In 2006–2007, Teddy Kisch established an information resource center that informed local communities about environmental damage on the Fly River in Papua New Guinea. Below he assesses to what degree he was able to help the local people and how this experience contributed to his own personal and professional growth. For more information, see Teddy’s Stronach Prize Report.
Assessing the Ok Tedi Mine's legacy
The mine operated by Ok Tedi Mining, Ltd. is in the remote Star Mountains. Meeting the Fly River below Kiunga, the Ok Tedi River flows through the expansive Middle Fly floodplain, meeting with the Strickland River before emptying into the Gulf of Papua. Since opening in 1984, the Ok Tedi mine has dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of pulverized rock waste into the Ok Tedi and Fly River system each day. This disposal method has wrought havoc on the receiving riverine environment and the lives of over 50,000 indigenous people who live along its banks. The mine’s importance to the national economy, however, has made the river into a zone sacrificed for economic development elsewhere. Currently, the mine plans to decommission by 2013; but the environmental damage it has caused will last a few hundred years at least. Very few structures have been put in place to help affected communities live with the long-term social and environmental impact of the mine.
Times are changing in Western Province as in all of Papua New Guinea. The rapid introduction of Western society and technology has brought “civilization” into the most remote corners of the country. In even the most distant villages, you can watch pirated American movies on Indonesian DVD players. The age of isolation is coming to an end, and the word on everyone’s lips is “development.” Development is perhaps the most common word in PNG, yet its vague meaning refers to hundreds of different definitions and expectations. To some, development means entirely abandoning village life in favor of modern city life. To others, it means access to improved health care, food, and education. In all cases, however, it is unclear what it will really look like, who will be responsible for it, and exactly how it will happen.
Like the nation itself, individual communities are experiencing rapid change. A new generation is growing up in the Ok Tedi mining era and many are too young to remember what the river and forests were like before the mine. The youth are anxious to join fast-paced city life and often feel unhappy about remaining in the village. As traditional clan structures have weakened, youth crime and teen pregnancy have increased drastically. In response, most people cite the need for basic education, however, the educational system offers few benefits to these children. Aside from basic enrichment, it cannot provide well-paying job opportunities for everyone in the growing population. The result is that many children have lost knowledge of the natural world and how to support themselves in the natural environment. This has been a factor in the mass migration of people to the towns and cities in search of paying jobs.
In villages along the Fly River, environmental damage has made sago very difficult to get, while changing tastes have made white rice the staple food of choice. The people have been scared to eat fish from the river because of pollution, and although a number of reports state that the fish are safe to eat, the contamination is perceived to be high. Villagers ask a valid question: “How can we be certain since others have been wrong before?” In the Middle Fly, however, there is little choice but to eat the fish despite these concerns. At one village, the villagers showed me a fish with a disease and/or coloring that they’d never seen before. Whether or not there was actually something wrong with this fish was beside the point. Ultimately, the fish was not eaten because of health concerns. This example shows one of the many ways the environment is changing around them.
Citing uncertainty about their changing environment, people often came to me with questions about safety and contamination that I could not (and did not try to) answer. They asked about the level of contaminants in the water, if certain sores could be attributed to swimming in the river, or even if some person’s actions were caused by river pollution. Although some studies have indicated that the river still has plenty of fish for people to eat, most communities note that the number of fish has gone down dramatically. It takes a tremendous amount of harvest to get enough fish to feed one family and all the extended relations who are entitled to a portion of the catch …
To date, two major issues have confronted mine operation at Ok Tedi: (1) accountability and responsibility for the long-term social and environmental damage; and (2) if and how the affected indigenous communities downstream can live with these damages for their duration. Although the mine is scheduled to close in six years, there has been little to no research on whether or not it is possible for the 50,000 people living along the Ok Tedi-Fly river system to sustain their livelihoods in the post-mine era, and if so, how?
For more information about the project, consult Teddy’s Stronach Prize Report.