Amnesty International has joined a chorus of voices criticizing a
Canadian mining company's operations in Papua New Guinea, accusing it of
supporting police as they burned down more than 100 homes near an
open-pit gold mine.
In a report released Tuesday, Amnesty accused Barrick Gold of supplying accommodations, food and fuel to members of a police and military operation that pushed residents from land where they have lived for generations.
The purge, dubbed Operation Ipili, took place in the Porgera Valley between April and July 2009.
Residents who lost their homes are still without lodging, says the report, titled "Undermining Rights: Forced evictions and police brutality around the Porgera Gold Mine, Papua New Guinea."
Amnesty says those involved in the house fires destroyed 130 buildings -- as well as gardens, livestock and personal belongings -- without warning.
It is asking the Toronto-based mining company to push the island nation's government to investigate what it has called a "gross violation of human rights."
Amnesty also accuses the mine operator of failing to act quickly once the destruction began.
"As soon as (the mine) became aware that the police were burning down people's homes right next door to the mine's facilities, they should have recorded and reported the activity to the Papua New Guinean authorities and urged an investigation," Amnesty's mining and human rights specialist Shanta Martin said in a statement.
"Instead, (the mine) is continuing to support the police, and Barrick has publicly defended the police activity."
Barrick countered that it contacted police as soon as it became aware of the operation and asked them to comply with international human rights principles.
The company criticized Amnesty's research methods, saying Operation Ipili was welcomed by many local residents because the area had become lawless and dangerous.
"In June 2009, approximately 5,000 community members in the valley petitioned the PNG government to extend the police deployment beyond its original timelines," read a Barrick statement.
"(Amnesty International's) assertion that police were solely responsible for the destruction… appears to discount the involvement of individuals or groups that may be motivated by political or financial reasons. These omissions raise serious questions about the adequacy and objectivity of AI's investigation and analysis."
A company spokesman did not accept a CP24.com request for an interview.
Barrick is the largest gold mining company in the world, extracting 7.66 million ounces of the precious metal worldwide in 2008, according to figures posted on its website.
Friction between mine and residents
Amnesty first criticized the mass evictions in a statement released in early May.
After initially slamming the accusations, Barrick later conceded that police destroyed solidly constructed, permanent dwellings – not makeshift shacks used solely by migrants as the company had initially stated.
The springtime operation was the latest episode in years of friction between the mine and area residents, who own a 2.5 per cent share in the operation. Barrick has a 95 per cent stake in the open-pit gold mine, which is known as the Porgera Joint Venture.
Researcher Catherine Coumans, the Asia-Pacific co-ordinator for mine watchdog Mining Watch Canada, visited the area just before the spring raids.
In a January interview with CP24.com, she described homes perched on the side of what is now a mining waste pit and a school located beside a waste pipe coming from inside the mine.
Residents have become increasingly vocal as they petition the company to pay for their relocation, she says.
"These landowners have recently been saying ‘enough is enough. We can't live like this.'"
The Amnesty report comes just months after a New York human rights lawyer testified in the Canadian House of Commons that women believed to be stealing gold from the Papua New Guinea mine were raped by guards.
Sarah Knuckey visited the area to interview affected women and other residents and described her findings to the Foreign Affairs and International Development Committee in November.
"Poverty drives locals to trespass on what is now mine property," she said.
"During one of my trips to PNG in 2006, I witnessed a guard yelling at a local woman that he had raped many women, and he was calling for her to come near him so that he could rape her too."
At the time, Barrick spokesman Vince Borg denied the allegations made in the House of Commons, saying the company would have conducted a full investigation if it believed them to be true.
Bill C-300 would hold mines accountable: MP
Knuckey's appearance was part of the hearing process for Bill C-300, a private member's bill launched by MP John McKay in February 2009.
The bill would bar the Canadian government from supporting mining companies with tarnished human rights or environmental records, as determined by the committee, halting government support and investments made through the Canada Pension Plan.
McKay, MP for Scarborough-Guildwood, says he launched the bill after following the growing concern of mining watchdogs and human rights agencies over many years.
If such a bill were adopted, it would make Canadian mines with clean records the gold standard of the international industry, he told CP24.com in a January interview.
"People do not believe the mining companies and do not believe that there isn't anything wrong," McKay added.
"It's ultimately quite distressing that (mining companies) will spend more on looking like happy campers than they are willing to spend on doing the right thing. In the process, they're also destroying Canada's reputation."
The bill hit a snag when Parliament was suspended in January. A 60-day period for hearings and clause-by-clause analysis will restart when MPs return in March.
McKay says C-300 is unlikely to pass through the now Conservative-dominated Senate, but says it was worth his efforts just to bring the issue before the public eye.
"If this gets royal assent, it will be a Lord's miracle," he said.