World Rainforest Movement

Papua New Guinea: Women’s rights undermined by Placer Dome gold mine

Misima Island is situated in the Louisiade Archipelago in Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. The island is 40 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide at its broadest point, and is covered in lowland hill rain forest except for the coastal zone and the foothills which have been cleared for cultivation and replaced by woodland.

With a subsistence farming community of approximately 14,000 people, Misiman society is divided into clans, and membership of these clans is matrilineal. Women traditionally inherit and own land, although senior men retain authority over some areas. It was into this environment that the Canadian-based Placer Dome company introduced its gold mining operations.

In December 1987, a Special Mining Lease for 21 years had been granted to Placer Pacific (now Placer Dome Inc.) and construction of the mine began in 1988. Declared officially open in 1989, the Misima mine is a conventional open-pit mine.

The introduction of mining into Misima involved the purchase of vast tracks of land and resettlement of communities previously living on this land. Social values have rapidly changed since 1989, facilitating the breakdown of traditional social structures and the growth of a prominent generation gap, both of which negatively impact on women.

The company engaged men in the resettlement negotiation process, excluding the traditional landowners -the women. Prior to mining, women held a relatively high status and prominent role in public life due to their central role in land ownership and food production for both the living and offerings for the dead. Thereafter, their status, independence and role within the community has been undermined.

Mining has directly and indirectly provided employment opportunities for a large majority of the Misiman men living on the eastern tip of the island and a number of ‘expatriate’ Misimans. Misiman women have found their traditional power base supplanted by the power of cash, which can be acquired and disposed of without their involvement.

The increase in the cash economy has also created divisions between women. Some wives of wage earners employ other women to tend to their gardens, which results in the distribution of cash within the community, but at the same time diminishes the status of these women in the eyes of other Misiman women.

Many women whose husbands are wage earners no longer create large gardens because the men are unavailable to assist in garden activities, especially the clearing of land, and also because they can buy food with the money earned by the men. However women, especially those not engaged in the cash economy, are placed under increasing pressure to maintain these gardens due to the reduced availability of food trees as a result of extensive land clearance.

The island’s environment is widely perceived to be polluted by mining operations. Residents complain about the taste and health of fish and the decreasing water levels of the rivers. Some women are disinclined to go to the rivers to bathe, wash clothes or prepare food because of low water levels and the discolouration of the water after rain, which they perceive to be evidence of pollution. Women report that the quality of the water is so poor that they can no longer drink it. Some women feel that this jeopardises their own and their babies’ long term health.

Social problems including excessive alcohol consumption have arisen due to the increased availability of cash. As is the case in most places of the world, it is women and children who bear the brunt of the impact of alcohol abuse.

The company’s initial response to issues raised was to employ a limited number of women for secretarial, administrative, clerical and cleaning work as well as to support local women’s groups and businesses, and ensuring that women were represented on committees such as village liaison groups and the Social Impact Study (SIS) Status Review Committee. However, some of these mechanisms were not conducive to women’s participation beyond their attendance at meetings. Having a position on a committee does not automatically mean that they feel able to speak, to be heard, or to affect outcomes. Participation does not automatically include those who were previously left out of such processes and is only as inclusive as those who are driving the process choose it to be, or as those involved demand it to be. Male dominance within the government, and amongst Misima’s community representatives, also contributed to effectively denying women their rights.

As is often the case, and despite any efforts, many of the social, cultural and environmental costs of a mine are not readily apparent until development begins. At this time the local people began to experience first hand the unexpected change in their lifestyles owing to the sudden participation in cash economy, the abrupt influx of outsiders needed to construct and operate a mine, environmental damage due to waste rock and tailings discharges, and even dietary imbalances as food prices skyrocketed.

The mine will cease operations in 2005. The closure will pose further unprecedented problems for the Misima people. Business closure, loss of employment, decrease in transport alternatives, inaccessibility of shop food, loss of electricity and the degradation of buildings and infrastructure are just some factors that the community may face.

However, the extent to which the Misima will be able to return to their traditional practices has been negated by intergenerational disputes and loss of traditional values. The fundamental shift in the status of women and their unique relationship to the land is unlikely to be regained after the closure of the mine, with repercussions for generations to come.

Article based on information from: “One day rich; community perceptions of the impact of the Placer Dome Gold Mine,Misima Island, Papua New Guinea”, Dr Julia Byford, Tunnel Vision: Women, Mining and Communities, Forum Report, November 2002, ; The Misima mine: An assesssment of social and cultural issues and programmes, Allen L. Clark and Jennifer Cook Clark,

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