The Woodlark Island Goldmine Project mine will be an open cut mine in the centre of Woodlark Island. The island, also known as Muyua Island is isolated and has a mainly subsistence population of 6000 people. The indigenous inhabitants have been fighting for decades for legal control of their land. While most of the forests on mainland Papua New Guinea are customary—i.e. owned by local communities—Woodlark Island remains largely crown land and therefore in the hands of the state.
The project has a complex and chequered history of ownership, which dates back to 1988 and has passed through several companies and joint ventures. Currently, the project will be operated by Woodlark Mining Limited (WML), a company owned by Kula Gold Limited, and was granted a Mining Lease in July 2014. This lease and two adjacent exploration leases cover half the land area of Woodlark Island. The PNG Government acquired a 5% interest in the project with the option to undertake a further acquisition of up to 25%. Proceeds from this interest are expected to be distributed between local landowners and the Milne Bay Provincial Government. During the exploration phase, the mine supported a workforce of approximately 350 people. During operation it is expected to be between 300 and 500. It is estimated that 60% of the workforce will be PNG locals. Various levels of PNG government and local communities have expressed concern about the opportunities to maximise local employment. Sources of conflict are yet to be fully realised but the principal concerns are described below. These concerns are amplified by delays in the Environmental Impact Report process, poor consultation practices, a lack of transparency and participation and the inexperience and small size of the company when compared to the size of the project.
Stakeholder engagement was conducted for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which was published in January 2013. Policies underlying stakeholder engagement were stated as generic principles which include respect and recognition of cultures and values, transparency and consultation and seeking to create lasting, but temporally unspecific, relationships built on trust and mutual respect. To this end, WML considers that local communities have been consulted and ‘informed’ of planned mining and mine-related activities. A number of global environment Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) and religious organisations are listed within the EIS as being potential stakeholders, but the EIS gives no indication that any NGO groups have been involved. The Mineral Policy Institute requested involvement before the EIS was released for public consultation in July 2013. This was ignored and numerous subsequent requests for the EIS were rejected by Kula Gold directors.
Impacts upon local communities were considered to be ‘direct’, ‘indirect’ or ‘minimal’. This assessment appears based solely upon geographical proximity to the mine itself. The only village considered to be directly impacted by the mine was Kulumandau. In this case, direct impact consists of relocating nearly 10% of the population of Woodlark Island. WML have indicated that it will facilitate communication with the local communities by ‘credible’ and ‘trusted’ representatives, but it is unclear how these representatives were selected and how the qualities of credibility and trustworthiness were measured and whether they were assessed by WML, the local communities or both. Key potential points of conflict involve the lack of specific plans for relocation and compensation of these affected villagers. Relocation will mean that land has to be retitled and returned to traditional owners. These concerns are magnified because of uncertainties about the time-frame of the project and exploration activity associated with adjacent leases.
The proposed marine mine waste disposal has further potential for conflict involving both local communities and those bordering the Solomon Sea. There are specific concerns about the impact on the marine environment and fishing activities in particular. Marine mine waste disposal has proven to be very controversial in PNG and was the subject of a series of court cases involving the Ramu Nickel mine and Basumuk Bay refinery.