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Everlyn Gaupe says she could have outrun their attackers but her little sister could not. She stayed behind. Both girls were beaten and gang raped.
Their assailants were security guards hired to patrol a gold mine in her community of Porgera in Papua New Guinea. Gaupe was 18 years old.
But time has not healed, and though the vicious attack was nearly 20 years ago, the experience brings her to tears today. Gaupe flew from Papua New Guinea to share the difficult memory with Barrick Gold — the Canadian mining giant that owns nearly 50 per cent of the Porgera gold mine.
She and another survivor of the violence at the mine, Joycelyn Mandi, attended the company's annual general meeting with shareholders on Wednesday to demand justice for more than 100 other women who have experienced similar trauma at the hands of Porgera's security guards. But they were denied the opportunity to speak by a member of Barrick Gold's staff, as a protest against its operations was underway on the streets of downtown Toronto.
In an interview with National Observer, Barrick Gold's senior vice-president of communications, Andy Lloyd, said it appears there was a problem with their arrangement to speak at the meeting through a proxy shareholder — a practice regularly used by activists to participate in such meetings, and permitted by the company.
Barrick Gold regrets the "misunderstanding," he said, and despite the protocol mishap, Lloyd said the women should still have been able to ask questions at the meeting. Barrick has offered to meet with Gaupe and Mandi privately to hear their concerns while they're still in Canada.
Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada accompanied Gaupe and Mandi at the shareholder's meeting and read their statements for them as they watched quietly, unable to speak. She equated the rejection of their proxy request — which she says was completed on time — to taking "away their voice."
"We've been doing this year after year, using this forum to allow people to have a voice in Canada and talk to the shareholders and directors directly," she told National Observer. "This year, they rejected almost all the proxies, and there was no reason given. The first thing that came to my mind is, 'silence is violence'... This is how you silence people."
A history of violence at Porgera mine
Gaupe and Mandi, who left Papua New Guinea for the first time in their lives just to make this presentation, were devastated.
"It's not only us," said Mandi, standing at the heart of a small protest outside the meeting. "We are representing the majority back home. It's not about us."
The Porgera gold mine in western Papua New Guinea has been the notorious site of gang rape, beatings, and other atrocities since it started operating in 1990. Detailed reports by Human Rights Watch and other industry watchdog groups describe disturbing cases of extreme violence at the hands of mine security personnel, some of whom threatened victims with arrest if they tried to complain to other authorities.
Most of the victims are villagers who scavenge for low-grade ore discarded in the company's waste rock piles, said Coumans of MiningWatch Canada, or women and girls who are crossing mine property to get to school, their jobs, or the market.
"This mine dumps all of its tailings and waste rock directly into the river valleys all around the pit," she told Barrick's shareholders, reading the presentation Gaupe intended to make. "Our villages are surrounded by mine waste. We have to cross this waste just to get from one village to another, or to go to our vegetable gardens or schools."
The mine is a joint venture of Barrick Gold, a Chinese producer called Zijin Mining Group, and Mineral Resources Enga, which divides its five-per-cent interest between the local provincial government and landowners. Barrick, the largest gold producer in the world, acquired its interest in the mine in 2006, which means much of the documented violence occurred before it became involved in the project.
Reports from the ground however, indicate that the company's efforts to contain violence at the hands of mine security guards since 2006 have failed: Beatings, rapes and attacks are still common, reports MiningWatch Canada. In March, a local human rights organization — the Akali Tange Association — also said a police raid on a village within the mine's lease destroyed 150 houses, and that villagers were beaten and gang raped.
In a letter to the Akali Tange Association, Barrick Gold acknowledged encouraged that the raid took place, but said no mine personnel were involved, nor were they aware the raid would take place. The company disputed the organization's numbers, encouraged it to present evidence to support a full investigation into the incident, and said the mine's operators would consider all requests for humanitarian assistance arising from the police operation.
"It’s an extremely complex environment, one of the most challenging environments to operate a mine in the world," said Lloyd of ongoing violence at the mine. “The mine and its owners will not be able to solve these challenges on its own. We need the government to be at the table, we need community leaders to be at the table."
Gender-based violence is an issue across Papua New Guinea, he added, not just at the mine site. To help with the problem, the company has brought in a global human rights training program for all of its employees that includes a focus on gender-based violence.
"Nobody, as far as I’m aware is calling for the mine to be closed, so the challenge is, how do we actually address some of these persistent issues that have been there for 20 years? They're not new and they're not easy to solve."
Dispute over compensation for survivors
According to Gaupe and Mandi, there's a simple solution to Barrick's conundrum.
"Maybe they should return to Canada and stay in Canada," said Mandi in an interview. "I think it is best to stop this big Canadian gold miner, Barrick, from mining in our home country."
Mandi, who was a school girl when she was raped by a group of Porgera mine security guards, is one of an untold number of women who have never received compensation from Barrick for their suffering. Ashamed of what had happened to her, she fled her village after the attack, she told National Observer.
She never heard that in 2012, the company launched a formal remediation program for female victims of sexual violence in the Porgera Valley. The first of its kind, it offered the women PGK50,000 (roughly $21,000) in compensation, and a promise that school fees and medical support would be provided for their children over the next three years.
But much of the latter has not been delivered, says Gaupe — one of 119 who did hear about the package and accepted it. When her husband found out that she had been raped, he abandoned her, leaving her alone to raise their children. She is now struggling to keep them healthy and in school, she says, as a single mother of four.
The remediation program has been widely criticized by industry watchdogs, who say many of the women didn't understand the documents they were signing, and were led to believe that if they didn't sign, they would get nothing. In accepting the package, the women also signed a controversial legal waiver that forfeited their rights to sue the company or seek further compensation for the same grievance.
In 2015, 11 survivors of sexual assault at the mine settled out of court with Barrick, for what was reportedly a much larger sum than was provided through the remediation package. In November last year, Gaupe — along with the other women who took that package — signed a letter seeking intervention from the officials at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva in their quest to receive compensation to match the sum received by the women who settled out of court.
Those sums have been kept confidential and National Observer could not confirm the numbers.
No plans to re-open remediation program
On Wednesday, at the shareholder's meeting, Coumans of MiningWatch Canada demanded on their behalf that Barrick release them from the legal waiver preventing them from suing or seeking extra cash.
"Then at least the women can consider whether they have legal options," she said. "I don’t think it’s good enough for Barrick to say, ‘This is a difficult environment.' They are mining there, so they have a responsibility."
Lloyd said the company has given the women who accepted its remediation package a cash "top up" since 2012, but has no plans to reopen the program. He acknowledged that Barrick's own consultants identified problems with the program and how it was carried out, and that the violence experienced by the women is "completely unacceptable."
Broadly speaking however, he said the Porgera mine is a "very positive contributor to the community." It employs more than 2,000 people, and since Barrick Gold acquired its interest in 2006, the company has made substantial contributions to the Porgera District Women's Association and the family and sexual violence unit of the local police, and has provided funds for new women's welfare liaison officers, which provide an alternative avenue for women to report cases of abuse.
The efforts are of little comfort to Gaupe and Mandi. Mandi, who filed her complaint about her assault to the grievance office in Porgera and received a case number, hasn't heard from a mining official in a year.
“I should tell Canadians that Barrick is a bad company and it should stop mining," she said.
“No matter how long it takes, I will still keep on fighting until justice has been made," added Gaupe.
Incidents plague Barrick mines around the world
Barrick Gold reported weaker-than-expected quarterly earnings on Monday, the day before the shareholder's meeting. It also slashed its forecast for output and raised costs at its gold mine in Argentina, where a local judge is contemplating an order to shut it down.
The company had its third cyanide solution spill in 18 months at the Veladero mine in San Juan last month.
Responding to that incident, Lloyd said the company is confident it can operate the mine safely in the future and that the incident is "very disappointing." The company has committed to "completely overhauling" its operations there, he added, to ensure "world class" oversight.
The Toronto-based company has previously been hit with a record US$16.4-million penalty in Chile, where it was found guilty of 23 violations of its environmental impact agreement at the Pascua Lama gold project on the Chile-Argentine border. The convictions included building earthworks without approval, failing to prevent runoff from mineral acid, and failing to tell the whole truth when it came to such operational failures.
The North Mara mine in Tanzania, 64 per cent owned by Barrick, has also suffered from steady violence by security guards, similar to the Porgera mine. Last year, a Tanzanian government inquiry found that at least 65 people have been killed and 270 have been injured at that operation since 2006.
— with files from Riley Sparks