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Environmental and social concerns at the Lihir gold mine, Papua New Guinea


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 [1]. 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 ([2], 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 [2]. 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 [2]. 

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 [1]. 

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 [1]. 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 [3]. 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 [1]. 

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 [4]. 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 [6]. 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 [5]. 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 [7]. 

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 [8]. 

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Environmental and social concerns at the Lihir gold mine, Papua New Guinea
Country:Papua New Guinea
State or province:New Ireland province
Location of conflict:Lihir Island
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mining exploration and/or ore extraction
Specific commodities:Gold

Project Details and Actors

Project details


Gold reserves were first discovered in 1982. At that time, explorations were conducted by a joint venture between the Kennecott Explorations Australia and Niugini Mining limited [9]. A first feasibility study was conducted by in 1988 that raised concerns over the economic feasibility of the mine [2]. In 1989, Kennecott was bought by Rio Tinto Zinc corporation (RTZ) [2].

In 1995, negotiations between local landowners, company and state were made, following a series of impact assessments and studies [2]. Negotiations were ongoing for a while and first not accepted by local customary landowners. However, they finally agreed when the government promised them a 15% equity stake in the project and 2% of royalty rate of annual output [2]. The agreement was signed during 1995 and included a benefits package for the community that foresaw the payment of royalties as well as the development of infrastructure and social services [6].

The Lihir Special Mining Lease (SML) was granted in 1995 and the Lihir project was transferred to Lihir Gold Limited (LGL) Company, which was managed and operated by the Lihir Management Company – a subsidiary of Rio Tinto. Production started in 1997 [9].

In 2005, Rio Tinto divested its stakes in Lihir and the operations became owned by LGL. In 2010, LGL was taken over by Australian miner Newcrest [9], in a %9.5 billion deal [5].

The mine is an open pit mine, consisting of overlapping pits [1;9].


In 1995, exploration costs had mounted to ca. 150 million USD [2]. Capital cost of mining operation were, at that time, estimated to amount to 600 to 1000 million USD. [2].

Initially, 450 million USD of shares were floated to finance the mine [1].

A study [1] reported that the Union Bank of Switzerland provided a loan for 300 million dollars. The loan was indemnified against political risks and environmental issues by the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) [1].

Another study [10] reports a 46 million USD loan from the European Investment Bank in 1996. The CEE Bankwatch Network, supported by many NGOs, demanded the bank to withdraw the loan due to environmental concerns [10].


In 1999, the mine’s processing plant and related infrastructure covered a land area of about 7.3km2 [1].

In 2011, the mine produced about 600,000 ounces of gold. Output was expected to rise to between 700,000 and 900,000 for 2012 [5]. For the financial year 2016, Lihir produced about 900,000 ounces of gold. Since operations started in 1997, the mine has produced more than 10 million ounces of gold [9].

An article from 2002 [1] estimated that the processing of 104 million tons of ore reserves will create around 341 million tons of waste rock. Most of the waste rocks were going to be disposed into the ocean.


In 1995, the community that hosted the mining project had a population of approx. 8,000 people [2]. (Since then, the population has grown rapidly [4]). At that time, about 1,000 people were customary owners of land leased to the company. They formed later the Lihir Mining Landowners Association (LMLA) [2].

In 2016, the company reported that about 4,500 people were employed at Lihir [9].

Project area:730 ha (in 1999)
Level of Investment for the conflictive project600,000,000 - 1,000,000,000 USD
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:1,000 -8,000
Start of the conflict:1995
Company names or state enterprises:Kennecott Explorations Australia Ltd. from Australia - involved in the pàst
Newcrest Mining Limited from Australia - main current shareholder
Niugini Mining Limited from Papua New Guinea - involved in the past
Lihir Gold Limited (LGL) Company (LGL) from Papua New Guinea - operating company
Rio Tinto Zinc RTZ Mining and Exploration Ltd. (RTZ) from Australia - shareholder (until 2005)
Relevant government actors:National Department of Minerals and Energy
Department of Environment and Conservation
Mineral Resource Authority
International and Finance InstitutionsMultilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA)
UBS (UBSG) from Switzerland - provided a loan for the mine developement
European Investment Bank (EIB)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Lihir Mining Landowners Association (LMLA),
CEE Bankwatch,

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Lihir indigenous clans
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Involvement of national and international NGOs
Official complaint letters and petitions
Shareholder/financial activism.
Street protest/marches
Refusal of compensation
Use of non-violent, traditional grievance mechanisms to handle dispute


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Other Environmental impacts, Mine tailing spills
Potential: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Noise pollution, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Other Environmental impactsImpacts on ocean floors and seabeds through disposal of waste rocks and toxic tailings into the sea
Health ImpactsVisible: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Potential: Other environmental related diseases, Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution
Other Health impactsCyanide use in gold extraction process; can accumulate through the food chain
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Militarization and increased police presence, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Other socio-economic impacts
Potential: Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Other socio-economic impactsLarge influx of migrant workers; community tensions


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Fostering a culture of peace
Project temporarily suspended
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Social tensions and environmental concerns continue to be an issue.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Papua New Guinea Mineral Resources Authority Act 2005

Papua New Guinea 1992 Mining Act and Regulation

Papua New Guinea Environment Act 2000

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] McKinnon 2002. The environmental effects of mining waste disposal at Lihir Gold Mine, Papua New Guinea. Journal of Rural and Remote Environmental Health 1(2): 40-50 (2002)

[2] Filer C., 1995. Participation, Governance and Social Impact: The Planning of the Lihir Gold Mine. In: Mining and Mineral Resource Policy Issues in Asia-Pacific - Prospects for the 21st century. Proceedings of the Conference at the Australian National University, Nov. 1-3,. 1995

[3] Hughes, D. J. et al. 2015. Ecological impacts of large-scale disposal of mining waste in the deep sea. Nature, scientific reports 5, ; doi: 10.1038/srep09985 (2015).

[4] Gillespie, K., 2013. Ethnomusicology and the Mining Industry: A Case Study from Lihir, Papua New Guinea. Musicology Australia, Vol. 35, No. 2, 178–190

[6] Bainton, N., 2011. Customary Dispute Handing Processes at the Lihir Gold Mine, Papua New Guinea. Paper Presented at the Pacific Mining Conference, Noumea, November 2011. (accessed online 20.11.2017).

[10] 2003 paper "A Case Study on Indigenous People, Extractive Industries and the World Bank. Papua New Guinea". Presented at the workshop on “Indigenous Peoples, the Extractive Industries and the World Bank” held at Exeter College in the University of Oxford, UK 14th and 15th April 2003. (accessed online 27.11.2017).

[5] Financial Times 2012 (August, 28). Dispute forces Newcrest to halt Lihir mining. Accessed online on November 21, 2017.

[7] ABC News (8 Jun 2015). Police sent to reopen PNG gold mine after locals use taboo plant to demand talks with Newcrest. Accessed online 27.11.2017.

[8] Post-Courier News (November 16, 2017). Temporary stop to Royalty Payment. Accessed online (27.11.2017).

[9] Newcrest Ltd company webpage on the Lihir mine (accessed online, 27.11.2017).

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Newcrest company video on the mine

Lihir Mining Area Landowners Association calls on Newcrest to Honour Obligations

Meta information

Contributor:EJatlas Southeast Asia Team ("at"
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:3101



The Lihir gold mine

Source: Newcrest Ltd.

Traditional taboo markers (gorgor) placed at the mining site