past year on development assistance in PNG and it’s important that the success of these programs isn’t undermined by the few mining companies that engage in poor practices.
As a leader in our region, we owe this to our nearest neighbour and long-time friend.
This article was published in the Herald Sun on 28 April 2008