Proposed Gold Mine Threatens Fresh Water in Papua New Guinea
Villagers on Kairiru Island torn between quality of life and potential financial gains
I’ve been visiting Kragur Village on Kairiru Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) as a cultural anthropologist since 1975. Kragur villagers have always been poor in money, but they have land to cultivate, the sea to fish in, and the forest from which to harvest innumerable useful things. They also have a remarkable supply of fresh water of a kind that money can’t buy. Man-made threats to this extraordinary resource, however, are growing.
Photo by Michael French Smith
Kairiru Island enjoys annual average precipitation of about 124 inches, making it among the wettest places in the world. Despite its steep volcanic slopes, it appears that the island’s geological structure catches and concentrates rainwater and channels it to numerous springs, which feed mountain streams large and small. And the water is clean. The government paramedic who staffs Kragur’s tiny thatched-roof medical clinic tells me that water-borne disease is “very rare” among Kragur villagers. That’s a stark contrast to many other PNG communities; water-borne diseases account for about a third of childhood deaths and much malnutrition in the country.
The streams’ clear, cool torrents also provide excellent places to bathe. Soaking in the stream nearest Kragur soothes the aches and pains in muscles and joints, and Kragur residents says the water is “like medicine.” Kragur people who travel to other villages often come home complaining there were no decent places to bathe and that they had to drink and cook with liquids no better than “swamp water.”
Kragur’s water is not only unusually clean, it is unusually reliable. PNG had one of the worst droughts in recorded history in 1997 and 1998, an effect of the El Niño climate phenomenon. Kragur taro, yam, and sweet potato gardens dried up, leaving villagers short of food. But they were not short of water, for their main stream continued to flow.
Unfortunately, Kragur people have reasons to worry about their water. Population growth may soon pose a problem, but the most dramatic potential danger is gold mining.
Mining companies dug exploratory trenches on the mountain high above Kragur many years ago. They have proceeded no further, but they still have an eye on Kairiru gold. Villagers told me that prospecting teams left trenches lying open and that erosion is cutting them deeper and wider. They also told me that waste from the exploration fouled one of the island’s streams and that the prospectors told people to wait a year before using its water again. Many villagers are rightly concerned that any further exploration, let alone actual mining, could do more serious damage.
Photo by Michael French Smith
Kragur villagers almost invariably tell me that they are opposed to mining. Some also tell me, however, that not a few villagers are greatly tempted by the considerable money mining would probably bring, but they are reluctant to openly advocate mining. I know that some Kragur people who have settled in PNG’s towns are at least keeping their minds open.
Last year during a trip to Port Moresby, the country’s capital city, I talked about mining on Kairiru with several Kragur professional men. They knew of the risks involved, and one of them waxed nostalgic about Kragur’s streams and the pleasure of “letting the water run over you and scratching your back against a rock.” But he also argued that to overcome its poverty Kragur would have to change, and you couldn’t change without giving up something.
Back in the village, mining was also on people’s minds. A vocal opponent of mining asked me if I would say a few words against mining at a village meeting. I try to stay out of political controversy in Kragur and I begged off from taking a public position on mining. But I did agree to say a few words about how exceptional Kragur’s water was.
So, one Monday morning I stepped out into the sunny center of the outdoor meeting ground to address villagers sitting on stones, bamboo logs, and the verandas of adjacent houses. Maybe they didn’t know, I said, that even in America many people didn’t have clean, plentiful, and free water like theirs; some big American cities even had to pipe water from hundreds of miles away and use complex machinery to purify it. I really got people’s attention when I described the meter that measures how much water my family uses so that the government can bill us for it. “That’s like paying for air!” one man exclaimed, aghast.
I think my invitation to speak was part of an orchestrated effort by local mining opponents to sway opinion, because the following Sunday the parish priest spoke pointedly about mining and water at the roughly built Catholic church in a neighboring village. (Although they haven’t put aside all their Indigenous religious beliefs, Kairiru Island people have been Catholics since soon after the arrival of European missionaries in the early twentieth century.) Father Paul — a very tall, very fair, Polish priest — took the text for his homily that day from Matthew 6:25-29, which reads, in part:
Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? ….Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Father Paul then described how gold and copper mines in other parts of the country had despoiled large tracts of land and river systems. Kairiru’s water, he suggested, was something of inestimable worth — like the lilies of the field — and islanders should not trade it for money.
I try not to take sides in Kragur local controversies; that’s one reason most people still welcome me there. But when Father Paul used these verses to argue that Kragur’s water probably can’t be improved or replaced with any amount of money, I had to nod my head in agreement.
I could see Kragur people in the congregation doing the same.