River of poison in Papua New Guinea

Remote river communities in Papua New Guinea are uniting to speak out against mining company DRD Gold which is dumping contaminated mine waste directly into their precious water sources. Amid the lush green mountains of Tolukuma, Papua New Guinea, a river flows like molasses through the valleys. More than 70 kilometers downstream, in the village of Inauauni, the same river is nearly barren ”“ its once abundant fish populations dwindling, with the surviving few fish unfit for human consumption.

Remote river communities in Papua New Guinea are uniting to speak out against mining company DRD Gold which is dumping contaminated mine waste directly into their precious water sources.


Amid the lush green mountains of Tolukuma, Papua New Guinea, a river flows like molasses through the valleys. More than 70 kilometers downstream, in the village of Inauauni, the same river is nearly barren ”“ its once abundant fish populations dwindling, with the surviving few fish unfit for human consumption.

This is the fate of the Auga-Angabanga River System, which serves as the depository for more than 160,000 tons of heavy metals-contaminated mine waste from the Tolukuma Gold Mine each year. The mine, owned and operated by Australian Stock Exchange listed company Durban Roodepoort Deep Ltd (DRD Gold) has been at the root of community complaints for several years.

In 2000, Oxfam Australia's Mining Ombudsman took up the case of Tolukuma. Community members reported that the river which once gave them drinking water and a place to bathe is now unfit for use. The same river which helped to sustain their riverside gardens is now a threat to their food sources.

As one community member noted, "Our people have lived on this land for 2000 years. We probably now have one of the richest alluvial soils in the country. What happens with the flooding that's coming annually in the rains [is] that richness in the soil is now under threat from the poison from this [river] water. So, this threatens the basis of life in our communities".

Sharing experiences

In June this year, Oxfam Australia, in partnership with the PNG-based Center for Environmental Research and Development (CERD), sponsored the Summit of Mine Affected Communities. Women and men from communities located along the length of the Auga-Angabanga River came together to discuss the impacts of the mine on their daily lives. For many, this was the first time they had shared their experiences with people from other communities.

Over the course of the four-day summit, it became clear that all communities felt they were suffering the impacts of the mine's dumping, regardless of how close they lived to the dumping point.

After sharing their experiences and concerns, representatives worked in their respective community groups to create action plans. The plans symbolize an important move towards community solidarity around the issue of water pollution from the mine and also reflect the communities' ability to advocate and campaign for themselves.

A unified voice

All three communities planned to disseminate information gained from the summit within their villages upon returning home. This type of skill building is part of Oxfam Australia's aim to enable communities to have a more equal voice and to advocate effectively for themselves about issues which concern them.

Margaret, representing the small village of Mekeo at the summit said: "I have been seeing researchers from the mine, coming and getting reports and doing all the samplings of the river system. We ask to see the reports, but there is no proper answer, no feedback from the mine. So, [I think] we should form a group ”“ this is what we haven't been doing. Now is a good time to form a group and elect a chairman who can be a voice for us to the company."

Although the women, men and children affected by the Tolukuma mine face an ongoing struggle over the mine's negative impacts, they now have a more unified voice. They also have the continuing support of Oxfam Australia's Mining Ombudsman Project and CERD.

Story by Sara Bice, Oxfam Australia's former Mining Ombudsman Advocacy Coordinator.