The Sepik River basin in Papua New Guinea is an area of outstanding biological and cultural diversity, but a new mining venture now threatens the local population and their environment.
The Sepik River meanders through the tropical forests of New Guinea, flowing north from its source in the Victor Emanuel Mountains and briefly into Indonesia before turning East and flowing for 900km to the Bismarck Sea on Papua New Guinea’s northern coast. At 1,100km, the river system is the longest in New Guinea and the traditional existences of the 430,000 people that inhabit a watershed the size of Scotland mean that the Sepik river basin remains a sanctuary for cultural and biological diversity.
The Sepik river itself is the second most biodiverse in Papua New Guinea, holding 57 species of freshwater fish as well as both Saltwater and New Guinea crocodiles. The river basin also has an incredibly rich tropical rainforest in its middle and upper regions, whilst a system of wetlands and lakes predominate in its lower course. For example, West Sepik holds the richest mammalian diversity in Australasia, with as many as 120 species identified (1), whilst the region is also a hotspot for reptile and amphibian species, with 61 species of lizard found in the Sepik-Ramu basin and 44 species of frog (2). As with much of the flora and fauna native to the Island of New Guinea there is also a high level of endemism amongst the species of the Sepik River Basin, however it is surely the unique nature of the life found here which is its most remarkable feature, with the distinctions that set these species aside not merely reflecting small aberrations, but incredible evolutionary divergences. Indeed, many of these species seem to belong in the fantastical etchings of a school notebook, but in Papua New Guinea they are brought to life on a remarkable canvas, a true testament to the majesty and splendour of the natural world. This Sepik River Basin too remains a region of undiscovered biological riches, with many of its species surely known only to its indigenous inhabitants, if at all.
The Sepik region is not only noted for its biological jewels but also for the cultural heritage and diversity it harbours. Communities line the banks of the river, and as it is to the region’s ecology, the river is central to the cultures of these communities, something encapsulated in the adage; “the river is our mother and our father”. Indeed, here nature and culture are intertwined, with many traditions centring on the river and its associated biodiversity. The Sepik region is particularly regarded for its indigenous art and carvings, and the astonishing intricacy of the spirit houses or “haus tambaran” where village matters are debated. Whilst numerous fauna and flora are also integral to the Sepik cultures, the crocodile is perhaps the most central, and it is believed that there are close ancestral ties to it, with many tribes sharing the ritual of scarring male bodies to emulate the crocodiles’ scales (3). These rituals and traditions are symptomatic of the symbiotic relationship which has evolved between the Sepik people and their environment, and the conservation of the Sepik river and these communities’ cultural heritage is thus intimately linked.
However, whilst the cultural and biological integrity of the Sepik River Basin have remained largely protected, there are now fears that a new large-scale mining operation at the headwaters of the Frieda River, a tributary of the Sepik, may threaten this delicate equilibrium. The Frieda mine is an 80:20 joint venture between PanAust and Highlands Pacific, although the Papua New Guinean Government will have the option to attain at cost a 30% stake in the mine, and at this moment in time the Government remains committed to its development (4). Communities along the river banks, and Synchronicity Earth partner the Bismarck Ramu Group (BRG) are however concerned about the prospect of polluted water spilling or overflowing from its storage reservoir and into the surrounding environment and river system, particularly in the case of high rainfall or a seismic event (5); although the mining company say that overflows will be treated to meet international standards (6). Another key concern for the Sepik people is that the mine’s operation will lead to a significant increase in river traffic, with heavy industrial barges traversing the river. They fear this will act not only as a source of pollution, but that it will also accelerate river bank erosion, a key issue for many Sepik communities given the reliance on riverside ‘gardens’ for subsistence agriculture. Evidence from other parts of the world also shows that mining can often be associated with other forms of environmental harm such as an intensification in hunting, increased collection of non-timber forest products and the use and abuse of freshwater ecosystems (7).
Such fears reflect not only concerns about this specific project, but are also are a legacy of previous experiences of the Papua New Guinean population with large scale mining. A notable example is the Ok Tedi Mine, at the headwaters of the Ok Tedi River, a tributary to the Fly River running south from the Star Mountains in central Papua New Guinea to the Gulf of Papua. The mine was constructed in 1984, originally on the proviso that there was a dam to prevent tailings from the mine leaching into the river system (8). However when a landslide removed the dam, the mining company were allowed to continue their operations without building a new one, and the consequences of this for the people and biodiversity of the river system have been profound (8). For example WWF cites that 30,000 people living to the south of the mine have been adversely affected, and the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) reported that by the early 1990s the first 70km of the river was almost biologically dead, and that in the next 130km species diversity had been dramatically affected (8). The fact environmental legislation has in such cases not been strongly enforced heightens the Sepik communities’ fears that the same fate will befall them, and that the best practices promised by industry will not be applied.
In response to the potential threats that the mine poses to the local population and their surrounding environment, the civil society group; ‘the Sepik Free The River and Our Lives’ (SFTROL) has formed comprising of representatives from most of the villages along the Sepik river and the lakes in East Sepik (the river’s lower course) which could be impacted by the mine. It is totally against riverine tailings disposal and the mine’s operation as it remains unconvinced about the procedures set-out for waste disposal in the Mine’s Inception Report. BRG is working with the SFTROL to raise awareness amongst communities in the Sepik River Basin over the mine’s potential implications and the procedures through which they can have their concerns heard. Thus far SFTROL has filed an objection notice with the Registrar of Tenements of the Mineral Resources Authority, whose job it is to regulate mining operations in the country and they are also generating awareness in Wewak, the provincial capital of East Sepik.
BRG holds an alternative vision of development for Papua New Guinea, one where its natural environment is not traded for foreign investment, but where its resources are used sustainably to increase the wellbeing of its people in a way which does not compromise the natural environment or their cultural heritage. In the case of the Frieda mine’s development, one can only hope that their voices of the Sepik people are given adequate consideration and that the cultural and biological value of the Sepik and Frieda river basins are not discounted in the name of economic development.