[Documents menu]History of Papua New Guinea and occupied West PNG
Date: Thu, 31 Aug 1995 23:09:15 GMT
Sender: Activists Mailing List <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.missouri.edu>
Subject: Papua New Guinea: Ok Tedi: BHP's "Kiss of death"
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From: the guardian <guardian@peg.apc.org>

BHP's kiss of death

By Tom Pearson, in the Guardian (Sydney)
30 August 1995

The more the Broken Hill Proprietory (BHP), [Australia's big and ugly transnational corporation] tries to cover its tracks from trampling on human rights at its Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, the more mess it creates for itself. Ok Tedi landowners could be prevented from suing BHP for the mine's pollution of their land and river system if legislation is passed in the PNG Parliament in September. It has been revealed that the legislation, which contains an agreement between BHP and the PNG Government, was drawn up by BHP's lawyers.

The agreement provides that any person in PNG taking legal action against BHP will be fined $100,000, and $10,000 for each day the "offense" continues. It contains a compensation package of $110 million to be paid to PNG citizens affected by the pollution in the region of the mine but this will severely limit and control any additional compensation payments.

Lawyers for the landowners, Slater & Gordon, have revealed that the word processing directory reference on both the Bill to go to Parliament and the agreement which is included in the Bill, are those of solicitors working with BHP's lawyers.

Nick Styant-Browne from Slater & Gordon said that this confirmed that BHP's lawyers had drawn up the Bill on BHP's instructions.

"We have referred the matter to the Australian Securities Commission for investigation of a possible breach of Companies and Securities legislation relating to misstatements by company officers...", said Mr Styant-Browne.

The Chief Parliamentary Draftsman in PNG is quoted in the PNG press as denying any knowledge of the legislation. Mr Styant- Browne said that the only other explanation for BHP's lawyers drafting the Bill was "unthinkable" -- that the PNG Government had instructed them to draft the Bill.

He said this would have "created an impossible conflict of interest", being asked to prepare legislation which affects BHP and at the same time owing fiduciary duty to BHP to safeguard the company's rights and interests.

"The only realistic explanation is that BHP instructed its lawyers to draw the Bill containing the criminal provisions which offend every basic premise and principle of human and democratic rights", said Mr Styant-Browne.

More dirty footprints appeared last week when the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) accused BHP of influencing Australian Government aid funding expenditure.

Dr Helen Rosenbaum, ACF's Policy Analyst, said that the Department of Foreign Affairs, AusAID and Minister Bilney appeared to have bowed to pressure from BHP in a decision to not fund a proposal for a community awareness project in PNG.

The project involves a series of community workshops to be conducted in remote areas of PNG. "The objective of the workshops is to raise understanding of villagers about the impacts of mining", said Dr Rosenbaum, "so that they have access to full information when making a decision about whether to allow or not allow mining companies access to their land.

"The idea is to fill in the side of the picture that the mining companies choose to leave out when approaching landholders in PNG."

The ACF has documentation which indicates that BHP has been deliberately attempting to damage the reputation of the ACF and has been actively misinforming Australian Government officials about the Foundation's activities. The proposal for the project was submitted 10 months ago but the government has still made no decision.

"It appears that BHP has succeeded in influencing AusAID despite the fact that the project was evaluated and ranked highly for funding by AusAID's own appraisal panel", Dr Rosenbaum said.

Dr Rosenbaum said it was obvious that BHP resents the scrutiny of its activities at the Ok Tedi mine that groups such as the ACF have subjected it to.

"It is ironic BHP acknowledges and justifies its opposition to the funding [of the project] on the basis that the project will not contribute to the ecological development of PNG. I would like to ask them how the discharge of more than 80,000 tonnes of untreated tailings waste directly into what used to be a pristine river system, contributes to ecological sustainable development."

At a public forum in the Western Province of PNG on August 18, the people whose rights are being trampled, the Ok Tedi landowners, demanded that the company pay them compensation, including back payments since the mine started. They also called for a dam to be built to take the mine's yearly 80,000 tonnes of waste tailings instead of continuing to dump it in the Fly and Ok Tedi Rivers.

The forum was part of the Women Para-Legal Training Workshop organised by community groups in the Western Province where the mine is located.

"We totally support the court case pursued by our Australian lawyers, Slater and Gordon [in the Victorian Supreme Court]", said forum spokesperson Aniwa Sasuwa, "and we strongly reject the proposed compensation payment ... [to be paid] over the life of the mine.

"We will pursue our issue democratically by using the courts. We assure Slater and Gordon, BHP and the PNG Government that we are serious that justice is done."

One forum member called BHP's compensation package the kiss of death. "It is a kiss of death of our rights to claim fair compensation under the law of damage", she said. "It is totally irrational and unconstitutional."

Meanwhile Australian mineworkers are defending the rights of PNG landowners. The Mining & Energy Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) representing over 5,000 employees of BHP Ltd has called upon the company to lift its game with regard to the Ok Tedi project in Papua New Guinea. The union warned that BHP employees in Australia expect BHP to respect the civil and political rights of people in all countries it operates in.

A national meeting in Sydney on August 24-25 of delegates from BHP mining operations across Australia expressed its concern over the "appalling" environmental practices at Ok Tedi which "reflect badly on the supposed commitment of the company to good environmental management."

Tony Maher, Vice-President of the Mining and Energy Division of the union, said "the move by the company in conjunction with the PNG Government to remove the common law rights of affected people to seek compensation is a draconian act that shows scant regard for human rights.

"If BHP is prepared to do this in PNG, simply because the government there condones or encourages such practices, what does that say about BHP's real attitudes to its employees and the community anywhere else, including here in Australia?

"If BHP really means what is says about best practice in environmental management, community and industrial relations it will abandon its current stance and move rapidly to lift its game at Ok Tedi. This must include respecting the rights of people to seek compensation", concluded Mr Maher.

Tom Pearson is a staff writer for "The Guardian"

Published in "The Guardian", newspaper of the Socialist Party of Australia in its issue of Wednesday, August 30th, 1995.

Contact address: 65 Campbell Street, Surry Hills. Sydney. 2010 Australia.
Fax: 612 281 5795.
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