Woodlark Island: A microcosm of resource extraction in Papua New Guinea.

Honours candidate, Jarrod Hodgson, examines the Woodlark Gold Project, and how local communities have responded to the increases in mining activity in the region.

 

Isolated and idyllic, Papua New Guinea’s [PNG] Woodlark island lies around 600 km east of PNG’s capital, Port Moresby. It is home to approximately 6,000 residents. They live a subsistence-based lifestyle, of traditional gardening and occasional hunting. The island is also home to 27 endemic species of flora and fauna including frogs, lizards, snakes and marsupials.

In 2019, the mining company Geopacific Resources Limited acquired full ownership of the Woodlark Gold Project with the construction of a new gold processing plant and related infrastructure to begin shortly. Newly appointed chairman Ian Clyne has been vocal about the company having ’great pride’ in its ‘positive relationships with the local community’. However, serious doubts have been raised about the impact of increased gold mining on the flora, fauna and human populations of the island.

 In addition to gold mining, Woodlark Island is also the site of a proposed logging venture by Kulawood and its parent company, Ebony Woods Ltd. The proposed logging venture by Kulawood would see up to 40% of the islands’ forests harvested, the impacts of which could cause serious implications for the islands biodiversity and unique flora and fauna.

In May 2019, the recently elected Prime Minister James Marape declared his intention to stamp out corruption by setting up a new anti-corruption watchdog. Prime Minister Marape said he wants to see mining companies provide more financial benefit to the PNG government and its people. ‘We don’t need foreigners to come in to take advantage of our forestry’ he declared in a speech following his election. Despite serious concerns about some of the mines and plantation companies misleading government agencies to gain approval for resource extraction projects, the future developments on Woodlark Island appear to have passed to the point of no return and will proceed as planned.

Unfortunately, for the people living on Woodlark Island, the challenges and threats from foreigners exploiting mineral and natural wealth are nothing new. Since first contact with European explorers and merchants, the Woodlark Islanders have faced a constant battle between embracing the benefits and minimising the harm caused by foreign intervention on the island.

Gold was first discovered in 1895 at two locations around Suloga Bay by a Cooktown miner turned trader, Charlie Lobb. Soon after, further exploration yielded significant alluvial deposits at sights including Busai, Okiduse, Karavakum and Kulumadau.[1] By 1897 news of these discoveries had reached mainland Australia and a rush to the island began with steamers leaving Queensland fortnightly with miners hoping to strike it rich.

The influx of miners from the Australasian colonies brought colossal change to the island and its population. Native labourers were forcefully recruited and sent to work the reefs and assist the mining operations.[2] By 1903 several large companies had invested in the island’s potential and set up large scale mining equipment which required large scale deforestation, pathways and roads carved out of forests, logging of timber for structures, and of course mining itself.

The conditions on Woodlark were mostly hot and wet, with some of the highest rainfall rates in the region being recorded there. The goldfields soon became swamps and turned to mud. Consequently, the miners suffered the effects of disease and many of them would not make the return trip to Australia, lying in lonely graves amid the jungle surrounds. Those who stayed kept their hopes up with alcohol, gambling and prostitution,  and the latter would leave the local population reeling from epidemics of venereal diseases.[3]

Despite some small successes, the conditions proved to be a great hindrance to mining. The ground was constantly wet and muddy, and disease and fever swept through mining populations. In one instance, recalled by Castlemaine miner Charles Dale, all but a few miners leaving on board the Clara Ethel had to crawl aboard on their hands and knees, so stricken were they with illness. Many on this journey, including all of Dale’s fellow miners, succumbed to sickness and perished before they reached home. [4]

The early 20th century saw larger scale timber plantations open, harvesting the particularly valuable ebony wood found on Woodlark. Gold operations were reinvigorated in 1962 with the Bureau of Mineral Resources conducting exploratory operations around Kulumadau. Mostly insignificant deposits were discovered, and these did not warrant further expansion. It was not until the 1980s that the Woodlark project began; with its recent acquisition by Geopacific Recourses, this mining operation is now set to expand.

Woodlark Island presents a paradoxical challenge to modern industry and government. Its exotic and rare ecosystem make it appealing to naturalists and conservation-based groups. Its local community remains as one of the few self-sufficient, subsistence-based populations in the world. Yet, with the progress of modern mineral exploratory equipment, Woodlark has been marked as the site of one of the largest and profitable gold mines to see development in the coming years.

Advocacy and conservation groups will closely monitor whether the new government and industry can strike a balance between conservation, protection and development. However, if the planned mining and logging operations do proceed as planned, it will represent yet another chapter in the history of Woodlark Island and the struggles of its people to maintain their culture alongside the demands of modern recourse extraction enterprises.

– Jarrod Hodgson

[1] Stanley, Evan, Report on the Geology of Woodlark Island, Circa 1912.

[2] Nelson, Hank, Black, White and Gold, Goldmining in Papua New Guinea 1878–1930, ANU press 2012.

[3]Ibid p.63

[4] The New Guinea Experience, Bairnsdale Advertiser, 1/6/1897.

 

 

A high mountain range with blue sky
Photo: Pierre Van Crombrugghe via unsplash

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