Kopi tribe guards its treasures

Weekender

By GLENDA AWIKIAK
LOCATED seven kilometers from the city of Mt Hagen at an altitude of 6,200 feet on the Kuta Ridge is the village of Kuta that overlooks the large fertile Waghi Valley.
It is home to the Kopi tribe who have over the years since the arrival of the civilisation and modern education, sent sons and daughters to schools and today boast a number of professionals including accountants, geologist and mining engineers.
Learning from bitter experience, the Kopi tribe, since 1990, had been fighting tenaciously to guard their land from any mining exploration that does not meet their expectations or would likely push them to the periphery of any mining activity and deny them meaningful participation as landowners.
The village has 10 clans with a population of over 500 who are members of the Emnga Pii Association. Together with villagers from neighbouring tribes who number about 3,500, the total population in the Kuta Rigdge area is about 4,000.
Kuta villagers are so blessed with spectacular waterfalls, an abundance of tropical hardwoods as well as ascertained but unquantified mineral resources – gold especially. Prospecting for gold has been ongoing since the 1990s but has resulted in disputes over whether such activity should continue.
Landowner Alois Kunjil and chairman of Emnga Pii Association Inc of Kuta village, who is fighting on behalf of his clan, said they did not want to be spectators on their own land in any mining-related business.
“I will still fight until I die and my sons will take it on after me,” he vowed.
“We are the owners of the land and we have to be owners of the resources that lie on and underneath the land. We must not be exploited and ripped off of what is rightfully our own. We don’t want a short term benefit from anyone that will only come in to rip us off and leave us with lifetime damages to our land, water and other natural resources.
“If the land, the trees, the waterfalls and the gold are mine then the (mining) company has to be mine. It is the cry of over 500 people of the Kuta Village in the Hagen Central District of Western Highlands. I have heard and seen, and fought off many exploration companies because of my children and children’s children. There is still no agreement at the moment because of disagreement over land ownership.”
Kuta Ridge has the potential for gold prospecting but the right time and people to run the show are a yet to show up, and the consent has to come from the rightful landowners. The land is blessed with its pristine environment full of natural resources including timber and fresh water for hydro power and water supply and the villagers would not give those away easily, according to Kunjil.
The Leahy brothers did some alluvial gold mining in the ridge from 1932 to 1945.
Due to such mining work landowners were affected through environmental damages including landslides, water pollution, and destruction of wild life. Kunjil claimed that some of their people employed in mining work were used as cheap labourers, mistreated or even buried alive by landslides.
“The village never developed one bit, not even our lifestyle has improved. The precious metal was robbed from us. For years there was no road network for the village until recently so we don’t want mining activities to take place when the time is not right.
“We don’t want that same old thing to happen again. In the past this happened because we were not educated well to understand certain aspects and systems in mining but now we have a new generation of intellectuals and professionals who are working and some are still in school. We will open up for such work when we are well-equipped with our own human resources to guide and manage any such mining project. At this time the answer is no for any prospect or mining activity.
Kunjil has fought off several companies since 1990 and is still maintaining his stand today.
“My son is ready to pick up when I retire, so that our vision is achieved,” he said.
“Our plan and vision for our resources is that we don’t want to be spectators in our own land. Should a gold deposit be found, we want to participate in equity holding from exploration to production. We are educating and equipping ourselves well to achieve our vision to develop and share the wealth of our resources equitably.
“We the Kopi tribe were placed here by God to live and own all resources here for many generations and we won’t just give what is rightfully ours on a golden plate to strangers. Any interested party is gladly welcomed but advised to consult and work with the landowners.”
Extraction of resources has become common as it was in the 1970s and gradually this is happening everywhere in the country. Small to big companies are entering the country in prospecting and exploration for mineral resources, oil and gas.
In some ways these activities have brought some positive and direct benefits to people, especially landowners but for some there is nothing sustainable but only lifetime environmental damages.Kunjil said over the years many mining exploration companies have crept into the remotest parts of the country with promises to bring development and got what they wanted and left while the local people were left with nothing but barren land.
“And I don’t want prospectors in the mountains of Kuta to do the same.”
Safety, environmental and community principles continue to shape the industry as miners look to earn their license to operate and deliver on corporate responsibilities. Apart from what is going on in the global mining landscape, companies in PNG have to deal with additional complexities, such as balancing government’s desire for development, the needs of communities and resource owners like those in the Kuta Ridge, and environmental sustainability.

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