Papua New Guinea is home to some of the most biodiverse habitats in the world and is rich in natural resources. Having the third largest gold reserves in the world, it has attracted large amounts of investments into mining. Among them is the Lihir mining operation which is one of the two biggest mines in the country . The mine has been operated by Lihir Gold Ltd. and is currently owned by Australian miner Newcrest (see project details). The mine is located on Lihir island, New Ireland Province.
Prior to the arrival of the mine, indigenous residents in the area largely depended on subsistence agriculture and fishing. The first mining explorations started in the early 1980s and were followed by several feasibility studies and negotiations between local landowners, the company and the state. Negotiations over the development of the mine, benefits distribution and impact mitigation were finalized in 1995. The agreement was signed on March 17th, 1995 (, see also project details).
During the planning phase, many social problems were anticipated. They included issues such as unequal income distribution, influx of outsiders, tensions between community members, project dependency and the like . While compared to other mining projects in the region, substantial efforts were undertaken to consider these problems, some argued they were largely reduced to issues of compensation. A proper communication processes between the different stakeholders was however missing. Many of the initial concerns and considerations of how to handle them were not adequately taken up into the mining development plan, which some termed a “shotgun marriage” between the company and the community, overseen by the state .
Large concerns over both social and environmental impacts emerged with the development of the mine. Regarding environmental issues, the mining activities heavily disturbed the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of the island, particularly through waste disposal into rivers and the ocean. The Lihir mine manages waste in 3 ways; dumping of waste rocks into the sea, submarine tailings deposition (STD), and stockpiling of low-grade ores for later processing. While STD is very harmful for the ocean, it is cheaper than alternatives. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted in 1992 argued that improved tailing management would be technically possible to reduce environmental impacts, but the company decided to forego these measures for financial reasons and because they were not compulsory in the country. Also, deals with the government were made to exempt the mine if stronger environmental restrictions would be applied in the country .
Consequently, coral reefs suffered massively under the dumping of million of tons of waste rock into the ocean. The post-processing waste has been directly channelled into the sea through STD techniques. The mine’s environmental management plan admitted that this will raise cyanide and heavy metals concentrations in the sea, which can accumulate through the food chain. (Cyanide is used in the gold extraction process). Smothering of massive areas of sea-floor with toxic tailings is another detrimental impact . A study in Nature assessing the impacts of 15 years of deep-see tailing from the Lihir mine placement found a substantial reduction of in-sediment infauna and changes in higher taxon community structures . Such environmental impacts can also have strong social and economic dimensions, because traditional communities depend on the environment for their livelihoods. Fears of changes in fish populations commonly harvested by local people had been voiced .
The social impacts have also been far reaching. Residents had to be displaced for the mining development. Migration has become a problematic issue. Many locals have suffered from the enormous influx of people from outside and the changing relations in the community. The broader social impacts from this have included community tensions, violence, alcohol and drug issues . Disputes about compensation and benefits distribution turned into a key cause of conflict between the company and locals [2;5;6;7].
Concerns and disputes have been commonly expressed by the community using taboo markers called “gorgors”, placed at the mining site. Gorgos are traditional markers made from ginger plants that represent a customary and non-violent grievance mechanism. In the case of the Lihir mine, both the company and the community accepted the use of the gorgor as grievance mechanism and could avoid more violent confrontations, as seen with other mining projects in the region. While this dispute handling mechanism is commonly used in villages, it is less commonly employed when multinational companies or the state are involved. Over the last ten years, the use of the gorgor has rather escalated, showing the many tensions and frustrations between landowners and the gold mine . In many occasions, it has led to the suspension of the mining activities [5;7].
For example, in 2012 disputes emerged over a compensation and benefit packages to be provided by Newcrest mining [c]. Mining was stopped due to protests of the local landowner association LMALA (Lihir Mining Area Landowners’ Association), who placed the traditional taboo markers around the mining site . A similar event occurred in June 2015, when the mine was shut down due to gorgor placements. The local landowners argued that the Integrated benefits package was still pending revision since 2012 and moreover, concerns over environmental issues had emerged in the community. This time, the government responded to these protests by sending a heavily armed police squat to re-open the mine .
As of late 2017, mining activities continue, as do the tensions surrounding the mine. Recently, new conflicts over royalties emerged between the company, the provincial and the national government .