PNG’s mega Porgera gold mine just reopened — so why is the government sending in police and military forces?

PNG’s mega Porgera gold mine just reopened — so why is the government sending in police and military forces?

Just months after the grand reopening of the Porgera gold mine, Papua New Guinea’s government has approved a joint military and police operation to crack down on illegal mining and remove “squatters” at the site.

But concerns are emerging of what might happen when security forces attempt to move on the swelling population of illegal miners armed with “high-powered firearms”.

The move by PNG’s government follows dramatic footage from earlier this year, in which hundreds of people are seen being chased out of the mine in the middle of the night.

The Porgera gold and silver mine was shut in 2020, but has been reopened after the PNG Government secured a 51 per cent share. (ABC News: Tim Swanston)

The number of illegal miners — described by police as squatters — is no surprise to landowner groups, with alluvial mining taking place at the enormous pit and its waste dumps for decades.

Late last week, Police Commissioner David Manning issued a bold ultimatum, giving the “illegal squatters” 48 hours to leave — a deadline that expired early this week.

In announcing the massive security operation, Prime Minister James Marape said there had been an “extraordinary increase of illegal miners encroaching into the mine area”.

The government has its own significant interest in the mine pit, holding a 51 per cent stake in the ownership.

‘There’s no easy way out’, police say

The lucrative gold mine, which had been operating for decades and averaged 10 per cent of the country’s annual export revenue, was shut down in 2020 after the licence wasn’t renewed.

What followed was years of negotiations between the mine’s operator, Barrick Niugini Limited (BNL), landowners, the provincial authority, and the government, which wanted a larger stake under a “take back PNG” agenda.

The mine has for many years come with significant, unresolved issues, including the need to resettle landowners who live close by.

The mine had been operating for decades but was shut down in 2020 after the licence wasn’t renewed.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

In recent decades, the population around the pit has grown considerably, through a combination of births, marriages and people looking for economic opportunity.

This includes migrants — or “illegal squatters” that the government argues aren’t traditional landowners — who are living in settlements near the mine pit.

Many of those who live nearby do some form of alluvial mining, and often get past fences into the pit under the cover of darkness.

A video that emerged in February shows hundreds of people, with head torches, working in the pit.

Loud bangs can be heard, assumed to be security forces firing projectiles near the “squatters”.

Porgera Police Station Commander, Chief Superintendent Martin Kelei, said police have found it difficult to manage this growing population, because many are there with the consent of landowners.

“When we try and do anything, they have consent from the landowners here to be around the locality of the mine,” he said.

“The illegal mining problem has existed for the last 30 years … there’s no easy way out to address the situation.

“People go in and they get 30 to 40-thousand [kina] ($8,000-$10,500) worth of gold, it’s so much money.

“They continuously are going back in, even though they’re arrested … they get out of prison and they’re back in the pit.”

In a statement, Police Commissioner David Manning said “additional security forces” would be sent to enforce the notice to leave.

“Follow consultation … police have no other option to remove the illegal squatters who are threatening peace and good order,” he said.

“With the recommencement of mining operations, these illegal squatters have increased their disruptive and dangerous behaviours, and it is no longer fair for the communities and businesses of Porgera Valley to suffer from such dangerous, disruptive and illegal behaviour.”

The Porgera mine first opened in 1989 and became one of the most productive low-cost gold mines in the world.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

Superintendent Kelei said in recent weeks illegal miners had shot and killed each other, with one tribal group armed with “high-powered firearms”.

Police, illegal miners and some landowners have been in conflict before. People have been shot and killed during the past decade, and in 2014 police drew condemnation from Amnesty International for burning down homes in a crack down on illegal miners.

The mine’s operator, BNL, said it had no comment about the imminent police operation.

‘Porgera is overcrowded’

It’s understood up to several hundred police officers and soldiers have been approved to go into Porgera under the “police and military operation”.

Landowners, like Rocky Tupia, say while they’re concerned about the number of settlers, they are also worried about what will happen when security forces move them on.

“There are just so many illegal miners in Porgera as we speak, most are coming in from tribal conflict provinces, seeking gold for money,” Mr Tupia said.

“These illegal miners are armed … the security surrounding the mine, they can see from their surveillance camera how powerful the weapons they have are, and are afraid to even chase them away.”

Managing the swelling population is an issue for the government given its considerable stake in the mine.

It also inherits the decades-old issue of resettlement, after landowners weren’t moved away from the mine pit and waste dumps following its initial opening.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape at the first pouring of gold from the reopened Porgera Mine in February.(Supplied: PNG Department of Prime Minister and National Executive Council)

Mr Marape said he wanted to introduce identification cards for landowners, to help security forces manage the local population.

While that move is supported by many, it’ll be a considerable task, given the challenges involved with landowner identification in PNG.

In the meantime, some landowners are concerned that without identification, they could be targeted in the looming police operation.

“I feel we need to resettle the landowners in the special mining lease area before dealing with other issues like restoring services and security,” Mr Tupia said.

“Many residents in Porgera have moved out of the district due to the lack of basic services.”

Jenny Kopi, chair of the Porgera Joint Venture’s Family Sexual Violence Unit, said she wanted to see police and defence in the region in greater numbers.

“Porgera is now overcrowded and the risk of having so many illegal miners and settlers is now making it quite risky for our mothers and young girls to move around,” she said.

“There is no power supply and many of our women depend on collecting firewood to cook for their families.

“Right now they don’t feel safe in doing this anymore because of the high number of people in the surroundings.”

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