Expanding tuna cannery in Papua New Guinea threatens local communities

In Australia the practice of SLAPPS is well known to environmental and social justice activists. A SLAPP or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation has been around in practice since the 70s when then Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen raised many nuisance law suits against his detractors as a matter of course. Such cases keep activists stressed out, cost them money and sometimes affect their ability to voice and enact actions against the company or government they are protesting. However, SLAPPS are a bit of a luxury in non-western nations. In Papua New Guinea the effect of collaboration of corporations and government have run legal and environmental roughshod over local activists and indigenous communities defending their homelands. The outrageous case of the Ok Tedi ruling, effectively making illegal the protest by affected peoples of the Ok Tedi mine, is a glaring example of this cronyism.

It is more unusual for corporations operating wholly outside Australia to pursue legal actions against Australian groups. However, in December 2008 small independent webhosting company Netaxxs were threatened with legal action by Filipino owned tuna cannery corporation, RD Tuna operating in PNG. It reveals the tip of the iceberg of an environmental and social justice travesty unfolding in the small port of Madang where RD have a cannery and many small ancillary business interests. It is a story too common in the two-thirds world: indigenous locals, lured by the promise of jobs and money, find themselves beholden to a corporation, dispossessed of their land and the environment on which their survival depends left damaged. In effect, this corporation takes away the independence and right to self-determination of a people.

RD Tuna are about to embark on a massive expansion of their operations in PNG: an act that not only threatens the local environment and exposes even more labourers to unfair work practices, but relies on a dwindling stock of tuna. Their social effects on the region are pervasive: RD Companies include interests in fishing, real estate, hospitality, agribusiness, food processing, pawnbroking, and banking. RD Tuna own and run canneries in PNG and the Phillipines. The cannery at Siar Village in the Madang region of northern PNG boasts a production capacity of 100 tons of tuna a day. They are now behind a push to open seven more canneries in the same region. Locals have complained of the industrial pollution killing fish and affecting their health for many years, and with seven new canneries planned, this can only be exacerbated. In addition, tuna numbers are dropping. Bluefin and Big Eye tuna are expected to be wiped out in a few years if fishing is not abated. Yellowfin, while more numerous are also declining and biologists recommend no increase in Yellowfin catch for the survival of the species. These majestic fish reach a massive size and live for about eight years. Bycatch, the unwanted other species of fish also trapped, are usually thrown back. With over 70% of the world's ocean fish overexploited, bycatch is a problem for global sustainability. Part of the problem is that long-line and purse seine fishing methods can often also catch the more endangered species as bycatch, and dolphins are also accidentally caught. While RD tuna are not a big operation, with a fleet of just 12 ships, their local effects will be felt. Naturally, as tuna get scarcer, their dollar value increases, so unscrupulous fishing corporations will be increasingly driven to make a profit where others are restraining their catch for the benefit of all. The Pacific Island nations have recently signed a pact to protect tuna fisheries, however PNG is not part of that pact.

RD Tuna sell under 11 brands worldwide. According to cannery opponents, the Idawad Association of Kananam landowners, they put their best fish into cans destined for the western market, while locals get served a lower standard in the “Diana” brand. Anti-cannery advocates allege that better tuna is served to the western worlds cats than served to local Papuans.

RD Tuna have a string of labour-based conflicts in the region. Filipino fishermen employed to catch suppliers for the canneries went on strike in 2004 claiming substandard wages below the International Labour Organisation (ILO) rates without overtime or compensation for accidents or death on the job. They complained that the vessels were not sea worthy and lacked fire and safety equipment. In August 2004 over 200 workers seized 15 of the companies fishing vessels of RD Tuna Ventures in PNG and were subsequently prosecuted with mutiny.

According to the local media an RD cannery was bombed by 'terrorists' killing four workers in the Phillipines in April 2008. The Philippine Daily Inquirer said that police linked the bombing to labour issues at the plant, where “18 workers who had been fired from the canning firm had filed a case against the RD Fishing.” Shortly after this incident the company was banned from selling it's products to the European Union after failing a hygiene inspection. The EU is RD's biggest market.

According to local news articles on the website of the Kananam, RD companies have also been involved in a string of minor breaches of the law including holding radio equipment without a licence, operating an illegal water bore, the April 2003 accidental poisoning of locals, fish kills and contamination of the environment through an ammonia spill at Vidar Harbour, while a more extensive spill that was alleged to have been deliberately hosed into Doilon Bay less than a month later with reports of local deaths and illness. Amongst other allegations in the media or emanating from the protesters include an all pervading air pollution, corrupt manipulation of government agents, involvement in the bulldozing of crops and burning of houses, police and company officers working together to ignore chemical spills and allegations the company's employment of migrant Filipino labour encourages prostitution and sexual attacks on local women. A company spokesperson reported in Post Courier in June 2003 accused complainants of "making up stories to get free money from the company” after hundreds of people petitioned the government to investigate pollution by RD activities. Locals held a 3000 strong peaceful protest in 2006, but soon after, when government and RD officials failed to meet with them, the PNG Post Courier was reporting that “Kananam landowners in Madang are ready to “take up arms” to revolt against RD Tuna Canners.”

Indeed, in 2004 after a protracted legal struggle, RD Tuna was ordered to compensate Kananam people for their spurious attempt at having them charged with defamation. Despite their lack of success in the courts in this respect, RD have gone on to harass a number members of the Idawad Association, their supporters and their webhosting companies with claims that what the Kananam people say about their operations on their website is defamatory.

In November 2007 RD Tuna's threats of legal action had the website of the local residents trying to publicised the issues around the cannery shut down. They moved elsewhere, but RD Tuna has suceeded in scaring another two hosting companies to capitulate to their demands in 2008 and in April 2009 Australian webhost Netaxxs refused to cooperate with RD Tuna when they demanded to names of the owners of another site hosted by Axxs.org.

RD Tuna, for their part, have claimed that many of the injustices called by the Kananam people against them are only the work of a handful of discontents seeking to make money from them and that as owners of the land and lagoons on it, they are permitted to do as they will with the land and water. Certainly, they have the approval of the PNG government. The government and RD have colluded to create a new 'Industrial Marine Park' (later changed to Pacific Marine Industrial Zone) that will take away much of the Kananam people's traditional fishing grounds to the benefit of the tuna fisheries. The plant at Madang was closed down by health authorities in 2007 for poor hygeine and RD products were delisted from EU imports pending a clean up of their premises. After five years of legal action against a local protest organisation, the Bismark Ramu Group, they conceded defeat in the light of evidence that three shipments of their product had been rejected by the US as unsanitary and returned to PNG, a fact that if made public through the courts would further risk their now tainted international reputation.

In 2003 an independent report into the social effects of RD Tunas presence in the region found “serious concerns about the ability of RD to manage its operations on a humane, legal or safe basis. .. We find problems of workplace hygiene, social and sexual abuse of women, improper waste dumping, illicit sales of alcohol and cigarettes, disregard for landowner hiring preference practices, and the payment sub-minimum wages. ” Nancy Sullivan's report found that the presence of RD Tuna and their ownership of a great number of the fishing licences for the area meant that the traditional livelihood of the Kananam was undermined. Without land or fishing rights, they were left with no options but to work for the cannery under whatever conditions it chose. “Without land, they must fish. With RD’s presence, they cannot fish as they once did. Without fish, they must labor for RD, which prevents them from working their gardens. Without sufficient pay, they cannot feed their families, or pay school fees or health expenses. They are left in a double bind: no way to sustain themselves, and at constant risk of losing everything.” That report recommended closing down RD Tuna's operations. Four years later their own sloppy operations succeeded in doing that for them.

However, RD clearly have strong ties to government despite this appalling track record. This makes the struggle of the Kananam people all that more desperate and poignant. While in Australia we can expect some semblance of due process from our government and court system, in PNG is is clearly still the mighty dollar that rules. And with seven new canneries proposed, that is about to get a whole lot harder for the Kananam

Opponents of RD Tuna now have a new site at www.rdtunapng.com


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