SLFP Crew Detained by Police in Papua New Guinea
Toby McLeod – June 1, 2010

Still jet-lagged on Monday, April 12, in Madang, we arrived at the courtroom at 8 a.m. hoping to score an interview with James Wang, chief technical director of the Chinese government-owned mining company Ramu NiCo, a division of MCC, the China Metallurgical Group Corp.

Wang, backed by several Australian lawyers, was asking a judge to overturn an injunction that had stopped MCC from blasting a coral reef on PNG’s east coast and laying a pipeline that will dump mining waste into the sea. A landowner from the refinery area, Sama Mellombo, had teamed with the local Bismark Ramu Group and attorney Tiffany Nonggorr to sue MCC. If the judge upheld the injunction, the case would go to trial in a few months, but if the judge overturned the injunction, the coral reef would be blasted, probably starting the following day.

Sama Mellombo arrived at the courtroom at 8:30 and although James Wang refused to talk to us, Sama walked right up to him and shook Wong’s hand so hard that Wang’s eyes bulged as his adversary said, “Hello, I’m Sama Mellombo.”

Sama’s once pristine family land on the Rai Coast now looks like an industrial port, with the huge Basamuk refinery rising out of the rain forest. Last December, Sama’s family cemetery was unearthed by MCC to make way for a sulphur plant. Sama worked hard to stop construction, but MCC ignored a letter from the Madang provincial government, which asked the company to hold off on construction pending community dialogue.

The courtroom drama lasted all day as five attorneys argued about whether environmental reports were adequate and the law followed in issuing permits for the deep-sea tailings disposal plan. We suspected that Wang would not agree to an interview, so we set up our camera outside the courtroom door to ask him a question as he left at the end of the day. A local cameraman captured the exchange and posted it on Facebook that night.

This was a clever use of social media in the context of PNG, but on the opening day of a sensitive film shoot, we had mixed feelings about posting a story that might make the Chinese mining company look bad, because we were trying to interview company officials, gain access to the mine and the refinery sites, and tell a fair and balanced story.
The Basamuk refinery as seen from the village of Minderi, where locals depend on food from the sea. On Tuesday morning we boarded a 23-foot “banana boat” for our journey to the Basamuk refinery site. Sama Mellombo had invited us to see the site of the desecrated cemetery, and as we motored across Astrolabe Bay amidst dolphins and flying fish, Sama assured us “everything has been arranged.”

As is typical when shooting films in remote, complex locations, you sometimes just have to proceed, trust your contacts, and hope everything really has been arranged. There is only so far a visiting producer can push for assurance that all the details are clearly worked out. Often they are not. Unforeseen events intercede.

After a two-hour boat ride, we approached the shore and saw a steep slope littered with pipes and refuse. A jumble of shipping containers rose on the cliff above, and after organizing our film gear, we climbed up and began filming as Sama entered the refinery site.

Landowner Sama Mellambo took us to the site of his family cemetery which has been destroyed by MCC to construct a sulphur plant at the Basamuk refinery. Sama walked to the edge of a deep rectangular pit that was sprouting concrete piers and rebar. He pointed out burial remains exposed in the rough dirt embankment. By now it was noon and MCC’s 2,000 workers were at lunch so the site was quiet except for an occasional truck. We interviewed Sama for about 10 minutes, and just as we got what we needed, a four-wheel-drive Toyota security vehicle pulled up and out jumped a PNG security guard with Mohawk hair, camo clothes and shotgun, followed by a Chinese security man wearing a blue hardhat and shades.

Cameraman Andy Black kept rolling as Sama began, at first calmly but with growing anger, to berate the security men for the disrespect shown by digging up the clan cemetery to build the sulphur plant. “You dumped the bones of my ancestors in the ocean!” exclaimed Sama. “You show no respect!” The Chinese guard, whose name was Jason, began arguing with Sama and they went on for five minutes, yelling at each other about whose land it is and who has the right to do what and when.

The rights of landowners in PNG, though protected by the national constitution, seem almost invisible in the context of a communist state-owned enterprise. With the entire refinery and most of the work force imported from a foreign country, Sama’s claim that MCC considers the Basamuk refinery site to be part of China has the ring of truth. (In fact, MCC is leasing the land from the government, and Sama’s clan claims it owns the land).

Jason told us to leave and we scrambled down the coral and mud bluff to our waiting boat. We saw the security vehicle and two PNG cops drive up and park at the end of the beach as we pulled away and motored down the coast 300 yards to another stretch of sand, where we had staged for the shoot. As we ate peanut butter and jelly on biscuits for lunch, the police arrived to talk to Sama. He came over and said, “They want us to go to the MCC conference room to talk.” Sama was up for it, so, crazily, we said OK. I guess I thought we could get some more footage of the refinery, the workers, and maybe an interview.

We stashed the videotapes we had shot and our still-camera memory cards with our gear on the boat, which then departed for Sama’s village, about a mile to the north. The police called Sama back and suggested we meet instead at the police station because “it’s a more neutral location.” I hesitated, but Sama was confident that all would be fine. We put a wireless microphone on Sama so that we could record whatever was about to happen. Heading from the beach with Sama and me were cameraman Andy Black, sound recordist Dave Wendlinger and managing producer Jennifer Huang.

As we walked the dirt road toward the police station, trucks and buses carrying hundreds of Chinese workers were heading toward the refinery, and we started filming. Immediately, a car pulled up and a policeman suggested we refrain from further filming until things calmed down.

 The police station we were detained in, a converted container with shade awning at front center. The police station was a shipping container with one door, one window, and a tiny air conditioner. Inside there was a desk and three chairs (a fourth chair was broken). As we waited for whoever was coming from MCC, the ranking officer said, “Maybe they’ll learn something from this meeting,” so it seemed the police were sympathetic.

But once Jason entered the container and sat down, the four cops in the room moved over to block the door, one with a M-16 semi-automatic weapon, another with a shotgun, and the mood in the room got tense. I wasn’t at all sure anymore where the policemen’s sympathies, allegiances or paid services lay. Jason asked Sama to leave the room, but Sama refused. “These people are my guests and I will not leave them.” As tempers began to flare, I told Sama it was OK if he stepped outside, but as he left I called out, “Check back in 10 minutes!” and everyone laughed.

Jason opened a notebook, took off his shades, and said, “There are two requirements: from your passports we would like your names, passport numbers and visa numbers. We also want to take a photograph of each of you. Give us that and you can go. We don’t want to go to court or make any more trouble.”

I replied that we had been sending letters to MCC for weeks requesting interviews, describing our work and explaining our intentions. I said we had spoken with Jason’s superior, James Wang, the previous day and that we were here simply to record Sama’s story. Finally, I said it was reasonable that they record our names and take photos of us, but then I told him our passports were in our luggage on the boat.

“You’re in big trouble,” Jason replied. “All visitors must carry passports at all times.” (This turned out not to be true, but we didn’t know it for sure at the time.)

I suggested that the police could come with us to Sama’s village to get the passport numbers, and the police nodded as they looked back at the security man. Jason rattled on about trespassing without permission, commercial secrets at an industrial site, not carrying identification. I explained again that we had gone to MCC’s headquarters and asked for interviews and had nothing to hide.

Jason looked down at his notebook and said, “Oh, there is one thing I forgot. You also have to give us your video footage and photographs, because you were trespassing on MCC land and may not photograph our property.”

I took a deep breath, tried to stay calm, and replied that we were journalists filming a story at the invitation of the local landowner, that we would be fair, had spent a lot of money to get to Basamuk, and no, we would not hand over our tapes and photos.

As Jason started in again about what trouble we were in, the door opened and Sama came in. I explained the first two demands to Sama, and then said Jason had forgotten about the third demand until just now. Sama went on the offensive. Within 15 seconds the two of them were yelling at each other again. “These people are my guests and this is my land,” asserted Sama. “You have no right to treat them this way.”

After about 10 minutes of heated discussion, Sama picked up one of our backpacks and said, “Are we terrorists? It’s getting late and the wind is coming up. Our boat has to make it back to Madang. We are leaving.” As we all rose and started walking toward the door, none of the four cops in front of the door moved, and one of them said, “You’d better sit back down.”

At this point my calm optimism began to waver and a sense of powerlessness began to descend. But Sama continued to argue and after a few minutes, Jason said, “You have to give up your footage, and I would like to step outside and let you discuss this and make your final decision.”

We learned later that Jason emerged from the container to see a crowd gathering, including local magistrates and several of Sama’s brothers and neighbors. He asked one of the men, “Who is that guy?” and apparently, as we discussed things inside the container, Jason learned that Sama was an important local clan leader, who happened at the time to be running for a vacant seat in the PNG Parliament.

 Newspaper headline the next day.

Inside the container, I said to the policemen, “This is essentially your decision and not his, right? We’ve agreed to give our names and passport numbers, and you can take pictures of us. But we’re not giving up our tapes.” The police nodded.

The door opened and Jason stepped back in. He said to Sama, “I know you are a big man. I respect you. I have lived here in PNG for five years and I have many friends.”

“Bullshit!” responded Sama, and Jason flinched as if hit by a hot wind.

“You insult me. Now this is more serious,” said Jason.

“Go back to Mongolia,” replied Sama.

“Where is Mongolia?” answered Jason, who tapped his shirt pocket and said, “I am recording all this.”

Sama touched his belly (pointing to the wireless transmitter concealed under his shirt) and said, “So am I,” at which point Jason laughed out loud at him.

And they were off yelling again.

The cop at the door with the M-16 intervened and said to Sama, “Come outside with me for a minute.”

They departed, came back in, and asked Jason to give us time to talk. Now Jason stepped outside.

The head cop said, “We’ll tell him MCC can take you to court if they want, and then if he agrees, it’s settled and you can go.”

It all ended rather quickly after that. Jason came back in, the police said MCC could take us to court, but that we were going to be released. A policeman would accompany us to Sama’s village to get our passport numbers and take our photos. Jason looked deflated, and probably wondered why providing guns and vehicles hadn’t bought loyalty. Sama declared, “You have no right to hold us,” and led us out the door.

As we walked up the road, enjoying the sunshine and the heat, a crowd moved along with us, and people urged us to film as we passed the refinery and the site of the new community cemetery. We declined, feeling too shaken to tangle with MCC again so soon.

Sama pulled out his cell phone and called a reporter at a radio station in Madang. He told her what had happened, gave her a quick interview, and about an hour later, as we were still walking toward his village, Sama’s phone started ringing. Friends were calling to see if he was OK as they had heard the radio news report about our detention. In the new world of mobile phones, our story was on the air within an hour — and once again, it looked like the next three weeks of filming the story of the Ramu NiCo mine might be a bit dicey.

An off duty policeman showed up in Sama’s village around sundown to take photos of each of us as we held up our passports — my first mug shot. As he left, he smiled and said, “We’re with you.”

Later that afternoon, an off duty police officer photographs cameraman Andy Black as Andy holds a copy of his passport. Sama Mellambo and his friend Stormley learn via a cell phone call that a judge in Madang has upheld an injunction which has halted the dumping of tailings into the ocean.

To cool off at the end of the day, Sama Mellambo took us down to the river.
On the following afternoon, via a cell phone call from attorney Tiffany Nonggorr, Sama learned that the judge in Madang had upheld the court injunction halting the plan to dump mining waste into the sea. To celebrate, Sama took us to the river to cool off.


Blog Post Categories: Threatened Sacred Sites