Mining in New Guinea

Trouble stirs in the highlands

For cash-strapped governments that are stuck in debt, the mining sector represents a relatively easy way to meet their deficits through royalties, taxes and other benefits.
Around the world, governments have often brokered very beneficial deals with corporations to entice them to set-up extraction sites on their territory.

If only this was all there was to it. Too frequently, mining corporations leave substantial environmental and social damage in their wake, with impacts on surrounding ecosystems and communities.

What is happening and why

A WWF/IUCN study identified the ecoregions in New Guinea as some of the world’s most threatened by mining. Seven of the 9 New Guinea ecoregions are considered under threat.

Papua New Guinea mining…

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), the mining industry is by far the largest source of revenue for the country. It is also the second largest employer and a significant contributor to the development of rural infrastructure. But there’s another side to the coin: extractive operations are major polluters of the country’s waterways and marine systems, along with the species they support.

…and the Indonesian context

On the Indonesian side of the island, mining also represents a source of considerable revenue. Governmental incentives have been put in place to explore the eastern provinces, boosted by Freeport’s 1988 discovery of the giant Grasberg gold mining site in Papua Province.

Indonesia’s laws give more control over financial and resource matters to provincial and local governments. But modifications to the 2001 Special Autonomy Law has denied Papua Province a share of corporate taxes, which represents by far the largest chunk of annual payments.a

This has just added to existing strains between the under-developed province and Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, thousands of kilometres away.  

The mining footprint

Mining primarily affects freshwater and coastal ecosystems, although there is additional disturbance of land and forests.  During the exploration stage, impacts can include road building, forest clearance, temporary settlements, trenching and drilling.  

Once extraction has begun, further impacts may include open pit mines, cyanide leaching pads, small-scale mining with mercury, tailings dams, settlements, increased agriculture, logging and hunting.1

Impacts: the costs of extraction

  • Mining site establishment
    Mining exploration, excavation and facilities make impacts on small areas of land. However, forest clearance and resettlement can occur across areas of up to 4,000 ha.
  • Riverine disposal
    Tailings - the waste left over after removing the gangue (non-target material) from ore - and discarded waste rock can have significant impacts on riverine systems. Pollutants can cause localized fish kills, die-back of riverine vegetation and poisoning of the land, wildlife, and people that use the river.
  • Marine disposal
    Tailings can be carried down under the sea through pipes, to depths where the waste is unlikely to well up to the surface and the coast. Although the impacts of this kind of disposal are not well understood, ocean and coastal environments remain at risk from tailings.
  • Acid rock drainage
    Sulphide minerals which decompose in active or abandoned mines may react with water to produce acidic outflows or “acid mine drainage”.  These can then react with other rocks to cause further problems, including acidification of surface or ground water and contamination of water with toxic heavy metals.  Once started, acid mine drainage is very difficult and expensive to stop.
  • Mercury use
    Commonly used to separate gold in alluvial mining, mercury is often lost into streams and soil, with the potential to poison humans and contaminate water.
  • Impacts on biodiversity
    Although there is no direct evidence that mining activities are threatening species with extinction, evidence shows that close to some mines, there have been severe reductions in fish populations.  

A closer look at…

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aAsia Times. March 23, 2006. Papuan anger focuses on world's richest mine.
1 Ballard C. 2001. Human Rights and the Mining Sector in Indonesia: A Baseline Study. IIED. Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development, No 182. 53 pp.

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