Married to the Mob

IN the murky business of PNG, mistakes are made even by well-intentioned international NGOs. Mike Butler* investigates how even the “good guys” can get things wrong.

  • 28 May 2012
  • 08:00
  • News
Married to the Mob

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Anyone who's worked in PNG knows that things aren't quite what they seem until you actually get there. Sometimes things don't quite make sense even when you're there. This story of Porgera gold mine on one side, NGOs on the other and one shady character in the middle feeding off the back of both is one of those.

I recently returned from Porgera and still can't quite believe how NGOs got into bed with a guy called Mark Ekepa. This is how I found out that even the "good guys" can get it wrong in a place like PNG.

For years, Porgera has had a reputation for controversy and chaos that I wanted to see for myself. My requests to Barrick Gold Corporation, which operates the mine, were met with a fog of silence.

Friends of the Earth Australia, on the other hand, was delighted. Few people go up there, said its Sydney-based mining spokesperson Natalie Lowrey, as she arranged for me to be looked after by the Porgera Landowners Association (PLOA), an organisation directly funded from mine revenues to represent people affected by the mine.

Run by Porgeran Mark Ekepa, the PLOA has become Porgera's international voice and a substantial thorn in Barrick's side. Each year Ekepa is bankrolled by NGOs to fly to North America to Barrick's AGM in Toronto as well as United Nations conferences in New York, to press the case of the Porgeran people. In 2010, he even met with Avatar film director James Cameron, who told him the movie was based on people like his.

Problem is that while he's the darling of green groups overseas, in Porgera Ekepa's reputation is built on shooting, allegations of embezzlement and shady dealings. But I wasn't to know that as I trundled off to Porgera with an open mind and a letter of recommendation to the PLOA.

Ground zero Porgera

If you're a guest of Barrick you fly into Porgera valley. If not, you've got a six-hour road trip from Mount Hagen through some of the most active tribal fighting in the country. While that's nerve racking - two weeks before, hand grenades were being lobbed across the road - it's not a patch on the condensed chaos of Porgera. Built on an abandoned airstrip, its town centre has a lawless, almost surreal Mad Max movie feel to it.

When I met Ekepa (or "the chairman" as he's known locally) he arrived in his Land Cruiser emblazoned with bullhorns on the front, Texan style. Wearing a blue bomber jacket, he swaggered up the PLOA's office stairs tough guy style. I was expecting a Ghandi-like, people's champion-type figure and instead got Charles Bronson.

Taciturn, Ekepa let his right hand man Jethro Tulin do the talking. "The chairman is a man of few words, so he gets me to speak for him," explained Tulin in the PLOA's campaign office as he detailed how the mine had irrevocably changed life in the valley.

At least 10,000 people live within the mining lease and they "are being treated like squatters in their own land. That's why we are demanding the total relocation of all of those people to solve all these problems."

"One day that mine won't be there. We don't want it to walk away without paying for the suffering it's caused," Tulin continued, handing over reports of gang rapes, killings and a host of environmental and social problems linked back to the mine.

When the mine began in 1990 the PLOA was heralded as part of a blueprint for fairer dealings between mining and indigenous people.

The PNG government, desperate to avoid another Bougainville (which was in full swing), gave the Porgerans and the provincial government a 5% stake in the mine.

Part of that deal was providing a well-funded political organisation to represent the landowners - the PLOA, which gets 12% of the mine's royalties, to date amounting to tens of millions of kina. The problem is since then this working marriage has turned into a toxic relationship -the PLOA and Barrick haven't spoken for years.

Ekepa drove me around the mine's fringes to show me the situation. It wasn't pretty. Relocation villages set up when the mine first displaced people were now up against the edges of the slowly expanding mine.

The one near the processing plants was bathed in a chemical stink. Others were almost encircled as houses and crops are either eaten by landslides or covered with mine tailings.

At one place, women were up to their waists in a gushing red torrent of gold processing effluent panning for gold in the horrible broth. At another, small children bathed in tailings dump below giant dump trucks dropping their loads.

Later that night up to 500 men would break into the open pit in a lucrative, dangerous and deadly grab for Porgeran gold that happens seven days a week.

Twenty years ago, Porgera was stepping out of the Stone Age and today a 10,000-year-old culture is going down the tubes. Racked by alcoholism, social disorder and utter dependence on the mine, gold fever is tearing Porgera apart.

"All these problems would go if Barrick would relocate all these people," insisted Ekepa as we drove.

"This is a David and Goliath struggle," he told me, before I saw the glint of a gun on his hip; a Colt 45.

"What's the gun for," I asked.

"For self defence," he replied.

I asked if he'd ever shot someone.

"No," was the answer as we drove on in silence.

It wasn't until later that night that I found that wasn't true. In 1996, after Ekepa was elected chairman of the PLOA, Ekepa shot his father point blank in the head in a very public argument that was said to be about mine compensation money.

Bad Apples or Bad Politics?

Now the odd killing isn't just unremarkable but almost expected as part of the career plan of a big man in these parts. But knocking off your dad certainly isn't and since then the killing has formed part of the aura and untouchability of "the chairman".

Although the average Porgeran believes that Ekepa is standing up to the mine for them, senior Porgeran leaders - including members of the PLOA who I spoke to - painted a different story.

While all agreed that mass relocation was the ideal solution, most scoffed at the suggestion that Ekepa's 15-year leadership of the PLOA was helping.

Some said that Ekepa parachutes his own delegates in to rig the PLOA's elections and guarantee his control of the organisation. Most criticised his three-months-a-year overseas travel as wasteful and unproductive.

All decried the elephant in the living room - the PLOA's lack of financial transparency under his reign and the fact that it and Barrick refuse to talk.

Back at the PLOA office, there was a new public notice that all requests to the PLOA for financial assistance were to be rejected because of "a lack of funds".

So where was the money going? It certainly didn't appear to be going to help individual landowners claiming compensation from the mine. Porgera's most senior tribal leader insisted that there was a secret bank account that Ekepa used to siphon money out of the PLOA and into property developments in Port Moresby and possibly even overseas.

Ekepa said the allegations - except for the killing of his father, which I side stepped - were made by people paid by the mine and that overseas legal fees were expensive.

But it didn't add up. A PLOA insider said that Ekepa used pro bono lawyers to pursue cases. Was Porgera's answer to Charles Bronson and banner boy for the NGOs not such a great guy after all?

Ekepa has been dogged by allegations of embezzlement for years. In 2005, he hit national headlines when he was arrested for exactly that.

Even Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare became concerned about the PLOA. "The lack of proper administration and financial control has resulted in the genuine landowners being deprived of their royalties, spin-off and other equity benefits," Somare said. "Hence the opportunity for tangible development is hijacked by third parties and the so-called middlemen."

He's never been convicted of embezzlement but like so many PNG leaders, Ekepa is no stranger to walking out a winner from the PNG justice system. He was never convicted of the killing of his father, and, after democratically losing control of the PLOA in 2004, he regained control by disputing the election in the courts.

More recently in 2010, a Human Rights Watch investigation found that under Ekepa's leadership not even members of the PLOA's 23-man committee have ever seen its financial records, despite their demands to see how the money is spent.

The Great NGO Vanishing Act

There's an old African saying: "When two elephants fight, it is only the grass that gets hurt." The Porgeran people are losing out while the two elephants of the valley are winning.

As long as the PLOA and the mine don't engage, the millions of kina meant to be assisting Porgerans are going somewhere else - allegedly into Ekepa's pocket.

And whether by accident or design, Barrick is a winner too. By refusing to work with the PLOA on the premise that it is corrupt, Barrick does inside deals directly with individual landowners, presumably cutting better deals than it could otherwise.

The crazy thing is the NGOs seem to be playing an unintended role in this toxic tussle. For years Friends of the Earth and other NGOs have legitimised Mark Ekepa by their association with him.

Naturally, I thought it important that I let Friends of the Earth and Lowrey in particular know what I'd found out. She'd traveled overseas with these people and even selflessly funded them out of her own pocket, but because she'd never actually been to Porgera I'm convinced she didn't know that she'd gotten into bed with an organisation run by a wolf in sheep's clothing.

I tried but never got a chance to ask, because for months calls to her went unanswered.

So I contacted Friends of the Earth's national spokesperson Cam Walker instead. Walker said Lowrey had recently left Friends of the Earth. "After 10 years, she burnt out," he said in explanation as to why none of my calls had been answered.

He passed me across to Friends of the Earth's Derek Davies. At least Davies had been to Port Moresby once and hopefully had a better handle on the situation.

Either Davies didn't know about Ekepa or he was very good at playing possum. After detailing my revelations, he offered: "So are you saying that this guy is working with the gold mine?"

"Who knows," I replied, putting it to him that Friends of the Earth were making a bad situation worse by backing the wrong horse. How did Friends of the Earth end up in bed with Ekepa? What processes did they go through before aligning themselves to organisations like this? Why didn't anybody actually go up to Porgera to see for themselves?

Davies said he'd get into contact with the PLOA directly then get back to me on all these points.

When he did, he may as well have turned off the lights, pulled down the blinds and pretended no one was knocking.

The email read a totally different account to what I'd experienced: "Natalie is currently travelling and not contactable for a couple of months … Friends of the Earth has never had any direct or indirect association with the Porgera Landowners Association … Natalie Lowrey left Friends of the Earth Australia in June last year [2011] and stopped campaigning on Barrick Gold then as well … we have investigated this very thoroughly. At this point in time I am unsure how I can assist you."

Ouch. I was still speaking to Natalie Lowrey as a Friends of the Earth representative months after Derek Davies said she had left, without her ever mentioning this fact to me.

Since then I haven't spoken to Friends of the Earth but I can only assume they've changed a thing or two.

With weak government, massive mining resources and multi-national extractors lining up to get their piece of the PNG pie, NGOs have an important, and probably essential, role in establishing the future direction of this country.

But instead of relying on the assumed superior virtue of the oppressed, they'd be far better placed to come and see things and ask a few questions for themselves. Because as anybody who's been in PNG knows, it's never quite the way it seems.

*This article first appeared in a different form in the April edition of PNG REPORT.

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