by Tim Elliot, Sydney Morning Herald - Good Weekend
READ the Porgera Landowner's Association's response to this article.
In the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, the locals are largely locked out of the wealth of a lucrative goldmine. Tim Elliott meets a few brave young men determined to claim just a tiny piece of pie.
I don't know much about mining, but I know how miners are meant to look. They are meant to be adults, for a start. They are also meant to be tough - big guys with beards and bellies. The miners I am standing with now are not like that. They are teenagers mainly, with bare knees and runny noses, dressed in gumboots, shorts and filthy woollen jumpers, like escapees from some cold-climate orphanage. They are also, for the most part, drunk - which, given what they are about to do, is probably a good idea.
The boys live in Kumbipara, a miserable little shanty town that clings like a limpet to the hills above what mineral and resource experts call the Porgera Joint Venture, or PJV, and what locals simply refer to as "the pit" - a massive, open-cut goldmine in Enga Province, in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. The mine is owned by the Canadian resources giant Barrick Gold, which inherited it when it bought out the previous owner, Placer Dome, in 2006. The pit has been here since 1990, though, and has shaped the boys' lives since before they were born. In a vocational sense, it's pretty much all they know. This is because they're "illegal miners" - freelance scavengers who sneak in to the pit to steal gold.
Desperate measures … wriggling under the fence at the Barrick mine. Photo: Brendan Esposito
"We must go now, before the sun rises," one of the boys, David, says. He is carrying a mallet and a satchel in which there is a packet of biscuits, two cigarettes and a small chisel. He explains how there is a perimeter fence surrounding the pit, and how security guards with guns patrol this fence. The idea is to dig under it or (less advisably) to climb over it. But timing is crucial. The guards work in shifts, with the changeover around 6am - now, in other words. The boys hope to take advantage of the shift change to slip in undetected. "Otherwise, the guards can shoot us," David says.
We head down a narrow gravel road bordered by rainforest. The boys smoke their cigarettes and natter in Enga; some drain their beers, chucking the bottles into the bush. At 2700 metres above sea level, Porgera is one of those places that is stingingly hot during the day and freezing cold at night. Right now, it's freezing cold, not to mention dark. In the pre-dawn gloom, about the only thing I can make out is mist, thick, cottony banks of it pooling in the valleys and clinging to the trees.
As we walk, David explains his modus operandi for getting into the mine, which basically amounts to: run really fast. As soon as they breach the fence, he says, "we run for the pit", the lip of which is about 200 metres from the fence. The guards patrol in big yellow four-wheel-drives with German shepherds; if they spot the boys they will try to detain them. There have also been shootings, David says. If they can make it to the pit, however, the boys are safe, because the guards aren't allowed, for their own safety, to pursue them into the warren of tunnels and cuttings. Once there, David will spend about 12 hours chipping away, filling his satchel with whatever looks like gold, before slipping out at sunset.
Axe to grind … a Porgera Valley local. Photo: Brendan Esposito
On a good day he can make 1000 kina ($500), on a bad day, nothing. Maybe it's the time of day, or his very bad cold, or the fact that he's dirt poor and will most likely remain so for the rest of his life, but David is not a sentimentalist. "If one of us gets shot and injured," he says, "then we will try to carry them out. But if they are dead, we just leave them."
Soon we arrive at a crest overlooking the mine, and gaze down into the pit, a massive, raw-looking socket, gaping up like a monstrous ulcer. Terraced benches spiral into the crater, while off to the right a plume of snow-white vapour rises slowly skyward. The smoke is from the smelter, I am told, which operates 24/7 milling gold bars, each of which weighs more than 16 kilos. The gold is then flown out by helicopter. What with the smoke and the fence and the torn up earth, the pit is one of the ugliest things I've ever seen, but lavishly, unrepentantly so, and impressively functional, too.
"Okay," David smiles. "We go in now."
All that glistens … a group of young, illegal gold scavengers. Photo: Brendan Esposito
The PJV mine sits at the head of the Porgera Valley, a densely forested and mountainous region that, courtesy of some supercharged volcanic action about six million years ago, is now spectacularly endowed with copper and gold. As in much of the Highlands, the gold in Porgera sits conveniently close to the surface; close enough, in many spots, to be got at with a pick and shovel. Indeed, locals have been panning for gold here since at least the 1950s, when they were taught the technique by explorer Jim Taylor, a former Sydney policeman who first came to the Highlands in 1933.
"I used to pan for gold as a boy, in the 1960s, with my father," local politician Iki Pawe tells me. "Porgera is high and cold; growing food here is not easy. That's why panning was important to us."
People still pan for gold in Porgera: you see them in drainage ditches in the middle of town, and in rivers and streams and gutters; in some cases they dig up their own backyards, hoping to strike it rich. But this type of mining, once a way of life, has largely become unviable thanks to the PJV mine. Since 1990, when excavation began, the mine has displaced a billion tonnes of waste rock and rubble, much of which has overflowed, covering surrounding villages, including Yarik, where David grew up. (David's current village, Kumbipara, was only established in 2000.) This waste rock has clogged up riverbeds, making it difficult for locals to pan in the silty sediment where gold dust is commonly found. According to Human Rights Watch, the mine also discharges 16,000 litres of waste water every day into the nearby Porgera River. Then there are the glacier-like tailings, several of which are carving their way down different sections of the valley, swallowing up houses and isolating villages.
Fenced out … villagers mill around outside the mine’s perimeter. Photo: Brendan Esposito
Seen from above, the mine looks like a nuclear-test site, albeit an extremely lucrative one. To date, it has produced almost 18 million ounces (about 500,000 kilograms) of gold, worth about $26 billion at today's prices. "Porgera has historically been one of the most profitable goldmines in the world," says Gavin Mudd, a lecturer in environmental engineering at Monash University. "But that's because they don't have to pay for a tailings dam and other conventional waste-management measures that they would have to do in Tasmania, Chile or Africa."
Tailings dam or no tailings dam, Porgera is now the centre of a good old-fashioned gold rush, one that has seen the population go from 5000 to 50,000 over the past 20 years.
Most of these newcomers have crowded into villages around the mine, such as Mungalup and Kumbipara, but also into Porgera Station, a stupendously muddy and rubbish-strewn burg that offers a hyper-exotic sampling of PNG's tribal cultures, from Tari men with umbrella-shaped hairdos to Huli women with red and yellow face paint; highlanders, lowlanders, boys with dogtooth necklaces and tattooed foreheads, plus betel nut and firewood sellers, breastfeeding mothers flogging inedible vegetables, idlers, pickpockets, bottle collectors, the occasional Japanese merchant, raving drunk miners and what seem to be several thousand vagrant puppies, piglets and chickens.
Barrick Mine in Porgera, PNG
No one goes out after dark here, and everyone carries a machete. In a place like this, just leaving home is an adventure. One day I'm strolling about when a kid comes up holding several snap-lock bags containing a familiar-looking silver liquid.
"What is it?" I ask, fondling one of the bags.
"Mercury!" says the boy. Despite the fact that it is extremely toxic, mercury is pretty much everywhere in Porgera, where locals use it to process their pickings. Once they have done this, they take the raw gold to gold buyers, like Jimi, whom I meet one drizzly afternoon in the Station. Jimi works on the main street out of a tiny plywood booth perched above the muck on stilts. His only security measures are a steel grill window and a clunky iron lock. Jimi shows me a golf ball-sized gob of gold, worth about 6000 kina ($3000), that he has just procured. Once he has about 20,000 kina's worth, he will drive to Mount Hagen, usually with a police escort in case of tribal fighting, which, judging by the frequency of outbreaks, is something of a hobby in the Highlands.
Jimi is not Porgeran. He came here seven years ago, looking for "the pleasures of living", and sleeps behind his booth, in another tiny room, with four other men. He opens the door and allows me to peek in, but when I ask to enter, he baulks. "No, please," he says, apologetically. "It is ... for me."
Privacy, I think. Finally, something more valuable than gold.
When David told me that illegal miners had been shot by PJV security, I'd assumed he was exaggerating. But as we approach the perimeter fence we spot a small group of people, four or five men, about 300 metres away. They are already inside the mine and are being pursued by a yellow security car. The closer the car gets, the faster the men run, arms pumping, legs swinging, until they reach the edge the pit, where they leap right off.
The boys start laughing. They jumped in! That's a 30-foot drop! They probably broke their legs! As we watch, a man gets out of the security car, walks to the edge of the pit, and pauses. Then comes the sound of two shots - pop! pop! (Barrick later tells me that only tear gas had been fired.)
The shots seem to sober up the boys, who suddenly appear less keen to go inside the mine. Nevertheless, when we reach the fence, they start walking along it, probing for weaknesses. The fence is a formidable structure, 9.5 kilometres long and three metres high, topped with razor wire and overlooked every two or three hundred metres by prison-style security towers. Still, this hasn't stopped illegal miners, 90,000 of whom have entered the site since 2006, according to Barrick. (The company claims 300 illegal miners have been injured in clashes with security since 2006, but that no one has been killed.)
One of the reasons the fence hasn't stopped incursions is because, for reasons best known to Barrick, it doesn't have foundations, meaning intruders simply dig underneath it. You see evidence of this everywhere - hastily scooped-out depressions, just big enough for a malnourished miner to squeeze under. Some of these holes have been discovered by security and plugged with cement, but many haven't. When we come to one that hasn't, two of the boys get down on the ground and wriggle under, while David keeps watch. Once on the other side, the boys sprint for a mound of rubble about 100 metres away, where they pause, peek over, then turn tail and sprint back. "Security!" they mutter, squeezing under the fence. A moment later, a security vehicle appears from behind the mound, slowing down as they spot us.
Since our presence has been detected, the boys decide to head home. But we must hurry, since even on this side of the fence security can detain us. (According to locals, an illegal miner named Andaya Angaleya was shot dead by PJV security in 2011, in the village of Wangima, which borders the mine.) And so we crouch and trot along the fence line.
Just before we hit the road back to Kumbipara, however, the boys race into the bush, where they bang about in the undergrowth, looking, I presume, for a hiding place. Shit, I think, security! Should I also be hiding? I'm just about to dive into the bush when David looks back and laughs. It was a bat, he says. They thought they had spotted a bat. Apparently they're quite delicious.
Every gold-rush town needs a strongman, a power broker, someone who connects the dots and keeps the peace. In Porgera, that man is Mark Ekepa. Ekepa is head of the Porgera Landowners Association (PLA), a group that, along with the Porgera Alliance, campaigns to highlight Barrick's shortcomings, sending delegates to the company's AGM in Toronto to ask embarrassing questions about its environmental and human rights record. (Barrick has made itself an easy target in this regard: when allegations of gang rape by PJV security guards surfaced in 2011, chairman Peter Munk said little could be done because in PNG gang rape was "a cultural habit".)
Ekepa doesn't like journalists, since the last one to visit wrote about how he regularly misappropriated royalties intended for landowners (something Ekepa denies), and how in 1996 he had shot his father point blank in the head during a public argument over mine compensation (something he also denies). But since all Ekepa is doing when I visit the PLA offices is smoking Pall Mall menthols on the balcony, it's hard for him not to talk to me. "Resettlement is the biggest issue we have," he says. "Barrick says they've paid to resettle 900 households, but where? I can't see all these new houses."
He also mentions Wangima, a village that was "torched" by police in 2009, at the behest, he says, of the company, which considered it a breeding ground for illegal miners. He then tells me how the company employs paid informants, or "secret agents" - different to Barrick's community relations officers - to spy on the local community (the company denies this). When I ask how he knows this, Ekepa says his brother is a secret agent. "But I don't hate him for it," he smirks. "He is working for his bread and butter."
I list the benefits of the mine - employment, royalties, training opportunities, the fact that Barrick has spent millions building roads, schools and health clinics, but Ekepa remains silent. Finally, one of his offsiders steps in to answer: "We don't want the mine to go away, we just want it to be mutually beneficial."
The next morning I visit David again, to say goodbye. A steady drizzle has combined with the fog to plunge Kumbipara into a Stygian gloom. Cooking fires burn in a few shacks, but the village is largely still, grey and wet.
David's home is made of tree trunks and bits of cardboard. The roof is patched with plastic bags. David lives here with his six brothers and two sisters. (Their parents died years ago.) Inside, it's eye-wateringly smoky thanks to a cooking fire that burns constantly. When I ask what they eat, he says, "Rice. If we have some money, we buy kau kau [sweet potato] down at the Station."
I ask to see his room, which is barely two metres square, with hessian bags and straw on the floor. There's a wooden cot with a blanket on it, and, next to his pillow, a box of personal possessions: old batteries, a bag of nails, an empty tube of toothpaste, chunks of rock, a broken iPhone. There's also a smashed perfume bottle. "I got it off the tip," he tells me.
Amazingly, David doesn't seem angry, but I think that is because he doesn't have the energy for it, and has largely given up on the idea of things being better. If anything, he seems more bewildered than indignant. "Barrick say you are trespassing," I say. "Besides, it's all so difficult here. Why don't you find another place to live?"
"Another place?" he says. "I've already moved from Yarik. This is my second place, here. I don't want a third place."
And, of course, this is where the gold is.
I give him a packet of biscuits, thank him and leave. Outside, the fog is burning off and the mud begins steaming in the first rays of the sun.