Stricter standards needed for sand mining in PNG

First Published in the National Weekender


THE insatiable demand for sand around the world against supply for construction, minerals, land building, and beach nourishment amidst both legal and illegal sand exploitation in developed and developing nations faces uphill battle in Papua New Guinea.

One of Papua New Guinea’s environmentalist Wenceslaus Magun said this after accepting the decision by Singapore-based company, Niugini Sands Limited, who has withdrawn its application for an exploration license (EL). It did so under PNG’s Mining Act 1992, to explore and to mine unique black sands on the shoreline of the North Coast of Sumgilbar area in Sumkar District of Madang.

This followed stiff resistance from local resource owners and partners.
Magun pointed out that PNG has no relevant policy, law, management guidelines and strict monitoring standards in place to govern the sustainable development of sand. He reiterated that the Government must put on hold sand exploration and mining and address gaps in sand mining policy, law, guidelines, and strict monitoring and enforcement standards to govern the sector should it welcome this industry.

On Feb 26 at 12:10noon, the acting Mining Tenement Registrar at the Mineral Resources Authority (MRA) Patrick Monouluk accepted the Withdrawal letter of the proponent of the application, Niugini Sands Limited for Exploration License number 2664 to mine sand in Sumgilbar.
“Pursuant to their request I have today Officially Withdrew the application from our Register of Mine Tenements dated Feb 26 at 12.10pm. The matter now remains closed for all purposes.” Monouluk stated in his letter to Magun.
This is in response to Magun’s letter to Stanley Nekitel, Tenement Manager/Registrar dated Feb 3, 2021 asking MRA to return to Sumgilbar and conduct further Warden Hearings.

This followed three objection letters submitted by Magun on behalf of his local not-for-orofit organisation Mas Kagin Tapani Association or Makata, the Madang Tourism Association, Catholic Professionals, Caritas PNG and more than 10,563 people from over ten (10) villages within the proposed impact area in Sumgilbar LLG.
Monouluk admitted that PNG does not have sand mining policy, law, and stricter management guidelines in an exclusive interview with Mr. Magun on Friday last week. He argued that there is also no policy for gold, coper and other minerals blaming Australia for writing the Mining Act prior to Independence to meet their own interests.

Makata, the Madang Tourism Association, Catholic Professionals, Caritas PNG and the villagers expressed these concerns in letters dated 22nd of September 2020, and on 16th November 2020 to the Tenement Manager Stanley Nekitel. In response Nekitel did not accept their request. He rejected the recommendations and was in the process to submit a warden’s technical report to the Mining Advisory Council, adding they had met all necessary requirements.

This was a deliberate violation of human rights of the communities who were denied their right to information and fair hearing under Sections 57, 51 and 59 of PNG’s Constitution. Hence, on 3rd of February 2021 Magun wrote to the Attorney General Dr Eric Kwa “asking the State to provide appropriate legal advice to MRA that it should not be overly hasty in progressing this EL Application without giving the local potentially to be affected people, further and ample opportunities to be heard on their views about the proposed exploration activity in their front and backyard sea and land areas.” This was an attempt to exhaust all available options to deal amicably with this issue instead of embarrassing the State and MRA in Court.

Furthermore in a letter to Nekitel, on 3rd February, Magun pointed out that: “Regardless of the fact that the proponent of the application for Exploration License 2664 – has withdrawn its application, we want to reiterate and repeat vehemently that the two wardens hearings you had conducted on Sep 23, 2020 were too far apart for many people to attend. And that is why we had requested that more hearings be conducted to enable more of the impact area people to be given an opportunity to air their views. Also we repeat that only less than 300 people altogether attended at the two wardens hearings, out of an estimated total population of 10,563 who would have been potentially impacted had the proponent of this application did not withdraw its application.”

“We do not believe this can be said to be a sufficient representation of the ‘views or voices of the potentially to be affected people.’ This is a most unreasonably minimal opportunity given to a very small number of our people out of a very large number of people likely to be impacted in the area proposed to be covered by the EL.”
The villagers, Makata, Madang Tourism Association, Catholic Professional, and Caritas PNG were represented by their Counsel Sir Arnold Amet, a former Chief Justice, Attorney General and Madang Governor. Sir Amet had applied to the National Court in Madang on their behalf after a forum held at Tokain village on 27 November 2020.

In his court application he had asked the National Court in Madang to set the date for hearing on this matter for a court injunction should their request for further warden hearings were not upheld. The injunction was to order MRA to conduct more hearings.

Sir Arnold Amet conducting sand mining awareness at Tokain village.

To justify his argument Sir Amet had collected sufficient signatures from villagers within the impact area and Affidavits from Ward Members from Mirap, Karkum, Sarang and Matugar for the Court hearing. Fortunately, this did not eventuate given the circumstances surrounding the Withdrawal of the Application for Exploration License number 2664 by Niugini Sands Limited.

The application to mine sand by the company would cover fifty one kilometers (51Km) stretch of black sandy beaches starting from Murunas to Malas. It would also extend one kilometer (1km) from the beach into the sea and another one kilometer (1km) from the beach inland.
The villagers, Catholic Professional, Caritas PNG, Madang Tourism Association and Makata opposed sand mining in fear of losing their black sandy beaches, mangroves, sea grass, corals and the marine ecosystems which provide protein, food, money, and sustains their livelihoods on a daily basis against profit driven economic enterprises.

Furthermore, they pointed out that sand mining would also destroy their existing leatherback conservation project sites, villages, cocoa, coconut, vanilla, betelnut, and other cash crops and food gardens. They highlighted that the damages will include destroying their existing schools, health services, roads and other infrastructure and social services.
In addition, they feared if they were displaced should sand mining take place they will have no place to be relocated to.

They pointed out that there were no adequate educational awareness carried out prior to the two warden hearings conducted in Talidig government station and Kangur Hamlet on 23rd of September 2020.
By banning sand mining in Sumgilbar local communities and partners have exacerbated initiatives by PNG and five other countries within a 6-million km2 area of Coral Triangle Initiative to protect communities and marine habitats within the Coral Triangle.

Upon withdrawing their application for exploration license on the 26th of February 2021, Niugini Sands director, Marcus Ong said “bad publicity was pivotal in their decision”. He added that information showed the Madang sands were of poor quality according to Radio New Zealand (RNZ). Magun rebutted in saying that the people will not accept this argument as the company’s justification for exiting.
He pointed out that the negative impacts of sand mining will outweigh potential economic gains.

He expressed surprise to hear that the unsubstantiated claim of poor sand quality is misleading because the company was yet to carry out exploration to determine the quality, and quantity of the minerals in the black sand and their economic value.
Prior to the resistance, the company was adamant to explore.

Niugini Sands Ltd stated on its Facebook page that “It is easy for one to put down and criticise a project simply because it brings about a change which is undesirable in their personal view.
We should not always look to oppose the change but rather embrace it. The people used scientific facts and their lives experiences to hold to account the company. Not all changes should be embraced, not the kind of change proposed by Niugini Sands Limited.

Niugini Sands Limited also stated “While we recognise that nature, which is something God gave to his people, is to be conserved, it may not be fair for the people of Sumgilbar to be deprived of a better life just because of some comments made by environmentalists, activists or NGOs who do not even reside in that area. Such actions are deemed to be very selfish towards their own fellow countrymen”. Papua New Guineans must not believe these trivial notions of what foreigners’ think is best for them. While the company recognized that God gave nature to be conserved, conservation is not at the top of the company’s priorities.

Companies also should not define what indigenous people see, feel and value as better life. On many occasions, Papua New Guineans have seen and heard of these lies by such foreign interests.
The exit by Niugini Sands from PNG is a remarkable and heartfelt win. This should encourage other groups to join the fight against any destructive and exploitative, so called economic development activities in PNG.
Magun has been very vocal on this issue at the ‘get go’. He stood firm to allow the people of Madang, Sir Amet and others to stand on his shoulders to ensure the fight was taken to the national level.

The resulting victory must be applauded! This campaign must be an inspiration to citizens across the nation and the world. This must harness and solidify the hopes and intentions of peoples to protect their homes.
This shows that despite the isolated voices, such a collective concern and sustained activism against foreign corporations who were there to plunder, rape, pillage and destroy their homes cannot be underestimated.

Papua New Guineans must harness the strength of their Culture and their Melanesian roots which acknowledges all life forms that dwell with them in their time and spaces.
Papua New Guineans are best at sustainable development and conservation. They must stand in solidarity and have a strong collective voice to protect their future.
Massive congratulations to the people of Sumgilbar and PNG as a whole for standing against foreign interests, foreign greed and foreign activities which only promotes their hegemony.

The people stood against their own government authorities who were serving foreign interests. Environmental groups across the nation and the world recognize this pivotal victory and would like to applaud the people of Sumgilbar.
Their victory will inspire those in the Sepik region, Morobe and across PNG to carry on their fight to protect their rivers, seas, and mountain, rain forests and cultures.

The lessons are great; the stories of bravery and solidarity only cement battles across PNG.

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