PM Halts Namosi Mine Exploration Work
COVER REPORT: Rumblings in the mountain :PM Bainimarama intervenes, halts exploration
Concerned about growing landowners’ agitation against the proposed billion-dollar copper and gold mine high up in the Namosi-Naitasiri mountains, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has ordered a halt to the miner’s exploration work.
Namosi Joint Venture (NJV)—a partnership of Australia’s largest miner Newcrest with two Japanese interests—will instead work on cleaning up the damage landowners allege its exploration work had done to their land.
Landowners, who have formed themselves into the Tikina Namosi Landowners Committee (TNLC), presented the Prime Minister and his team of officials over two meetings last month a photographic catalogue of the damage caused by NJV’s Special Prospecting Licence 1420.
The catalogue—a copy of which was obtained exclusively by Fiji Business magazine—showed water contamination and landslips around the Waisoi and Wainavadu regions.
Pictures captured discoloured chemicals seeping out of deep holes NJV engineers had drilled in their search for copper and gold deposits.
A photograph or two showed some attempts by NJV to plunge or bury these leakages.
Most of these drilling platforms, claims TNLC, are located close to Waisoi and Wainavadu Rivers.
These two waterways are the primary sources of the Waidina and Wainimala Rivers, both of which wind down east to form the larger and longer Rewa River that discharges on the Nausori coast.
From the province of Namosi, these waterways link up the neighbouring provinces of Naitasiri, Tailevu and Rewa.
While the two meetings between PM Bainimarama and TNLC representatives (NJV representatives were invited to the second meeting) were held behind closed doors in the cabinet conference room at the fourth floor of the New Wing of Government Building, Fiji Business was told the picture presentation changed the military commander’s mind.
“All parties agreed that NJV, in conjunction with government and in consultation with the landowners, will carry out any necessary rehabilitation emanating from the prospecting,” says a Ministry of Information statement.
“Following the rehabilitation, all parties will meet again to discuss the next steps,” the statement added.
Although comprising four sentences only, the Ministry of Information announcement was a huge victory for landowners of the TNLC, who had claimed frustration in dealings with government and NJV officials, and sought the intervention of the Prime Minister.
They accused public officials of buying the miner’s position, refusing to hear their pleas for land rehabilitation.
Officials, on the other hand, claimed that rehabilitation of land that had been explored was not covered under the terms of reference of the proposed mine that the Department of Environment had drawn up.
In addition, landowners over the last two years received $314,937 in compensation from NJV; $10,000 of this amount is being kept in trust by the iTaukei Land Trust Board, (formerly the NLTB), for landowners who have yet to open a bank account.
Since 2008, the miner had paid $2.9 million in total, government officials pointed out.
Prime Minister Bainimarama met with TNLC twice; the first one on January 27, a Friday, and the second one three days later, on January 31.
This magazine was told that while the pictorial presentation by TNLC was convincing, what helped the landowners’ case too was the PM’s military background.
He had detected that the landowners were resolute in their determination to fight their case, and if unresolved, the dispute could easily fester and blow up into a nasty confrontation.
At their first meeting, Bainimarama reportedly told the landowners he had visited Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea—site of a civil war between landowners of Panguna Mine and the PNG army—and he would not allow what happened there to occur in Namosi or Naitasiri.
“The last thing I want to do is to send my troops in,” PM Bainimarama reportedly told TNLC members.
“I’ve heard you, and I am very mindful of the concerns you all have raised. If the mining company has breached the agreement with you, we will work together to resolve these breaches.”
The Prime Minister also told TNLC of his two main concerns; one was the roadblocks mounted by landowners to hinder NJV exploration works. The other was his suspicion that TNLC was being used by people or organisations with “political agendas.”
Bainimarama wanted the roadblocks to be cleared, saying such forms of political protest were the remnants of Fiji’s past that are best forgotten.
He also wanted Namosi and Naitasiri landowners to sever their links with such organisations, naming SEEP by name.
SEEP stands for Social Educational Empowerment Programme, an NGO that used to be a unit of ECREA—the Ecumenical Centre for Research, Education & Advocacy. He believes SEEP had ‘poisoned’ the minds of TNLC.
This was in apparent reference to the work SEEP had done with TNLC, conducting mine awareness workshop last year in villages in Namosi, Naitasiri, Tailevu and Rewa.
Bainimarama said SEEP has its own political agenda that TNLC should steer clear of, an assertion both SEEP and TNLC have denied.
At the end of their January 31 meeting, landowners were also advised against engaging with the news media.
For now, TNLC is happy that exploration work has been suspended.
Their representatives will now work with government officials to be led by Permanent Secretary for Lands Filimone Kau in overseeing land rehabilitation work, to be funded and implemented by NJV.
Whether this will take 3 to 6 months, it is unknown. All that the Ministry of Information stated was that at the end of the rehabilitation work, all parties would meet to “discuss the next steps.”
This would entail a decision on whether to resume with the proposed mine’s environmental impact assessment (EIA), a study which began in 2011 by Golder Associates of Australia and the University of the South Pacific’s Institute of Applied Science.
Part of the EIA included consultations with villages that would be impacted by the mine in all the four provinces.
This village consultation exercise has been suspended in light of the outcome of the second meeting between Bainimarama and representatives of TNLC and NJV.
It is through the EIA report that the Fiji Government would decide on whether or not a mine licence should be issued.
For now, TNLC is not budging from its position: that there should be no mining in Namosi and in the neighbouring district of Waidina in Naitasiri.
TNLC spokesperson Sipiriano Nariva told Fiji Business the lessons they have learnt from years of mine exploration were enough to convince them that mining is bad for them and their environment.
“We have reached a stage where we are so frustrated with NJV and its activities on our land and we have come to a decision…that we do not want our land to be mined,” TNLC said in a media statement released on 19 January.
“Our decision is based on our experience of over 40 years of exploration on our land and also taking into consideration the plight of our relatives in the provinces of Naitasiri, Tailevu and Rewa who will be affected by whatever decision we make today.”
This media statement summed up the landowners’ position; their opposition to mining stems from their wish to preserve their vanua (land) and in consideration of their traditional kinship and allies in Naitasiri, Tailevu and Rewa, most of whom rely on the Waidina, Wainimala and Rewa rivers for their livelihood.
Nariva could still recall a lyric of a song his folks used to sing, ‘tolu na bogi mai Namosi ki Nausori,’ or literally translated it speaks of “three nights of travel from Namosi to Nausori” using bamboo rafts on the Waidina, Wainimala and Rewa rivers.
This was during the banana export boom of the 1940s and the 1950s where his men and womenfolk would travel down the river in bamboo rafts laden with bananas.
Over the three nights of river travel, men and women of Namosi would find shelter in villages along the river.
Nariva said his generation believes it is now their turn to repay the kind gesture by maintaining the pristine and quality of water in Waisou and Wainavadu.
Another determinant in the landowners’ opposition to mine is through the strong influence of religion, of the Roman Catholic faith in particular.
Majority of these resource owners in Namosi and Naitasiri provinces are die-hard Catholics, and theirs is the strong belief that God appointed them custodians of the pristine environments of the proposed mine site at Waisoi, Korobasabasaga and Wainavadu.
God they fear will hold them accountable if they let NJV mine and destroy their forests and waterways, not to mention the very rich biodiversity the mountainous region holds.
“Lord! Punish those that destroy your creation,” screams a TNLC banner it unfolded before NJV and Fiji Government representatives at a public meeting in Namosi Village on December 14 last year.
Among the new banners they released on January 13 was one that said, ‘Mining isn’t sustainable, we need other sustainable developments.’
Even Prime Minister Bainimarama noted the words of another banner they had produced, ‘Pro Government, Anti Mining.’
Religion, traditional alliances and the concern for their natural heritage have combined to fuel the determination of TNLC to forego the lure of the huge money on offer by the mining conglomerate and to insist on its no mining position.
To add credence to this position, TNLC had organised ‘say no to mining’ petitions in all the four provinces.
A TNLC representative told this magazine more than 99% of the petitioners have voted no.
While TNLC is named after the Namosi district, membership also included landowners in the neighbouring district of Waidina which comes under Naitasiri Province.
Waidina is particularly concerned about NJV proposal to use Wainavadu which is part of Sovi Basin as the mine’s dump site, in the form of wastewater and rock storage.
NJV says its tailings dam will be as large as 1,000 rugby fields.
Adding additional buffer to the dam will be a waste rock storage, the size of which is equivalent to 375 rugby fields, says the company.
This plan doesn’t sit very well with the landowners of Wainavadu, the yavusa (clan) Naitavuni, comprising two Waidina villages of Delailasakau and Naseuvou.
Towering east of Wainavadu is the Mataicicia mountain range, site of the tragic crash of Air Fiji’s PC 121 flight from Nausori to Nadi on 24 July 1999 that claimed 17 lives.
The problem for Wainavadu is that the region has already been leased to the National Trust for Fiji as part of the Sovi Basin Nature Reserve, said to be Fiji’s most important biological and landscape heritage.
These 19,600 hectares of virtually virgin rainforest experts say is teeming with rare and endangered species of birds, fish, animals and plants and labelled by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as the “jewel in the crown” in Fiji’s protected area system.
“The distinctive bowl shape of [Sovi] Basin with its encircling volcanic peaks create a landform unique in both Fiji and in the island Pacific,” says the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites’ website.
“Its floor is composed of hard granite rock which has slowly eroded over time to form low rolling hills, drained by crystal clear rivers and streams. The entire landform is covered with undisturbed tropical lowland forest.
“The Sovi Basin is the largest, most diverse and most scenically outstanding of Fiji's natural forest.
“If it were to be protected, it would be the "jewel in the crown" of Fiji's protected areas system, functioning as the main storehouse of Fiji's land-based biodiversity.”
The Fiji Government had submitted Sovi Basin for listing as a World Heritage site on 22 October 1999.
Now, NJV proposes to use 5% to 20% of Sovi for a waste dump, in the form of a mammoth tailings dam plus a solid waste rock storage.
For its part, NJV is insisting that Wainivadu Valley is not part of Sovi Basin.
It really acts as a buffer to Sovi, the miner claims, although environmentalists dispute this.
For the landowners in Delailasakau and Naseuvou villages, whether Wainivadu is really the buffer zone to Sovi Basin or not is immaterial.
What matters, they say, is that since the National Trust for Fiji got the development lease from the then Native Land Trust Board in 2004/2005, they have been collecting lease monies amounting to around $35,000 a year. This is in addition to the $10,000 scholarship fund that is open each year to their children.
When that development lease expired in 2009/2010, National Trust, acting on behalf of international environmental NGO Conservation International, sought and obtained landowners’ consent for a 99-years lease of Sovi.
TLTB demanded a $110,000 bond, which was duly paid.
Just as the land board was processing the long-term lease, the Ministry of Lands intervened, landowners claimed, to ask that the lease of Sovi be withheld.
The ministry for its part explained it was merely following the law.
In Fiji, the Mineral Resources Act over-rides the Native Lands Act, and since NJV is now interested in locating its dump on Wainavadu, the Lands Ministry directed TLTB to halt all lease processing of Sovi Basin.
But the landowners are extremely unhappy. Asked why they prefer to offer the lease to National Trust for Fiji and Conservation International (CI), and not to NJV, spokesperson for Wainavadu landowners Tieri Ratini replied: “Baleta o CI e maroroya, o NJV e vakarusa (CI conserves our natural resources, while NJV destroys them)."
Ratini also claimed neither NJV nor the Ministry of Lands has approached them directly to explain or seek their consent on the leasing of Wainavadu.
They are also doubting NJV assertions that the tailing dam—which can be toxic when un-treated—and the waste rock storage will be located some 7 kilometres away from the nearest village of Delailasakau.
They fear that if located closer to the village, Delailasakau and neighbouring Naseuvou will have to relocate.
NJV, on the other hand, is adamant that relocation is not company policy.
SEEP for its part said while this could be so, eviction not relocation could still happen once NJV is given the licence to mine Waisoi.
For this story, Conservation International offered no comments.
Landowners of Wainavadu and Sovi Basin said however that the NGO had made it clear that it would go along with whatever the landowners are content with.
The mine conglomerate, on the other hand, had welcomed the PM’s involvement.
It said its desire to talk and resolve issues with the landowners have met with very little success.
“There is a lot of misleading information on the impacts of mining and I understand that this can be upsetting,” Melbourne-based NJV project director Ian Richie wrote in the mine’s December 2011 newsletter.
“It may apply to a very small percentage of the mining industry, in areas that are not properly managed by the government.
“However, for companies such as ours, we know that we will not be allowed to come to areas such as Namosi and Naitasiri, or PNG or Indonesia or similar countries where we currently operate, unless we adhere to the most stringent standards and that we work with the local communities to ensure that we help them to develop and to achieve their visions.”
For NJV, which is operated by Australia’s Newcrest on behalf of its two Japanese partners, Mitsubishi Materials Corporation (28% holdings) and Nittetsu Mining Co Ltd (2% holdings), getting resource owners’ endorsement is crucial.
Wrote Richie: “We’re proposing a large mine but we do believe that we can do this in a way that is safe and that will minimize its impact.
“As large and international companies, the members of Namosi Joint Venture, Newcrest, Mitsubishi and Nittetsu, will not proceed with the mine if we do not believe it is safe, economic, and that the local people accept what we are proposing.”
The same company’s information brochure said NJV assisted over 170 students in Namosi and Naitasiri provinces through their educational scholarship fund.
This represented a total payout of $276,000 for 2011 alone.
“In 2012, NJV will be re-looking at its scholarship and sponsorship policy to ensure funds are used effectively and reaps the maximum benefit to recipients and the provinces,” says the NJV newsletter.
The miner said a further $54,000 was expended for community help and donations in 2011, which included Fiji’s national athletics team to the Pacific Games in New Caledonia and the purchase of jerseys for the Namosi provincial rugby team.
In their proposal, NJV says the copper and gold mine should have a life span of 25 years, where it plans to extract some 16 million tonnes of ore from two open pit mines in the Waisoi Valley in Namosi.
These west and east pits would be massive, the former expected to be as big as 180 rugby fields, whilst the east pit would be comparable to 100 rugby fields.
In terms of depth, these pits would be dug by heavy machines aided by dynamite blasts most probably, one kilometre down into the earth’s crust with a diameter of one a half kilometres.
By comparison, the depth of the pit at the controversial and now closed copper mine in Panguna, Bougainville was said to be half-a-kilometre deep.
With an annual rainfall of 4-and-a-half metres, Waisoi Mine, if it goes ahead will be the wettest copper mine in the world.
Some 80 to 90% of the value of mine will be copper, NJV says, the remainder being gold and molybdenum.
Each year, it will want to produce some 300,000 tonnes of copper concentrate that will be trucked down to Suva Port for exports.
That is about 40 container trucks leaving Waisoi daily.
A projected transport route has been drawn up to avoid congestion and possible accidents; laden trucks will travel to Suva on the northern route through Naitasiri’s Waidina district, down to Sawani and Princess Road in Tamavua.
Once unloaded of its cargo, these trucks will return to Namosi through the southern route using the Queen’s Highway.
NJV is considering using these empty container trucks to cart fuel up to the mine at Waisoi.
Infrastructure will be mind boggling, as a process plant will need to be built up at Waisoi, mine access and site roads constructed as well as camp, offices and living facilities.
Because of the large scale of its operations, NJV will build its own power plant as the FEA won’t be able to do so, and most probably build its own hydro power plant too.
NJV plans to operate in 700 square kilometres of largely mountainous terrain that straddles the border of both the Namosi and Naitasiri provinces.
Some 2000 jobs are expected to be available during the mine construction phase, and 1200 jobs if and when mining starts.
NJV estimates the set-up cost at Waisoi is around $1 billion, which experts say makes Vatukoula Gold Mine looks like a baby operation.