Coastal communities in Papua New Guinea (PNG) have launched legal proceedings against the PNG Government to obtain key documents relating to the licensing and environmental impacts of the Solwara 1 deep sea mining project.

The information is being sought so that Papua New Guineans can clearly understand whether the Solwara project – proposed for the Bismarck Sea off the coast of New Ireland – was approved lawfully and what the environmental, social, cultural and economic impacts of the project are likely to be.

The Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR), based in Port Moresby, is representing four community plaintiffs. These are landmark proceedings. It is the first case relating to the world’s first commercial deep seabed mine. It is also one of the first public interest access to information cases brought under the PNG Constitution, as PNG does not have freedom of information laws.

Community representatives have been requesting information over a number of years. However, none of the requested information, including the environment permit – the basic document setting out the environmental parameters of the project – has been provided.

BJ Kim, International Program Manager at EDO NSW stated, “This is a historic case, not just for Papua New Guinea but globally, as communities try to understand the legality and potential impacts of the world’s first commercial deep seabed mine.”

PNG has experienced environmental catastrophes in the past related to the extractive industries, and continues to see damage from these industries, including large losses of pristine rainforest to illegal logging. The Australian experience, through the EDOs, demonstrates the positive community and environmental impact that well-resourced, confident and effective public interest environmental lawyers can have.

“It’s so important that the international legal community steps up and supports lawyers in PNG who seek to use the law to protect the environment. Fewer legal environmental protections, and less well-resourced environmental regulators, see worse environmental impacts from mining and logging operations in the Pacific than in countries like Australia where great checks and balances exist. EDO NSW knows that like-minded organisations in the Pacific can learn a great deal from our experience and expertise and that’s why we’ve been supporting partners in the Pacific for over 25 years”, said Mr Kim.

Experts believe the proposed method of mining will have a number of significant environmental impacts, including the destruction of unique localised species and ecosystems that exist on hydrothermal vents (that have been said to hold the clues to life on earth).

CELCOR is EDO NSW’s key partner organisation in PNG. EDO NSW has been working with CELCOR since 2011 as part of its International Program. This program is focused on developing the capacity of environmental lawyers and environmental law organisations in the Pacific. Our work in PNG has involved supporting organisations like CELCOR assist PNG communities protect the environment through the informed use of the law.

EDO NSW CEO, David Morris, was excited to hear that CELCOR had commenced this important case on behalf of its clients, “EDO NSW has been a long-term supporter of CELCOR and we are incredibly proud that our key partner in PNG has brought this significant case for Papua New Guineans and for the global community. It’s a real coming of age moment for public interest environmental law in PNG and EDO NSW is proud to have played a role in the development of this important civil institution”.

CELCOR Executive Director, Peter Bosip, made note of the important relationship that exists between CELCOR and EDO NSW. “This case is a result of the hard work of many partners. We are exceptionally grateful to EDO NSW for the dedication they have shown in support of our fledgling public interest environmental law practice”..

“We have learnt a great deal from EDO about running a successful public interest environmental law practice and their support has allowed us to build a strong CELCOR which is of crucial importance to PNG. But we can’t do it alone, without international donor support landmark cases like this could simply not be run. Communities cannot afford to pay the rates PNG lawyers charge and without organisations like CELCOR, PNG will be left entirely at the whim of the Government and maverick resource companies”, said Mr Bosip.