The Ok Tedi Mine in Papua New Guinea

The first hint of gold and copper in the Ok Tedi River of central New Guinea was found by Lawrence Hargrave in July 1876. At the furthest point on the Ok Tedi reached by the little steam launch Neva, while the crazed and ill expedition leader Luigi D’Albertis lay incapacitated, Hargrave went ashore and panned “a speck of gold, also a specimen of copper”[1].

In 1922, patrol officer Leo Austen explored the Ok Tedi beyond the point reached by the D’Albertis expedition and came to the conclusion that there was little commercial opportunity in the region “unless, of course, one stumbles across some valuable minerals”[2]. Richard Thurnwald, exploring the Sepik River to its headwaters in 1914, had come to the same conclusion for the region on the northern side of the central ranges.

It wasn’t until 1968 that geologists working for Kennecott began exploring the headwaters of the Ok Tedi and came across outcropped masses of copper-bearing ore on the southern flanks of Mount Fubilan, an igneous rock intrusion into the siltstone and limestone geology of the Hindenburg Range.

Over the next few years, a drilling program on Fubilan sought to establish the quality and quantities of the ore body and Kennecott began to think about the implications should mining proceed. The company suggested “the necessity of detailed anthropological studies in the area ... [and that] a list of sites sacred to the Min [the people of the region] be drawn up so that preservation could be planned”[3]. Anticipating the need for a well-trained Papua New Guinean workforce, Kennecott paid half the school fees for 300 high school students throughout PNG. “Kennecott’s training programmes were amongst the best in the country at the time.”[4]

However, a number of factors – an incomplete understanding of the extent and value of the deposits, marginal gold and copper prices, the extent of investment necessary to deal with logistical and environmental concerns, the expropriation of Kennecott operations in Chile, imminent Independence for PNG and uncertainty about the political outcome of troubles at the copper mine in Bougainville – led to Kennecott abandoning the project in March 1975.

Kennecott left goodwill at Ok Tedi as they had set up for local village ownership the Cloudlands Investment Company that ran a trade store and subsequently added other commercial activities to its portfolio.

The PNG government took responsibility for further development of the mine through its Ok Tedi Development Company (OTDC) and obtained agreement from BHP to be the miner and Bechtel Engineering to build the infrastructure. In 1976, BHP successfully sought consortium partners and emerged with 37.5% of the investment commitment, the same amount from Amoco and 25% from a group of German companies. Kennecott staff persuaded BHP to continue a policy of financial support for the school, health centre and agricultural projects initiated by Kennecott.[5]

Meanwhile, pressure for the newly independent PNG (September 1975) to accept a lower level of Australian aid, and falling income from Bougainville, created a climate where “environmental considerations were going to take a back seat on the Ok Tedi coach trip.”[6] Indeed, the amount specified for environmental impact studies by the commercial consortium was to be a maximum of 150,000 Kina (c.USD 225,000 at that time), “a sum totally inadequate for a project of Ok Tedi’s dimensions ... [W]hatever the environmental study came up with, it would have little effect on the decision to proceed with the project”.[7]

The prospects for a profitable mine improved and at the end of 1980 the PNG government allocated a million dollars of its own money for better environmental studies but in reality it was too little too late and the Ok Tedi project was exempted from the requirements of the PNG Environmental Protection and Environmental Contaminants Acts of 1978. The major concern was the effect of mine waste and tailings on the river systems downstream from the mine, so it was intended to build a tailings dam south of the mine and the overflow released ‘in a way which the rivers can handle’. But the state had ‘placed itself in a compromising position on environmental matters through its own strong interest in mining profits’.

Of course there were many other kinds of environmental impact: the dam that would provide water for the mine, for the township of Tabubil, and for electricity generation; the alienation of land and loss of gardens and forest resources; the impact of a large, concentrated population on wildlife, particularly on birds whose feathers are prized by Papua New Guineans; the construction and intense use of a road north from the Fly River port at Kiunga to the mining township of Tabubil. There were also the social consequences of a large township with its essentially materialist economy, availability of alcohol and attendant propensity for criminal activities; and the health impact of an evolving and often transitory population. In 1979, a report on the socio-economic impact of the proposed mine was commissioned by OTDC and completed by Welsch, Jackson and Emerson in 1980 but this study was not required to consider environmental impacts.

On 27 February 1981, the Ok Tedi Mining Company Ltd (OTML) was formally created with ten directors: three each from BHP and Amoco, two from German companies and two from the PNG government. The Ok Tedi Development Company (OTDC), established and funded by the PNG government when Kennecott left in March 1975, and funded by the Consortium to continue with feasibility studies after October 1976, was replaced by OTML but many of the OTDC staff were retained.

Jackson estimated that despite what looked like a minority share holding of 20%, the PNG government would receive through taxation ‘between two thirds and three quarters of all profits’ but he raised doubts as to whether the large sums raised from mining in PNG has been, or would be in the case of Ok Tedi, spent on successful forms of infrastructure development, including health and education, especially in the rural regions where the mines were located.

In October 1980 I was appointed Curator of Anthropology at the PNG National Museum. On February 15, 1981, less than two weeks before the creation of OTML, a letter from Charles Cole, General Manager of OTDC, requested the National Museum to consider some form of legal protection of cult houses in the Ok Tedi area in view of recent fundamentalist Christian assaults on traditional religious practices, and other future threats. The Catholic missionaries were tolerant of traditional religious activities and were not considered a threat. The cost of transport and subsistence was offered and accepted.

During 25 May to 15 June, I surveyed the major cult houses along the headwaters of the Fly, Ok Tedi and Sepik rivers and on 30 July 1982, three cult houses and their contents (including the supreme cult house at Telefolip), and important ancestral relics in three family houses, were gazetted as Proclaimed National Cultural Property. The Protestant missionaries in the region were informed of this legal protection and of the penalties for infringements. The supreme cult house at Bultemavip near the Ok Tedi mine site could not be gazetted because of the absence of its curators, whose permission would have been required.

In 1981, OTML commissioned Maunsell & Partners to prepare an environmental impact report which was completed in seven volumes in June 1982. A consultant recommended that an archaeological study should be undertaken but this was edited out of the Report. Nevertheless, the Curator of Prehistory at the PNG National Museum prepared a survey of all relevant data and this was published in 1983.

In June 1981, Bechtel began work on the infrastructure, in particular on the road from Kiunga to the mine site, along which equipment and supplies would be transported. In 1982, Christopher Roberts, a young graduate of the Julliard School of Music in New York, obtained funding from Bechtel to record and transcribe the songs of the Wopkaimin people of the Ok Tedi area. He took a flute and his double bass (the very one used by Jack Lemmon in the film Some Like it Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe) and recorded 200 songs and the meanings of the words sung in the language of the Wopkaimin. In 1996, while teaching music at Soochow University in Taipei, his book on the Songs of the Star Mountains was published in Mandarin Chinese. This was prepared for publication in English during a Fulbright Scholarship spent at the South Australian Museum in 2012. Publication by the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies in Port Moresby is being funded by OTML.

In 1982, OTML initiated support for ‘one of the best health centres in Papua New Guinea’ and in 1992 published an epidemiology of malaria and filariasis of the region by one of its medical officers, Gerrit Schuurkamp. In 1995, OTML also published that author’s large-format photographic essay, The Min of the Papua New Guinea Star Mountains.

In 1979, the Consortium had proposed dumping all mine tailings directly into the river system but this was vigorously opposed by the Government. They then decided to build a tailings dam at a site that was considered unsafe by the Government’s engineers. Nevertheless, they went ahead. In January 1984, preliminary work on the tailings dam was destroyed by a landslip and that method for tailings and waste disposal was abandoned with the approval of the PNG government which was keen to see commencement of the gold processing on schedule by mid-1984. Tailings and waste were dumped directly into the river system.

In 1993 Amoco decided to withdraw and its share was taken over by BHP and the PNG Government. In the late 1990s, the waste disposal problems generated so much negativity and compensation claims that in 2002 BHP abandoned the project and transferred its share to a PNG Sustainable Development Corporation (and an Ok Tedi Development Fund in return for indemnity against future claims for compensation. These two entities were intended to ensure profits from the mine would be made available for the benefit of the people of Western Province and more generally for the people of Papua New Guinea, but most of the funds would not become available until the mine closed.

In 2002, I visited Telefomin to follow up rumours that the supreme cult house at Telefolip, gazetted as National Cultural Property in 1982, had been destroyed by fundamentalist Christians. It seems that an expatriate missionary based in Mt Hagen had encouraged the Baptist Church Christians at Telefomin to burn down the remaining physical symbols of ‘satanic’ traditional religion – the cult house at Telefolip and several family houses containing sacred relics. Unfortunately, the PNG National Museum lacks the resources to pursue the matter and prosecute the perpetrators of this vandalism, by no means the first or the latest by missionaries more interested in ‘saving souls’ than in the cultural integrity of the people.

In 2004, OTML and the South Australian Museum provided sufficient funding to leverage two Australian Research Council Linkage grants for six years of the Upper Sepik-Central New Guinea Project (USCNGP). A PhD student, Andrew Fyfe, photographed, and recorded documentation of, over 10,000 items of material culture collected in the central New Guinea and upper Sepik regions presently held in museums and private collections around the world. The results of this project, including a link to his PhD thesis, preliminary analyses of data and other papers, a gallery of photographs and a geographically-based dataset of 2500 of the objects, may be accessed at

In April 2011, Isaac Suafia wrote: ‘I would like to thank you for the work that you have done, documenting the cultures and traditions and artefacts of the upper Sepik River people . . . I was searching for some years to really know how my people, the Abau, were living. Stories and legends have been told but I also wanted to see how the traditional tools, spears and other things were made and what they looked like. When I searched through the Internet I was surprised when I saw them documented [on your website]. This really helps me to understand how my people were living in the past.’

The website is not just for researchers and the general public but, more importantly, for the people of the areas from which the objects in the dataset have come, providing them with access to aspects of their cultural heritage, and to which they can contribute should they wish to do so.

There are not many computers connected to the Internet in the study area but mobile phone ownership and use is increasing rapidly in PNG. Access to the website through mobile devices is therefore a priority.

It is apparent from this brief account of Ok Tedi that ‘mines’ are not monolithic entities. A mine is preceded by exploration and infrastructure development which may be carried out by corporate entities distinct from the mining operation itself and the latter may change hands during mining operations. Also, different CEOs may have different attitudes to the impact of mining operations and to the responsibilities of their companies to the environmental, economic, social and cultural implications of mining.

I have recounted some of the positive contributions made by OTML and its precursors to cultural heritage preservation projects. This does not make excuses for negative environmental and social impacts. But it does suggest that at least some of the benefits of mining can be directed towards the recording of material and non-material cultural heritage and making it accessible to the people whose natural resources are being exploited.

I have also drawn attention to another threat to the cultural integrity of people such as those living in the impact region of the Ok Tedi mine; the evangelical Christian missionaries who regard any aspect of traditional religion as satanic that must be excised from people’s lives. This form of cultural tyranny is tolerated by the PNG government, as mission organisations often provide health and educational services which relieves the government of the responsibility and cost of providing them.

Just as some miners are sensitive to the impact of their operations, so too are some Christian missionaries. Papua New Guineans do not want to be protected behind a fence like animals in a nature reserve. But they deserve the time and space to craft their own responses to the challenges they face as peoples of a recently independent member of the global community of nations.

8. Jackson 1982:107-109.
9. Gillian Perchard 1982:25-28. Protection for the Spirits. Paradise (in-flight with Air Niugini), Nr 35.
10. Pamela Swadling 1983. How long have people been in the Ok Tedi Impact Region? PNG National Museum, Record No.8.
11. Although a technically excellent photographer, with wonderful landscape and natural history images, his human subjects appear to be scrubbed-up and posed.
12. Jackson 1993 Cracked Pot or Copper-bottomed investment? James Cook University of North Queensland.
13. In 2013, the PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, moved to completely nationalise the mine and to gain access to the funds of the PNGSDC. The conflicts generated by these initiatives are far from resolved; the future of the mine remains uncertain.
14. B. Craig (ed.) 2010. Living Spirits with Fixed Abodes. Adelaide: Crawford House. Pp.83–86.


  1. ^ John Goode 1977:176. Rape of the Fly, Melbourne: Nelson.
  2. ^ Leo Austen 1925:36. Territory of Papua Annual Report for 1922-1923.
  3. ^ Richard Jackson 1982:45-46. Ok Tedi: The Pot of Gold. Boroko: University of Papua New Guinea.
  4. ^ Jackson 1982:50-51.
  5. ^ At the launch of the Ok Tedi Mining Company Ltd on 27 February 1981, the shares became BHP 30%, Amoco 30%, German companies 20% and PNG government 20%.6. Jackson 1982:76.
  6. ^ Jackson 1982:76.
  7. ^ Jackson 1982:85.

Barry Craig is Senior Curator, World Cultures at the South Australian Museum.