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“Before the mine, we had plenty of food. We inherited gardens along the river from our parents. Bananas and taro from the gardens fed our family. Game was plentiful and we ate wild pig, cassowary and cuscus meat. The river was clear and it was easy to catch fish and prawns,” explains Andok Yang, of the Yonggom people. “But by 1984 our lives had changed. The river became muddy and the fish and prawns died. At the same time, the sand banks that later covered our gardens began to form. By 1986 the plants and trees along the river began to die. Their leaves turned yellow and fell off. Gradually the effects of the mine spread into the swamps where our sago palms grow, and into the surrounding forest as well. The creeks filled with mud, killing the sago trees. The sand banks along the river grew higher. Today (1996) it is hard to find sago. There are no fish in the river and the turtles no longer come to lay their eggs. The animals have all gone away and we do not know where they are living. I worry about the future: will we continue to face these problems or will the mine clean up the river?”

Despite millions of dollars in legally mandated compensation, the people living along the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers still find it difficult to feed their families. In many areas, it is difficult to access potable water during the dry season. Access to health care and basic services in rural areas has not improved downstream from the mine, and in some cases has declined. Very few of the compensation and development programs sponsored by the mining company have proven successful.

Only a small portion of the funds from the PNGSPDL (the fund established when BHP Billiton withdrew its shares from the mine) actually reach the communities along the river affected by the mining project; the rest of these funds are used by the Papua New Guinea government to supplement its development budget elsewhere in the country.

The impact of waste disposal from the Ok Tedi Mine into the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers may constitute a violation of human rights according to Article 25 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states: “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.” The existence of the Ok Tedi Mine has decreased the standard of living for those nearby. Pollution from the mine has violated the villagers’ rights to adequate amounts of food and water, and exposure to heavy metals in the food supply has been detrimental to their health.

BHP Billiton was responsible for the initial development of the Ok Tedi Mine. Despite BHP’s divestment in the project and compensation packages to affected communities, the legacy left by BHP is dramatic and will have lasting impact felt well into the future. Currently there is limited accountability for human rights violations committed by multinational corporations. Traditionally individual states are expected to regulate corporate activity within their borders.

The UN is developing strategies around multinational commerce and human rights where there will be greater accountability for the negligent behaviour of corporations like BHP, who abandoned their responsibilities to those affected by the Ok Tedi Mine. However, some legal action has been taken to attempt to hold the mine’s owners responsible.

In the mid 1990’s Ok Tedi Mining Limited (OTML), a company in which BHP held majority shares, was the subject of four legal actions: a damages claim followed by a class action lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Victoria and two constitutional references in the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea.

The damages claim, handled by Melbourne law firm Slater and Gordon, was resolved out of court in 1996 resulting in a settlement of approximately US $500 million for tailings containment and compensation. However, by 2009 BHP had only paid out $32.5 million in compensation to 30,000 villagers who had suffered from the environmental impact of the Ok Tedi Mine’s waste disposal.

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