“Let us start by thinking about the Sepik River people for a moment, more particularly where we see them in 20 or 30 years’ time. Where do they see themselves in that timeframe?” queried the Governor.
“Will they still be fisher folk? Living a semi-subsistence life, selling carvings and other artefacts and performing traditional dances for tourists? Or will more of them desire a decent education, a career or start a business and move to live in a town or city?
“The current generation might be happy living the traditional lifestyle but what about the younger generation? Is it fair to them that those of us on land see them as suppliers of fish for our sustenance? Is that where they should remain?
“Would a large scale mine, managed safely and properly, add value to this process of change or badly managed do the opposite?
“There are no easy answers. Perhaps the answer lies in between. I have no doubt the River people are best placed to tell us their views of the future.
“One thing I am certain of is that the life of the river people, like all Sepiks and Papua New Guineans, is changing. As a child, I used to accompany my grandfather and we would walk to Pagwi where we would barter sago or yams for smoked fish once a week with river people. Today, I see women from the river catch a PMV to Maprik and sell bags of smoked fish for cash in less an hour, buy what they need and return home daily. Things have changed.
“I have always seen the Sepik River as the best maintenance free, low cost highway in the country that has never been used. My vision is that 50 years from today, the biggest port in PNG will be at Kopar and Angoram will be a city and the largest Port in PNG for exports and imports. Marrienberg LLG will be the place to be.
“I suppose you have to think about these things when you have this job. Sir Michael (Somare) is a river man so he perhaps didn’t need to think about it. I am from the plains. We all see things differently.
“I expect the ESPG to do the right thing by everyone, to be fair and transparent, to give each stake holder an opportunity, without fear, without intimidation to discuss their concerns (pros and cons) regarding Frieda Mine.
“We have to take into account the desires of our Telefomin Sepiks, our Kopar Sepiks and every Sepik in between. Let us not exclude PanAust as a stakeholder. This company came into the prospect 4 years ago and in that time, PNG Government has given them a deadline to produce an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Mine Development proposal or the prospect would be given to another company.
“It would only be fair that we listen to what they have to say rather than dismiss them without a hearing. After all, our government invited them here.
“This year we will have a team of experts look at the EIS and the Mine Development Proposal. On a personal level my only concern is the safety of the river. Anything else, be they benefits for river people, landowners, etc are negotiable. The safety of the Sepik River is non-negotiable.
“The decision to hold these consultations (not awareness as some are saying) was arrived at after listening to our Assembly members, including MPs for Angoram, Wosera-Gawi and Ambunti.
“Some people disagree: they think I should just make a unilateral decision. I choose consultation. When Abelam people want to resolve major issues, we can talk and argue for days before a decision is made. We can do this without fighting: we can do this while respecting each other’s views. I am Abelam: this is how my tribe does things.
“Finally, I have requested PanAust to slow down the mine development program and give us time to seek the views of all affected groups in Sepik. It is important that we do not rush into Frieda because Wafi-Golpu is currently going through some challenges.
“There could be some valuable lessons there.
“In terms of time tables, mining is NOT likely to commence until 2028. This gives us plenty of time to review the Frieda data this year, analyse it and make an informed, truthful and transparent decision. I expect the recommendation to be presented in the Assembly for debate once completed.
“I have always felt that we are some of the smartest people in this country and I expect to bring our best intellect to bear in this Frieda consultation. There are no restrictions to anyone attending. The schedule will be drawn up by our Mining Desk (managed by the PA) and it will be published. Nothing will be done in secret.
“I urge everyone to calm down, think rationally and contribute intelligently and constructively to the debate at the appropriate forum. I will make no more statements about Frieda until after the professional review and the public consultations are concluded.
“Once again, I thank you all for your understanding and ask your patience as we try to resolve this very important matter amicably and through the Sepik way.”
(East Sepik Governor Allan Bird filepic)