Violence escalating at notorious mine co-owned by Canadian company, locals say
New reports of violence are emerging from a notorious Papua New Guinea gold mine co-owned by Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold.
In the early morning hours of March 25, local police funded by the mine entered a settlement near the Porgera Joint Venture mine and burned down a number of houses. During the raid, police officers allegedly gang raped as many as eight women, and assaulted six men, according to local human rights group the Akali Tange Association.
Twenty-eight year old Sepelyn Puka told VICE News in a Skype interview that she was raped by three police officers at gunpoint and her house was burned down. Two men told VICE News their dwellings were also burned down. One of them said he witnessed a girl who looked about 16 years old being gang raped by police.
The reports come on the heels of another alleged incident, on March 20, in which a police squad that was patrolling the mine’s dump site stripped three women naked and gang raped them in broad daylight.
Although the issue has gained little attention in Canadian media, reports of violence near the mine, which is also owned by Chinese Zijin Mining Group, are all too common. Barrick has compensated more than 130 women after they were raped by security guards and police, but some claim the compensation was miniscule. Papua New Guinea has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world: Almost 65 percent of women reported that their partners physically forced them to have intercourse, according to one 2010 study. And while the lucrative mine extracts gold, those around the mine live in “slum-like conditions,” a lawyer studying the issue told VICE News.
One of them said he witnessed a girl who looked about 16 years old being gang raped by police.
Barrick Gold Corporation, headquartered on Bay Street in downtown Toronto, says its mine has launched a formal inquiry into what it calls “concerning allegations,” but in a subsequent email a company spokesperson said they don’t have the authority to investigate police. The company acknowledges that for years the mine has provided support for police operating nearby in exchange for them keeping law and order. It says the Independent Observer of Porgera Police Operations has launched an investigation into the March 25 incident. In an email, Barrick Gold spokesman Andy Lloyd said “at this stage, the information we have suggests [the police action] was lawful.”
It is not clear whether the company or police are investigating the March 20 rape allegations.
Those on the ground say no one in the village was warned of the eviction and are now asking whether the mining company knew the raid was coming.
Barrick says mine management had no involvement or prior knowledge of the police operation. Police searches had found “drugs and other evidence of criminal activity in the make-shift structures,” the company says. Police warned people they would be evicted, and the operation was “conducted under warrants issued by the Porgera District Court,” it claims. The company declined to provide the warrants, saying they did not have copies.
Barrick also disputes the Akali Tange Association claims that police burned down 150 homes, counter claiming that aerial photos show only 18 houses had been destroyed.
In a letter dated March 26, the Akali Tange Association argued management at the mine have a responsibility to stop the abuse because they provide food, accommodations and fuel to police in exchange for protection of the gold mine.
“The escalating human rights violation is going from bad to worse including forced evictions, rapes, shootings and beatings.”
“The escalating human rights violation is going from bad to worse including forced evictions, rapes, shootings and beatings,” McDiyan Robert Yapari, executive officer of the Akali Tange Association, wrote. “The history of abuses at the Porgera Joint Venture mine is too long. We used to think the situation was getting better, but it is very bad now.”
Yapari said a police officer involved in the raid had told him the mining company had ordered them to burn down the houses. “We are here working for money and if we don’t follow orders, we will not be paid our daily allowances,” he says the officer told him.
It’s the third time since 2009 that police have burned down the houses of people living on a “special mining lease” area of land that the Papua New Guinea government allows the gold mine to operate on.
During a similar eviction in 2009, police allegedly raped three women, according to Amnesty International interviews on the ground. In that case, according to the human rights group, the police were cracking down on locals trespassing in the open pit mine to steal gold.
Sarah Knuckey, a Columbia University lawyer who has investigated violence at the Porgera Joint Venture for years, says the company has a responsibility under human rights law to prevent abuses linked to the mine.
“The allegations raise serious concerns about Barrick’s oversight of a police force with a long record of abuse in the country,” she told VICE News. “How effective is Barrick’s oversight if it didn’t know that the police were launching a major aggressive operation to destroy a village inside the mine’s lease area?”
“Canadians would be shocked to see how families there are living.”
“Canadians would be shocked to see how families there are living, and appalled to compare those conditions with the wealth that is extracted,” she continued. “The conditions and violence must, and will, change. Porgeran men and women will continue to advocate until they do.”
Both Knuckey and the Akali Tange Association are calling on the mine to immediately suspend funding to the police units involved, make future funding contingent on police agreeing to not conduct violent evictions, compensate any victims for loss of property, and address previous complaints of inadequate compensation.
Barrick says the Porgera Joint Venture mine “will consider any requests for humanitarian assistance that may arise from the police operation.” However Lloyd, Barrick’s spokesman, said the police presence in the valley is there at the request of community leaders and landowners in response to illegal activities, and removing police could actually increase violence in the area. The company says support to police is contingent on them receiving training and adhering to both local and international law.
Cover: James Wangia