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Sumgilbar people in PNG triumph over foreign mining company

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A sandy beach on the North coast of Madang (image supplied)

A mining company's withdrawal from mining sands in Papua New Guinea is a testament to local activism and solidarity, writes Duncan Gabi.

NIUGINI SANDS LIMITED, a Singaporean mining company withdrew its application for an exploration license (EL) to explore and mine 38 kilometres of unique beautiful black sands on the shoreline of Sumgilbar in the Madang province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). 

On 26 February 2021, the Acting Mining Tenement Registrar at the Mineral Resources Authority (MRA), Patrick Monouluk, accepted the withdrawal letter from Niugini Sands Limited for an EL.

Mr Monouluk stated in his letter to Mr Wenceslaus Magun, an environmentalist leading the campaign:

'Pursuant to their request I have today officially withdrew the application from our Register of Mine Tenements dated 26th February at 12.10 noon, the matter now remains closed for all purposes.' 

 Sand mining entered the spotlight in PNG in the middle of 2020 when the company applied to explore and mine sand. The people lacked an understanding of the uses, income, and negative environmental and social impacts of sand mining. 

Luckily, an environmental group in the area called MAKATA carried out educational awareness to the people of Sumglibar on the environment and social impacts of the project. The proposed exploration and sand mining posed an imminent threat to the coastal shoreline, the nesting grounds of endangered turtle species called leatherback and the livelihood of the people.  

 MRA and Niugini Sands did not carry out education and awareness programs with the people on the impacts or benefits of the project. Their consultations were carried out with a few ward councillors and only two per cent of the Sumgilbar population who were to be directly affected.

Therefore, an interim injunction was filed at the Madang National Court by former Chief Justice of PNG, Sir Arnold Amet, who was part of the campaign. The injunction was to order MRA to listen to the peoples' request and conduct more hearings. MRA had earlier rejected the request by the people and had proceeded to submit their reports to the mining advisory council. MRA claimed that they have met all necessary requirements.

This was a violation of human rights of the communities who were denied their right to information and fair hearing under Sections 57, 51 and 59 of PNG’s Constitution

 At the time of the withdrawal of their application for the EL, the company director, Marcus Ong, said: 

“Bad publicity was pivotal in their decision."

He added that information showed the Madang sands were of poor quality, according to Radio New Zealand. Mr Magun responded that the people will not accept the company’s justification for exiting.

Mr Magun added that the company did not consider the views of the people and the negative impacts of the project. Foreign corporations push this narrative when Indigenous peoples reject their activities. 

The unsubstantiated claim of poor sand quality was considered misleading because the company was yet to have carried out exploration to determine the quality. It was interesting in that prior to the resistance, the company was adamant to explore and mine.

 Niugini Sands stated on its Facebook page that:

'It is easy for one to put down and criticise a project simply because it brings about a change which is undesirable in their personal view. We should not always look to oppose the change but rather embrace it.'  

The people used scientific facts and their lived experiences to hold to account their own Government and the company. Not all changes should be embraced, not the kind of change proposed by Niugini Sands.  

 Niugini Sands also stated:

While we recognise that nature, which is something God gave to his people, is to be conserved, it may not be fair for the people of Sumgilbar to be deprived of a better life just because of some comments made by environmentalists, activists or NGOs who do not even reside in that area. Such actions are deemed to be very selfish towards their own fellow countrymen.

Papua New Guineans must not believe that what foreigners think is necessarily the best for them. While the company recognised that God gave nature to be conserved, conservation is not at the top of the company’s priorities. 

Companies also should not define what Indigenous people see, feel and value. On many occasions, Papua New Guineans have seen and heard of these lies by such foreign interests. 

The exit by Niugini Sands from PNG is a remarkable and heartfelt win. This should encourage other groups to join the fight against many such destructive and exploitative, so-called economic development activities in PNG. Mr Magun has been very vocal on this issue since the "get go".

He stood firm to allow the people of Madang, Sir Amet and others to stand alongside him to ensure the fight was taken to the national level. This shows that such a collective concern and sustained activism against foreign corporations who were there to plunder their homes cannot be underestimated.

The battle is far from over. In an interview with Radio New Zealand, Mr Magun said there was an insatiable demand for sand around the world. It is a concern that PNG has no relevant laws to govern the sustainable development of sand. Wenceslaus continued that the Government must develop and have stricter monitoring and enforcement in place should it welcome this industry.

Papua New Guineans must harness the strength of their culture and their Melanesian roots which acknowledges all life forms that dwell with them in their time and spaces. Papua New Guineans are best at sustainable development and conservation. 

The victory of the people of Sumgilbar will inspire those in Sepik, Morobe and across PNG to carry on their challenges to protect their rivers, seas, mountains, rainforests and cultures. The lessons are great, the stories of bravery and solidarity only cements more battles across PNG. 

Duncan Gabi is an environmental activist and campaigner for "Save the Sepik" campaign in PNG.

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Sumgilbar people in PNG triumph over foreign mining company

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