The Rimbunan Hijau affilliate, called Pristine Number 18, has applied for an exploration licence in the Karawari region of East Sepik Province..
The area contains an enormous cave art system with stencils and images that may date back as much as 20,000 years.
Nancy Sullivan is an anthropologist who's been working with the people of the region for seven years ... and with organisations like the National Geographic Society and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Funds, to document the art.
Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Nancy Sullivan, anthropologist
SULLIVAN: Those caves are probably the largest cave art system in the Southern hemisphere because there are 300 plus caves and maybe as many as 300 are decorated with stencils. And they are related to caves that have already been discovered and dated in Kalimantan, Borneo, and in Western Australia. So they are part of a larger swathe of migration handmarks that when people first came and populated Melanesia and down, of course, into Australasia, the migrations of the Melanesians, the first Papua New Guineans, the cultural heritage of the Karawari area, so much is at stake that we can't even assess it at this stage because we are so early on in the project.
GARRETT: So just how much of the art have you been able to document so far, and how much more is there to be recorded?
SULLIVAN: We have about 150 caves recorded and documented and what we have been doing since 2007 with a group of Papua New Guinean ethnographers and archaeologists as well as some visiting scholars is to try to create a story about this, you know a history, of, of, piece together who might have been the first people to make these stencils but importantly who continued to make these stencils because there are people who still live in the caves now, and continue to stencil, or at least have until this past generation.
GARRETT: You say the people of the area don't want exploration taking place on their land. Why?
SULLIVAN: Well they are breaking into gardening into gardening so they are becoming sedentary gardeners. We've encouraged them to plant cocoa and they have set up a village and stuff but they do not want intrusion from either neighbours or anyone from outside. They are very aware now of what it means for them not having land. as people who afre lower on the totem pole than anyone else in that whole area. They are a very small people. They are a limited group of people who are relatively under-resourced compared to their neighbours and certainly have had no government services, they know that they will be overwhelmed and exploited, not just by outsiders but by their neighbours. So they are extremely concerned that they not be intruded apon, that they will be allowed to develop their land as they want to and are content to live on it which is exactly what mining and logging, because Rimbunan Hijau, of course, is really a logging company, that has gotten into mining as a way of maintaining its health in this country because it has logged us all out. Now they are coming in tandem with gold mining exploration companies so they can take the logs out while the miners will take the gold. But that would, of course, devastate these people. They would have nowhere to go. They would have nowhere to go and no means ..at this point they have had no education, no health services other than those that we have, most recently, been able to provide. They are a completely disenfranchised population.
GARRETT: You have made a plea to the international community to oppose the issuing of this exploration licence that Pristine Number 18 has applied for. How much support are you getting?
SULLIVAN: We have in the past week already gotten a lot of attention from mining organisations and activists overseas yet we know really that it is a matter of tweaking individual people at the Mineral Resources Authority and the Mining Ministry and Byron Chan, who is actually a very savvy young man who has taken the Minstership now and we want to make them aware of what is at stake. We don't think they are aware of what is at stake. We don't think that they are interested in destroying or embarrassing the country, at this point, by destroying one of its most important sites of cultural heritage. We just think they haven't been made aware of it so we are trying to create as much noise as possible and (inaudible) apon them because it may only rest on the decision of one or two people.
GARRETT: How urgent is this issue?
SULLIVAN: It is extremely urgent because once you get an exploration company in there it is a slippery slope, you know, they will never come out. You know they will see what is there and never come out. And these people have been working so hard with us for the past seven years and we haven't yet produced a book so there is no terra firma on which they can stand and say 'this is us' and defend themselves. We are alos applying for World Heritage listing so a lot is at stake. A lot is at stake. And it is urgent because a decision can be made, to go ahead or not, within the next 2 weeks.
GARRETT: As you say once companies have spent a lot of money on exploration, if they find something it is hard to stop development. Bougainville's President, John Momis, has just drawn up draft legislation which would allow landowners to veto exploration on their land. Is that something that should be considered more broadly across Papua New Guinea?
SULLIVAN: Absolutely! Absolutely, because we learn from the Ramu Nickel case, for example, that one, ..you know, it's the proponents of investment that make things inevitable and rather than the right or wrong of the environmental impact assessment or social impact assessment, ultimately once somebody has invested enough to go for a licence, it is very hard to pull out.